While I had intended to see Licence to Kill when it came out in the theater, for reasons outlined under my review for that movie it didn't come to be. GoldenEye, however, came out at a time in my life where I spent a lot of time at the movies, so there was virtually no way I was going to miss it. Besides, although my mom had really been the one who was the Remington Steele fan, I liked Pierce Brosnan in most movies he was in, and when I heard he would be the next James Bond I was ecstatic. It seemed he was a natural choice.
Keep in mind at the time I didn't know the behind-the-scenes problems that arose after Licence to Kill. Since there had been a huge gap it was easy to assume that maybe James Bond had been put to rest; I didn't know that Timothy Dalton, rather than being fired or bolting after his last movie, had been patiently waiting to do the third movie, tentatively called The Property of a Lady. Between lawsuits regarding the rights to the characters and MGM continuing to flounder, as well as the death of screenwriter Richard Maibaum, the movie just never seemed to make it past various script rewrites. Once everything had been ironed out, Dalton was still willing to play the character, although his contract to do so had expired a year previous. Problem is, he was willing to do the one, but didn't want to continue any further, especially if it took another five years to get a movie into production it would mean a good portion of Dalton's later life would be taken up playing Bond.
Pierce Brosnan, of course, had been producer Albert Broccoli's first choice to replace Roger Moore, but NBC decided to play games with Remington Steele on the heels of the publicity, thus making him unavailable. By the time GoldenEye was going into production that was all in the past, with Brosnan able to take the role without any baggage. It didn't hurt that most people knew him from movies he had made since leaving television, so it wasn't such a shock to see him take over the role.
Another change is that John Glen, who had directed every Bond film from For Your Eyes Only forward, was gone as well. For better or worse he had been responsible for the tone of a good number of Roger Moore films and both Dalton movies, but times had definitely changed. This was also reflected in the fact that M was no longer a stuffy old British gentleman, but instead a lady. Today it may have been jumped on by every internet troll, but at the time just the fact it was Judi Dench playing the role allayed any fears, as well as the fact that EON Productions did something smart - the new M was actually a new M, not a gender swap.
But, never fear; despite getting a curt lecture from his new boss, James Bond as portrayed by Pierce Brosnan is still the same irascible character we all recognize.
Six years prior to the events in the main part of the film we see 007 in a rare situation where he is working with another agent - Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), otherwise known as 006 - to infiltrate a Soviet chemical weapons factory in Arkhangelsk. Bond escapes, but Trevelyan is killed by Colonel Ourumov (Gottfried John). Six years later Bond runs into a woman named Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), who manages to take off with an experimental helicopter. It turns out she is in the employ for Ourumov, who under the new regime is now a general and head of the space department. The two take over a base at Severnaya, steel the controls of a secret Soviet EMP weapon called GoldenEye, and flee, thinking everyone in the facility is dead.
Everyone is, except for Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco), who manages to climb out of the wreckage and make her way back to Saint Petersburg. Thinking that another survivor, Boris Grishenko (Alan Cumming) will be able to help her, she contacts him, only to find that he is also working with Ourumov. Meanwhile, when satellite footage of the incident shows that GoldenEye actually exists, as well as shows there is a survivor, Bond is sent to Saint Petersburg to investigate. What he ultimately finds is that Trevelyan survived and plans on taking revenge against the UK for the way his parents, and others like them, were treated by the English after World War II.
One of the surprising things about GoldenEye is how consistent it is with following Licence to Kill. We may have another new actress as Miss Moneypenny (this time it's Samantha Bond), but M is a successor to the previous head of MI6 that basically kicked Bond out for going after the drug dealer that had maimed Felix Leiter. It also gives us a replacement for Leiter - Jack Wade, played by Joe Don Baker, who had played a villain in the series as recently as The Living Daylights. As for how Pierce Brosnan approaches the role, it is a sort of compromise between Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton. Dalton played the role closer to the way Ian Fleming wrote the character, which made James Bond more of an anti-hero of sorts. Since the initial scripts were written for Dalton's portrayal, it's no surprise that some of this still comes through with Brosnan, but the nonchalant playboy aspect of the Moore years comes through as well.
One thing that is thankfully gone along with Richard Maibaum and John Glen is the need to inject slapstick humor. While Jack Wade does present some comic relief in being the epitome of everything a British gentleman would hate in an American handler, he never comes off like a buffoon the way Sheriff Pepper did.
Sean Bean was on the short list of people to play the role of Bond, so it's not surprising that he also plays one of the better villains in the series, and with some actual motivation behind it rather than just wanting to cause mayhem. He also plays Trevelyan in quite an understated way rather than chewing the scenery. There is a scene with Natalya, however, that shows the thin line between Bond's seduction and outright rape. Gottfried John gets to be his most threatening in the pre-credits sentence, so he never ends up outshining Bean, which has been a problem with some Bond henchmen in the past. The one who does overact, but it trends more toward the comic, is Alan Cumming, who also has one of the more notable ends.
Getting into the Bond girls, Famke Janssen thankfully never ends up turning good; she's evil the whole way through, killing men by crushing them with her thighs and literally having orgasms while shooting down scores of people. It is absolutely ridiculous and could be one of those things that spoils the movie, but somehow Janssen manages to sell it. Izabella Scorupco plays the main companion to Bond this time; rather than being another agent or such, she's a computer programmer that, because of her chromosomes, has been largely dismissed by those she works with - particularly Boris.
Stunt-wise, we have two of the biggest attempted. In fact, I think the bungie jump at the beginning still holds the record for the longest, while it took two stuntmen to actually pull off the motorcycle stunt and dive for the airplane at the beginning. Both Brosnan and Janssen did some of their own stunts as well, and quickly discovered why they have stunt doubles, as both came out with some battle wounds. In particular, though, I have always liked Martin Campbell's directing in this, as it was so much like other '90s directors who were willing to take chances with scenes - going down the gunbarrel from the title sequence and onto the road was a great transition shot. The tank chase is one of the best set pieces pulled off in a Bond film, and the flaming train is an amazing shot.
I can say when I first saw it back in 1995 I loved about every moment of it. Some of the fun was seeing Saint Petersburg again, as I had visited (when it was still Leningrad) about six years prior. I can still say I do enjoy the movie - it is one of the best Bond films made, and definitely the best with Brosnan - although occasionally the pacing gets off track, but that's a problem with most Bond films. The hacking scenes are silly, revealing that everyone involved still viewed computers as some magical box worked by wizardry.
There is something, though, that I can't put my finger on. Maybe it's because nostalgia for the time and the movie makes it seem that much better, or because other films (often smaller ones) from the same time period have had more staying power. Despite all the changes there are still elements of GoldenEye that seem to have stuck to the series for 33 years, and the way Bond acts towards his female colleagues is frighteningly archaic even for the time period of the film. It is remarked upon, but he's still given a "boys-will-be-boys" pass, which might be one of the things I find off. Over the years since this came out I have seen people in generic roles get fired for much less, and for things they never even did. Dalton had been right to tone it down, as had the writers due to the AIDS epidemic, so while many other things had modernized in GoldenEye, this dynamic still seemed to be from another age.
Still, even if you don't care about many of the other Bond films, I would recommend this as one that could be watched and enjoyed on its own. The carryover from Licence to Kill is subtle enough that you don't have to watch that movie to enjoy this one, and the self-contained story (and actual historical background behind it) is one of the better. It works as both a solid '90s action flick and a James Bond film, something which unfortunately the later Brosnan films often failed to do.
Time: 130 minutes
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Izabella Scorupco, Sean Bean, Famke Janssen, Gottfried John, Joe Don Baker
Director: Martin Campbell