Serial, Super Serial: GoldenEye

Goldeneye

Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components.

Perhaps best known for the N64 game that single-handedly lead to massive multi-shooter parties in dorm rooms across the country, Martin Campbell’s 1995 GoldenEye is the seventeenth official James Bond release, and a reboot of sorts. Coming a full six years after its predecessor, the film is certainly a fresh start, with a recasting of major characters and its taking place in a world with a much different geopolitical landscape. Still, it borders the tone the Dalton films set — with less emphasis on humor and more on balls-to-the-wall action.

Although the film uses a lot of the series’ trademark formulas, it opens in the past and then jumps ahead nine years to the present. In the opening scene Bond, along with 006 Alec Trevelyan, breaks into a Russian chemical plant — a scene which does a lot of work to identify the major villains and give the film extra context that we don’t normally see in the series. There are times when we learn a little about Bond’s past, but usually only in keeping with things we’ve already seen within the series. Here, though, the opening propels the rest of the film much more like a modern action film would. This subtle breaking of the formula is hopefully indicative of filmmakers taking more chances in the series — even if those risks don’t turn out, it will be more interesting to see after nearly 20 of these films.

Overall, GoldenEye is one of the more well-made films in the series, though it probably won’t be among my absolute most favorites. There is one aspect of the film that bumps it up at least a half-star for me: Judi Dench as M. In previous films, the briefing scenes with M have been the most dry, expository and needless sequences of the films. M is of course an integral part of the series, but he never had any qualifying traits other than being a government suit. Here, though, Dench gives a spectacular supporting performance and makes her scene the most compelling of the film.

Being the first Bond film without any aspects of an Ian Fleming novel, the screenwriters took a big chance in casting M as a woman. This change prompted them to give the character some depth and provide dramatic conflict in a film series that has very little of it. The conversation between Bond and M, where you find out that they don’t have much respect for each other, is brilliantly written and performed by both parties. There have been portrayals of Bond as a complete lackey and others where he stands up to orders, but we’ve never quite seen this amount of heat between the two. Being a woman, M now also provides a context of feminism to the series — when she calls Bond a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” it calls to attention something the audience has been thinking for 30 years, but has never been directly criticised within the films. I got a little tingly inside.

[Bond, James Bond]

As has become customary for the changes in Bond, GoldenEye introduces us to the new super-spy slowly, bathed in shadow and extreme close-ups. Pierce Brosnan is finally fully revealed as the actor who perhaps looks most like “Bond.” The actor is certainly considered one of the better Bonds, and this makes immediate sense — just looking at him in the role feels comfortable.

His portrayal fits two of the major Bond worlds better than anyone since Connery — he is incredibly chic and classic-looking, but he can be a legitimate action star when needed. The previous two actors could pull off one but not the other, and Lanzenby never really had either, so Brosnan in the role is a breath of fresh air. Although Brosnan isn’t the brooding, intense action man that we saw in Dalton, and he doesn’t quite have the same physicality as Connery, he pulls off all the action scenes realistically. More importantly, he looks great with a gun. The scenes where he simply stalks around corners in the film’s opening are more compelling than any action piece performed by Moore. If there is one thing that Brosnan doesn’t quite have, it’s a sense of humor — though I could make a strong case that that’s a sign of poor screenwriting rather than performance.

[The Mission]

In GoldenEye, Bond investigates an explosion at a satellite facility and must stop an unknown group from using a GoldenEye satellite to destroy London. This plot is fairly normal for a Bond film (with all its satellites and electromagnetic something or others), but there are two interesting touches we haven’t seen before. First, this plot takes place in a post-Soviet world. It’s all well-and-good to make the Red Communists the enemy, as they are obviously evil, but with implications of former Soviet officers continuing their mission it feels like a greater threat.

The second is Bond’s first link to the Nazis — an evil that seems obvious for the series but hasn’t yet been explored, perhaps because the series followed the novels too closely (no longer a problem) or because the tone was never quite right to introduce these real-world monsters. The main villain of the film is a Cossack looking for revenge for what the British have done to his people. I don’t know much about Cossacks, but they were tied to the Nazis during WWII — and our villain’s parents were refused entry into Britain and executed in Russia because of it.

For me, the far superior Bond plots have been ones that use real-world politics as their basis — they might not always be the most fun, but they are certainly the most fascinating (see: The Living Daylights). So, while the plot elements here may not be the best, I’m saved by taking real historical context to make fictional fears. Sure, none of the Bond films are realistic, but that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from realism.

[The Villain]

If you don’t like spoilers, don’t read this section, though I don’t think this is anything that hasn’t been spoiled 1000 times before (nor something that isn’t quite obvious to figure out while you’re watching the film).

Alec Trevelyan (played by Sean Bean) isn’t one of the more charismatic or memorable Bond villains in himself, but his type of villain is quite different from anything we’ve seen. In the opening sequence, we know Alec as 006, a secret-agent pal of Bond, who aids him on a mission in Russia. When things go terribly wrong, 006 is assassinated by the film’s other baddie, Colonel Ourumov. Or was he? We come to find out that this was a set-up, that Alec has really gone to the dark side, plotting revenge against Britain for the death of his Nazi-allied parents.

