To celebrate the release of Dr. No (Young, 1962), the first film in the long-running series of James Bond movies (Various, 1962 to present), October 5th is officially recognised as “Global James Bond Day”. Today, this franchise stands as the longest-running franchise ever and the character is one of the most recognised and popular movie icons of all time.
Released: 17 November 1995
Director: Martin Campbell
Distributor: MGM/UA Distribution Co. and United International Pictures
Budget: $60 million
Stars: Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Izabella Scorupco, Famke Janssen, Alan Cumming, and Judi Dench
In the midst of an administrative shake-up at MI6, renowned super spy James Bond/007 (Brosnan) in drawn into a confrontation with a rogue 00 agent who plans to use a satellite weapon known as “GoldenEye” to cause a global financial meltdown.
James Bond, Agent 007 of MI6, was created by writer Ian Fleming in 1953 and was heavily based upon his time and experiences as a navy intelligence officer. Following a very strange, comedic adaptation of his works, James Bond was popularised by Sean Connery’s immortal and iconic portrayal of the character, which kick-started an unparalleled cinematic franchise. However, in the late-eighties/early-nineties, the franchise had stalled somewhat; plans for a third picture for then-current Bond Timothy Dalton fell through thanks to legal issues and, by the time production of the seventeenth Bond film was ready to begin, Dalton had resigned from the role since he couldn’t commit to multiple films. Of course, every generation has their James Bond and, as a result, Pierce Brosnan was finally cast in the role and became the Bond for my generation. The character, and the film’s story (the first not adapted or inspired by from an existing Fleming text), was also updated to then-modern times and largely disregarded the previous films long before franchise reboots were really a well-known trope of cinema. With a worldwide gross of over $350 million, GoldenEye was a phenomenal box office success and effectively revitalised what had been a dormant franchise; GoldenEye was also a a critical hit and impressed with its contemporary sensibilities. Of course, while the film is still fondly remembered, it had a lasting impact thanks to the Nintendo 64 videogame adaptation, GoldenEye 007 (Rare, 1997), which is largely regarded as one of the best videogame adaptations, if not one of the greatest videogames, of all time.
Unlike a lot of Bond movies, GoldenEye’s cold open actually plays into the films larger plot. The movie begins nine years ago with Bond and his partner and friend, Alec Trevelyan/006 (Bean), infiltrating a facility in Russia. This establishes, first and foremost, their unique relationship, which is base don a lot of witty banter and sayings, and Bond’s hatred of Colonel Arkady Grigorovich Ourumov (Gottfried John) after Ourumov executes 006 in cold blood. It’s a thrilling opening sequence, shot in such a way as to slowly acclimatise us to this new Bond (we only see Brosnan’s face after he has infiltrated the facility, building up tension to the reveal of the new actor) and to show that he’s just as bold, witty, and adaptable as ever as he’s able to commandeer a motorcycle and a plane and even pull himself out of what is obviously a deadly free fall.
When we pick up with Bond nine years later, MI6 is in the midst of an administrative shake-up; the new M (Dench) is a woman and is generally perceived by Bond and some of his co-workers (specifically Bill Tanner (Michael Kitchen), M’s chief of staff) to be unfit for the job due to her predication for statistical analysis rather than Bond’s more traditional, proactive methods of action. Their relationship is frosty, at best, and openly explored in a candid discussion between the two in which M confronts Bond over his judgements and isn’t afraid to tell him exactly what she thinks of him. To M, Bond is a “relic of the Cold War” whose methods are out-dated and borderline dangerous in the modern age of espionage. However, by airing their grievances to each other, they develop a mutual respect and admiration in which Bond appreciates M’s candour and M puts her trust in Bond to do what he does best and investigate the GoldenEye satellite. Indeed, Bond’s methods are a significant plot point in the film; he seduces the girl sent to psychologically evaluate him due to his lack of interest in MI6 protocol and his tendency to shoot first, ask questions later, and bulldoze into any situation, wrecking vehicles in the process, is frequently chastised by Natalya Simonova (Scorupco). Indeed, even for KPG figureheads like Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane) criticise Bond for continuing to live in the past and work for MI6. Yet, as you might expect, Bond’s unique approach to his work, despite him continually being a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” gets results and, despite his critics, he is capable of subterfuge and investigatory techniques as well, as seen in his investigation into the Tiger Helicopter and Xenia Onatopp’s (Janssen) links to the Janus Syndicate, all of which are based on his instincts but turn out to be valid lines of enquiry.
