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Reviews > From A to Bond: Goldeneye
tederick | 18 Oct 2012 | 844 Views | 0 Likes | 0 Dislikes
From A to Bond: Goldeneye
Which one is this? The first reboot. The “the Cold War’s over, what the fuck do we do now?” one.
Who’s who in this one? Brosnan (Bond); Dench (M); Llewelyn (Q); Bond (Moneypenny).
Where did you first encounter this one? On opening day in 1995.
Who’s the bad guy, and what does he want? Sean Bean as left-for-dead double-O agent Alec “006” Trevelyan, who wants to seize control of a satellite EMP called Goldeneye.
Who are the Bond girls? Izabella Scorupco as Russian programmer Natalya Simonova and, more notably, Famke Janssen as throw-for-broke double-entendre Xenia Sergeyevna Onatopp.
Opening number? Tina Turner gracing the franchise about ten years too late with a song written by U2, which seems to directly be about watching James Bond movies. It’s set against the first post-Binder title montage, appropriately made up of Cold War icons being smashed and destroyed by women with hammers.
What’s memorable about this one? Xenia Onatopp. James Bond in the era of sexual harassment. The weird synth score from Eric Serra. The tank chase. A female M.
What did you rate it out of ten, from memory? 5 at best. Not a fan.
What do you rate it now, having seen it again? Bullseye! Still a 5.
I’ve left the golden era of Bond behind once more to land in one of the strangest, most dated entries in the franchise, as the Bond producers struggled mightily to find their feet and voice in a new age with 1995’s Goldeneye. After the longest gap in the series (six years between License to Kill and Goldeneye), a new Bond finds himself squarely in the middle of capitalism in Russia, sexual harassment law suits in the West, and AIDS forcing condoms into the conversation for the first time since the sexual revolution. In other words, the people who made Goldeneye had to figure out how to make a James Bond movie in, perhaps, the most Bond-hostile social and political climate in the whole run of the series.
The Bond films which launch a new actor in the lead role are uniquely interesting for reasons having little to do with their stories; even when the story is a hash (as it is here), these installments serve as benchmarks on creative decisions that will define the franchise for, in most cases, at least a decade. The single unqualified success of Goldeneye is the casting of Judi Dench as the new M, a conceptual masterstroke which squares the deal with the changing place of women, less so in the real world (because what track has the real world ever had in the world of James Bond?) than in the world of Hollywood movies, where subordinate female leads were becoming passé. The choice of Dench bears hefty dividends for the entire Pierce Brosnan run and beyond. Brosnan is arguably at his best in his scenes with Dench; her relentlessly no-bullshit stare sets off the puff of wounded pride buried in Brosnan’s performance, which lends rare complexity to his portrayal.
Otherwise, I suspect the ongoing trouble with Brosnan is simply that he’s too nice a guy. Bond has to be dangerous and marginally unpleasant, but I can’t quite buy Brosnan passing women back and forth with 006 as though they were dirty magazines. His manner is a breezy above-it-all-ness and an apparent sense that he finds the universe’s dark humour somewhat cute; but this never does much to disguise Brosnan’s earnest Irish virtue. Ironically, Goldeneye casts its double-O’s a little too well, and one cottons fairly early on to the delicious notion of villainous Sean Bean making a better Bond than Brosnan himself.
On a gut level, Goldeneye feels wrong. It doesn’t move much like a Bond film, particularly in the first act, where Bond detours around the plot (and the plot around him), while a heretofore-unseen romanticism infiltrates the look and sound of the franchise. There’s a noticeable Ridley/Tony Scott influence to the visual design, as Bond conducts soul-searching sessions on music video beaches with blood red skies. As a successor to John Barry, composer Eric Serra might be the boldest choice in a movie full of them, leaning in equal measure on squeaky video-game underscore for the action scenes, and lush, melodramatic full-orchestra for everything else. The brew doesn’t mix well, and the producers would retreat to David Arnold’s reliable Bond pastiche for the sound of the next five films – but Serra, more than Arnold, is taking the kind of chances that Barry took.
Having run out of Ian Fleming novels upon which to even loosely base the plot, Goldeneye is inescapably the work of people trying to achieve “Bondishness” in a generic sense, through a kind of detailed simulation of what a James Bond movie is presumed to be like. This, I think, is the source of my discontent with the movie. For a series that has always been slick, Goldeneye is the only one that feels patently artificial. Even the title, Goldeneye – the name of Fleming’s Jamaican estate – is less a good title for a motion picture than it is a constellation of syllables that sounds James Bondish; and so it will be for the film proper, and for the Brosnan Bond himself. He looks exactly like you would imagine a Bond looking, no detail out of place, but never communicates a moment of investment in the adventure he’s in. Everything is a simulation in Goldeneye – the double entendres, the Bond girl with the pun name, the villain’s mountain lair, the Q gadgets and action gags – all drawn from the faithful Bond checklist, without ever finding the center of any of it.
Significantly, Goldeneye is also the film that most specifically sees the James Bond series reinvented as a high-octane, modern action blockbuster, and away from the thrillers of yesteryear. This movement towards mayhem had been building for a while at this point, but Goldeneye is the breakthrough, replacing dialogue scenes and investigation with machine-gun battles on mountaintop airstrips and, more enjoyably, a tank chase in St. Petersburg – which was still called Leningrad a couple of years before the Bond team filmed there! No scene succeeds in revamping the Bond style as brilliantly as the tank chase, which sees Bond commandeer a Russian T-54 to pursue a kidnapped Natalya across, and more often through, the ancient city in broad daylight. It’s a barnstorming ball of destruction that is one of Goldeneye’s precious few “holy shit!” moments, as the tank crashes through buildings and skrees across cobblestone highways, pancaking cars. It’s not unlike the Tumbler sequence from Batman Begins - which, given Christopher Nolan's on-the-record fondness for the James Bond movies, might make this a direct inspiration. The tank chase is easily the best gag in the film, fitting happily within the style and humour of the established Bond set pieces while taking the whole notion to a very clearly defined next level.
Speaking of next level: I once had quite a complex, multi-year argument with my best friend about whether Natalya or Xenia was the hotter Bond girl in Goldeneye. For me there’s no question, though I was amazed at how passionately my friend argued in favour of Scorupco’s Natalya, who for my money is one of the least compelling heroines in the entire franchise – another big part of Goldeneye’s problems. Xenia, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. She’s so overdesigned that she’s nearly a parody of a Bond character – Austin Powers was two years away at this point – but as a transgressive concept, she’s breathtaking: a woman who is aroused by pain (her dreamy “He is going to derail us!” when Bond threatens her train car with a tank is a scream) and who achieves (onscreen!) orgasm by squeezing men to death with her thighs. Arguments could certainly be made that a kind of classier indirectness that once made this franchise more naughty than salacious met its death with Xenia, but I have a hard time caring much when I think back to the sight of Famke Janssen screaming down a mountainside in Monaco in a cherry-red Ferrari with lipstick to match, or jousting with James in a game of Baccarat at the casino, in one of the movie’s few rich, romantic scenes. Why didn’t she go to my high school? I vividly recall the entire movie theatre in 1995 going “awwww!” in unison when Xenia meets her demise in the Cuban jungle.
From A to Bond counts down the Bond movies, in alphabetical order, every day of the week leading up to the release of Skyfall. If you live in Toronto, Goldeneye is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on November 24 and January 1. If not, the entire series is available on blu-ray.