While no one will probably be surprised by the reveal of Alec’s villainy, the convention is interesting. The only other access we’ve had to other double-0 agents is for them to be killed and Bond to investigate their death. We also now have the precedent of Bond avenging the murders of loved ones, with last week’s film License to Kill. Instead, with Alec actually being a traitor, he’s one of the few villains who has personal ties to Bond and is out for vengeance.

Being a former MI6 agent now gone bad, Alec is held up as a mirror for Bond. He knows Bond better than any other villain —  how he works, what gets to him, etc. We also see him acting like a super spy, but in a distorted sort of way. When he’s captured Natalya, he tries to put the moves on her, much like Bond would do (and does), but since he’s a bad guy, the advances seem creepy. Finally, being a highly trained spy, he’s a villain that can provide a compelling showdown with Bond, and their hand-to-hand fight at the climax of the film is one of the better simple action scenes of the series.

[The Bond Girls]

We have two featured Bond Girls that fit the typical molds — the innocent girl caught up in the plot and the villainess. Natalya Simonova is a missile guidance programmer at a Russian station that’s blown up during the bad guy’s plot — she escapes only to be captured and thrust into the action. Like Pussy Galore and Stacey Sutton, she’s a Bond Girl that’s defined by a specific occupation close to the mission. Though casting a bombshell to be a computer programmer may be counter-intuitive, Natalya is much more believable than some of the previous Bond working girls. Moreover, though she is an innocent girl type, she has much more of a mean streak — she gets angry and combative with Bond without feeling like a shrew.

On the other hand, there is Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp — the main henchwoman of Ourumov and Alec. She is most comparable with May Day and Fatima Blush, a fierce woman, oozing with sexuality but also incredibly dangerous. Janssen’s performance is pretty remarkable; whenever she’s on screen, you can’t take your eyes off of her. Her wild and adventurous state makes her feel more like a caged animal than a real person, though that works to her benefit. She reminds me a lot of the classic femme fatale, as she woos men in with her sexuality just before killing them — and literally killing them with sex. Her methods of murder are a little strange (she strangles men with her thighs), but the impact is felt. Even when Bond has had sexual relations with female villains, he’s never been quite as in danger during them.

[The Gadgets]

GoldenEye doesn’t use many new gadgets, though we see some classics re-used in the film. The major gadget that’s introduced is a “pen grenade,” which has a fuse set off when clicked three times. Even though the gadget seems as ridiculous as many other, the film finds a way to use it at the climax of the film in a nice way — putting it into the hands of an enemy who likes to click pens. The suspense used through the gadget builds nicely, even if the convention has been seen a lot in various ways (will he click it three times?!).

[The Song]

Tina Turner’s “GoldenEye” isn’t a particularly good song, but it is definitely a Bond song. We’ve been on a run of title tracks that can be completely separated from the film — seeing that a few of the previous entries have done well on pop charts speaks to that. Here, however, is a song that couldn’t exist in any other context, and it is memorable for that, even if it is quite bad.

“You’ll never know how I watched you
From the shadows as a child
You’ll never know how it feels to be so close
And be denied.
It’s a gold and honey trap
I’ve got for you tonight
Revenge it’s a kiss, this time I won’t miss
Now I’ve got you in my sight
With a GoldenEye, golden, GoldenEye”

It’s been a while since we’ve had a title track that has used elements of the James Bond theme, and that is definitely my favorite part of this one. As you can tell from the lyrics, there isn’t much else to like.

[Random Thoughts]

- After the title sequence, we see Bond on what I think is a date. Apparently Bond still goes on dates where he doesn’t mention he’s a super spy. I wonder if they met on match.com.

- This movie has a serious oral fixation — from the gun in a woman’s mouth during the title sequence to Onatopp puffing on a cigar.

- Doesn’t it feel a somehow incestuous now that Moneypenny is played by an actress whose last name is Bond?

- If you were named Onatopp, would you wholly embrace what you must have been constantly teased about when you were a kid?

- BOND FACT: This is the first Bond film that uses text to note the location — I guess St. Petersburg isn’t distinctive enough.

- I realize that many of these films are just car commercials, but Q laying out all the specs for Bond’s BMW seems a bit much.

- Q reminds Bond that he has a license to kill, but not a license to break traffic laws. I wonder how he would have to apply for that.

- Another weird choice in casting Joe Don Baker as the new CIA contact for Bond — wasn’t he just brutally murdered? This isn’t the first time that an actor played two different roles in two films, but this one is incredibly jarring.

- I think part of the audition process to play Bond is a chest hair inspection.

- Take note all you super-spies in training: If you don’t have a gadget handy when in need of an escape, a headbutt will usually do.

- I’m not used to seeing Sean Bean without him wielding a giant sword.

SERIAL, SUPER SERIAL will return in TOMORROW NEVER DIES

tags: goldeneye, james bond, martin campbell, super serial

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