How Goldeneye Updated the James Bond Franchise

Martin Campbell's Goldeneye rebooted James Bond, introduced Pierce Brosnan in the role, and proved to be a major hit.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Goldeneye: a mostly triumphant return for James Bond after an extended absence. Far from perfect but its flaws are overwhelmed by the sheer brio of the whole thing, especially once former Bond bestie Alec Trevelyan finally shows up. The reliance on gadgets is just about right (the exploding pen got a Skyfall namecheck) and the action is reliably entertaining. At least provided you can enjoy a tank chase through Moscow – which this writer certainly can.

Probably the most loved of the Pierce Brosnan Bonds, although arguably Tomorrow Never Dies is a more coherent film. But this one had a lot riding on it. After six years it was do or die – and safe to say Goldeneye does, and then some.   

The Villain: Not quite a villainous great but certainly very sharp. The great masterstroke of Alec Trevelyan isn’t his personality but his history: a former bosom buddy of Bond’s turned bad. Pitting 007 against his physical match always works well, and their rivalry gives real bite to the climatic battle royale.

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Sean Bean wisely underplays Alec, giving a vital believability to his and Bond’s past friendship. However the character is never quite fleshed out by the script, and the whole parental vendetta thing doesn’t really work.

The Girl: Much to like here. Clever? Check. Resourceful? Check. Important to the plot, as opposed to merely checking the Bond girl box? Um, check.

Like Trevelyan, Natalya Simonova is a very assured spin on a well-driven model. Surviving a massacre in the first hour is a sign the woman shouldn’t be taken lightly. Her treatment of Bond as an equal, not a savior, certainly refreshes; indeed she even pops up at the end to save his skin. Deserves to be more lauded than other, weaker heroines with sillier names.

Way back in some earlier retrospective (Thunderball?) I arbitrarily flourished a list of the landmark Bond films and Goldeneye wasn’t on it. Time to recant? Not really.

Obviously Goldeneye is a crucially important film. Not only because it came a full six years after License To Kill (double the previous longest gap) but also due to the vastly changed political landscape into which the series blearily emerged. What, no Cold War? Now which global powers can aspirational supervillains manipulate to the brink of nuclear destruction? And what the hell’s the internet?

Fortunately, Bond had often stepped outside his Cold War comfort zone. License To Kill, A View To A Kill, Moonraker, The Man With The Golden Gun, Live And Let Die were all basically free of any Red Peril. Okay, most of those weren’t very good, but it could be done. And, quite frankly, the series needed an extended break.

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Accepting the divisive legacy of License To Kill (despite its love here), you must retrace your steps back to The Spy Who Loved Me to find the last bona fide Bond smash. That would be 1977. A recharging of creative batteries really was overdue.

And look what we got. An absolute slam dunk of a film, one of the biggest success stories of the series. To pretend the film is flawless would be a stretch but it brings a whole lot of joy. Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way.

Firstly, the Severnaya scenes drag. The office banter, office massacre and fighter jet crashing into the office all take longer than required. Ourumov and Xenia should shoot faster, leave quicker. Post-crash, we get a lot of a screaming Natalya hurling herself out of the path of falling debris. Put bluntly, I rarely enjoy this segment on a rewatch; it certainly could have used a cut.

Bond’s escape from the kamikaze helicopter should have been cut completely. Did nobody notice the giant red ejector button directly next to his head? Henchman banter must be pretty absorbing if you overlook that eyesore while strapping Bond in. In all seriousness, a more subtle film might have explored the idea of Trevelyan letting Bond live due to past friendship rather than sheer incompetence.    

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Speaking of incompetence, remember when Ourumov bursts into Bond’s interrogation, shoots the Minister of Defence and helpfully tosses Bond a gun (which he reloads first!) as he externally monologues his plan of action: ‘and now I kill you – oh no you’ve escaped.’

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What happened to the scene where Professor Dumbledore gives Bond a magical force field cloak? It’s surely the only explanation for a roomful of Russian soldiers being unable to hit Bond as he runs directly above them or swings over their heads (yes, we all know bullets love to fly anywhere but Bond. Yet a line must be drawn. There are dozens and dozens of soldiers, he’s literally two yards away and they’re all firing machine guns).

And (last one) a personal pet peeve: right at the start, after Ourumov fake-shoots Trevelyan, he then real-shoots a jittery Russian soldier. You’ll never remember it on first watch, or notice it on the second. But I’ve seen Goldeneye many times. And I don’t believe Ourumov only left one blank chamber in his otherwise loaded gun.

Pendency? Probably. But there’s a reason for that (we’ll reach later). Enough of the negatives. Let’s have some cheer.  

