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“For England, James?” It began with one of the greatest cold opens to ever kick off a 007 film. MI6 agent James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) destroying a Soviet chemical weapons base, in the process losing his partner and closest friend, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), before plummeting, parachute-less, thousands of feet, to enter the cockpit of a plane mere seconds away from crashing nose-first into the rocky maw of Russia’s harsh landscape. And it ended with Bond destroying the satellite GoldenEye, reassuming his mantle as one of the greatest action heroes ever, and proving to be just as relevant as he ever was in the post-Cold War climate at the end of the 20th century.
It’s been 25 years since GoldenEye reinvented James Bond by distancing itself from the works of author Ian Fleming, and appealing to a whole new generation of Bond fans who couldn’t be sold on the same thrills that had captivated their fathers and grandfathers. It’s been 25 years since — with the help of Tina Turner and the Nintendo 64 — James Bond was made cool again.
When Martin Campbell’s GoldenEye arrived in theaters in November 1995, it had been six years since 007 was last seen onscreen. In order to fully appreciate what has given GoldenEye such a hold on pop culture over the decades is to understand where the franchise had been six years prior to its release. GoldenEye, the 17th Bond film, is often attributed to pushing the franchise in a more serious and realistic direction. Though similar to Frank Miller being credited with taking Batman back to his darker roots, rather than Dennis O’Neil and Steve Englehart who set the stage for Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, GoldenEye could not have become what it did without the two prior Bond entries. The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill (1989) introduced audiences to a darker Bond with Timothy Dalton. Though Dalton’s Bond has been reappraised in recent years, and his rough demeanor and capacity for brutal violence served as the precursor to Daniel Craig’s contemporary Bond, he was considered to be humorless and lacking the playful wit of his predecessors.
Coming off of Roger Moore’s Bond, who had become too aged and silly over the course of his tenure, Dalton was something of an extreme departure. Funnily enough, it was Batman that Dalton’s Bond was compared to in the controversially violent Licence to Kill.
Dalton’s Bond was believable as a weather-worn spy, but the small-scale nature of his adventures, embezzlement and drug trafficking, rather than the Moon bases, Egyptian ruins and circuses of Moore’s films, pushed the films closer to the territory of Lethal Weapon (1987) and Die Hard (1988). But, without the American star power and tongue-in-cheek humor, Dalton’s Bond films didn’t light the box office on fire. Legal disputes between distributors following Dalton’s second entry provided the time for producers Albert R. Broccoli and his daughter, Barbara Broccoli, to reconfigure Bond for the ’90s. Pierce Brosnan signed on following the departure of Dalton, who wanted to do one more film that he had originally signed on to, rather than the four or five more he was asked to extend his contract for.
Brosnan, who had originally been cast to follow Moore before his television contract for Remington Steele prevented him from doing so, brought a kind of manicured royalty to the role of Bond. He wasn’t rugged, but possessed a devil-may-care charm that made him easy to buy as a ladies man and rule-breaker. Brosnan’s Bond is a Lancelot-esque figure: knightly, somewhat vain, and classically heroic. While it’s always been interesting to consider what Dalton would’ve brought to GoldenEye, given his would-have-been status as a Bond who existed during and after the Cold War, Brosnan provided the fresh face the franchise needed for the ’90s, even if some of GoldenEye’s plot elements and dialogue are suggestive of an older Bond.
Within GoldenEye’s narrative, written by Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Feirstein, and based on a story by Michael France, there is a real effort taken to prove Bond’s value as a character in the aftermath of the Cold War and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It is, of course, impossible to forget Judi Dench’s iconic portrayal of M in which she cuts right to the heart of the issue with James Bond in the modern world. “I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms, though wasted on me, obviously appealed to that young woman I sent out to evaluate you.” In many ways, GoldenEye is an evaluation of James Bond as a cinematic text and pop culture figure. The film doesn’t exactly refute his sexism, despite giving him a formidable enemy, Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), who easily matches his energy and capacity for innuendo and double-entendre, and a capable love interest, Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco). Though it’s certainly more palatable, at least by ’90s standards, than the sexism of Sean Connery’s Bond. The film essentially confirms that yes, Bond is still sexist and misogynistic, though less so than before. But a relic? Never. The Cold War may be over, but the threats it gave rise to are not buried.
