Light Bondage: “GoldenEye”

Bond, James Bond. For fifty years that has been the cinematic calling card of one of films most enduring heroes. Sure, Bond was born in books, but it was through film that he became a household name and one of the movies’ most enduring legends. He is a character so archetypal that he is bigger than the half dozen men who have played him across nearly two dozen films, and that kind of longevity is both unheard of and a little bit magical.

Light Bondage is my attempt to rewatch the series and try to recapture some of what made these movies worthwhile. I might not always succeed (I’m looking at you, Roger Moore!) but in this biweekly series of articles we’re going to take a ride through the time capsule of the last half century with the world’s most famous spy/action star.

GoldenEye (1995)

Talking about GoldenEye is difficult. Of all the movies on this list, it is the one most clouded with nostalgia for me and probably many of my generation. It’s the movie that introduced me to Bond, though not necessarily through its own merits but through the now-famous merits of its tie-in N64 game. So know full well that I’m probably too close to this movie to really give it the objective opinion I tried to give most of these movies, whether they were revisits or first watches.

It’s been years since the last Bond movie, as MGM got sold and time passed and we lost Dalton to the passage of time. So they picked up a new Bond, Pierce Brosnan, who was originally approached to play Bond after Moore left but had obligations playing Remington Steele on TV. It’s probably for the best, as in the time since then the world had changed and the Soviet Union that had cast such a long shadow over the entirety of Bond’s career was now gone. With that noticeable gap of time and context, and with a character that wasn’t particularly relevant anymore, what was there left to do with him?

The bright spot of genius that makes GoldenEye probably still my favorite Bond movie is that even when given the opportunity to, they didn’t jump at rebooting Bond, but instead acknowledged him as this character whose peak relevance in the world had come and gone. Brosnan’s Bond is everything Bond should be: cool, witty, unspeakably hot (I had/have a long-standing crush on Brosnan, so SHUT IT), but he plays it with a temper usually not seen and a quiet sense of confidence that makes him far less jokey than his predecessors.

The world around Bond has changed considerably, too. His womanizing is treated with open disdain and only half-hearted tolerance by most of the people he comes across, with a Moneypenny that takes great delight in shooting him down and a new M (with the perfect casting of Dame Judy Dench) that seems to regard him a holdover she isn’t quite sure what to do with. She openly derides Bond pretty early on as a redundancy, while acknowledging that he’s been around and proven himself enough times that liking him isn’t necessary when the time calls for a man of his talents.

Brosnan is following the Bruce Campbell school of aging into puffier caricatures of yourself, but in the mid-90s he was a beautiful man.

It’s that quiet confidence that really struck me most with GoldenEye this time. Bond has spent a lot of movies spouting one-liners and drifting to and fro plot convolutions in the search of filling a run time, but here it just seems to click much better. He’s not just an action hero but he’s an active hero, which is so much more important. Everything he does has a clear reason stated in the plot, and you’re never inclined to roll your eyes at his antics as the pieces of his journey unfold.

That tested, almost world-weary characterization extends to the plot, too. This movie wasn’t that far after the fall of Soviet Russia, and Bond’s interactions with the machinations of the other side portray the kind of friendly antagonism of long-standing rivalry the likes of which hasn’t really shown up since From Russia With Love all those years ago. Suddenly, politics turned decades-long enemies into allies, and everyone shrugs and does their jobs because they’re professionals. It’s that sense of loss of purpose that is at the core of not only Bond but of the film’s main villain.

Sean Bean, before everyone assumed that he died in everything he was ever in. Wonder how that role would play now.

Sean Bean’s turn as former-006-turned-mastermind Alec Trevalyan is a role that I found myself really conflicted with in retrospect. Bean is a scene-stealer, and this is the movie that introduced me to him, but rewatching it he really doesn’t even get that much screen time. Maybe that’s for the best, as movies with a ton of villain time have rarely been Bond’s strong point (OHMSS is the only real exception, I feel). But I feel in many ways it’s the similarity of persona and age and talent in that movie between the two actors that really sells it. Bond movies have a bad habit of casting more serious actors against Bond as the adversaries, and I feel GoldenEye is the one that really gets the balance right, letting both men do equal shares of the heavy lifting.

This sequence is ridiculous, but lots of stuff smashes into other stuff real good. Even for Bond it’s ambitious.

The other really notable thing about GoldenEye is that it is unabashedly an action film, with way more assault rifles and explosions than the series has seen yet. We’ll probably talk about the Bond-as-action-star a bit more as Brosnan’s history goes on, but what’s striking in GoldenEye is just how good most of those set pieces really are. I think a lot of it has to do with the state of CG in 1995, which meant that the movie was heavy on models and composite shots and practical explosions, including a ridiculous tank chase in St. Petersberg that was actually partially filmed on location that would probably be all CG today. Sometimes the models look a little dated, but they still have that quality that practical effects will always have no matter how cheap that sells what’s happening far better than even average CG could ever do.

