You know the jokes people make about James Bond? Well, he’s heard them too.
. . .AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Pierce Brosnan
SETUP: Bond and his partner Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) invade a Russian chemical plant during the cold war, but only Bond survives to complete the mission. Years later, Bond’s interest in a suspicious woman named Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) leads him to a stolen helicopter and a Russian doomsday weapon code-named “Goldeneye.” These scenes are supposedly unconnected.
BUT IN REALITY: These scenes are totally connected. Goldeneye is in the possession of Onatopp’s boss, Janus, an arms dealer descended from Lienz Cossacks, Russians betrayed by the British and executed by Stalin after World War II. Bond tracks Janus and discovers his true identity: Alec Trevelyan. The former agent plans to unleash the Goldeneye on London for profit and revenge, but Bond puts a stop to it and promptly drops Alec from his own satellite.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: Bond escaped the Russian plant by setting off explosive charges earlier than expected. It worked for Bond, but not so much for Alec. The defecting agent thought he had six minutes to fake his death, but instead had only three. The result was a bomb blast to the face and a healthy, villainous dose of scar tissue.
THE MUSCLE: Xenia Onatopp kills with sex or, specifically, with her iron vice thighs during sex. But say you’re feeling adventurous and think, hey, you’ll just knock her into some walls or something and that’ll show her. Well, she’s also a masochist and your struggling is just going to encourage her. Bond never takes that chance and she dies from sudden impact with a tree.
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco) is a Russian computer programmer, and the sole survivor of the Goldeneye theft. She’s beautiful, of course, but surprisingly capable as far as Bond Girls tend to go, a trend that would continue from the 90s to the present day. She’s also brash, pushy, and not afraid to call the men in the room on their bullshit. I’m a fan.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: As with the Timothy Dalton transition, the film gives Brosnan a traditional scene down in Q lab, complete with Super Dave-style sight gags in the background. The movie is light on gadgets, but Q still provides a new BMW, a leather belt containing rappelling wire, and a ballpoint pen grenade that features prominently in the finale.
MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: Xenia. Onatopp. Or maybe the cartoonish hacker character played by Alan Cumming that dies in a Tex Avery moment, quick frozen by a burst coolant pipe.
Or maybe it’s Xenia. Onatopp.
BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: “The writing’s on the wall,” spoken moments after the pen grenade explodes. It’s corny, but there wasn’t a lot of gold in this film and this line made Q laugh, so what the hell?
WORTH MENTIONING: “Goldeneye” is the name of Ian Fleming’s estate in Jamaica where he wrote most of the Bond novels and short stories… Minnie Driver has a tiny cameo in the film as a tone deaf Russian singer… For the first time, we hear what happened to Bond’s parents as Alec mentions the climbing accident that took their lives. Years later, continuity crisis is narrowly averted when Sean Connery chose not to appear as James Bond’s father in Die Another Day as had been rumored.
OVERALL: Reconciling the jingoistic, adolescent history of James Bond with an audience increasingly concerned with social and political responsibility, while still making sure enough things go boom, is one hell of a juggling act, but Goldeneye never drops it. In my opinion, the film is a minor miracle. It reinvigorated the franchise back before “reboot” was a Hollywood buzz term, and it successfully launched Pierce Brosnan as the Bond for the 90s generation. And it did so behind a shockingly self-loathing screenplay.
Wrong or right, the mid 90s was a time of reevaluation on the globe, in the workplace, in the bedroom, everywhere. The Cold War had finally thawed and with it the unspoken edict that we had to maintain the social contract exactly as our parents had kept it, lest we show those damn Commies the gap in our collective resolve. The dreaded political correctness crept into the conversation, and then dominated it. No more meaningless sex, no more “charming” workplace flirtations, no more wrong-headed mistreatment of minorities or foreign cultures, and for god’s sake, put away the stick when talking about overseas policy.
What’s a guy like James Bond to do?
Serious conversation preceded the release of Goldeneye about what role James Bond played, if any, in the modern landscape. Six years and a Soviet Empire had passed since the character had been seen on screen, and some argued that it was time to let the venerable spy finally retire. James Bond was the past.
The Goldeneye screenplay, churned out by a small army of writers and brought to the screen by workman director Martin Campbell, faced these critics head on in a movie that’s often celebratory and more often apologetic. Moneypenny calls Bond on his sexual harrassment. His new boss (*gasp* a woman!) calls him a misogynistic dinosaur. His contacts laugh at him for staying with MI6 when he could earn much more as a freelance player in the new global climate. He’s even held at gunpoint by the villain in an attempt to coerce his female lead. The whole thing plays like James Bond’s Very Bad Day.
A centerpiece scene between Bond and Trevelyan tips the film’s real agenda. Alec, still masquerading as Janus, agrees to meet Bond and chooses a particularly meaningful spot, a graveyard for Soviet icons. Statues of Lenin and Stalin lie scattered about, forgotten and useless. Here Alec lays out his motivation for betraying his country, one relic to another. He explains how he risked his life to topple regimes, only to be told later that it was all for nothing. Alec wants revenge and money and all the usual perks, but mostly he just can’t accept the world changing without his permission. Bond doesn’t have that problem. Despite all the tremors in Bond’s world, he’s still the same character he’s always been, unflinching. He won’t change, can’t change, but he can protect us from people like Alec who don’t want to accept the world on its own terms. Alec needs to remake his environment. Bond has no such problem. If he doesn’t quite adapt, he certainly endures.
Alec asks Bond if “all those vodka martinis silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed, or if you’ve found comfort in the arms of all those willing women for the dead ones you failed to protect.” Bond stays the same, lonely and haunted, so that the rest of us don’t have to.
A hawkish cop out? I don’t think so, but we can debate if you like. At the least it’s a point of view, an original thought in a franchise that had been largely on auto-pilot since sometime before the Beatles rocked Ed Sullivan. Pierce Brosnan would go on to make three more Bond movies, none of them quite as remarkable as his first. Martin Campbell would return to the franchise many years later for another restart, another undisputed classic.
11. Dr. No
14. Live and Let Die
15. Licence to Kill
22. A View to a Kill