Saturday, 12 May 2012


Super cool, super confident, super-spy: GoldenEye (yes, apparently I have to type it like that) is the bravura return that had audiences cheering all around the world and brought the franchise back from the dead. Full of the fun and panache that had been missing during the Dalton era, Brosnan's début boldly dispelled any doubts and hushed the haters. Bond was back.

That's the official line anyway. But I can see the cracks in this production; I can smell the fear. There was an awful lot riding on this film and it's far from a nerveless resurrection. GoldenEye has some marvellous set-pieces, but the script is clunky and its premise is thin. More than anything else though, this is a film which is straining everything to impress and to justify its own existence. And it shows.

This is not the first time James Bond has returned after a long absence. At the beginning of The Man With the Golden Gun, Bond travels back to London, having been captured and brainwashed for a year by the KGB. His handler, the delightful Colonel Boris, tells him to take a room at the Ritz and to buy himself a Burberry raincoat. As far as the Russians are concerned, this is who James Bond is.

After the disastrous reception to LTK and an unexpected six year hiatus, the Bond who resurfaces in GoldenEye is similarly unsure of his identity. Lucky for him then that everybody he meets is in possession of a pithy character-summary. They take it in turns to fling a label at him, eager to define, for him and for us, who James Bond is these days. The new M calls him a "sexist, misogynist dinosaur". To CIA scruffbum Jack Wade he's a "stiff-assed Brit". Valentin Zukovsky mocks him for being a "charming, sophisticated secret-agent", whereas Janus himself, former 006 and nutjob, Alec Trevelyan, plumps for "Her Majesty's loyal terrier."

If all this runs against the old writers' adage of "show, don't tell" then bear in mind that these are our preconceptions that we're hearing. These criticisms (and they are criticisms, even Zukovsky's) are reasons why people won't watch; for EON and their financial backers they are the cause of nagging doubts. By putting them into the script, a strategy is being adopted. Like a scandal-hit politician, Bond is showing that he listens to us, he understands why we have been disappointed in the past. And, also like a politician, Bond doesn't answer any of these charges - by the end of the film we are simply supposed to have forgotten all about them.

To a large extent the audience did exactly that and GoldenEye was massively successful even if you do allow for the the fact that I went to see it five times. Yes, I, a beery-eyed undergraduate, was completely bowled over, dazzled by the shiny newness, giddy with rebirth. It's fair to say that I am rather less excited by GoldenEye now, seventeen years later - but that doesn't mean there isn't anything here to admire. In fact there are four key sequences which raised the bar for the series - or at least inched the bar back towards a previous all time high.

With both LTK and OHMSS taking a bit of a kicking, it is hardly surprising that GoldenEye resembles that paragon of 'fun' Bond films, TSWLM. There are a number of similarities but none is quite so obvious as the sight of 007 plunging over a precipice during the PCS. You'll also remember that Bond manages to do this twice during the PCS of GoldenEye - the stakes are being desperately upped. The initial bungee jump certainly sets out the stall for the new Bond. Unfortunately, it's another of those stunts that is more impressive than it looks: although the actual mechanics of diving off of a dam like that are truly terrifying, the end result is merely graceful, lacking the cocksure showmanship of TSWLM's parachute. Still, it got our attention. The rest of the PCS is good, full of action, story and character, and the tense stand-off between Bond and Orumov is excellent. But then 007 plummets again, this time free-falling after a pilot-less aeroplane, catching up with it and then flying it away. I think it's fair to say this stunt has proved divisive (I remember hearing both cheers and scoffing during those original screenings). Is it possible to fall faster than an aeroplane? I don't know and I'm not going to spend any time trying to find out, but the answer doesn't matter because the stunt feels wrong. Even in 1995, though I wouldn't have admitted it at the time, it felt like it was too much. Still for all that, the PCS is a strong introduction to Brosnan's Bond and a key part of GoldenEye's success.