And it’s not as if the set pieces are bad, either. They’re certainly the most competent ones yet seen, with clear direction and usually having quite a bit of story relevance (a thing Bond movies are typically bad at doing). You always mostly know why the characters are doing these crazy things. That goes a long way to providing the grounding to make them work as thrilling scenes to watch, from Bond jumping off a cliff to get inside a free falling airplane to an amazing mountainside car race to the final battle atop a giant satellite dish. They’re big, showy, and maybe a little ridiculous, but they feel realer and more dangerous than Bond stunts have ever felt. Perhaps that’s just because they’re more in line with modern sensibilities, but even if that’s the case that simply reinforces my recommendation as this film as the one to watch.

I feel like this is a lot of words about what works, and a pretty glowing recommendation, but at the end of the day I’m not going to apologize for that. This is Brosnan’s best movie by a mile, and one of the best Bond movies of the series, relevant both to its time and as a good movie without that context. It isn’t without fault, to be sure, but it took what was essentially a dead franchise post-Dalton and pumped it full of life again. When the dust settles on this project and I think about the movies I genuinely like (and there are shockingly few of them) this one will remain near the very top of the list.

It’s nice to know nostalgia isn’t always misplaced.

These two need a buddy cop movie. No joke.

The Theme Song/Opening Title:
One of the few missteps I feel the movie does have, if we’re being honest, is the score. Not the theme, but the score itself, which seems to rely on a weird atonal electronic quality that seems entirely out of place with every score that’s come before. There’s also a distinct lack of Bond theme until 2/3 of the way into the movie, which seems like a weird choice for when you’re trying to rebrand this iconic character. I’m not sure if it’s just wildly dated or was always a weird soundtrack, but … there you have it.

That said, the actual opening titles are great, with Tina Turner singing one of my favorite Bond songs, a throwback to the vocal ballads of early Bond but with enough energy to not totally deaden the movie. Also, here is where the movie’s only big CG was used, crafting a pretty amazing opening title rife with ambitious touchstones charting the fall of the Soviet Union in metaphor between the prologue set in the 80s and the rest of the film in present day. It set a new bar for Bond intros, one that we’ll see riffed on heavily but maybe never quite topped afterwards.

Most Ridiculous Gadget:
There really aren’t a ton of gadgets in this movie. Probably the most notable is the watch laser Bond seems to have without any sort of Q introduction, despite there being a rather lengthy Q scene in the movie where he hands Bond a mess of gadgets. Really, the highlight of this list is probably Q’s sandwich, a normal hero sandwich Bond picks up curiously expecting it to be some sort of bomb or device only to be chastised for messing with Q’s lunch. The unforseen drawbacks of making everything into a deadly weapon as your job: people expect everything to be a deadly weapon.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:
The actual Bond girl in this movie is probably its weakest part, as she’s almost unspeakably dull. However, the evil woman in this movie is fantastic, so let’s talk about her instead. Famke Janssen, years before she became the boring part of the X-Men movies, lit up the screen in this movie as bad guy heavy Xenia Onatopp. She’s beautiful and completely psychotic, obsessed with death in an unhealthy, fetishized sort of way, obviously getting off on mowing down countless people over the course of the film.

She also happens to have maybe the movie’s only outright satire of Bond films (despite it’s awareness of the series’ problems, its critiques are mostly played pretty straight) in that her preferred method of killing people is to lure them in and then in the middle of sex crush the wind out of them with her super powerful thighs. This is in itself pretty cool, in that it’s not based on a gadget or visual gimmick and makes her seem that much more predatory, but it also manifests in an amazing scene where Bond tries to seduce her, she tries to kill him, and then when he violently tries to fight her off she treats it as rough sex and seemingly has the time of her life.

Fact: exploding between Famke Janssen’s thighs is what killed Cyclops in X-Men 3.

After spending so many articles writing about the various gender problems of these films, I’m not sure what this movie is saying with her, honestly. She seems to be maybe the only character in these films so far who is more sexually assertive than Bond, and I’m not sure if it’s entirely kosher playing female dominance and psychotic violence so close together. But fuck it, honestly. She plays it with scenery-chewing aplomb and the role is both badass and interesting in a way so few women are in these films. That counts for a lot in a series happy to delegate female roles to plot convenience and window dressing.

Best Bondickery:
You know, at least in this movie, Brosnan’s Bond isn’t much of a dick at all. I’ve thought a lot about it, but I don’t really have anything damning for this section. The closest we get is when we first meet Bond post-credits, he’s in the middle of a date with an agent M sent to evaluate his fitness to work. And you get the feeling that Bond doesn’t really give a shit about this woman one way or another, as she’s kind of stuffy and plain in a perfectly fine middle class British sort of way but not in any way Bond would jump at.

No, instead it becomes pretty clear after meeting M that he mostly did it to stick it to his boss, both actively working to prove her opinions about him right and giving her a metaphorical middle finger that he doesn’t care what she thinks about his proclivities. It’s actually kind of a subtle bit of politics for a movie that doesn’t spend any time remarking on it, and perfectly sets the tone for how Bond and M are going to struggle to relate to each other in this new setting.

JAMES BOND will return in TOMORROW NEVER DIES

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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