Countdown to Spectre: GoldenEye Revisited

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The Bond: Pierce Brosnan, finally fulfilling his long-deferred destiny.

The Release: November 17 in the US and the 24th in the UK. Despite–or maybe because–there’s a six and a half year gap between GoldenEye and Licence to Kill (the longest interval without a new Bond film in franchise history), the film was a huge hit. It grossed $352 million worldwide and $106 million domestically, almost three times LTK.

The Girl: Goldeneye has a 2-Girl structure almost identical to LTK , with one (metaphorical) virgin and one whore. The whore/villain is Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), who squeezes men to death between her thighs during sex. Her aggressive sexuality is too dangerous for even Bond and their cat-and-mouse game never escalates past an encounter in a steam room that’s more fight than seduction. As I mentioned a few days ago, she’s almost an exact copy of Fatima Bush from Never Say Never Again and much like her predecessor, Xenia is punished for the physical/sexual threat she poses to Bond and gets squeezed to death between the v’d limbs of a tree.

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The good girl is Natalya Simonova, played by Izabella Scorupco. The first half of the film has an almost dual protagonist structure with Bond’s story intercut with Natalya’s. She is more capable and resourceful than many of her predecessors, tricking Xenia into shooting up the wrong hiding place during the attack on the GoldenEye facility and tracking down Boris (Alan Cumming) by herself. In a very real sense, she’s also integral to Bond’s investigation. Without her, he wouldn’t know the second GoldenEye facility’s location or how to shut it down. Still, Natalya has shades of LTK‘s Pam Bouvier in that she’s sometimes more sassy than multi-faceted.

However, Bond’s most interesting interactions with women in the film are with two franchise veterans: Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) and M (Judi Dench). With the former, there’s a subtle but profound shift in the relationship. Usually, Bond turns her down. Here, it’s Moneypenny who habitually rebuffs him. When he asks, “What would I do without you?” she responds with the rather biting, “as far as I can remember, James, you’ve never had me.” She even threatens to report him for sexual harassment at one point. Unfortunately, it’s all undercut when she tells Bond that he’ll have to make good on all his innuendos one day.

M is much harsher. By casting Dench in the traditionally male role, the character’s disapproval of Bond switches from that of a father figure to that of a mother. (As it happens, the franchise itself experienced a similar shift. Cubby Broccoli died after GoldenEye‘s release, but he had already relinquished control to his daughter Barbara, who has–with longtime Bond writer and producer Michael G. Wilson–produced every film since.) Bond is, unsurprisingly, immature about his new boss, talking cheap shots and testing her superiority like a puppy establishing who the alpha is. M has little patience for his behavior, calling him “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur,” and, “a relic of the Cold War.” It’s nice to see the franchise admit its issues even if the rest of the film falls prey to them.

The Villain: This was one of the first movies to kill Sean Bean early, but it’s also one of the few to bring him back later. Though Bean is not quite as good an actor here as he is now, Alex Travelyan is a strong foil for Bond. The film makes a lot of Bond’s instincts and how they make him such a good spy, but the fact that Travelyan was able to trick him calls that into question. It’s why Bond pursues him so doggedly. Or it’s because there’s unresolved sexual tension between them. Either way.

The Gadgets: There’s a lot of cool stuff in this movie, but the one we need to talk about is the exploding pen THAT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE. When Desmond Llewelyn’s Q first gives the pen to Bond, he says that it takes three clicks to activate or deactivate the bomb. But, when Boris starts clicking it nervously during the film’s climax, it’s two. The film even emphasizes this maddening mistake of continuity, cutting between the clicks and Bond’s tense face.

The Song: Except during the tank scene, where composer Eric Serra samples the classic Bond theme, the score is sparse and forgettable with dated electronic flourishes. “GoldenEye,” however, with its lush orchestration, lyrics by Bono and the Edge and vocals by Tina Turner, is one of the best.

The Book: The film’s title is the only thing related to Ian Fleming’s writing and even then the connection is cursory: “Goldeneye” was the name of the Jamaican estate where Fleming wrote many of the Bond novels.

The Movie: For many years after its release, GoldenEye was considered not just a great reboot for the franchise, but one of the best Bonds. However, it has not aged well. Some of that is, unfortunately, Brosnan’s fault. His performance is actually quite similar to Timothy Dalton’s more serious, crueler take, but he isn’t quite the actor his predecessor is. Instead of dangerous, he comes off cold, even flat. Admittedly, he does manage to pull off the quips much better.

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Though that doesn’t mean the comedy isn’t terrible. Alan Cumming’s Boris is a prime example. He’s all quirks and no characterization. He’s a leering nerd, so all of his passwords are dirty puns, but it doesn’t make any sense that a Russian hacker would use so much English wordplay. Luckily, Cumming is having so much fun in the role that he manages to keep the character from being completely unbearable.

Still, the only scene that’s genuinely fun is the tank chase through St. Petersburg. Sure the odds that a Perrier truck would be pulling across an intersection just as Bond passes through it are slim to none and the statue perched atop the tank is absurd, but it gives some levity to an otherwise boring movie.

That said, the movie’s central twist–that Travelyan was working against Bond the whole time–is great. The reveal (set in a real life graveyard for statues of heroes of Communist Russia) is still just as shocking now as it was then. It’s a smart attempt to humanize Bond by writers Michael France, Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Feirstein, but it’s difficult to notice when the film is trying so hard to be a light adventure story.

Maybe in 10 years we’ll all rewatch GoldenEye and consider it one of the greats, but right now, 20 years out from its release, it just seems like a long, boring, slightly embarrassing entry in the franchise.

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