The second important scene is Bond's briefing from Q. The effort, planning and determination behind this scene's execution is clear for all to see: it's a full-on comedy sketch, packed with sight-gags, stunts and puns, and it even climaxes with a clever, funny punchline. It's a great scene, excellently directed by Martin Campbell who does his best to mask the fact that Desmond Llewellyn is reading everything off idiot-boards. Nevertheless it is obvious to me that this burst of jokes is a reaction to the criticisms levelled against the Dalton films: the fear, the desperate doubts are there. The other reason that this is such a key scene is that Llewellyn is now the grand old man of the franchise: the new Bond, like a Holy Roman Emperor seeking the approval of the Pope, must make his pilgrimage to Q Branch. .

Thirdly, the major action sequence in the movie. It's a belter. Bond, imprisoned inside a barracks in St Petersburg, escapes from his cell, shoots a load of soldiers and crashes through a window only to find that Natalya has been driven off in a car by the unravelling Orumov. Bond promptly commandeers a vehicle and sets off in pursuit. So far, so TMWTGG - except that the vehicle Bond takes is a T-55 tank. Once again it is Bond's capacity for improvisation that delights: in a crisis he trusts his instincts and uses what's available. It almost doesn't matter what the resulting chase is like but, even better, it is wonderful. One of its strengths is the music, proving again that the best thing you can do with a cool stunt, chase or fight is to smother it with the James Bond theme. If it stands out from the rest of the score that's because it was not written by Eric Serra who composed everything else in GoldenEye - John Altman put this together, thank goodness.

The fourth great sequence is the fight between 007 and 006, the production team taking their inspiration from the Bond/Grant Orient Express dust-up from FRWL. Yes, it is really good - savage, well choreographed and edited, with a neat reversal. It's the best fight in the series since, blimey, OHMSS, I expect. But, hell's teeth, if you're pitting two Double-Ohs against each other, in an homage to FRWL, surely 'good' is the very least you can manage? Perhaps I'm being unfair, but should this not have been astonishing rather than merely good?

There are other little glints of brilliance too. The production overall is very good with excellent model work, set-design and visual effects. Samantha Bond's Moneypenny is excellent, showing that it is possible for there to be chemistry between her and 007 without her being feeble or subjugated. But casting Dame Judi of Dench as M was a stroke of genius. She is easily the best thing about the whole Brosnan era (with the possible exception of GoldenEye 007 on the N64) and adds so much, utterly remoulding not just the M/Bond relationship, but the whole perception of women in the franchise. In truth, she's not at her best here, playing it a little too straight. But even so, she brings so much credibility and quality to Bond's world. Of all the villains, it is only Orumov, played by Gottfried John, who is remotely interesting. He gets several lovely moments and subtly acts everyone else off of the screen. Watch when he executes one of his own men in the PCS and promptly turns to catch his breath, wracked with tension. And he pulls a brilliant face later on when he looks delightfully askance at Onatopp as she trills and kills during the Severnaya massacre. Then there's the bare-faced lying to Mishkin's committee and the brilliant, deranged way he barges into Bond's interrogation.

Okay, those are the highs. What are the lows? Well, as I hinted earlier, Eric Serra's score is awful, easily the worst ever. There are moments when it fits what's happening on screen but it's just not Bondy. That his attempt at scoring the tank chase got dumped tells you all you need to know.

The concept of a rogue Double-Oh agent is great one, harking back to anti-Bond characters like Red Grant in FRWL. But GoldenEye largely wastes the idea. Sean Bean does what is required of him but really Trevelyan is a boring baddy: petty, embittered and childish - he's supposed to be stylish and sophisticated, like Bond, but he never gets the chance to show us. Onatopp is entirely one-dimensional, despite some excellent smirking, pouting and even the occasional smoulder from Famke Jansen. Boris is slightly more rounded, Alan Cummings doing well to make the most of the programmer's emotional range, but is still little more than a caricature. Natalya is tough, brave and reliable but all her best bits are in Severnaya - once Bond turns up, she stops being interesting. Although there is some conflict with Bond it is all minor bickering - going through the gears of a bog-standard action movie romance. Zukovsky is far from being the lovable rogue he'll end up as in TWINE and Jack Wade is not even an one-dimensional character - it is merely hinted that he likes gardening, hence the 'tick' of him naming a plant he can smell whenever he turns up. Good God, Richard Kiel was playing Hamlet in comparison with this.

