Goldeneye: The Resurrection of an Icon

Pierce Brosnan steps in to update the Bond formula for a post Cold War landscape


When I was four years old my mother took me to see my first film. While others chose Disney as their first cinematic experience, mine was part of a franchise that started a year after my mother was born and featured the most famous spy there ever was. That spy’s name is James Bond, and the film was 1995’s Goldeneye. I don’t remember appreciating the complex plot elements, the exploration of a post Cold War world, or the evolution of a character that had existed for over thirty years. What I do know is that Goldeneye ignited in me a love for James Bond films so strong I have watched at least one instalment from the franchise every year for over twenty years. 

Goldeneye may not seem like an important film in the eyes of the casual viewer. After all, the position of James Bond has always appeared safe, come whatever societal changes. But in 1995, the future of James Bond was extremely uncertain. The world had drastically changed, one of its largest political machines crumbling only six years before. This was a brave new world for all, a truly different world from the one James Bond had been born into at the height of the Cold War, one where the enemies seemed clear. Now it was a world where there may not be any room for a spy who shot first and asked questions later; a man who was burnt-out, who had relationships with women that were viewed as being increasingly archaic. A world of changing viewpoints about women and political alliances was upon the creators of the franchise. Was James Bond, a fixture of cinema for so many decades, really wanted by audiences anymore? Was it not perhaps better to leave James Bond as a cinematic fixture of another era where the rules were different? 

Different options were explored, such as a period piece, a female James Bond and the casting of an actor of colour, but in the end it was decided that Bond needed to be stripped down to his most basic parts and return to what had attracted audiences to the franchise in the first place. This decision was made by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, who had accepted increased responsibility now that Cubby Broccoli was in ill health. Goldeneye marked a departure from what had come before in a marked way, as it would be the last film in which Cubby Broccoli was involved. The way in which the film itself was made would be different, with a new person responsible for the iconic title sequence and John Barry turning down the offer to compose the score. Most importantly, a new actor would be required to take on the mantle of what was by that time perhaps the most famous role for any male actor.

After Dalton’s second outing as James Bond in 1989’s Licence to Kill, work began on what would have been his third film. ‘Bond 17’ was to be based on Ian Fleming’s The Property of A Lady, and would have focused on Bond stopping World War III after an attack on a nuclear facility in Scotland. Bond would have traveled to East Asia, going up against former mentor, Denholm Crisp, and corrupt businessman Sir Henry Lee Ching. The film was set for a 1991 release, with filming to begin in Hong Kong in 1990. According to Dalton, the script had been completed and directors were being considered, such as John Landis, Ted Kotcheff and John Byrum. 

Alec Trevelyan: And, by the way, I did think about asking you to join my little scheme but somehow I knew, 007’s loyalty was always to the mission, never to his friend.

However, it was not to be. Production Hell reared its ugly head when issues arose between Metro Goldywn Mayer, who owned the distributor of the Bond films, United Artists, and Broccoli’s company, Danjaq, which owned the rights to the franchise. Eventually, after lawsuits between MGM and Danjaq, MGM went bankrupt. Although the company recovered and production was set to move forward, Dalton had been waiting several years to reprise the role, and while he was prepared to make one last outing as Bond, Broccoli explained that the protracted gap between films necessitated a multi-film commitment from the actor, so Dalton decided to step away from the role, and the hunt was on for a new actor to play 007. 

Although Pierce Brosnan had won the part of Bond in 1986 and had had to withdraw due to contractual obligations with TV crime drama Remington Steele, he was not the first actor to be considered for the fifth iteration of James Bond. Hugh Grant, Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson were all considered, but Brosnan eventually got to step into a role he had wanted since the mid 1980s. Brosnan’s interpretation would not be the only change to the franchise, as the story now had to deal with a post Cold War world of changing sensibilities. Recognising that women could no longer just be Bond’s love interest or M’s secretary, the recasting of M with an actress, after the role being exclusively played by men, was decided upon. This decision was supposedly spurred by the hiring of Stella Rimington as the head of MI5 in 1992, but producers recognised that in order for the franchise to adapt and stay current, women would have to have a larger role. This was true behind the scenes, too, as Barbara Broccoli and her stepbrother, Michael G Wilson, were central to production as Cubby’s health declined. 

The Bond franchise’s rather uneasy view of female independence, as well as Bond’s own discomfort at a new order, is expressed in M’s conversation with Bond at the beginning of the film: “You don’t like me, Bond. You don’t like my methods. You think I’m an accountant, a bean counter more interested in my numbers than your instincts… Good, because I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur.”