First and loudest for Pierce Brosnan. The critically beloved Daniel Craig has rather overshadowed Pierce in recent years. In the current era of rugged authenticity poor Pierce has been dismissed as too slick, too smug, too lightweight. Even the man himself got in on the act, saying: “I have no desire to watch myself as James Bond. ’Cause it’s just never good enough. It’s a horrible feeling.”

No offence, Pierce, but hush. You were quite clearly the best Bond since Sean Connery (especially as Roger Moore played an entirely different character who happened to share the same name/job). You had the look, the wit, the killer touch. At your best you could combine the lightness of Moore with the grit of Dalton; the cold heart of Connery hidden beneath Lazenby’s boyish charm. Just because scowls and muscle are currently in vogue doesn’t mean your legacy – certainly as an actor – should be subsequently trashed. Even by you.

Indeed Brosnan’s versatility was arguably his curse, Had he more weaknesses, we might better have appreciated his strengths. Flaws endear. People warm to Moore’s camp, or Dalton’s struggle with the quip. But Pierce’s effortless mastery of all guises – hitman, heartthrob, spy, wit – begat fewer fanatical Brosnan fans. Like the annoyingly talented kid in school – top grades, hottest girlfriend, star of track and field – he can be easy to admire but hard to love. At least for some – cue the torrent of Brosnanites…?  

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Xenia Onatopp dominates the first half of the film. For a supposedly established convention, genuine Bond femme fatales come few and far between. Rosa Klebb and Irma Bunt were villains who happened to be women. Rosie Carver was too useless, Naomi too fleeting. Mayday turned good. Obviously Fiona Volpe, and her unofficial alter ego Fatima Blush, but otherwise pre-Xenia the cupboard was pretty bare.

Enter Ms. Onatopp and her deadly thighs. Xenia does enough in one film to last a franchise: it’s almost as though the filmmakers wanted to make up for lost time. So first she races Bond in a scarlet Ferrari. Then she plays Bond at baccarat while sucking on a large cigar. Then she leg-strangles a Russian general during sex. Still unsatisfied, she shoots two pilots, steals a helicopter, flies to Severnaya and machine guns everyone, panting loudly.

Suffice to say the woman has fun. We have fun watching her, great fun, although I admit the deadly sex scene isn’t an easy watch with the family around. I call that my ‘cup of tea’ moment.

Sadly Xenia fades as the film progresses – I, for one, would like a scene of her and Trevelyan, just to establish the dynamic – but her legend has already been established. Future X-Woman Famke Janssen will always be the lady who liked a good squeeze. Never has one character caused so much awkward seat-shifting on a Christmas afternoon.  

Another woman almost steals the film from between under Xenia’s nose. The redoubtable Judi Dench takes her bow as M. The relationship between her and Bond is wonderfully fraught: “You don’t like me, do you, Bond?” Don’t beat around the bush, M. Say what you mean. “Good, because I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War…” Things haven’t been this spiky since Bernard Lee sat behind the desk.

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Posterity will remember Craig as Dench’s Bond, just as Connery is Lee’s, but the strength of the Brosnan-Dench dynamic shouldn’t be forgotten. Their brittle respect is pitched almost identically to the later Craig-Dench dynamic, although it’s hard to imagine Brosnan bundling M off to the Highlands.

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Incidentally, Dench is presented as a ‘new’ M; she’s not a female version of the same Lee/Robert Brown character. I like this. It’s good to acknowledge the passing of the baton; to encourage each new incumbent to play the role a little differently from the predecessor. Should the same be done for Bond? (I’m thinking the ‘code name’ theory.) Harder question, and one worth tackling at a later date.

Making the villain a former friend of Bond’s is an inspired idea that provides the strongest thread of the film. The emotional connection between Bond and former 006 Alec Trevelyan means the stakes always feel higher than a laser scheme you know must be foiled. The ‘Janus’ reveal is one of the best written scenes of the franchise. Bond’s pained “why?” on discovering his friend’s betrayal is a line that sticks. Equally the final payoff – “For England, James?” “No – for me” – may be the most satisfying of them all.   

Quibbles? A couple.

Trevelyan’s motivation – avenge his parents, Lienz Cossacks betrayed by the British in 1945 – is a failed attempt to give the character more depth. But the numbers don’t add up. By Goldeneye the event was 50 years in the past. Sean Bean was in his mid-30s. It all seems rather unlikely; the Trevelyan parents must have carried the shame of survival for twenty years, while siring a son, for any of this to work. Frankly, it doesn’t.  

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That leads to Quibble 2.0. Presumably part of the reason the writers felt the need to introduce this elaborate scenario is Trevelyan himself. He never quite takes off. He’s a perfectly fine villain, very well played by Bean, but we never really get a sense of him as a person. The truly great villains (indeed, characters) have a life beyond what we see on the screen. Goldfinger, Scaramanga, Sanchez – the viewer can infer/imagine stuff about them not explicitly shown. Yet Alec fails this test.