During Bond’s investigation of the devastation at Severnaya, he inevitably crosses path with Natalya, a programmer from the Severnaya facility who witnessed Ourumov and Xenia killing all of her co-workers, firing the weapon, and stealing the GoldenEye firing key for the remaining satellite. Unlike a lot of Bond Girls, Natalya is just a regular and, comparatively, unremarkable young woman; she’s basically a civilian, one who is scared out of her wits during the attack and continuously disgusted with the killing. She also questions Bond’s motives and his cold, clinical approach to his work and, as a result, provides a brief glimpse into his more vulnerable, human side. However, while she is somewhat lacking in fortitude and is held hostage a bit too often for my liking, Natalya is an extremely capable and intelligent Bond Girl: she is headstrong, ordering Bond about at various points and forcing him to take her along on his mission; her technical ability is directly responsible for tracking the location of Janus; and, thanks to her experience with the satellite, she’s able to reprogram and reposition it even despite the snide remarks regarding her ability by her former colleague, the lewd and reprehensible Grishenko (Cumming).
Of course, Natalya isn’t the only Bond Girl in the film. Xenia is quite a unique femme fatal for Bond; shrewd, alluring, and intelligent, she’s no mere henchwoman and is, instead, a highly sexually charged and dangerous adversary capable of seducing men into bed and crushing their ribs with her powerful thighs. She’s also a sadist who revels in the thrill of killing, literally getting off on it at various points throughout the film, and is more than a match for Bond as an intellectual and physical opponent. The Janus Syndicate is rounded out by Ourumov himself; a traitor to his own country, Ourumov aspires of being the next “iron man of Russia” and is an abrasive, egotistical man. However, while he seems slightly unhinged at the best of times and is a pivotal antagonist in many ways, Ourumov is reduced to little more than a henchman for Janus who uses his military rank and position to acquire the GoldenEye access codes.
As for the headman of the Janus Syndicate, the film goes out of its way to paint the arms dealer and terrorist as a mysterious and enigmatic figure who hasn’t been seen and about whom very little is known except for the fact that he’s a “Lienz Cossack”. Of course, it turns out to be Alec Trevelyan, who faked his death but has been left horribly scarred on one side of his face after being caught in the explosion at the facility. After witnessing the cruel treatment of his people and the deaths of his family after the British betrayed them following the Second World War, Alec has been scheming for years to take revenge for this betrayal, beginning with infiltrating MI6 and culminating in a plan to destroy the British economy.
Of course, Bond isn’t exactly without a degree of support during his mission; as always, Q (Desmond Llewelyn) is on hand to talk Bond through his new gadgets (nothing massively fancy; a belt that fires a high tension wire and an exploding pen, though Q Branch is full of fun little gags and mishaps in the background) and share some banter with him. Rather than being supported out in the field by long-standing Bond ally Felix Leiter (Various), Brosnan’s Bond is aided by Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker), who is a far more jaded and pragmatic CIA operative, and is able to convince Valentin to lead him to Janus by “[appealing to] his wallet”.
If there’s a downside to GoldenEye, especially for long-time James Bond fans, it’s probably the lack of any real car-based shenanigans. Bond never gets to use any of the gadgets and gizmos Q briefs him on in his fancy new BMW and, aside from the opening car chase against Xenia, there’s no real traditional car chases or car-based action. I don’t really mind this, though, to be honest as I’m not really a car guy and my enjoyment of a film isn’t predicate don the presence of a car chase.
Plus, GoldenEye more than makes up for it was Bond’s exhilarating and highly amusing jaunt through St. Petersburg in a tank! Following a thrilling escape from the archives, Bond is forced to commandeer a Russian T-54/T-55 tank to pursue Ourumov (who has taken Natalya hostage) through the streets of St. Petersberg. It’s very much a “Bond Moment” but, like much of the film, isn’t quite as over the top as some of Roger Moore’s antics (though I’m fairly certain one man can’t drive a tank in the way that Bond does) and culminates in Bond successfully bringing Janus’ armoured train base to a halt with a single shell. In true Bond tradition, GoldenEye’s plot takes Bond all over the world; Bond’s mission takes him to Monte Carlo, Russia, and Cuba, with all three destinations being starkly contrasted to each other (he spends the majority of his time in Monte Carlo in a casino, St. Petersberg is portrayed as a cold (if architecturally beautiful) country still recovering from the Cold War, and Cuba is a lush, luminous jungle). Similarly, GoldenEye is full of practical stunts and effects, from model shots used during the destruction of the Severnaya base and the raising of Janus’s antenna cradle to actual tanks, trains, and other vehicles all being involved in explosive sequences that lend a real credibility and gravitas to Bond’s otherwise extravagant actions. In fact, the only effects scenes that are a bit questionable are Bond’s dive into the plane at the start of the film and the shot of Boris’s flash-frozen form when he meets his fitting end.