Bond finds himself in a world where he no longer knows his true enemy. An attack on the Goldeneye satellite facility in Severnaya poses a threat to any machinery with an electronic signal. Bond is dispatched to discover who is behind the theft, and along the way garners the assistance of the only technician to have survived the attack, Natalya Siminova (played by Izabella Scorupco). Things become even more complicated, and dangerous, when Bond discovers that the person behind the theft is an old friend and colleague.

The film begins with one of the most breathtaking stunts of the franchise, that of Bond jumping off a dam wall to enter a Soviet chemical weapons facility. The stunt would set the record for the highest bungee jump off of a fixed structure, at 720 feet. Whilst audiences were accustomed to Bond working alone, in this instance he has a partner, Alex Trevelyan, 006. 007’s relationship with Trevelyan is the fulcrum upon which the film revolves. Bond’s past had been hinted at throughout the franchise, especially his wife’s death, but Goldeneye was the first film to show Bond’s past coming back to haunt him. The idea of betrayal and loyalty to one’s colleagues and one’s country are explored through Bond and Trevelyan’s characters. It is their conflicting viewpoints on Queen and Country that make old friends bitter enemies.

Trevelyan’s reason for wanting to destroy England is perhaps the most personal of all the Bond villains. Whilst his predecessors were largely interested in world domination, Trevelyan is interested in revenge ― revenge for the death of his parents, which he sees as not being due to their questionable collaboration with the Nazis before trying to escape to the United Kingdom at the end of WWII, but as the direct result of the British betrayal of the Cossacks after the war. It’s a character history that explores the uncomfortable feelings most countries have towards WWII, and how people have tried to reconcile what their governments or ancestors did in the name of patriotism due to shifting, often desperate circumstances. As an adult viewer, I can appreciate the multifaceted nature of Trevelyan’s character, which is not as cut-and-dry as his world domination obsessed predecessors, who are often given very little backstory.

Trevelyan goes by the underworld name of Janus, which is meant to represent his dual identity ― that of an ex British spy and post Cold War villain. It also serves as a representation of two sides of Bond’s character. Bond is always on the edge. Goldeneye and Licence To Kill both have villains who are like dark mirror images of James Bond. Both Trevelyan and Sanchez are obsessed with betrayal and loyalty, and how those things can mean life or death in a world in which shifting loyalties and alliances are commonplace. Bond lives with this, too. He is loyal to Queen and Country, but their loyalty to him is firmly in a grey area as he will not be acknowledged if captured (something which is later explored in Brosnan’s final outing, Die Another Day).

Goldeneye is very much character driven. This is something that was introduced and explored in Licence to Kill, but Goldeneye would push it further, not only through Bond’s relationship with his past, but also through the film’s leading lady, Natalya. Goldeneye explores the fallout of the Cold War through its representation of Natalya, a regular person caught up in the machinations of a world that is entirely alien to her. She is shocked and repulsed by the ready violence Bond encounters and is critical of his inability to connect with other people because of the manner in which he has to live in order to survive. Bond and Natalya have a telling conversation that exposes much of what Bond has to cope with, bringing the character back to Fleming’s creation, who was not only a blunt instrument, but a man who drank and womanised in order to cope with intense PTSD and self-loathing. Dalton and Daniel Craig would explore this more than Brosnan, but in Goldeneye this aspect of Bond’s profession is brought to the fore and the audience has to come to grips with their own perceptions of the character and how they view the franchise. 

Natalya is perhaps the first Bond girl to really confront Bond about his views of the world. She is unflinching in her assessment of how Bond lives his life, and although the pair obviously end the film together, it is believable that she would eventually leave him and endeavour to live a life removed from what she cannot reconcile her personal beliefs with. Natalya is a fully formed character, with motivations and feelings that are not only connected with Bond’s. She is also different in her attempts to process the situation in which she finds herself. Previous Bond girls were often only extensions of Bond’s mission or thoughts, and very few ever seemed to have protracted difficulty in their ability to psychologically come to grips with the intensity of their situation. Goldeneye is a film that assesses Bond’s relationship with the women in his life, and his own guilt at exposing them to violence and at times, exploitation. Although Bond has always been a protector, Goldeneye does not shy away from the fact that it is oftentimes Bond who is the catalyst for a woman’s demise or suffering. This would be explored more in Tomorrow Never Dies and Casino Royale, but Goldeneye started the conversation, and Natalya began the trend of Bond girls who could and would act independently of Bond to deal with situations and find solutions to complex problems. One could argue that rather than Bond really saving Natalya, it is Natalya who saves Bond through her fast thinking and compassionate nature. She also provides the perfect foil for Xenia Onatopp, the ultimate femme fatale. 

