James Bond teams up with the lone survivor of a destroyed Russian research center to stop the hijacking of a nuclear space weapon by a fellow agent formerly believed to be dead.
For England James? No. For me.
After an absence of six years, ‘Goldeneye‘ marked the return of the James Bond series which ended abruptly in 1989 with Timothy Dalton’s second and final appearance in ‘Licence To Kill‘. Director Martin Campbell was tasked with breathing new life into the franchise and bringing Bond up-to-date for a nineties audience whose action hero needs had been more than catered for since the boom of the genre in the eighties whilst also contending with the perils of navigating the politically correct landscape of the time and the end of the Cold War which had previously provided so much material for 007’s adventures.
The plot concerns a shadowy crime organisation known as ‘Janus’ which was born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Janus is intent on stealing a secret Soviet space weapon known as ‘Goldeneye’ (not unlike former US President Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ defence system) for nefarious purposes. The plan becomes known to MI6 and Bond is tasked with stopping Janus before the organisation wreaks havoc with the electromagnetic pulse weapon.
The film represented something of a triumph on a number of levels for the producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, not only due to the impressive box-office returns, but also because they finally managed to land Pierce Brosnan for the part after missing out on his services in the 80s due to his contractual commitments with the US television series ‘Remington Steele‘. Brosnan was no stranger to the role of assassin having played an IRA hit man in ‘The Long Good Friday‘, now though he had taken on the daunting mantle of Her Majesty’s number one secret agent James Bond.
Fans of the Nintendo 64 game ‘Goldeneye‘ will remember the pre-title sequence fondly, as Bond breaks into the Soviet Arkhangelsk Damn chemical weapons facility in perhaps one of the most extraordinary stunts ever to grace a 007 film – a bungee dive off the top of a damn which even by today’s standards is absolutely breathtaking. And this time Bond is not alone as he’s joined on the mission by 006 played by Sean Bean. There’s quite a body count in these opening skirmishes as both Bond and Trevelyan make light work of scores of Soviet troops. The scene ends in spectacular fashion with a free-fall dive into a seemingly bottomless ravine to escape in an unoccupied light aircraft whilst the facility is blown up and 006 is left for dead.
Unlike Martin Campbell’s second Bond film, ‘Casino Royale‘, ‘Goldeneye‘ isn’t a reboot, it carries on the Bond story and refers back to previous missions. In his verbal sparring with Judy Dench’s ‘M’, Bond makes reference to M’s predecessor, whilst Q is once again played by the late great Desmond Llewelyn and Samantha Bond (no relation) takes on the Moneypenny role. The dialogue between Bond and M is slightly jarring in places as she describes Bond as a “sexist, misogynist, dinosaur” and Moneypenny appears to be on the verge of bringing a grievance against her colleague for sexual harassment. This all feels a bit forced and a bit too crow-barred in to somehow appease a modern audience who might feel Bond represents something of an unpleasant male fantasy role model from the 60s, which seems odd given the audience can’t fail to be aware of the foibles of the super agent, particularly as this represents some of the appeal of the character.
There are some pleasing appearances from the likes of Robbie Coltrane as a former KGB sparring partner Zukovsky, left with a limp following their last encounter. The exchanges between Coltrane and Brosnan tread the line between menace and comedy, particularly whilst Zukovsky’s girlfriend Irina (a brief cameo from Minnie Driver) murders ‘Stand By Your Man’ with karaoke. Joe Don Baker also appears as CIA liaison officer Jack Wade, a veteran of the Cold War fed up with “stiff-ass Brits”, something of a cowboy with little regard for protocol. The other main villain is General Ourumov played by Gottfried John, who leads a double life as both a commander in the Russian Space Agency and an agent of Janus.
The Bond girls are classic characters – on the side of the villains is Famke Jansen’s femme fatale Xenia Onatopp – a sadistic killer who takes almost orgasmic pleasure from murdering, whether that be via machine gun or crushing victims between her thighs. “Onatopp?” Bond asks quizzically, almost incredulously. This is the Bond universe, of course it’s Onatopp! On team Bond we have Isabella Scurupco’s Natalia Simonova the only survivor of both the assault on the Severnaya facility and the blast from the Goldeneye weapon. Simonova isn’t the stereotypical damsel in distress, she demonstrates survival skills and ably assists Bond on his mission, whilst also showing up the “boys with their toys” when Bond and Defence Minister Mishkin are trading insults.
The revelation that the main villain is in fact Bond’s not-so fallen comrade Alec Trevelyan, who it turns out is the son of two Lensk Kossacks who collaborated with the Nazis during world war two and were refused asylum in Britain and forced to return to the vengeful Soviet Union for retribution. This is established as Trevelyan’s motivation for revenge against the British Government. But it all feels slightly unsatisying, and whilst the two are similarly matched in terms of physicality (not unlike ‘From Russia With Love’s‘ Red Grant) Bean’s Trevelyan isn’t particularly convincing. Towards the conclusion it feels muddled as it’s clumsily revealed by Trevelyan that he is essentially a thief whose real motivations are to steal substantial sums of money from the Bank of England once ‘Goldeneye‘ is tasked with firing upon London. This is reminiscent of Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber in ‘Die Hard‘, yet that film has little trouble in conveying the motivations of the chief threat in a more coherent way.
Brosnan’s performance is also somewhat uneven. He straddles a line between Dalton’s serious, brutal take and Moore’s lighter, more comedic Bond but still doesn’t quite feel convincing in the role. There are moments where he looks to be settling in but stylistically he looks a bit too ‘just stepped out of a salon’, he’s also not helped by the material which is pretty lightweight stuff and despite a few decent set pieces doesn’t last long in the memory, something that could be levelled at all of the films during the Brosnan era.
Other gripes include the soundtrack by Eric Serra which is at times grating with screeching synths and an absolute terrible choice of track for the closing credits. Never has John Barry been so missed. In addition there’s Alan Cumming’s hugely irritating turn as the caricatured IT geek Boris Grishenko, an insider working at the Severnaya base on behalf of Janus. The special effects are also variable in quality, although that said the tank chase is one of the more memorable set pieces in the Bond series. Product placement isn’t new to Bond, but the deal to include BMW cars just about sums up Brosnan’s Bond – just a bit too much of a middle manager rather than the super spy.
‘Goldeneye‘ is a perfectly serviceable Bond film and it was incredibly popular at the time as evidenced by the worldwide box office, but it hasn’t aged well in terms of style or content. It’s a decent enough start to Brosnan’s career as James Bond, but not in the same league as very the best entries in the series.
Review by Mark Thatcher
Directed By: Martin Campbell
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Izabella Scorupco, Famke Janssen, Alan Cumming, Sean Bean, Joe Don Baker, Gottfried John, Robbie Coltrane, Judi Dench, Tcheky Karyo, Minnie Driver, Serena Gordon, Samantha Bond and Desmond Llewelyn