Goldeneye

Between 1962 and 1989, no more than three years passed between the release of James Bond movies (and that three-year gap only happened once – usually it was just two years). However, after the release of License to Kill – an excellent, revenge-fueled Bond movie that saw Timothy Dalton turning in a stellar performance as 007 - things went south. A series of legal entanglements between Albert Broccoli's production company and MGM led to Dalton's third installment getting delayed – and ultimately cancelled. The series wouldn't return for a whopping six years, and the world had changed a great deal in that time. The Cold War era that had defined the series for the duration of its run was a thing of the past. Would James Bond still be relevant in the brave new world of the 1990s?

That's the question that seems to weigh most heavily on Goldeneye, an atypically self-aware Bond film that spends a great deal of time questioning the nature of its hero. The version of Bond first offered by Pierce Brosnan feels like a slightly hesitant halfway point between the versions that had preceded him: he's not as hard as Connery or Dalton, but not as soft as Moore or Lazenby. In a sense, he is the only James Bond who seems to contain bits and pieces of every James Bond. As such, that makes him an ideal candidate to unofficially stand trial for the crimes of his predecessors. A few of the charges:

From his co-worker: “You know, this sort of behavior could qualify as sexual harassment.”

From his boss: “I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War.”

From his enemy: “I might as well ask you if all those vodka martinis silence the the screams of all the men you've killed... or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women for the dead ones you've failed to protect.”

From his lover: “You think I'm impressed? All of you with your guns, your killing, your death. For what? So you can be a hero? All the heroes I know are dead. How can you act like this? How can you be so cold?”

To that last query, Bond offers a simple reply: “It's what keeps me alive.”

So yes, this is a darker, more contemplative Bond film than almost all of its predecessors, but somehow, it simultaneously manages to be the sort of frothy escapist fun that has defined the series. Every convention of the series is firmly in place, from the endless torrent of innuendo to the outlandish action sequences to the enjoyably silly gadget introduction scene to the credits sequence filled with nude silhouettes to villainous monologues – it's a traditional Bond movie through and through, while also doubling as a cross-examination of itself. The really interesting thing is that the film never bothers to acquit Bond of all of the terrible things it charges him with – its conclusion seems to be that Bond is who he is, for better or worse. Fair enough.

The plot is largely typical MacGuffin-driven Bond movie silliness. It involves the fight for control of the powerful Goldeneye satellite weapons system, which has fallen into the hands of Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean, Game of Thrones), one of Bond's old associates. Not just any associate, mind you: Trevelyan was 006, an agent who was Bond's equal in every way. Alas, a mission involving the two of them went south, and Trevelyan turned to a life of independent terrorism. Now, he is plotting to use this powerful weapons system to take out the city of London's computer system, thus sending the international marketplace into chaos and giving himself an opportunity for serious financial gain.

As usual, the plot is mostly a contrivance designed to create a series of high-stakes action sequences set in a wide variety of diverse locations. Director Martin Campbell handles all of this material with assured polish, and keeps the film moving at a fairly brisk clip despite the frequent pauses for introspective monologues. There's a particularly thrilling sequence located right in the middle of the film, as Bond steals a tank and pursues a villain through the streets of St. Petersburg. The most thrilling hand-to-hand sequences are mostly provided by Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen, X-Men), Trevelyan's henchwoman. The role Janssen is playing a stereotypical one – her defining trait is that she murders people with her thighs – but she plays it with such demented relish that she ends up stealing every scene she appears in. Xenia is the living incarnation of sexualized violence; gasping orgasmically as she inflicts and receives pain. It's, uh... memorable.

Bean also ranks among the more memorable Bond villains, largely because the grandiose theatricality of his plans is balanced by a surprisingly human performance. He's a bitter, wounded soul who feels betrayed by his old friend; the inevitable consequence of a harsh decision made by the British government many years ago. Is Bond directly responsible for Trevelyan? No, but his cavalier attitude towards human life and his loyalty to his country make him a perfect outlet for Trevelyan's rage.

With the exception of Desmond Llewelyn's indispensible Q, the cast has been completely reworked. Caroline Bliss' Ms. Moneypenny has been replaced by Samantha Bond (Downton Abbey), Joe Don Baker (who previously essayed a Bond villain in The Living Daylights) plays Bond's new American contact and Judi Dench (Iris) replaces Robert Brown as the new M. Dench in particular proves an inspired addition the series, playing an authority figure who seems even less tolerant of 007's tomfoolery but even more understanding of what he really needs. Many Bond fans moaned when they heard that a woman (gasp!) would be playing the role, but Dench silences all doubters within mere moments with her commanding performance (unlike Brosnan, she never seems to be trying the role on for size). Also present this time around: Alan Cumming (The Good Wife) as a goofy Russian hacker, Robbie Coltrane (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) as a gruff mobster and Izabelle Scorupco (Reign of Fire) as the “good” Bond girl (to be romanced during the closing credits and discarded before the next installment, naturally).

This is an above-average outing for 007 in many respects, but it's hampered considerably by the worst soundtrack ever written for a Bond film. Tina Turner's performance of the swaggering title tune is strong, but Eric Serra's score is a disaster that makes a number of otherwise perfectly good scenes feel irritating and hokey. I understand the desire to break away from John Barry's signature sound and try something new – it's a new era for Bond, after all – but the synth-heavy material Serra provides often sounds like the half-finished soundtrack to an '80s softcore porn flick.

That travesty aside, this a fine start to the Brosnan era, and sets the tone of his run fairly well (though it could be argued that Brosnan's films never really lived up to this one's promise – certainly not to the hard-edged nature of its climax). It finds a successful balance between the campy and gritty sides of the series, fusing them together in a polished and semi-thoughtful entertainment. Thus, Bond strolls confidently into the '90s – ready to practice safe sex, easing up on the martinis and dutifully toning down the casual misogyny, but still very much himself.


Goldeneye

Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Year: 1995