'GoldenEye' Is Proof That Pierce Brosnan Was a Great James Bond Who Never Got a Great James Bond Film
Since bursting onto the screen with 1962’s Dr. No, six actors have officially inhabited the role of James Bond. And each of them have put their own signature stamps on Ian Fleming’s beloved license-to-kill creation with varying degrees of success. Sean Connery and Daniel Craig would best personify the cold, calculating “blunt instrument” side of 007, Roger Moore would goose the character with a cocked-eyebrow air of Me Decade playfulness, the one-and-done George Lazenby would come and go before we could really get a bead on him, and Timothy Dalton would feel a bit like a sexless-cipher placeholder during the franchise’s most forgettable and transitional period. But what about Pierce Brosnan?
Before we tread too deeply into these waters, let me just start by saying that I’ve always dug Brosnan as 007. No other MI6 agent has looked better in a tuxedo than he did and he had the perfect mix of cool-cat man of mystery, hair-trigger danger, and smooth playboy smarm. But I also think that a pretty open-and-shut case can be made that he was the one great Bond who never appeared in a great Bond film. And I’d also argue that his best outing was his first, 1995’s GoldenEye—a solid-but-still-second-tier 007 outing—which just happened to hit theaters 25 years ago today.
Bond producer extraordinaire Albert “Cubby” Broccoli had initially wanted the Irish Brosnan to take over the most famous role on the planet after Moore announced his retirement from the franchise after 1985’s A View to a Kill. Moore was 57 and getting a little jowly and long in the tooth to convincingly play the world’s deadliest (and horniest) superspy. Not to mention that he hadn’t done his own stunts in years, which was painfully (and sometimes hilariously) obvious to anyone armed with a pause button on their VCR.
Back then, Brosnan was more than gung-ho to take over for Moore. After all, it would immediately rocket him to the A-list and it’s not the sort of role one turns down. But right before he could pick up his Walther PPK from Q branch, the TV show he was on at the time, Remington Steele, was a green lit for another season by NBC and he was contractually obligated to return. He was out before he was even in.
Flash-forward four years—and two aggressively mediocre Dalton chapters—and the franchise found itself at another crossroads. Thanks to a thorny and time-consuming briar patch of legal red tape involving Broccoli and MGM’s clueless new corporate owners, the Bond films were put on ice for six long years. And in the interim, Dalton’s return to the role had become more and more of a question mark. He’d originally signed on for three films as 007, and the Bond braintrust wasn’t convinced that after such a long layoff it made sense to have Dalton come back for just one film before they would theoretically pass the baton to another actor. So they gave Dalton a choice: either sign on for four or five more double-O sequels or walk away. He chose to walk.
Broccoli now found himself back where he’d started—searching for a new James Bond. Brosnan was the obvious choice. But his career hadn’t exactly exploded post-Remington Steele. It’s been reported (although one has to take these things with several grains of salt) that Mel Gibson, Hugh Grant, and Liam Neeson were all offered the role by Broccoli and passed. So when his number finally came up again, Brosnan jumped at the chance to play 007. Accepting the role had the feeling of an actor inheriting his birthright (the first movie that Brosnan ever saw in a theater was 1964’s Goldfinger, and even his first wife, Cassandra Harris, was a “Bond Girl” in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only). Plus, the $1.2 million payday he’d be getting probably didn’t complicate his decision either.
Now they just had to come up with a screenplay for Brosnan’s Bond debut. But even that presented a new set of problems. During the long layoff, the world had changed dramatically. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Cold War had ended, and the once-fearsome Soviet Union was now an ally of the West. The Bond films, which had always trafficked in the tension between the East and the West, now had to change too. Not to mention that during that same six-year hiatus, a trio of Hollywood heavyweights (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis) had gotten a hammerlock on the big-ticket, things-go-boom action genre.
Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Feirstein’s screenplay for GoldenEye (named after the Jamaican estate, where Ian Fleming wrote all of the Bond novels) tries to skirt this New World Order predicament by having its borscht and eating it, too. The plot revolves around a rogue Russian general who teams up with a turncoat MI6 agent long believed to be dead to get their mitts on a Soviet weapon called GoldenEye that has the power to zap an electromagnetic pulse from space and cripple the West, causing cities to go dark and American fighter planes to fall from the sky. There’s also a ravenous, S&M-fueled Russian femme fatale who crushes her conquests between her thighs and a renegade Russky love interest. Oh, and a doozy of an action showstopper in which Bond drives an army tank through the streets of St. Petersburg.
GoldenEye is actually a lot better than that ludicrous plot thumbnail makes it sound, mostly because of Brosnan, who fits the role of 007 like a glove from the film’s pre-title set piece—a bungee jump from the top of a dam that leads to his assault on a Soviet chemical weapons facility (the dam is actually in Ticino, Switzerland). As I’ve already mentioned, the man looks dashing as hell in a tux, especially when he verbally spars with Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp (the assassin with the boa constrictor gams) over Baccarat at a casino in Monte Carlo. And he looks equally at ease behind the wheel of an Aston Martin DB5. His delivery of 007’s most famous lines (“the name is Bond…James Bond” and “vodka Martini, shaken not stirred”) feels right. Then again, after Timothy Dalton, anything would have been a step up.
And yet…when viewed 25 years later, GoldenEye remains a seriously flawed film in large part, I think, because of director Martin Campbell, who would do a far better job with Daniel Craig’s debut in 2006’s Casino Royale, but seems totally lost at sea here. To be fair, Sean Bean is pretty badass as Alec Trevelyan, the former 006 whose faked death led to some dark nights of the soul for 007, and Judi Dench is a revelation as the new M, lecturing Bond that he’s a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” Still, the Tina Turner theme song (written by Bono and the Edge) vanishes from your memory before it’s over. The action scenes are cartoony and plagued by special-effects and rear-projection shots that hadn’t quite caught up to the times. Janssen, despite all of her carnal thrashing and bashing, is sunk by her silly Boris and Natasha-meets-Ilsa, the Tigress of Siberia accent. Joe Don Baker seems to be channeling Foghhorn Leghorn as Bond’s CIA contact. And Eric Serra’s bleeps-and-blurps Casiotone score is an abomination.
Maybe that’s why so many Bond fans seemed to greet GoldenEye as if it was the second coming of Citizen Kane and Brosnan as some sort of messiah with exploding cuff links. Brosnan’s debut as 007 would end up raking in $356 million at the worldwide box office, making it the most successful James Bond film since 1979’s Moonraker, which, of course, was terrible, but had cleaned up commercially thanks to its craven post-Star Wars.
GoldenEye would end up being the highwater mark in Brosnan’s tenure. And things would go downhill fast. In 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies, he goes up against a Rupert Murdoch-esque media tycoon (Yawn). In 1999’s The World is Not Enough, he gets caught up in global oil politics (Zzzzzzz…). And in 2002’s Die Another Day, he zips around in an invisible car (Oh, brother). Brosnan deserved better. And so did we. What could have been one of the greatest runs in the history of the franchise was squandered, and Brosnan, who should be mentioned in the same breath as Connery today, was left hanging on a scaffold of shitty scripts and invisible cars. Which is why I’d like to float another, perhaps heretical, opinion. Maybe, just maybe, Pierce Brosnan’s best James Bond movie isn’t even a James Bond movie at all. Maybe it’s The Thomas Crown Affair.
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