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Monday, March 23, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1995)

17. GoldenEye

Following the underwhelming box office receipts for “Licence to Kill,” James Bond was caught up in a tidal wave of legal disputes between MGM/United Artists and the series’ rights-owners. The ensuing lawsuits would hold the franchise up for six years. In the interim, many of the series’ behind-the-scenes faces would pass away. The Cold War would end, robbing Bond of his adversary. The films had burned through more-or-less all of Ian Fleming’s material. Most pressingly, Timothy Dalton, despite being contracted for an adaptation of “The Property of a Lady,” would cut his tenure short and resign from the part. When the James Bond franchise finally reemerged in 1995, many things had changed. The character had a new face, a new production team, and was facing a new decade. The result, “GoldenEye,” would become a huge success, reinventing the agent for a new generation, and reestablish Bond’s pop culture supremacy. But does it hold up?

Back in the waning days of the Cold War, James left a fellow double-0 agent to die while raiding a Soviet lab. Nine years later, the spy is treated like an artifact of a bygone age. Meanwhile, the control card for a thought-lost Russian superweapon, an EMP-firing satellite named GoldenEye, is stolen. Sent to investigate, Bond discovers a mysterious woman, a stolen helicopter, and a crime boss known as Janus. Janus, Bond finds out, is Alec Trevelyan 006, the agent he abandoned years before. Teaming up with a female computer programmer, 007 must stop Trevelyan’s plan to use GoldenEye to cripple the world’s economy.

Without Maurice Binder, James Bond had to find someone new to design the opening credits sequence. Enter Daniel Kleinman. Kleinman maintains many of Binder’s famous trademarks. The silhouetted nude women and prominent placement for Bond’s gun are retained. Kleinman moves the opening credits into a less-arty, more music-video-style direction. Bond and his female companions walk around sickles while hammers fall around them. Meanwhile, female dancers hammer away at the symbols of Communism. It’s all pretty cool stuff, save for the image of a gun emerging from a two-faced woman’s mouth. That’s more bizarre then neat. Though the title song was composed by Bono and the Edge of U2, it is sung by Tina Turner. Turner’s sensual, purring, but powerful vocals make her a logical heir to Shirley Bassey’s throne. The lyrics, which seem to equally reference the film’s love interest, villain, and titular superweapon, are well chosen. The theme song is one of the series’ best and an instant classic.

Pierce Brosnan nearly took over the role of Bond back in 1987. With Dalton’s premature retirement, he was a natural choice to assume the mantle. I’ll be honest and say Brosnan is probably my least favorite actor to play the spy. Though he was the Bond of my childhood, I’ve always found his take on the part indistinct and sort of bland. Looking at his debut now, Brosnan does some interesting things. He brings a lot of humor to the part but is more self-aware then Roger Moore, always pairing his one-liners with a smirk. He’s not above the roughness of Connery or Dalton, judo-chopping at least one woman. He’s more physical and dynamically violent then either of the previous Bonds. Occasionally, he will give us a peak at the character’s interior life. His disregard for his love interests, violent history, and cold-blooded nature are touched upon. Briefly. Brosnan’s Bond is mostly a man of action and pop-corn amusement. In that mold, he does fine.

“GoldenEye” is the first post-Cold War Bond film and it’s all too aware of that status. Instead of ignoring the issue, the film embraces this idea. The fallout of the Cold War’s end informs the entire story. Bond’s status as a product of the Cold War is repeatedly brought up. M calls him a “dinosaur.” Meanwhile, Bond’s adversary is a hold-out from Soviet days, an agent much like Bond that has been soured by his service. The doomsday device that threatens the world originates from Communism’s heyday and is similarly driven by a general not eager to abandon the old ways. Though the war is over, old rivalries die hard. A short but important scene revolves around Bond arguing with the Russian defense minister. They should trust each other but they can’t. The world has changed but the heroes and villains are slow to catch up.

It’s also worth noting that “GoldenEye” attempts to reinvent the decades old series for the 1990s. “GoldenEye” features several signifiers that definitively place it as a product of 1995. Computer hackers play a prominent role in the story. But it’s the Hollywood version of hacking that is still mocked today, full of ridiculous interfaces and instantaneous programming. The action scenes are highly reminiscent of what was popular at the time. The bright muzzle flashes, chaotic shoot-outs, and highly choreographed action scenes all belong to that specific time and place. Then there’s the matter of the film’s musical score. Eric Serra’s electronic score sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s too soft and smooth, while also being too modern and computerized. It reminds me way too much of Yanni. Serra’s version of the classic Bond theme plays over the gun barrel sequence and it is seriously off-putting. It’s so off-putting that it's subbed out later in the film for a more traditional take on the material, which the audience welcomes.

Though definitely dated and with a less introspective lead actor, “GoldenEye” is still a pretty great Bond movie. One of the main reasons why is its awesome villain. The film had the novel idea of making the bad guy a dark mirror of the hero. Sean Bean, a one-time candidate for 007 himself, instead plays 006, Bond’s brother in arms. However, Alec Trevelyan has a dark history. He’s the child of Russian Cossacks, sent to their deaths by the British Government, and still holds a grudge against the crown for those reasons. He also has a personal grudge against Bond, blaming him for his near-death experience that left him with a typically Fleming-esque scarred face. Yet Trevelyan is partially motivated by greed, as he plans to rob the top banks in the world before wiping their records with the GoldenEye device. Though his master plan isn’t much different then that of your usual Bond villain, his motivation is more personal and complicated. Sean Bean is great in the part, packing the dialogue with as much venom as possible while arguably being cooler then Brosnan.

