GoldenEye is the first Bond film I ever saw. My sister has been a big Pierce Brosnan fan since Remington Steele. So, us and some friends saw this on opening weekend, and even if there wasn’t that sentimental value, I would still call this one of the finest James Bond films I’ve ever seen. While it’s not perfect, it excels far beyond so many others that I’ve already reviewed here, and even Brosnan’s follow-ups.
Nine years ago, British Secret Agent James Bond 007 (Pierce Brosnan) infiltrated a chemical weapons facility in Russia with friend and fellow MI-6 Agent Alec Trevelyan 006 (Sean Bean), but the mission went awry when corrupt Russian military officer General Ourumov (Gottfried John) murdered 006. Today, Bond is assigned by his new boss, a female ‘M’ (Judi Dench) to recover GoldenEye, an orbiting Russian radiation pulse weapon that can destroy any electronic device within its blast radius. The GoldenEye has been stolen from the Severnya research station by General Ourumov and the lethal and deadly Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), where they also slaughtered the entire staff. However, there was a lone survivor in computer programmer Natalya Siminova (Izabella Scorupco) who Bonds seeks out in addition to the criminal figure named Janus who Ourumov and Xenia are working for. Yet, after navigating through the Russian criminal underworld, 007 soon comes face-to-face with the man himself, revealed to be a scarred but living Alec Trevelyan who now seeks to wipe out London with GoldenEye. With Natalya’s help, Bond races to save London from destruction as well as combat a man that knows him better than he knows himself.
GoldenEye features a great pre-credits sequence that is smart, suspenseful, and lays a strong emotional groundwork for the film, introducing two of its lead villains and our new Bond in Pierce Brosnan. It also gives the sense of unfinished business amongst these characters which is greatly punctuated by the mysterious title song sung by Tina Turner and written by Bono and The Edge of U2. The song feels like classic Bond with a gorgeous sound which fits Ms. Turner beautifully. The title sequence is equally breathtaking with its fall of communism theme. Making great use of digital effects, this is a title sequence that is able to be very ambitious with its ideas and make them pure reality. It makes a fantastic splash to an audience that had been without new Bond for six years.
Pierce Brosnan’s Bond both embodies a serious sense of action and dramatic weight as well as a sly, suave, and fun mentality. He’s a man that enjoys indulging himself in the finer things, and sharing some witty repartee with his friends or adversaries. Brosnan gracefully balances the slightly immature or playful aspects of the character with the straight seriousness Bond must demonstrate as an agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He’s sophisticated, charming, classy, and elegant. Brosnan certainly had the charisma and sex appeal to make his portrayal exciting and fresh. Beyond all else, Brosnan is clearly taking a lot of pleasure in his performance.
The screenwriters and especially director Martin Campbell do an excellent job of building up suspense in this story. Plot elements are strategically and methodically laid out setting the stage for a very strong story and masterfully executed film. It has plenty of atmosphere and dramatic tension as 007 weaves his way through the Russian criminal underworld. What starts out seeming like a subversive plot by a man Bond harbors feelings of revenge against develops into something far more startling for 007. Revenge is abandoned for betrayal, and the plot becomes a more dimensionally personal one for James Bond. We get many strong moments of emotional depth from various characters. Natalya especially shows sorrow, grief, and anger, but is able to connect with James on a very honest and passionate level. She is able to give him perspective on his feelings of betrayal, and he is able to focus them into a very sharp and clear intent. The script gives every featured character dimension and purpose with their own relationships. Natalya has some payback to deliver to Boris, the Severnaya computer programmer who also works for Alec and Ourumov, and James has plenty of sordid business with Ourumov, Xenia, and certainly Alec. It’s all woven together into a very smartly structured and interconnected plot. No issues are left unresolved, and everyone has their moments of prominence and purpose. Simply said, this is a great work of screenwriting with a fresh approach that brought Bond strongly and smartly into a post-Cold War world.
The filmmakers use a combination of digital, practical, and miniature effects work to create some absolutely stunning sequences. The destruction of the Severnaya facility alone is spectacular. While the mixture of effects are noticeable to my well trained eyes, they are still damn great. They create a high quality look for Bond’s first foray into the 90s, and deliver on the standards that you’ve come to except from this series.
The cinematography is also excellent creating some strong atmosphere that gives the film some edge, but never gets especially heavy. It greatly holds the dramatic weight and urgency of the story with gorgeous lighting and an expert use of angles and composition. All of the action is shot superbly giving us a great sense of fast paced movement while never sacrificing a clear sense of geography. This is a golden example of how to competently and thrillingly shoot an action movie. Enhancing that is some tight, solid editing. Further credit goes to director Martin Campbell for knowing how to assemble all of these stunning elements into an amazing, rock solid, and exciting film.
My favorite action sequence is indeed the tank chase through St. Petersburg in Russia. Bond commandeering a Russian tank to chase after Ourumov, who has captured Natalya, is just pure Bond excess and indulgence which has its equal shares of thrills and humor. It comes off as light-hearted and fun, but never truly silly. Other sequences are immensely excellent defining the tone of Brosnan’s Bond, and building up a very rousing action film with plenty of consequences. The climax is absolutely awesome with plenty of big action and fiery thrills to result in an excellent pay-off. James and Alec battle on the satellite dish in Cuba at a very precarious height. Both Brosnan and Bean show their immense physical condition and ability to create a very intense and dynamic fight.