How does he pass the time on that bullet train? Play cards? Read? Stage confined orgies? Your guess is as good as mine. I like Alec but the cold truth is that he works better as a concept than a character.

Natalya likewise flirts with greatness without ever quite making the transition. I have a lot of time for Natalya. She’s smart, resourceful and plays a crucial role in the location and subsequent destruction of Goldeneye. Moreover some of her lines are genuinely funny: “What is it with you and moving vehicles?”

Despite such attributes she doesn’t linger after the credits roll. Again, like Pam Bouvier, I wonder if a more conventionally stupid name might have helped her cause. But calling her Layla Rumpypumpnov wouldn’t change the fact she exists largely in Xenia’s shadow. Nor does she possess the glamor of more feted predecessors. Computer programming is very admirable but it hardly captures the imagination like smuggler/priestess/secret agent.   

A brief word for three different men, each of whom flavors the film.

First and best is Valentin Zukovsky, a Russian mafia boss kneecapped by Bond in his previous incarnation as KGB. Understandably, Valentin wasn’t thrilled. Their tense, amusing conversation harks back to the memorable cameos of the past; think Henderson in You Only Live Twice or Lazar in The Man With The Golden Gun. Charming rogues have a fine Bond tradition and Valentine slots right in.  

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Bluff CIA agent Jack Wade isn’t quite as memorable but he adds a bit of color to grey old Moscow. Slightly odd the character isn’t Felix Leiter; presumably after the shark mauling last time out the character was considered retired. Anyway, Wade is refreshingly different, and his late appearance (plus marines) ends the film on a laugh. 

Least successful is treacherous technician Boris Grishenko. A computer whizzkid-cum-sexpest whose trademark “I am invincible!” quickly grates. However the character isn’t a Pepper-like travesty; just a bit irritating, although arguably that’s the point. And his pen-twirling habit is cleverly utilised at the climax; click, click click… tick, tick, tick…

Wait – forgot someone! General Ourumov, who briefly appears to be the villain of the film. The tormented Ourumov is a rather interesting character regrettably sidelined. He’s the least overtly memorable of the villainous quartet (lacking Alec’s importance, Boris’s annoying tics and, well, Xenia) but Gottfried John plays Ourumov well, without once slipping into ‘a Berkoff’. He deserves a less abrupt death.  

Let’s conclude by cheering three great set pieces. The pre-credits scene is a classic, among the very best. The bungee jump is about as memorable a cold opening as you get. Watching Bond operate in tandem with another 00 is another treat; I never understand why his MI6 counterparts don’t feature more often. Okay, flying into the plane stretches credibility (how deep is that ravine) but I wager its subsequent reappearance brought many a cheer in the cinema.

The tank chase is big, dumb fun. What I like about Brosnan-Bond is the broadness of the church; we get emotional showdowns and tanks flattening statues, something for everyone. As alluded to above, I suspect this versatility/incoherence hasn’t helped the Brosnan era in retrospect; people like labels. (Connery is classic, Moore is silly, Dalton is gritty, etc.) But I, for one, salute the tank.

And we get a belter of a climax. A ticking clock, a remote base, a space laser (yay! we were due a laser) and two bitter rivals fighting to the death. While not as celebrated as the Bond, Red Grant fight, the lost friendship makes the battle thrillingly personal.

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Just as Duran Duran and A-ha recorded the strongest successive title tracks, the climaxes of License To Kill and Goldeneye offer the greatest pair of finales. In both, notably, more is at stake than the mission. And in both the resolution is totally satisfying. I particularly like the gratuitousness of keeping Alec alive long enough to drop the station on his head.

So why no landmark? Just because, personally, I don’t think Goldeneye breaks any new ground. It updates the formula, tweaks the rules, but ultimately it plays by both. The concept of Bond isn’t stretched in any way. Just reinvigorated. Which, really, is all the film wanted. After six years off, this wasn’t the time to forge a brave new world but rather prove the old one wasn’t lost for good.

One last disclaimer. I try and write these retrospectives as impartially as possible; to view the films I dislike through the eyes of their fans, and those I favour through the eyes of their detractors. Even if you disagree with my opinions (and that’s all they are) I hope you find them balanced, not unfair. For most of us, Bond started in childhood, and we all have our favourites, often irrationally so. And our favourite film, or indeed Bond, isn’t necessarily the film or Bond we consider the best.

And now that this is over, I can admit it; if you asked my favorite Bond I would reply “Pierce Brosnan.” And my favorite film? Goldeneye.

Best Bit: Alec reveals himself to Bond in the graveyard of statues. Emotional and eerie.   

Worst Bit: That stupid ejector button.

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Final Thought: I find myself humming the Tina Turner title song more than any other of the series.