And then there's Pierce Brosnan. I know he's still a very popular Bond and I think it might be that, for many, he is the One That Brings Balance: tougher than Moore, funnier than Dalton, nicer than Connery, a better actor than Lazenby. All those things are probably true - but for me, these days anyway, he's not quite right. Partly this is because DAD soured everything and because I'm still shocked by how good Daniel Craig is. But looking back at Brosnan, there are two sides to his Bond and they're both flawed.

1) He's charming and twinkly, he smiles and he laughs. He quips (my God, how he quips), he smirks, he straightens his tie at inappropriate moments. Watch him fiddling with Q's laptop, grinning to himself. Watch the exaggerated look he gives the waiter when Onatopp orders her Martini "straight up, with a twist". Firstly, and irrelevantly, that's not even an innuendo. Secondly, yes, he's looking at the waiter but the glance is meant for us. He might as well mug straight down the lens like Miranda or Eric Morecombe. This is all the fun, funny stuff that was demanded after LTK. It is the Roger Moore Bond being channelled into the Nineties. The difference is, Moore never oversold a gag. He had excellent timing and he played all the jokes dead straight. Even terrible, awful lines like "When one is in Egypt, one should delve deeply into its treasures," from TSWLM, even that sort of works because Moore's delivery is utterly deadpan. Brosnan tries to ease us through with a little twinkle: "I love a woman who enjoys pulling rank," and "She always did enjoy a good squeeze," and it's always just a little too much. Yes, we know they are jokes. We will laugh even if you don't blatantly demonstrate that you find yourself funny. The only line he does manage to deadpan is "No, no, no. No more foreplay." And even then it's as if he is forcibly repressing a chuckle behind the eyes at his own brilliant hilarity.

Right at the top I mentioned that GoldenEye is full of Bond getting character notes from others - all people that we've never met before. Is there no-one we know and trust in the film to judge the new Bond for us? A wise old man perhaps? Sure enough, when Brosnan is pushed into the presence of the indomitable Desmond Llewellyn,  the man who's run Q Branch since 1963, four Bonds earlier, the verdict comes through loud, clear and, quite possibly, laser-guided: "Oh, do grow up, 007!"

2) The flip-side. Sensibly, not everything from the Dalton era is jettisoned. Bond must have some kind of emotional dimension. There must, in short, be some acting to do. It starts off here with the "It's what keeps me alive," line on the beach and progresses throughout Brosnan's tenure: the death of Paris, sympathy for Elektra King and finally North Korean interrogation. It doesn't work. Even here, this Bond can't carry the (slender) emotional weight applied to him. We are supposed to think, I'm guessing, that the smirking school-boy persona is a façade, thrown up around his damaged and serious real self - but unfortunately the former is rather more convincing than the latter and the real impression is of someone pulling a series of sulky sad, faces in the belief that it will make them more interesting.

Maybe the problem is that Brosnan is too likeable. I know I complained that Connery was too much of a bastard but there must be a balance. This Bond is very charismatic; he is also a lover of life, an admirer of women and their beauty. That means there is something very important missing, something essential to the character of James Bond that is being overlooked: there is no callousness, no pragmatic disregard for others. Maybe that is my nagging dissatisfaction with GoldenEye too - here we have both a film and a Bond which are just trying too hard to get us to like them.

*   *   *

Pre-Credits Sequence: I pooh-poohed it earlier, a bit, but it is good. The second dive is controversial but there comes a point when you have to accept that James Bond can just do stuff that would be impossible for other people - of course the trick is to make his impossibility credible and I'm not sure that is achieved here. Still, the stand-off with Orumov, and its resolution, is fantastic.

