Director Martin Campbell has twice had the task of reinventing the James Bond film series, first with “GoldenEye,” and again 11 years later with “Casino Royale.” Both times he was armed with uncommonly smart scripts and tasked with introducing a new actor in the lead role.
In the case of “GoldenEye,” a perfectly suited Pierce Brosnan took over following the single longest gap in the series — a six-year hiatus in which, evidently, the world had finally moved past 007’s “boyish charms,” to quote an even more ingenious casting choice: Judi Dench. Back in the Sean Connery days, the films arrived one after the other, paced only a year apart, and the formula took several installments to crystallize. With the third film, “Goldfinger,” the elements were more or less in place: M, Q, the monolog-ing villain, the seduce-able femme fatale, the explosive stunts, the exotic locations, the eye-rolling one-liners and so on.
By the time Brosnan arrived, the series had managed to go nearly a quarter century without a bona fide star in the lead. Perhaps that’s being unkind to the actors whom the role elevated to international attention — Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, George Lazenby — but the way I see it, “Pierce” was the first person to play Bond since Connery with the stature, charisma and magnetism to elevate the role above the material itself. And that made all the difference in a script (penned by Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Feirstein, with Michael France getting story credit) tasked with both outdoing and apologizing for all that has come before.
Take Dench, who provides delicious new layers of complexity to the equation as M, staring that boyishly charming Brosnan in the eye as she acidly drawls, “I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.” M has always been the testy paterfamilias of the Bond world, testily enduring Bond’s penchant for sexual harassment (more than once he has interrupted Bond’s outer-office flirting with Moneypenny) and childlike distraction. Now, we realize, such conduct has consequences.
Of course, in the field, it’s a different game, and Bond’s libido recovers some of the friskiness it lost during the virtually monogamous Dalton years, courtesy of the ridiculously named Xenia Onatopp. Famke Janssen seems to be channeling not only Grace Jones’ sexually aggressive May Day, but also Christopher Walken’s maniacal behavior from the same film (as when we see Onatopp orgasmically machine-gunning down a room full of henchmen).
Rewatching “GoldenEye,” I was surprised by how nostalgic it made me feel. Though it features dazzling effects made possible only through the use of computer graphics, it also represents a virtually lost era of action movies that insisted on doing things practically when possible, beginning with a death-defying bungee jump over the near-sheer face of Switzerland’s Verzasca Dam and culminating in scenes shot at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
Where past villains spilled the beans in the end, “GoldenEye’s” Sean Bean turns the mirror on 007: “Please, James. Spare me the Freud. I might as well ask you if all the 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.” A line like that may seem a bit ripe for a Bond movie, and yet, there’s a certain genius in putting it in the mouth of a turncoat former colleague.
It’s Campbell’s way of indicating that he’s familiar with the character’s baggage, and yet, that won’t stop him from delivering the kind of escapism we’ve come to expect from the franchise — which is where Brosnan comes in handy. There’s a moment in the pre-credits sequence when bullets whiz by Brosnan’s head, and he barely flinches. This may be his first time at bat, but he plays the character like it’s been in his blood since the beginning, 33 years earlier.