based on characters by Ian Fleming
GoldenEye was my first exposure to James Bond. Not the film, mind you, the video game. At the dawn of the millennium, I attended a birthday party of the daughter of friends of my parents. I sat quietly with these girls I didn’t know terribly well, until the mother finally said, “Okay, you can go play with the boys.” I immediately scampered off to the other room, where her brother and his friends were playing GoldenEye 64’s multiplayer mode. Gamer being my identity of choice in my preteen years, I was in heaven. I didn’t even know there was a movie attached to it. Ah, childhood ignorance. Well, there’s certainly nothing like the present to correct that.
GoldenEye opens with a mission from 1986: Agent 007, James Bond, and Agent 006, Alec Trevelyan, are infiltrating a Soviet weapons facility. Things go wrong, however, and Alec is killed. Nine years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Bond is tracking Xenia Onatopp, whom MI6 believes to be a member of the Janus crime syndicate (so-called for its mysterious leader). MI6’s suspicions are confirmed when Onatopp and her colleague, General Ourumov, steal a helicopter prototype. When a weapons research center in Severnaya is bombed with an electromagnetic pulse, Bond begins investigating the secret GoldenEye initiative, with the help of the lone survivor from Severnaya, Natalya. But this investigation will go even deeper than Bond can imagine…
Well, we’ve hit two important milestones in the Bondathon: GoldenEye is the first James Bond film released during my lifetime and the first Bond film to feature Judi Dench as M. As opaque as the protective bubble between me and culture was as a child, I still had a sense that the world was not only full of strong, interesting ladies, run by them. As little as I knew or cared about the Bond franchise, I still knew that Bond’s boss was a woman. So was the chief on Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?. So were my teachers. It was simply the way of the world. But I’ll try to keep the nostalgic rubbernecking to a minimum, if only because it involves me yelling “DEAR GOD IS IT EVER THE NINETIES UP IN HERE” ad nauseum.
GoldenEye represents something of a reboot for the franchise. After Licence to Kill underwhelmed at the box office and legal disputes about distribution rights kept production from going forward in anything resembling a timely manner, Timothy Dalton resigned from the role in 1994. His replacement, Pierce Brosnan, had been considered as a replacement for Roger Moore back in 1986, but his obligations for Remington Steele prevented him from taking the job. But a new Bond is nothing, well, new, as is a new M or a new Moneypenny. What was new was producer Albert R. Broccoli’s declining health, changing the tone of production, and Eon Productions running out of original Ian Fleming material to plumb. Even the Dalton films pulled in a few elements from the novels or short stories: GoldenEye is named after the Jamaican estate where Fleming wrote much of the Bond canon. If there was ever a time to bring the franchise kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, it was the mid-nineties.
And yet, for being the first Bond film whose director really leaves a stylistic mark and the first Bond film produced after the Cold War, GoldenEye links up with Dalton’s reign as 007 quite neatly. While I can’t find conclusive evidence, word among Bond devotees is that the script was written before Dalton’s departure, and it absolutely shows. The film not only asks what Bond’s place in the new world order is (by friend and foe alike), but also questions Bond’s fanatical loyalty to Queen and country. The brilliant Janus is a forerunner to Silva, showing Bond the dark side of what he does and shaking him to his core. We’re not at the soul-searching darkness of the Craig films quite yet—there’s quips and action movie tropes to spare—but this is a film that treats Bond as a character instead of an archetype.
In fact, it treats all its characters like characters. (I realize I have set this series a low bar. It’s its own fault.) I was dreading Xenia Onatopp, I have to admit, and she is one of the lowlights in the pantheon of evil Bond girls—oh, where is my beloved, critical, and crackling Fiona Vulpe when I need her? But I was blown away by Natalya Simonova, the computer programmer who survives Severnaya and helps Bond. She’s clearly a whole human being outside of Bond: watching her silently declare vengeance on those who killed her friends and workmates as she surveys their dead bodies is a moment that could stand alone in another film. Heck, they don’t even team up until halfway through the film. There’s something approachable, lank, and catlike about her, making her one of my favorite Bond girls.
The new M, of course, is flawless, and, at last, I’ve found a Moneypenny who can begin to hold a candle to the glory that was Lois Maxwell: Samantha Bond, who goes toe to toe with Bond in just the right dry, dear, and knowing manner. Desmond Llellewyn reprises his role as Q, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t adore every second he’s on-screen. As for Brosnan himself, I was born during his Bond years—no matter how much I may love other Bonds, he remains my prototype. Sort of the Ultimates (but not ultimate) Bond, if you will.
Perhaps the most nineties thing about GoldenEye is its opening sequence, adding CGI to the titles for the first time. It hasn’t aged particularly well, but its use of iconography makes it one of the more thoughtful sequences in the series. The visual concept of models crawling out of a stone Lenin’s mouth is certainly arresting. The eponymous song, sung by Tina Turner, is serviceable, but I think I’ve listened to it too many times in my mother’s car as a teenager to be able to make any real assessment of its quality. Still, I had no earthly idea that it was written by Bono and the Edge, so you do learn something new everyday.
Bottom line: GoldenEye may be a bit of a reboot for the venerable franchise, but it still feels like the third Dalton film, in absolutely the best way. Examining Bond’s psyche and treating him—as well as the rest of the cast—is the perfect foundation for the post-Cold War Bond. Well worth a watch.
I rented this DVD from the public library.