Theme: Tina Turner is wheeled out to sing something rather dull cooked up by half of U2 (the wrong half, perhaps, given the success that Lary Mullen and Adam Clayton had with the Mission: Impossible theme a year later). Much more exciting are the opening visuals. Daniel Kleinman takes over from (the dead) Maurice Binder, having been in charge of the music video for Licence to Kill. He does an excellent job too. Okay, he has a freer hand, thanks to new computer techniques, but what he produces always has a strong concept and even, sometimes, a narrative. Here he manages to bridge the gap in time between the PCS and the rest of the film by depicting the collapse of communism. Admittedly he achieves this by having models smash hammers against icons and statues of Soviet Russia, but it's no mean feat and a big leap forwards.

Deaths:62 is pretty high - mind you, everyone seems to be using automatic weapons these days so that may have something to do with it.

Memorable Deaths: Boris gets frozen solid. Onatopp gets squished against a tree. Trevelyan gets dropped off a dish that then collapses on top of him.

Licence to Kill: 32. That's high. Amazingly, Bond fails to kill anyone during the tank chase, mainly thanks to improbable cut-aways that show dizzy policemen pulling themselves, unharmed, from utterly crushed cars. 

Exploding Helicopters: Two! The Eurocopter is hit by its own missiles and Bond takes out another with an AK47. Happy days.

Shags: Two - the blithering MI6 pyschologist, Caroline, and Natalya. Surprisingly, Brosnan doesn't let Xenia get a look in (Connery would have been all over her). 

Crimes Against Women: Sexism in the work place: Tanner calls M the "evil queen of numbers" - that's sexist because he would never refer to a male boss as an "evil king" (conceivably he might refer to a male boss as an "evil queen", but that's a different kind of prejudice) and is therefore implying, albeit unconsciously, that M's gender is relevant to her job performance. Not cool. True, having a female M makes a massive difference to the way the franchise views women, but here M only really gains 007's respect when she explains how she "has the balls" to send "a man" on a dangerous mission. Meanwhile Boris is making no bones about eyeing up Natalya's assets. He also comments on the size of her breasts (they are the kind of "knockers" that "can open very large doors") and draws NSFW pictures of her that he then uploads onto office software. Only Moneypenny manages to provide any pushback. But although she is firm and unyielding with Bond when he tries to flirt with her, she can't quite resist flirting back just a little: the penalty for sexual harassment in the work place is, she says, that "one day you have to make good on your innuendo". If that's not a come-on, I don't know what is. If I were I her, I'd kick him in the goolies whenever he walked in the room, just to be on the safe side. Things aren't a lot better for women out in the field either. Bond's evaluator, Caroline, is first portrayed as being ditzy and feeble before being later derided by M for succumbing to his charms. Natalya is shown to be determined, capable, brave and intelligent. So to make up for that there is a long lingering look (from both Bond and us) at her crotch as she walks towards him on the beach. That'll serve her right. She also has to endure Trevelyan's unwanted advances. And then there's Xenia Onatopp. She's the first properly bad Bond woman since the (wonderful) Fiona Volpe (as long as you don't count Rosie Carver or Helga Brandt and why would you?) but she's nowhere near as interesting. Her chief characteristic is the, er, delight she takes in killing people which means she is basically nothing more than a murderous fembot. 

Casual Racism: None, apart from the fact that there are no black characters in the film whatsoever. 

Out of Time: There's much made of this new-fangled contraption called the Internet, which (bless) was at a very primitive stage in 1995. They also talk about Guantanamo which, at the time, meant NOTHING at all. Natalya's wardobe is all very of its time (micro skirt and tights) whilst Brosnan's hair is perhaps the most luxuriant coiffure of any Bond ever.  

