Sunday, June 28, 2009

James Bond review: GoldenEye (1995)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Welcome to the Second Golden Age of Bond.

BOND, JAMES BOND: Consider this. The precredits sequence is set sometime during the later years of the USSR. Cut to the present – “nine years later.” Assuming the present of the film is the present of the film’s release, that sets the precredits sequence in 1986. I.e., one year after A View To A Kill. GoldenEye, in other words, is inviting us to imagine a world in which Pierce Brosnan, not Timothy Dalton, had succeeded Roger Moore. Unfair to Dalton, perhaps, but you’ll get no complaint from me.

Because now it’s time to lay my cards on the table. I think Pierce Brosnan may be the best Bond of all. Not to diminish Connery’s achievements: he created the role, and without him, Brosnan would have done nothing. But Brosnan, and the team that re-created 007 in the late ‘90s, had the benefit of thirty years of mythology. Brosnan had a lot more to work with, as it were, and he works wonders with what he’s got. He plays Bond as we’d always dreamed of Bond – and maybe it took thirty years for us to dream him this well.

He’s got the look. He’s handsome in a way poor Timothy, for all his Shakespearean chops, simply wasn’t; and his handsomeness is dark and dangerous in a way Roger Moore’s, with all his latent bonhomie, never was. He looks brilliant in formal wear. He looks comfortable behind the wheel of an Aston-Martin (or that Beamer). He looks at home at the baccarat table. He looks suitably stiff-ass next to his CIA opposite number. He looks tough in a fight and tender in the clinch. He embodies James Bond.

And of course he reinvents him. Connery’s charm was easy-going. He was the ultimate man in a man’s, man’s, man’s world, and his charm consisted in his assurance that the world could appreciate him – that the world was his. Brosnan’s charm is one of smoldering intensity. He’s the ultimate man in a world that is no longer a man’s world, and because he can no longer depend on the world appreciating him – because it’s no longer his world, precisely - he has to reach inside for strength. It’s not just that he has to deal with female authority (and he deals with it gracefully, for the most part), it’s that all of the certainties that once defined his world have crumbled. It’s no accident that betrayal is the key to the villain here: Brosnan’s Bond, more than any other, is about being true to one’s own code, to which the world is either indifferent or actively hostile.

What Makes Bond Bond: Driving the tank through the streets of St. Petersburg, covered with debris, he straightens his tie. He knows what letter the license plates for Ferraris start with this year – even the counterfeit ones. He has no problem with female authority.

What Makes Pierce Brosnan Pierce Brosnan: The scene on the beach in Florida before he and Natalya fly to Cuba. He’s brooding about his upcoming confrontation with Trevelyan – he’s brooding. And he looks sexy doing it.

BAD GUYS: Because of his name we shouldn’t be surprised, but Sean Bean’s Alec Trevelyan/Janus cuts both ways as a Bond villain. As the mysterious head of a crime syndicate with a grandiose plan for world disruption and domination, he’s a Bond supervillain in the classic mold. But as an ex-MI6 agent turned petty bank robber, he’s a grittier, more complex opposite number than the series has perhaps ever seen. And as a former partner of 007’s, he makes the confrontation personal: he knows Bond, and exactly what he stands for, and hates him for it. It’s this intimate knowledge of 007 and his values that makes the character work, and it puts a lot of pressure on Bean. He delivers: he brings to the role a panache that succeeds in suggesting an alternate-universe Bond – a Bond gone bad.

Janus’s co-villain, as it were, is General Ouromov, another well-realized character. Again, the credit goes equally to the writing, which gives us the best Russian character since From Russia With Love, and to the actor, Gottfried John, who’s all menace and no satire. In fact all of the Russian characters here are a lot of fun to watch, due to the restraint with which they’re presented and the skill with which they’re portrayed. No red pajamas here.

