UK / USA, 1995
Review by Rich Watts
Posted on 19 March 2005
Source MGM DVD (R2)
Features: The Genealogy of James Bond
Six years have elapsed since Timothy Dalton’s last outing as James Bond and in that time the world has become a very different place. The Berlin Wall has gone, communism in the Soviet Union has collapsed, bringing with it the end of the Cold War, and with everyone sensitive to the vagaries of political correctness, the battle of the sexes has evened out such that this brave new world no longer belongs exclusively to the domineering man. All these developments together beg the challenging question: is there room for James Bond at the end of the 20th century?
The opening shot of GoldenEye, the seventeenth Bond feature, offers a tentative answer. A camera greets a 700ft high dam, rising from the valley basin before it to the expansive reservoir hanging behind it, a massive pressure sitting latently at this one, massive edifice. And standing precisely where this expanse meets its obstacle is our hero of the last thirty years: James Bond, ready to leap into the great unknown presented before him. It’s a telling metaphor that neatly encapsulates the question of the new world facing the imperturbable hero: will he leap into the unknown or find himself drowning in the episodes of the past?
And, as if all this uncertainty wasn’t enough, into the mixing pot comes a new James Bond in the figure of Pierce Brosnan.
One of the attractions of Bond films, however, is the certainty of what the latest escapade will entail, and here, of course, GoldenEye is no different. Thus, no sooner has Bond made his great leap from atop the dam do we find ourselves with some calm infiltration, a bit of fisticuffs, a seemingly inescapable shoot-out between 007 and tens of henchmen in military uniform, all before a daring exit including a parachute jump performed from a moving motorbike and a subsequent sky-dive into a nose-diving plane which is brought under control just in time to see the villainous headquarters blow sky high. For an audience that has grown accustomed to the explosions of the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon franchises in the six years Bond has been away, this opening sequence immediately calls the ante raised by these other films and reassures the viewer that Bond hasn’t lost any of his bravado. It is faintly reassuring.
What he has lost, however, is his unapologetic, sexist arrogance, for in GoldenEye there is a discernible current of female strength running throughout, epitomised by the new—female—M. As Bond’s boss, M is a no-nonsense figure who quickly establishes her authority over 007 and makes it especially clear what she thinks of her charge, providing the most memorable quote of the film by calling him a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” This is an arresting detail, for it immediately challenges, in this new world order, one of Bond’s fundamental (and most appealing) characteristics in a way that suggests his behaviour is something neither to be admired or especially to be allowed. The filming in this important exchange is telling, for it shows Bond sitting motionless in M’s office as she circles around him: in one sense, he is the centre of the world and all of the action necessarily revolves around him. But in a subtle, though important additional sense, he is also prey to that which occurs around him. The intimacy of this set piece is contained within the stillness as the two talk, not only juxtaposing the exchange with the obviously dynamic action sequences but also providing some allusion to the character of the individuals involved.
The unusual focus on character paves the way for some heart-searching aspects to GoldenEye that are not expected of a Bond feature. Again, this dimension to the “new Bond” is introduced within the opening sequence as he faces the dilemma of whether to surrender his position or let his fellow agent, 006, die. Similarly, Bond’s opponent taunts him with the following, surprisingly frank question: “Have all the vodka martinis silenced the screams of all the men you’ve killed, or do you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women for all the dead ones you’ve failed to protect?” It draws attention to those aspects of Bond about which he—and the audience—are usually blasé, belying an expression of emotion normally held at bay by a cheap quip or a slight adjustment of a cuff. Such a development—a human side to Bond, if you will—places a focus on Brosnan, asking questions of him that haven’t been explicitly asked of his predecessors. By and large, the new Bond is capable of fielding the questions, so long as an action sequence crops up that prevents him having to dwell on the answers for too long.
Although so often taken for granted, there are some readily appealing touches in GoldenEye concerning the use of light, especially those regarding the treachery of the man Bond thought he hadn’t saved—006. During the opening sequence, we see a gun pointed at Bond by a man whose face is hidden by shadows. It is only after he has stepped forward that Bond recognises him as his fellow agent. Later, by the time we have moved to the heart of the film, an obscured man once again faces Bond—this time clearly signaled as the villain—only for 006, this time heavily scarred, to walk out from behind the shadow. It is repetitious—and neatly recalls Harry Lime appearing from the shadows in The Third Man—but the sum of the two near identical scenes is effective, immediately establishing the duality of the secret agent-turned-villain. Perhaps even more impressive, though, is the breaker’s yard that surrounds these dueling agents, containing as it does discarded statues of Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky—a potent symbol of the decrepit Soviet Union and an eerie evocation of the world that now faces Bond.
On the evidence of GoldenEye, it is clear that Bond has made the great leap of faith into the modern age and survived. Though some of his moves have been slightly shaken and his attitude marginally stirred, Bond remains a quintessential action hero, adapting to the changing circumstances around him whilst forging him own, inimitable path to a kind of glory that has sustained him well enough for the past 40 years.