GoldenEye suggests that history, be it personal or national, is ever-present. Not only is the Soviet threat still present from a splinter group led by Colonel Ourumov (Gottfried John), who wants no part of what is now Russia or the peace struck with Great Britain, but Bond’s ally Trevelyan, adopting the name Janus in the nine years since his apparent death, also remains a threat to the present. Both Ourumov and Trevelyan are scars, lasting impressions on the present made from the mistakes of the past. Even Trevelyan’s origins as a Cossack, and his people’s role in World War II, are a reminder that nothing becomes relic in the spy game, and every act of the past is imparted upon the secrets of the present. As a reboot of the Bond franchise, GoldenEye is often compared to Martin Campbell’s later reinvention of Bond, Casino Royale (2006). But when it comes to theme, and GoldenEye’s ability to marry Bond’s cinematic legacy with present-day expectations, its influence can most clearly be seen in Sam Mendes’ Skyfall (2012).
In terms of villains, GoldenEye manages to employ the military leader of the Cold War, Ourumov; the quirky computer genius, Boris (Alan Cumming); and henchwoman, Onatopp, in ways that speak to Bond’s struggle to rectify the past and the present. All are familiar Bond archetypes in their various ways, paying homage to what’s come before, yet never making the film feel overcrowded, only populated. And with central antagonist, Trevelyan, the seeds are planted for Spectre’s reinvention of Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). But what Trevelyan accomplishes more clearly than the antagonist of Mendes’ second Bond feature is that he serves as the living example of what Bond becomes should he hold on to the past too tightly. He is stagnation, rather than evolution, a crumbling statue of old ideals and values, not unlike those that surround him when he reunites with Bond for the first time in nine years and reveals himself as Janus. While the film hits on the fact Janus is the god of duality, he’s also the god of time, transition, gateways and endings. And ironically, Trevelyan stands against time, and endings. He is the wound that does not heal, while Bond is recovery and a new beginning.
Throughout GoldenEye there is an effort to take elements of what made Bond so appealing initially and also push the franchise forward. Turner’s “GoldenEye,” written by Bono and the Edge, recalls the great opening themes of Shirley Bassey. When it comes to depicting MI6, the spy headquarters is simultaneously functional and fictional, with the formidable presence of the new M met with the classic, and ever-exhausted, fatherly presence of Q (Desmond Llewelyn), whose “Now pay attention, 007” is just as pleasant sounding to the ear as Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme.” And likewise the action manages to mix the grandeur of past Bond films with the propulsive action of ’90s action films. GoldenEye makes fantastic use of major set pieces, from the tank chase in St. Petersburg to the satellite station that comes close to capturing the magic of former production designer Ken Adams, making Bond feel like a true blockbuster franchise for the first time in years.
And there’s arguably more exciting gunplay in GoldenEye than there had been in any Bond film prior, making it perfect to adapt to the N64, which truly cemented the film’s place in the canon for a younger generation of fans.
Twenty-five years later and GoldenEye remains one of the best Bond films in the franchise. It remains as such because it does not exist in a vacuum. Even as a franchise recalibration, GoldenEye is the success it is because it is aware of the franchise’s past, and operates knowing that further changes to the character will come in the future. While subsequent entries of Brosnan’s Bond tenure didn’t always live up to the promise of GoldenEye, the legacy of the film can still be seen in films of Craig’s era, and undoubtedly for whoever takes on the role next. GoldenEye once again gave James Bond a universal appeal, refuting Trevelyan’s query, “For England, James?” No. For us. For all of us, the Bond fans past, present, and future.
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