When it’s on: Friday, 5 February (9.00 pm)
Looking back at Goldeneye and it’s easy to forget what a throw of the dice it was. Six years had elapsed since Licence to Kill, the last entry in the series, with many suggesting the gentleman spy had fired his last Walther PPK. Perhaps it was time. The underwhelming late Moore years, which saw 007 lapse into self-parody, gave way to two films starring Timothy Dalton that threatened to harden the tone of the character only to run into audience apathy. During Bond’s hiatus, a new film franchise introducing the character of CIA researcher Jack Ryan, based on Tom Clancy’s bestselling novels, seemed to serve up a replacement action hero. Ryan, played once by Alex Baldwin and twice by Harrison Ford, worked in a modern world that was comfortable with up to date technology and fought against contemporary opponents in the shape of terrorist cells and drug dealers. The biggest difference between Bond and Ryan was that the latter remained an implacable family man – Patriot Games pivoted on his wife and daughter being threatened – and had nothing but chaste respect for his female colleagues. A nail in the coffin of Bond’s old school casual liaisons with members of the opposite sex, possibly. Ryan appeared to be a hero for the post-AIDS 1990s. And then there was the fact the world itself had changed since Licence to Kill. During 007’s six year lay-off, the Berlin War had collapsed and the Cold War ended. Russia was blinking in the sunlight of a new capitalist era, consigning the Communist iconography to the graveyard. Did this include Bond, the character created to be a Cold Warrior and now without a war to fight?
At the time of Goldeneye’s release, I think most of us were just relieved that it wasn’t rubbish, in fact it was surprisingly good and part of its success was that it dealt directly with two of the franchise’s biggest issues – Bond’s womanising, and his existence within a post-Iron Curtain world. The new M was played by Judi Dench and made it clear at her first meeting with Bond that she didn’t think much of him, putting him firmly in his place after the sighing patronage of Bernard Lee. Goldeneye’s two female protagonists were also strong women. Izabella Scorupco’s computer programmer had an uncanny ability to stay alive without needing Bond’s help, whilst compensating for his technical limitations when the plot required some IT acumen. Femme fatale Xenia Onatopp(!) was played by Famke Janssen as an outright psychopath, capable of killing men with her thighs and achieving orgasm when gunning people down. A worthy adversary for 007, who at one stage nearly fell victim to her murderous legs.
As for the new world of the 1990s, Goldeneye made great use of the former Cold War by filming some action sequences in St Petersburg and placing one of its key scenes in a graveyard for Communist iconography. Old adversaries, such as Robbie Coltrane’s Russian gangster (watch out for a brief cameo by Minnie Driver as Coltrane’s wife, gleefully murdering Stand By Your Man as a heavily Russian accented country singer) are now uneasy allies in this spirit of Detente, one that leaves Bond feeling visibly uneasy. As M suggested, he’s a relic, uncertain of his place in this new era, and he knows it.
For their new actor, Eon went back to a previous drawing board and recruited the Irish star, Pierce Brosnan, who famously almost landed the part years earlier until contractual commitments to Remington Steele meant he couldn’t be released and it went to Timothy Dalton instead. Brosnan certainly looked the part and was capable of both levity and hard-nosed action, which pretty much made him ideal for the role. It’s too simple to look back at Brosnan’s quartet of Bonds as lightweight missed opportunities and see the actor as shouldering some of the blame. The intention of his movies was clearly to riff on the success of Goldfinger and the sequence of entries that followed, dropping the tough and gritty Dalton 007 in favour of a spy crafted in the Connery template – cheeky, sexy and fun. Brosnan played his part, recreating Connery’s invulnerability especially when making it unscathed through a hailstorm of bullets, but he also showed a neat harder edge when the role called for it. In the film, his former 00 colleague, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), who Bond believed to be dead, resurfaces as a villain and proves he’s a match for the hero. Having to face and ultimately kill Trevelyan, the pain of this tells on the ordinarily chipper Bond, who contemplates his upcoming mission with suitable levels of solemnity. It’s a change in tone that only takes place in the film sporadically, but it fits the character and his situation, and demonstrated Brosnan was more than capable of acting these moments out.
The yin and yang aspect of the two former friends working against each other elevates Goldeneye into the best of the Brosnan series. Bean, saddled with some terrible moustache twirling dialogue, gets by thanks to sheer charisma and throwing himself into the action, a contrast to Jonathan Price’s more ‘classic’ villain in the following entry, which showed just how much this dimension – and Bean himself – added to the mix. Martin Campbell, best known previously for helming the acclaimed BBC series Edge of Darkness, jollies the narrative along nicely as director, allowing the usual brilliant stuntcraft to become part of the story rather than the focal point of the entire movie. A good thing, as certain moments – such as Bond falling off a cliff edge behind a plane, skydiving into the craft’s door and then piloting it back to safety – stretch credibility to beyond even the breaking point of sequences in past entries, and it’s scenes like the Communist graveyard that really resonate.
There’s a thoughtful premise hidden within this one, a serious 007 that might have chimed with Bob Peck’s tortured hero in Edge of Darkness, or Daniel Craig as a young Bond in Campbell’s only other directorial outing in the series, Casino Royale. But Goldeneye never quite commits to either route. Too often, it wants to be both a thriller of substance and a bit of fun, and the two jar. Bond driving a tank through the streets of St Petersburg, whilst a laugh, does slap the face of anyone wanting to prefix 007’s agent status with the word ‘secret’, and the whole thing ends up in – but of course! – a lair hidden beneath a Caribbean lake. All the same, there’s nothing to really dislike, and Brosnan’s energetic performance was enough to breathe life back into old Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. At least for a while.