Fashion Disasters: Bond's having a casual wear crisis again. He sports a cravat of some kind in the DB5, and a double-breasted blazer whilst skulking about in Monte Carlo. Xenia has a piss-poor line in crazy hats, as does the Russian army - Orumov's in the PCS is very silly. Jack Wade is all scruffed up and Tanner hasn't even managed to do up his tie! Boris, of course, dresses like a mid-nineties programmer (i.e. badly). Luckily the French naval officers are very dashing in their sharply-cut suits and Natalya magically ends up with an utterly gorgeous coat when she is poking about St Petersburg

Most Shameless Advertising: A new category! Yes, the series had always prominently featured products in return for help with production costs (look at the cars Bond drives in DAF and TMWTGG for example) but in the Nineties this became much more obvious. What does GoldenEye offer up? Well, there's Zukovsky's carefully placed bottle of Smirnoff (Black Label, of course), but this is rather subtle compared with the film's use of the BMW Z3 - it gets its own mini-advert that has almost no bearing on the rest of the film whatsoever. Best of all though is the casual deployment of a lorry full of a famous brand of mineral water during the tank chase. See if you can spot it here:

Eh?: Alec Trevelyan doesn't make any sense. As the child of Lienz Cossacks, he hates the UK, but seems to have no animus against the USSR or the Russians he employs. Strange. Also, when does he swap sides and what happens in Arkhangelsk? If he has a deal with Orumov before the mission then why not just hand Bond over to the Russians straight away? If he hasn't got a deal then how does Orumov not kill him by shooting him in the head at point blank range? Either way, his main gripe against Bond is that 007 changed the countdown on the explosives from 6 to 3 minutes. He treats this a terrible betrayal, which assumes that a) Bond was supposed to know that Trevelyan wasn't dead (so it wasn't a trick and Orumov's just insanely incompetent?) and b) that altering the countdown was incontrovertibly against mission protocol (in which case, why is it a one-click function on the limpet mines?). Anyway somehow he survives the MASSIVE explosion inside a chemical weapons factory and doesn't get executed as a spy by the USSR. The man leads a charmed life, why is he so bitter?  >> The Janus crime syndicate is so rich that they are able to build an exact replica of the Severnaya facility. In Cuba. Under a lake. And it can rise out of the lake. And still work, even though it has all been underwater. And they have their own private army. Presumably they need to rob the Bank of England because they are massively in debt. You know, if it was Carl Stromberg doing this, or even Elliot Carver, I'd believe it. >> If Jack Wade is the CIA's man in St Petersburg, why does he turn up in Florida? (I'm guessing it's Florida? They can't sneak into Cuba from Cuba can they?) >> Who is pretending to be the Canadian admiral aboard the French frigate? We never find out, but it must be Orumov or Trevelyan. However, because the same actor is playing both real and fake admirals, it looks like it can be neither of them: they are both too tall! Whoever it is, we don't see his face, but any disguise must be good enough to work with the real admiral's photo id. >> Where does Boris go during the attack on Severnaya? He pops outside for a smoke and the next we see him, he's on Trevelyan's train. If he is part of the conspiracy (and he must be surely) then it would seem likely for Orumov and Onatopp to give him a lift in the helicopter. Except that the Eurocopter only has two seats! >> Natalya commandeers (steals) a dog-sledge to get away - where is the owner that we saw a few minutes earlier? And where does she get that coat from? >> Onatopp appears to orgasm when she fires at the (empty) ventilation shaft - but there's no sign that she has killed anyone, so can she climax just by assuming she's killed someone? Why doesn't she just play a FPS instead? She'd never need to leave the house. >> Again, Q Branch supplies Bond with explosives covered in attention-grabbing LEDs, which is just perfect for keeping them hidden and secret on a dark night. Well done Q Branch. >> How exactly does Bond's scam work for Zukovsky? If Bond has bribed an official to get it to work (why else would it work?) then why not just pay-off Zukovsky? >> Trevelyan keeps talking about 'England' as if it were a country when really he means 'Great Britain', 'the United Kingdom' or, even better, 'the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'. Any one of those is fine>> Bond apprehends Onatopp in the hotel sauna. Fine. Next shot they are in a car, Bond still pointing a gun at her. How exactly did they both get dressed if she is his prisoner? Did he let her hold the gun whilst he knotted his tie? And why did they both feel the need to get so dressed up? He's wearing a suit and tie, and he's allowed her to do her hair and make up, and even match her earrings to her lipstick. >> Okay, last one. The pen. The exploding ballpoint pen. "Three clicks arms the four-second fuse," says Q, "and three more disarm it". No they don't. I'm sad enough that I sat in the cinema counting clicks (on the third or fourth viewing) but that was seventeen years ago. So, yes, I watched these few minutes three times for this post so I could be sure. I make it 19 click-clunks so there's no way that Q's three-three briefing is accurate. If, however, it is three to arm it and one to disarm it, then 19 is fine: !!!*!!!*!!!*!!!*!!! - but still, Q got it worryingly wrong, as did the writers, editor, director and foley artists.

