WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: In the declining days of the Soviet Union, a satellite-based weapons system with terrible destructive power falls into the wrong hands. Driven by an old grudge, the head of the Janus organisation threatens to wreak financial havoc in London for both reward and revenge. Can the evil plot be stopped? If anyone can stop it, Bond will.
Bond film number seventeen, GoldenEye introduces Pierce Brosnan as Ian Fleming’s much-travelled secret agent. Much like a new Doctor Who, a new James Bond represents a chance to reinvent and reinvigorate the franchise; and the Irish actor’s rugged, if already mature charm is a welcome change from Timothy Dalton’s colourless tenure as 007.
Change is on the agenda throughout GoldenEye, and the film delicately balances the familiar and the new. To deal with the familiar first, although the story is not based on an Ian Fleming novel, it contains all the staples: ‘The name’s Bond…’ ‘Shaken not stirred,’ the game of baccarat, Q’s gadgets. These reference points are acknowledged but never dwelt on, Campbell and the writers obviously seeing no need to throw the baby out with the bath water (as Casino Royale later did, to a cocktail of alarm and acclaim).
Most of the new elements are welcome too, particularly Sean Bean’s appearance as 006. As Bond has worked alone for much of his screen career, it is good to see him with a Secret Service ally, though Alec Trevelyan is motivated to turn from hero to traitor by a back story based on real events – his parents were Cossacks, handed to Stalin’s Soviets in an infamous British betrayal at the end of World War II. Bean enjoys himself tremendously in the role, but most impressive is Judi Dench’s debut as Bond’s boss M. She is as authoritative as she is blunt, with no time for flippancy from anyone, least of all the ‘dinosaur’ she is in charge of. Dench is an impressive presence from the start and it is a shame we don’t see more of her.
The plot is traditional Bond fare, the bad guys represented by renegade General Ouromov (Gottfried John) and his slinky, sadistic pilot Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), thus named for the purposes of a rather poor joke. On Bond’s side is Russian computer programmer Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco), a survivor of the first demonstration of GoldenEye’s power. Natalya’s story is given rather too much screen time and when she (of course) meets/falls in love with Bond, they share little chemistry, although she does have nice 90s hair and a good joke about vehicles blowing up around the spy. Alan Cumming plays Natalya’s former colleague Boris and he is entertaining if daft, whilst Joe Don Baker has a something-and-nothing role as Bond’s CIA contact.
So, what else is there? The stunts are good, especially Bond’s magnificent if improbable transfer from motorcycle to aeroplane; Brosnan crashing a tank through the streets of St. Petersburg in a suit is also good fun. I also like Q’s gadgets and Alec’s underwater Cuban lair, purely for their camp value. What’s missing is a palpable sense of threat, and whilst I should be thankful for the decision not to resort to a countdown clock, the audience isn’t provided with a meaningful alternative. We can see that Bond himself is threatened, but there is never a feeling that London is about to be destroyed.
Last but very far from least, there is my perennial complaint about the entire James Bond canon – namely, by running quickly along railings, the spy is immune to an unlimited amount of machine-gun fire. In GoldenEye, the Russian soldiers’ bullets cannot penetrate the hole-filled library floor as they fire upwards, yet Bond can still be lethal with a single shot. I know it’s a film; I know we want him to survive; but Bond being quite so invulnerable just gets boring after a while. It’s also noticeable that, M’s lines apart, the script still quips first and worries about plot afterwards.
None of these criticisms will matter in the slightest to 007 aficionados, and even as a sceptic I know that GoldenEye is the best entry in the series for a long time, possibly going back to Goldfinger. Pierce Brosnan is an engaging Bond, combining easy charm with a physical presence, and he is given good acting support and a good story to work with. Bond’s back and he’s new – but not too new.