GoldenEye features three very good and enjoyable villains. I think my personal favorite is General Ourumov. He’s perfectly underhanded and slimy. Actor Gottfried John put a little bit of wit and humorous charisma into the role making him a lot of fun to watch. He’s very entertaining during the tank chase where he’s drinking from a flask, obviously a little stressed out, but John maintains him as a cunning and threatening villain. It’s only a little too bad he doesn’t make it through to the final act of the film, and gets a rather unceremonious departure.
Of course, there’s the incredible Famke Janssen as the very lustful Xenia Onatopp. She is a very wild woman who gains sensual ecstasy, not from sexual pleasure, but from violence and murder. Janssen puts so much vile, dangerous passion into this role that she is instantly memorable. The fact that Xenia likes to kill men by squeezing the life out of them with her legs wrapped around them is only found in a Bond film, and enhances the sexual drive of the character. This is the role that easily broke her career wide open, and she has enjoyed the subsequent success ever since.
This film also introduced me to Sean Bean and his fine acting talents. I think it was a great idea to have a villain with a personal connection to James Bond, someone that was once his friend, and could be viewed as his equal in many ways. Instead of it being a revenge motivation like in Licence to Kill, we get a story of betrayal. Bean’s performance is almost a dark reflection of Bond, but with a more malicious, malevolent vibe instead of a sly arrogance. The best part of Alec and James’ exchanges are how deep their words penetrate past their facades or personas. Still, it seems Alec has the upper hand in bruising James’ soul, probably because he still has one to bruise. Sean Bean gives us a solid Bond villain who doesn’t fall into the clichéd tropes of old. He’s more modern and personal of a character that was a fresh, solid fit for this film.
Alan Cumming also chimes in as the very funny and charismatic Boris Grishenko. Cumming is a marvelously diverse actor who can do practically anything, and he does it amazingly well. As Boris, he delivers a particularly salacious character who is so entertaining that it’s hard to entirely hate him. While he is a traitor that left Natalya to die, Cumming’s too much of a vibrant source of laughs to condemn Boris fully, but you still enjoy it when he gets his comeuppance.
On the heroic Bond girl side, Izabella Scorupco proves to be a remarkable talent who shows a wide range of emotion as Natalya. She can be fun and endearing as well as dig down deep with the pain and grief, such as in the ruins of the Severnaya facility. What Scorupco puts forth in those scenes is very powerful and a bit heartbreaking. The emotion really penetrates through the screen as it flows out of every fiber of her being. She also has plenty of strength and fire as well as compassion and vulnerability to make Natalya a very well rounded and realistic person to invest our sympathies with. Unlike some other Bond girls, she’s not just along for the ride. She has a strong, personal stake in everything, and is willing to fight right alongside James at every step. Her and Brosnan have great chemistry and rhythm between them sharing in the funny, dramatic, and heartfelt moments. They were a beautiful fit that really gives this film even more strength and weight.
Also, we get a far more satisfying performance from Joe Don Baker here as CIA contact Jack Wade than with his Bond villain turn in The Living Daylights. He uses his charisma and comic timing to great effect making Wade a genuinely funny personality that became a welcomed returning character in Tomorrow Never Dies. Considering Felix Leiter got his leg chomped off by a shark in the previous Bond film, the filmmakers decided to change things up with a new CIA contact for Bond, and I think they created a very fresh and entertaining character that contrasted Bond while still complementing him.
Last, but not least, Judi Dench was a brilliant choice for this role, and the idea behind the character was brilliant as well. Making the head of MI-6 now a woman made the old Bond concepts fresh with new perspectives applied to them. Her “M” only has two scenes early on, but she really sets a tone that challenges James Bond’s misogynistic and cavalier attitudes. Yet, for as much as she creates friction with Bond, she also shows her compassion by wishing Bond to come back in one piece. Dench’s character is appropriately hard when she needs to be, but soft when it counts. Through both Brosnan and Daniel Craig, she has really developed an excellent character who has become a welcomed highlight of every Bond film for the last seventeen years.
If there’s one thing to levy against GoldenEye is the lack of the classic Bond style scope. The bulk of the film takes place inside Russia with the final half hour in Cuba. There are not many exotic locales, or a wide spread canvas for Bond to traverse. Because of this, the film feels a little narrow in scope. This was definitely rectified in Pierce Brosnan’s subsequent Bond films, but I feel those films lost the edge this film had. While Brosnan’s performances never went down in quality, the scripts or filmmakers could never quite hit the personal or passionate nerve that GoldenEye hit for the character. While not all Bond films need to have plots of a strongly personal nature, I think that element helps to keep the films grounded. Die Another Day certainly tried to walk the line of personal revenge and over the top indulgence, but the latter tended to dilute the former. So, while the scopes of the following three films were certainly broadened, the stories didn’t quite have the personal drive of GoldenEye. While it’s not the perfect or quintessential Bond film that Brosnan could’ve made, I do feel it’s his strongest, most consistent outing. Although, this is just my personal taste.
After such a long absence from cinemas, many questioned whether or not James Bond was still relevant after the end of the Cold War. GoldenEye dealt with that blatantly, and answered it with a resounding “yes.” Director Martin Campbell brought together just the right elements to make this a refreshing, revitalizing success. It’s no wonder that he was brought back about a decade later to reboot the franchise with yet another fresh approach and tone. With this film, Pierce Brosnan made a big impact with a James Bond that instantly won over audiences. It returned us to the suave and sophisticated sensibilities of the character while losing none of the intense action oriented excitement that we all desire from 007. With a great cast inhabiting some solid and entertaining characters, and a solid foundation of talent behind the camera in all departments, GoldenEye still proves to be an excellent and highly satisfying entry in this franchise. And yes, James Bond will return, again.