Action is paced out wonderfully, though, with plenty of shoot-outs and a fights taking place to spice things up and Bond even escaping from an impossible death trap within a helicopter. While I still don’t get why that random deckhand attacked Bond on the frigate, the towel gag afterwards always makes me laugh, and the many confrontations between Bond and Xenia are a particular highlight. Thanks to his misogynistic nature, Bond has no compunction about fighting a woman, though Xenia’s physicality and aggression is enough to put him on the back foot; in the end, he’s able to bring her to a fitting end by causing her to be crushed to death against a tree.
Though Bond drops a characteristically witty quip regarding this, and many of the other events in the film, GoldenEye is one of the more personal missions for Bond. Taking his name from the two-faced Roman God, and having worked alongside 007 for years, Janus is a cold, calculating, and deeply personal villain for Bond. Thanks to his background as a Lienz Cossack, Janus has a propensity for deception, betrayal, and lies and it’s clear that Bond is deeply affected by Alec’s treachery even as he tries to compartmentalise his feelings on the matter. Alec is, effectively, Bond’s dark reflection and he knows exactly how to hurt him, which buttons to press, and how to counteract his methods, immediately taking his watch, defusing his mines, and fully aware that Bond’s Achilles’ Heel is his affection for women. All of this culminates in a fittingly brutal and visceral final fight between the two as they match each other blow for blow and shot to shot (Alec even taunts Bond with the claim that he (as in Alec) was “always better”) during their climatic chase/fight across the antenna cradle. Ever since he revealed his identity to Bond, Janus continually questions Bond’s unwavering loyalty to the mission and his country rather than his friend and, in the end, Bond emphatically drops his old comrade-in-arms to his death not for England but out of personal vindication for himself.
GoldenEye was the first Bond film I ever watched all the way through and that is solely because of my enjoyment of the videogame adaptation. I had been aware of Bond before GoldenEye but never been that interested in the franchise but GoldenEye changed all that with its slick, stylish, and entertaining presentation and story. Brosnan was the Bond of my generation and, even now, I consider him to be one of the best; charming, sophisticated, and extremely witty, his Bond was like an amalgamation of all of his predecessors as he had the same charisma and wit as Moore but could also be gritty and rugged like Connery and Dalton (…he was also a man, like George Lazenby). The subtext of Bond being an antiquated resource whose time has long since passed is interesting and is used to juxtapose Bond’s unique, somewhat blunt approach to his work against more modern, technologically orientated times. Sadly, this plot point didn’t really appear in Brosnan’s subsequent Bond films but it did crop up again in later Daniel Craig movies and is an intriguing inclusion since it shows that, while all the technology and resources of the modern age are useful, nothing beats the good, old-fashioned, hands-on approach. GoldenEye excels through its polished presentation, memorable theme song and score, and some tremendous performances all around; Sean bean makes for an equally charismatic and vicious antagonist, one far more personal than the majority of Bond’s previous villains, who serves as a dark reflection of Bond since he was his friend, partner, and is fully aware of all of MI6’s training and protocols to make him more than a match for 007. Action and stunts are far more subdued this time around, which helps to ground the film and reintroduce Bond as a more serious and realistic character and franchise while still being over-the-top and fun throughout. Endlessly quotable and entertaining from start to finish, GoldenEye remains one of my favourite Bond films (possibly my absolutely favourite) and was a fantastic return to prominence for the character and the franchise.
Are you a fan of GoldenEye? Where does it rank against the other James Bond films for you? What did you think to Pierce Brosnan’s debut and portrayal of the character? Did you like the casting of Judi Dench as M and the subtext regarding Bond’s outdated ways and attitudes? What did you think to Sean Bean’s inclusion as the villain and his inevitable death? Did you ever play the videogame and, if so, how do you think it works as an adaptation of the film? Which Bond actor, film, story, villain, or moment is your favourite? How are you celebrating Global James Bond Day today? Whatever you think about GoldenEye, or James Bond in general, feel free to leave a comment down below.