Evil Henchman. They go back to the View To A Kill template here, making the main henchman a Bond Girl, but this time it works, because Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp is both one of the great Evil Henchmen and one of the great Bond Girls. The look on her face as she guns down the crew at Severnaya is so hilariously over-the-top - she almost steals the movie.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Let’s count. We start off with Caroline (Serena Gordon), sent to Monte Carlo by MI6 to evaluate Bond, and we end with Natalya (Izabella Scorupco), for an unassailable GS quotient of 2. The question is, can we count Onatopp? From Bond’s perspective, no, but from her’s – judging by the look on her face – we can say yes. In fact, the pleasure was all hers.

Certainly she’s a Bond Girl: a ravishing beauty who engages Bond in innuendo and various other forms of sexual behavior. In fact, she easily makes my Bond Girl Top 5.

As does Izabella Scorupco. Her Natalya is stronger and more competent than the average Bond Girl, even while she displays a girlish accessibility. And she looks fantastic in a miniskirt and tights. We really have an embarrassment of riches in the femme department here, the best one-two punch since Thunderball.

AND VIOLENCE: The opening stunt, bungee-jumping off a dam, sets the tone. We’re in classic Bond action territory with this film. Taut, exciting fistfights and gunfights. All handled with precisely the right balance of humor and suspense. They manage some good sight gags in the tank chase, for example, but they never let the film veer off into jokeland. And the final Luke-Vader moment on the antenna is quite effective, and significant. We get 007 once again exercising his license to kill.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Desmond Llewellyn as Q is the only holdover from the previous regime, and he’s a welcome sight. Certainly by this point he’s showing the strains of age – his comic rhythms aren’t quite as spry as they once were – but it’s nice to have one strand of continuity.

The gadgets, like so much else in this film, are perfect. There are a number of nifty things, but they never overshadow the action. And the one really key toy, the exploding ball-point pen, is effective not because it’s an ingenious device, but because the script used it so well, as a means to bring out the neurotic personality of one character and ratchet up the tension in the climactic scene.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Monte Carlo, Russia, and Cuba. Can’t ask for a better trifecta of Bond locations than that. It was particularly appropriate that the first installment of the resurrected series take a look at post-Soviet Russia. Not just appropriate, but important: the producers needed to tell audiences where Bond stood in this new world, and why he was still important. The Russian setting allowed that, not only demonstrating the kind of villains and villainy the ‘90s could bring, but also the kind of wealth that would make a tuxedoed superspy just the thing. The Brosnan Bonds would make it a point of being classy and glitzy in a way that the series hadn’t seen since the late ‘70s.

ETC.: As we’ve noted, Q is the only survival from the Dalton years. This means M and Moneypenny are both new. And they’re both excellent. Making M a woman was a wise choice, and making that woman Judi Dench was a stroke of genius. Easily the ballsiest M ever. “I prefer bourbon.” Yes… The new Moneypenny, meanwhile, is excellent, a veneer of secretarial dowdiness over an eminently flirtworthy sexiness; and the actress is named Samantha Bond… I suppose retiring Felix Leiter in favor of a new CIA liaison is a nod to continuity, considering Leiter was maimed in LTK; Joe Don Baker as the new guy is much better than he was as the heavy in The Living Daylights… The score may be the one weak point in the film. It’s serviceable but not memorable, and is a bit ginger in its use of the classic themes. It’s by Eric Serra, who also sings the closing-credits song; he sounds like an ersatz Peter Gabriel, and it’s a forgettable song. The title song, however, is a bruiser: Adam Clayton and the Edge from U2 wrote it, and Tina Turner sings it with a lusty power only she possesses. It’s paired with a brilliant set of title visuals that, more than anything up to that point in the film, tell us we’re in a new age. Gone are the elegant and restrained lighting effects Binder used. Now we get surrealist CG landscapes and morphed human figures, in an allegory of the dismantling of the USSR. Very striking, very sensual… Bond was back…

RATING: 007.

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