Natalya Simonova: He was a friend, Trevelyan?

James Bond: Yes.

Natalya Simonova: Now he’s your enemy and you will kill him. It is that simple?

James Bond: In a word, yes.

Natalya Simonova: Unless he kills you first?

James Bond: Natalya…

Natalya Simonova: You think I’m impressed? All of you with your guns, your killing, your death. For what? So you can be a hero? All the heroes I know are dead. How can you act like this? How can you be so cold?

James Bond: It’s what keeps me alive.

Natalya Simonova: No. It’s what keeps you alone.

Like Natalya, Xenia marks a departure, but she also harkens back to the secondary female characters who were often sexy, but deadly. Her name is a nod to the often heavy handed and over the top names that Bond women of previous films and Fleming’s novels had. She is the literal representation of vagina dentata with her method of killing men by crushing them to death with her thighs. While M and Natalya both confront Bond’s uneasiness about female independence and authority, Xenia seems to break this uneasiness right open and shift into fear, representing not just Bond’s discomfort with a generation of women who are not satisfied with kowtowing to men, but men across the world. Xenia is an obvious exaggeration, but her character allows for an interesting analysis of how men view women who are openly sexual. Xenia almost seems to tap into the characterisation of women in film noirs, who often led the hero to their ruin and demise. The men she murders are definitely not her only victims; she is very nearly the cause of Bond’s death on two separate occasions. Colonel Ourumov represents the old world and the struggle to adapt, but he is nowhere near as memorable or as interesting as his deadly female associate.

Martin Campbell would end John Glen’s five-film run as director. Campbell would tweak the formula of previous films, changing certain elements whilst retaining others. A combination of intense action and playfulness would infuse the film without sacrificing more serious scenes. Moments of enjoyable comedy, such as the scene where Bond mistakes Q’s lunch for a gadget and Minnie Driver plays a tone deaf mobster’s mistress, co-exist with a tank chase through St Petersburg (which took six weeks to shoot) and Natalya losing her friends in a moment of real tragedy. The fact that the film does not go off-kilter with all these different elements existing together is a testament to Campbell’s abilities as a director, as is his influence in shaping Brosnan’s representation of the role. Interestingly, Campbell would return a decade later to handle Brosnan’s successor in Casino Royale (2006), revitalising the franchise for a second time.

An element of the film that inspired intense debate was Éric Serra’s score, critic Richard von Busack describing it as being, “more appropriate for a ride on an elevator than a ride on a roller coaster”, and because Tina Turner’s throaty theme song was not a collaborative effort between writer Bono and the film’s producers, it wasn’t incorporated into the score as it traditionally had been. Serra’s score is by no means the best in the series, the car chase between Bond and Xenia becoming a bit too electro-pop for my liking, but I don’t find it as dire as some critics or fans have suggested. It has parts which are enjoyable and decidedly Bondian, such as the lovely wood sounds used during Bond and Natalya’s love scene. 

Despite trepidation about the film and whether or not Bond could fit in with a post Cold War World that was fast moving towards a new century, Goldeneye was a massive hit with audiences and even managed to impress critics. It would gross over $300,000,000, five times its budget, becoming the third-highest opening, non-holiday weekend behind Jurassic Park and Batman. Reviews were largely positive with critics praising Goldeneye for updating the series for the modern era, and Brosnan’s witty, sensitive portrayal of the character. It was nominated for two BAFTAs for Best Sound and Special Visual Effects, and continues to be ranked highly on lists dedicated to the franchise. 

I went through a stage where Brosnan’s Bond films were some of my least favourite, largely due to his last film, Die Another Day, which was a grave disappointment to me upon release, and continues to be one I seldom return to unless I am re-watching the entire series. But now, I appreciate the film for how technically impressive it is and how it resurrected the franchise after years of uncertainty, as well as meeting the demands of a changing market. While we often take for granted that Bond will adapt to ever-changing audiences, it is no mean feat to have kept a series that was born on the page in the 1950s going when ideas about women, race and politics have changed fundamentally. Goldeneye is one that still holds much nostalgia for me, and while Pierce is not my favourite James Bond, I cannot deny that he was an integral part in resurrecting the character and seeing him through into a new century.

Director: Martin Campbell
Screenplay: Jeffrey Caine &
Bruce Feirstein
Music: Éric Serra
Cinematography: Phil Méheux
Editing: Terry Rawlings

 

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