The producers took this challenge seriously and met it head on. Some fans wondered if Bond could survive in the post-Cold War world. Mindful of this concern, the producers set out to prove that the same old Bond could function just as well in the New World Order. First things first, they needed to cast their new star. In the years since License to Kill, Timothy Dalton decided to relinquish the role (he had originally signed to a three-film contract). The producers didn’t have to look too hard to find there replacement. Pierce Brosnan, who had been literally hours away from taking the role after Roger Moore departed, was available. End of story.
In many ways, GoldenEye represents what might be called the first “modern” Bond film. It lots of small ways, the film was a huge departure from the past. One need look no further than the casting of Judi Dench as the new M to see evidence of this proposition. Moreover, M’s office was no longer a quiet, plain, tasteful room with desk and telephone. MI6 HQ now resembles a hi-tech operations center; vast, open spaces filled with computer work-stations, complete with a massive interactive monitor-board on one wall.
But the script, as well as sets, seems to have a more modern, or rather postmodern, flavor. For instance, Judi Dench’s M is given the role of expressing the same skepticism about Bond’s future as some fans already had. She refers to him as a “relic of the Cold War”. It’s not hard to see the parallel. Bond spends the film nonchalantly proving M wrong, just as the producers, without breaking a sweat, demonstrate that the franchise has plenty of life left in it. Also, by creating a villain who was formerly a double-0 agent himself, we get an enemy who is intimately aware of the standard Bond clichés, and can anticipate Bond’s actions, and also comment directly on the clichés of the franchise.
All of this, while very interesting, doesn’t necessarily make for a good film. Unfortunately for Bond’s long-awaited return to the big screen, this film is decidedly not good. Pierce Brosnan’s very first line as Bond is a stupid joke which is painfully unfunny, reminiscent of Roger Moore’s worst moments. All of the grit and realism established during Dalton’s all-too-brief tenure is swept away in minutes. It gets worse: the scene with Bond and a totally random pretty-young-woman in the Aston Martin is pointless and bizarre. Ok, sure, it sets up the meeting between Bond and Xenia Onatopp, but it feels isolated and intrusive.
Speaking of Xenia Onatopp, this character is simply dreadful, and Famke Janssen’s inept performance doesn’t help matters. It’s all part of the postmodernism of the film that we encounter a villain who kills via sex (a perfect villain for Bond, right?), but the character is both written and performed in so over-the-top a fashion that it feels forced and unnatural.
The major villain of the piece, however, is another story. Alec Trevelyan is a fascinating character superbly realized by Sean Bean. Alan Cumming, though pretty good as Boris, becomes more and more abrasive as the film goes on, to the point where you find yourself actively willing his death. The Russian villain, Colonel Ouromov, is utterly typical and entirely forgettable. One decent villain out of four is pretty horrendous, but thank goodness for that one.
There are a lot of compensating plusses, which make the film sufficiently enjoyable. Joe Don Baker (Mitchell!) returns to the franchise, this time as Bond’s new CIA ally Jack Wade. He too is given a little post-modern humor, mocking the cloak-and-dagger methods of his British counterpart. The inimitable Robbie Coltrane (who is only now getting the respect he deserves through the Harry Potter franchise) is a wonderful addition to the Bond family as Valentin Zukovsky. Again, he is used to add another level of self-awareness, undermining Bond’s seriousness and providing a welcome and effective jolt of humor. Michael Kitchen is excellent as Tanner, part of the MI6 team working under M. His role is small and not terribly important, but he plays every role with a sort of easy conviction which is utterly credible. Last but not least is Samantha Bond as the new Moneypenny. She’s fucking gorgeous. ‘Nuff said.
The story here is pretty intriguing, actually, but the plot has problems. All in all, it is very typical of the franchise, which I found disappointing in itself, especially when viewed directly following License to Kill. The Bond renaissance was short-lived, and it’s over now. This film ushered in the beginning of post-industrial Bond. Standing alone, I have to say that the film fails, but it definitely succeeds in its stated mission of proving the post-Cold War viability of the franchise.
Bottom-line: Effective cosmetic changes to the franchise re-invigorate it, but it’s ultimately let down by an all too typical de-emphasis on plot and story.
UPDATE: The Bond Project continues with Tomorrow Never Dies.