Izabella Scorupco plays Natalya Simonova, Bond’s primary girlfriend throughout the story. Simonova helps the agent out more then once, her computing skills coming in handy several times. The film focuses heavily on Bond’s romance with her, the two having several love scenes together. Scorupco is gorgeous and gets to show off in a white dress. She’s likable enough though the character’s ‘tude is sometimes forced and off-putting. More compelling is Xenia Onatopp, played by Dutch model and future Jean Grey Famke Janssen. The cheekily named Onatopp is Trevelyan’s main henchwoman. The character is an almost literal femme fatale, crushing her male lovers to death between her powerful thighs. More importantly, she’s sexually aroused by murder and causing pain, Janssen groaning in orgasmic glee while machine gunning innocent victims. That’s certainly an unforgettable scene and Janssen’s performance is fantastically over-the-top. It’s great to see a bad guy equal to Bond in a capacity for violence and sexual appetite. It’s even more refreshing that she’s a woman.

As an action movie, “GoldenEye” finds a nice balance between the comic book theatrics of the Roger Moore era and the grittier action of Timothy Dalton’s tenure. The opening even one-ups “The Spy Who Loved Me’s” opening. This time, Bond jumps a motorcycle off a cliff and free falls into the cockpit of a falling plane, grabbing the controls just before it crashes into the mountainside. Immediately afterwards, the Soviet base bursts into flames behind him. The stand-out action scene is smack-dab in the middle of the film. Bond and Natalya escape a Russian records facility. Bond slides around corners, gunning down goons with a machine gun. He races through the records room, barely avoiding bullets fire up through the grate flooring. “GoldenEye” was offered to John Woo and, with its creative shooting sequences, seems to have been influenced by the Hong Kong action auteur. The movie builds on this scene by having Bond jump in a fucking tank and chase his enemies through the streets of St. Petersberg. The scene is funny, when the statue of an angel lands atop the tank, but mostly its exciting.

There’s even some suspense. Brosnan’s strength as an action star comes from his willingness to play up his own vulnerability. He seems genuinely worried when trying to escape an about-to-explode helicopter. Refreshingly, his fights with Onatopp are clearly painful for him. You’re not certain the spy can defeat the psychotic sexpot. This is most notable during their final fight in the jungles of Cuba, where we see her spine-crushing technique up close. Even better is when Alec and James face off. The two dangle from the antenna of a massive satellite dish, hundreds of feet above the concrete bottom. The agent dangles from the ladder, wincing in pain, nearly falling when the villain stomps on his fingers. Of course, he wins. But because the enemy has human motivations, we actually feel Alec’s pain when he crashes down on the concrete. Brosnan may be super-cool when seducing the ladies and gunning down mooks. When really threatened though, his Bond sweats.

As this is a new era of Bond, the supporting cast is full of new faces. Most notably, we have a new M. And she’s a woman. Judi Dench’s M would quickly become a mainstay of the series. She’s hard on her best agent, not afraid to call him on his bullshit. Yet she also seems to have an almost-personal connection to him, showing her affection for him through effacing glances or small lines of dialogue. Moneypenny would not play as big of a role in the future of the franchise. Her brief appearance here, as played by Samantha Bond, has the secretary resisting Bond’s charms and pointing out that his treatment of her is technically sexual harassment. It’s socially relevant but not exactly charming. Felix Leiter isn’t in “GoldenEye” but the role that would usually be his is filled by Joe Don Baker’s Jack Wade. That’s right, the same Joe Don that played a villain in “The Living Daylights.” Weirdly, Baker actually works better as an ally of Bond then an adversary. His Wade is folksy, friendly, and amusing, providing some decent comic relief.

There’s one familiar face though. Desmond Llewelyn returns as Q. Llewelyn remains as charming as ever and gets to stretch his comedic chops here more then usual. The film is not super-focused on the gadgets but does feature a few cool ones. Most prominent is a pen that doubles as a bomb. This provides some decent suspense in the last act, after it falls into a bad guy’s hand. Bond, naturally, uses the device to destroy the evil doer’s lair. There’s also a belt that doubles as a grappling hook, which gets one notable use. Bond is given a cool car, a tricked-out BMW. Weirdly, we never see the car in action, it’s use mostly limited to a brief driving scene.

“GoldenEye” has a tight script, a fascinating villain, a fantastic main henchman, and features some great action. Brosnan, though he’ll never be my favorite Bond, adapts to the part nicely. The film proved that the long-in-the-tooth series could still be successful in the nineties, reinventing the character for kids who didn’t even know who George Lazenby was. The film usually comes in near the top on any best-of lists and it’s no wonder why. It also, of course, spawn a video game that everyone I ever went to school with played at least a hundred times. [Grade: B+]


[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

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