Worst Line: Oh dear. Lots. Lots of awfulness. Most of it comes from people talking about James Bond to his face. Take this bit of codliest pyschology from Trevelyan: "I might as well ask you if all those vodka martinis ever silence the screams of all the men you've killed... or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women for all the dead ones you failed to protect." Or this: "We're both orphans, James. But while your parents had the luxury of dying in a climbing accident..." actually Alec, I'm going to stop you there. This is ham-fisted script writing, desperately trying to explain Bond without having to show his behaviour - just compare it with Casino Royale or QOS where Craig acts instead, there's no contest. There are others too, lots of dud puns or clumsy phrases instead of the sorts of things people actually say. 006 mulls over the GoldenEye activation device: "The world's greatest cash card. It had better not be rejected...". "I had to ventilate someone," smirks Onatopp, presumably because she believes she's a character in a cheesy action movie.

Best Line: M hints at future badassery: "Unlike the American government, we prefer not to get our bad news from CNN." Also: "...if I want sarcasm, Mr Tanner, I'll talk to my children, thank you very much." Trevelyan momentarily stumbles into something approaching eloquence: "What's true is that in 48 hours you and I will have more money than God. And Mr. Bond here will have a small memorial service with only Moneypenny and a few tearful restauranteurs in attendance." Oh and that punchline to the Q Branch sketch: "Don't touch that! That's my lunch!"

Worst Bond Moment: There are no major embarrassments here. Brosnan is a bit of a gurner. In any fight or, indeed, any emotional scene, he has a habit of stretching his mouth wide, grinding his jaw, bulging his eyes and so forth. Look at him when he is held back as the Eurocopter is stolen - is he about to transform into the Incredible Hulk? He is also much more shouty than any of the other Bonds, (listeners to Adam & Joe can think their own thoughts here) and this is something else which makes me think he is just trying too hard. 

Best Bond Moment: Many will say the bungee jump but, as I suggested earlier, I find it a bit obvious - it's a daring feat, sure, but where's the ingenuity, the flashy improvisation? But GoldenEye does have one of the great Bond moments as 007 steals a tank, drives it through a wall and then ploughs through St Petersburg. Inspired, unstoppable and too cocky by half - that's our James.

Overall: I've been hard on GoldenEye but I do like it - I'm just not convinced it's as good as everyone thinks it is. The series needed a strong revitalising film and this is it: rightly lauded and very successful. But look too closely and it begins to seem very insubstantial fare, and Brosnan, caught trying to play Roger Moore in a Dalton script, is already a dangerously superficial 007.  

James Bond Will Return: No hints, no hostages to fortune these days. And besides, Bond titles are so difficult to manufacture. What is certain, after GoldenEye, is that Bond will return, and that he will always return in the future. For no matter what the geo-political context, you can always rely on one man...

Fair play, that is a damn good trailer.

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