Summary: Something something Bond vs. Russian arms dealers. Get in the tank!
Continuing my James Bond streak after Licence to Kill, I went with its direct sequel: the much beloved GoldenEye, which set the bar for action movies and paved the way for first-person shooter multiplayer games. Typically acknowledged as the only good Bond movie Pierce Brosnan ever led, GoldenEye was distinct in its serious tone (coming off the dark Timothy Dalton era) before the franchise went back to things the Roger Moore stuff that the Austin Powers movies rightfully parodied.
GoldenEye takes place sometime during the Cold War, where Bond’s friend Alec Trevelyan aka 006 (Sean Bean) is murdered by Russians. Fast forward 9 years, Bond is tracking an arms dealer known as Janus, who is in possession of a nuclear space satellite (GoldenEye). Guess who the arms dealer is? It’s not a spoiler. Everyone knows. Like the Dalton era, GoldenEye brings Bond back down to a more personal level, melding his professional and personal spheres. Unlike the Dalton era, GoldenEye is capable of managing its serious tone with its comedic moments. (Thank god.)
Most importantly, we still have puns. “Have you been to Russia?” asks a Bond Girl. “Shoot in and out,” replies our hero. Classic, self-congratulatory Bond! I love it!
While GoldenEye is not the best Bond, it certainly is my favorite. I rediscovered it sometime after I became conscious of filmmaking and film criticism as I blindly sat through Die Another Day, wondering what all the Bond fuss was about. Though the other 3 Brosnans aren’t much to sniff at, GoldenEye deserves a lot of fuss. It cements Bond’s place in action movies by leading us down some action sequences just ridiculous enough to be entertaining but not out of the moment, as well as two (maybe three) cringe-inducing fisticuffs which are remarkably violent for this time. It also gives us two Bond Girls with actual personalities and integrity (including a breakthrough role for Famke Janssen), Alan Cumming in possibly his most mainstream role, Sean Bean in one of his best villain roles, a whole scene to get Q’s gadgets out of the way, and an M scene where she declares he’s an outdated, misogynistic dinosaur.
Let me zoom in on those last two points- GoldenEye’s pacing through the first half is pretty perfect. Director Martin Campbell has said he wanted to get the staples out of the way as to not affect the overall tone and plot, which was an extremely wise decision. Within the first twenty minutes, we get the cheesy Bond Girl name, the martini, the “Bond, James Bond.” Later on, we get a handful of M (Judi Dench) scenes, who addresses many of Bond’s problematic traits in changing times; this exchange does an exceptional job of placing emphasis on Bond’s ambitions as an agent. We also get a few precious moments with Q, whose zany gadgets can be too larger than life than intended for the movie. This scene is the silliest of the movie, complete with a phone booth airbag, obvious puns, and Bond-Q banter. The decision to give Bond as few and as small toys as possible was probably one of the smartest, as it still gives us the Q we love, shows us what he’s tinkering on, and the gadgets that do get featured don’t take over the scenes where they get used… unlike a certain invisible car.
With all of that out of the way, we can get to the good stuff- the villains. Lots of time is spent with Janssen and Bean, who are two of the most memorable characters in Bond history as well as two of the most colorful with distinct abilities that are used to enhance the action. Janssen’s Onatopp strangles people with her legs and gets off on murdering people. Bean’s Trevelyan knows Bond’s strategies and moves, as he was previously an agent with the same training. These culminate in some of the most graphic hand-to-hands in Bond history and some of the most intense. Bean, who is so good at playing a bad guy, gets somewhat of a promotion from Patriot Games with some really mean dialogue and matches Bond’s charisma almost effortlessly- the exchanges between them feel personal. Bean is one of my all-time favorites for several reasons (many of them containing the name Sharpe) so this could just be bias talking, but he’s one of the most dependable actors for when you need a bad guy. If he wasn’t so good at playing villains, I’d have campaigned for a Bean-Bond but then we probably wouldn’t have had a Bean-Boromir but we would have had Bean vs. Toby Stephens in the same Bond movie and that would have been great. But who cares? We all win from what happened, except for maybe Stephens who made a pirate show! (Actual pirate show is pretty good though.) More Sean Bean! Bond villains are known for making their movies memorable and he’s one of the reasons GoldenEye is still so good today.
Generally, the success of GoldenEye’s action scenes have a lot to do with the story’s rising tension throughout the piece, expertly crafted by Campbell who is a great, great, GREAT action director- his resume includes 2005’s Casino Royale, the first outing of Daniel Craig’s stint as well as 1998’s The Mask of Zorro and last year’s The Foreigner with Jackie Chan- all exceptional action pieces. He allows the plot to move the pieces, using the action as an exclamation point rather than a cushion. The anticipation of the action sequences leads to the high quality of entertainment. And the editing is just so good- it’s appropriately fast but not incoherent. Rather than jumping to different perspectives of the same events, Campbell floats between the action and reaction shots with great effect. There’s not just a sense of urgency but a sense of panic. Additionally, there are also some really admirable shots, particularly in the opening scene which opens with that legendary bungee stunt- at one point, there’s a nice tracking shot down a set of stairs that starts with Bond between the railings and making his way down to a shadowed area with light just across his eyes. The hand-to-hands get these smooth tracking shots, even in fairly confined spaces. It all builds very well to the climaxes of the action sequences.
I’m surprised by how well the movie has aged, minus some of the CG sequences and technology gadgets. The latter comes off as endearing more than anything- battleship radar and the voice-matching device will always be hilarious to me. Even the fashion and hairstyles on the ladies don’t look too dated as they stuck to the “classy 90’s.” It’s all very fitting for the times, you know, when people had VCRs and stuff. The techniques used in the filmmaking process are still good- that’s really what I’m counting here.
That’s not to say GoldenEye is without its faults. Like License to Kill, the romance with Natalya (Izabella Scorupco) seems forced, attempting to be more meaningful than needed. In the third act, they kiss out of no where and there are a couple of beach scenes where she tells Bond he’s afraid to be alone- it’s not false, it’s just that there’s no real lead up to this and other than an implied connection between Trevelyan and Bond, it’s not clear how she knows this information. Now, if the pair had gone through the mission with subtle flirting and ending it all on the roll in the hay (not a euphemism- this is a literal roll in hay), it would have been perfectly fine and more concise. There are also a lot of Bond meetings- he has to seek out an American CIA agent in order to find a Russian arms dealer moonlighting as a club owner, just so he can run and find Onatopp, who he needs to find his actual target- it’s just not necessary. If we can fast forward or just omit some scenes (maybe about 30 minutes sprinkled throughout the movie), GoldenEye would be the perfect Bond movie.
In any case, GoldenEye is not only one of the best and most beloved movies in the franchise, but also one of its important landmarks. Without GoldenEye’s success, we might never have had a serious Bond movie- it could have very well slid back into its Roger Moore zone. Once we had a taste of what the franchise could be, we begged for Bond to steer clear of the style and eccentrism seen in later Brosnan movies. And finally, we got Casino Royale, arguably the best Bond movie ever made. I’d like to thank Campbell for breathing life back into Bond not once, but twice, and in two of the franchses best movies. I don’t see it as his fault that the later Brosnan movies went off their intended arcs and he’s successfully set the tone for the Bond we want and have today.
Campbell! He is invincible!