GoldenEye (1995)

Director: Martin Campbell

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Izabella Scorupco, Famke Janssen, Joe Don Baker, Judi Dench

The end of the Cold War thankfully did not mean the end of James Bond. Not that various behind-the-scenes roadblocks hadn’t conspired to retire 007 prematurely. 1989’s “Licence to Kill” failed to live up to expectations (despite being creatively solid) due to other, more popular summer films and its own terrible marketing campaign. Include the ongoing legal battles with Kevin McClory, and it all added up to a murky and uncertain future. During the six year-long hiatus, even former lead actor Timothy Dalton expressed doubt that the series would ever continue. Ultimately no one need have worried, because James Bond did indeed return… and with one of his strongest chapters to date.

In 1986, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is on a dangerous mission in Arkhangelsk, Russia with friend and fellow 00 Agent Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean). Although they are successful in destroying a chemical weapons facility, Alec is captured and shot by Colonel Ourumov (Gottfried John). As if to echo the leap of faith represented by the series’ new lease on life, Bond is seen making a death-defying jump not once but twice during this prologue. Our first glimpse of Pierce Brosnan as Bond sees him bungee jumping off the top of a dam in order to gain covert entrance into the facility. The ten-minute sequence ends with Bond going over the edge of a cliff to catch up to a moving one-person plane to make his getaway. Not enough to get the old adrenaline flowing? Tack on an energetic main title theme written by U2’s Bono & The Edge and sung by Tina Turner! The song itself is good, but when paired with the imagery depicting the deconstruction of Soviet iconography it becomes that much better.

The action moves ahead in time nine years to 1995. Although the Soviet Union has collapsed and the Cold War is over, MI6 still finds itself battling criminal organizations. The enemy du jour is the Janus syndicate, whose leader is shrouded in mystery just as Ernst Stavro Blofeld once was. Bond encounters one of Janus’s key members, Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) in Monte Carlo. He engages her first in a countryside drag race… pitting his Aston Marton against her Ferrari… and later in a high-stakes card game. Onatopp is not the sort of woman you want to cross, nor even get close to if you wish to stay alive. Equally beautiful and deadly, her specialty is crushing the life out of someone with the sheer strength of her thighs, becoming sexually aroused in the act of killing. A Navy admiral learns this the hard way, and his mistake leads to the theft of a helicopter specially equipped to withstand an EMP.

Bond has an initially contentious relationship with the new M (Judi Dench), whom he doesn’t yet trust to lead MI6. She has no time for what she perceives as his misogynistic tendencies and has no problem with sending Bond on a one-way mission, but also shows that she has respect for 007’s body of work and would prefer not to lose such a valuable asset. They have to learn to work together rather quickly, as Janus makes its presence felt by destroying a base in Severnaya, Siberia. How they did it is the problem: the bunker was the housing for the control key to the GoldenEye satellite, a Soviet weapon leftover from the Cold War which can fire an EMP at any location in the world. The bunker was destroyed to cover the theft… handled by Onatopp and the now-General Ourumov… and eliminate all witnesses. Janus had a mole within the bunker, computer programmer Boris Grishenko (Alan Cumming). What Ourumov failed to realize is that he’d left one witness alive: Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco).

With Bond’s friend Felix Leiter retired after the events of “Licence to Kill,” his new partner in the CIA is Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker), who puts Bond in contact with ex-KGB officer Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane), with whom Bond has an unfortunate but manageable history. Zukovsky has the inside track on how one can have a proper meeting with the individual known as Janus. He also reveals that, whoever this person is, they are a descendant of Lienz Cossacks, Nazi collaborators during World War II. Bond puts a stop to an attempt on his life by Onatopp and forces her to take him straight to Janus. When Bond arrives at the meeting point, he is horrified to see a very much alive Alec Trevelyan standing before him. The two former friends have a talk, after which Alec places Bond (along with Natalya) into one of those easily-escapable death scenarios which Alec’s MI6 training should have taught him to avoid using. Bond and Natalya get away just in time, only to be taken in for questioning by Russian Defense Minister Dmitri Mishkin. Natalya provides useful information, such as Ourumov’s betrayal and the existence of a second GoldenEye. Just then, Ourumov kills Mishkin and recaptures Natalya. As if trying to top the gondola scene from “Moonraker,” Bond takes control of a tank while in pursuit, resulting in a great deal of property damage.

Catching up to Alec, Onatopp and Ourumov on a train (of course), Bond chases away Alec and Onatopp, kills Ourumov and rescues Natalya. Together, they figure out that Alec’s main base of operations (i.e. the GoldenEye satellite dish) is somehere in Cuba. Their plane is shot down, and Bond and Natalya are intercepted by Onatopp. Bond is almost crushed to death by Onatopp, but he shoots down the helicopter to which she is still strapped, causing Onatopp to be killed when her harness violently pulls her back into a tree. Infiltrating the base, Natalya sabotages the GoldenEye while Bond has his one-on-one fight with Alec. As a sign of just how personal this thing has become, Bond drops Alec onto the satellite dish, afterwards leaving by helicopter with Natalya. Though the fall doesn’t immediately kill Alec, he dies when the self-destructing satellite’s cradle crashes on top of him.

Pierce Brosnan was the perfect person to lead the series into the post-Cold War era. Although he would later find ways to make the role his own (for better or worse), in “GoldenEye” you see a Bond that is an amalgamation of all the previous versions of the character. This Bond is a smooth-operating womanizer like Sean Connery, a master punster and one-man wrecking crew like Roger Moore and a vengeful brute like Timothy Dalton, with just a hint of George Lazenby’s vulnerability. You see that piece of the Lazenby Bond in two scenes. Shortly before the attack on Alec’s base, Natalya asks Bond point blank how he can act so cold. Bond responds, “It’s what keeps me alive.” Whereas most Bond girls not named Tracy would simply accept this, Natalya shoots back, “No. It’s what keeps you alone.” The second instance of vulnerability comes when Alec taunts Bond about all of the death that 007’s career as a spy has forced him to deal with, both enemies and the women under his protection.

There is not a single James Bond film which I have seen more times than “GoldenEye.” For a long time, it was my #1 favorite film in the series… but that was before I learned to love “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and long before the release of a modern classic which I’ll get to shortly. It would be one thing for the movie to be good enough on its own, but it also holds a special significance for having led to the creation of one of the greatest video games of all time: GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64, a game which I still routinely play.

Though other entries had more memorable individual performances, it’s “GoldenEye” that has the most collectively talented cast. Not one actor here isn’t suited for their role. I’m pretty sure this is where I was first introduced to actor Sean Bean, whom I’ve since seen in just about every kind of movie imaginable. Because of him, Alec Trevelyan remains one of my favorite Bond villains. It’s no accident that Alec takes the name of Janus, the two-faced Roman god. As the god of beginnings and endings, past and future, war and peace, Janus is as perfect an analogy for Alec’s duplicitous nature as it is for the transitional state of the James Bond franchise… and of the world itself in 1995.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Wow! Excellent review! I like how you tied it all up in the final paragraph about the two-faced god, etc. I also admired the analysis of this James Bond’s character traits.

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