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How ‘Goldeneye’ cleared James Bond's cloudy future, but didn't clean up his act

In 'Goldeneye,' Pierce Brosnan became the fourth actor to play the British superspy, catapulting him into a new era.
In 'Goldeneye,' Pierce Brosnan became the fourth actor to play the British superspy, catapulting him into a new era. (Image credit: MGM/UA)

Goldeneye is the seventeenth film in the James Bond series, and the first for star Pierce Brosnan. But by the time it arrived in 1995, some six years after the previous installment, Licence to Kill, many things had changed — with Bond, in the world, and in cinema — that made the slam-dunk success of a new adventure a shakier proposition than it might have been a few years earlier. Looking back at it now on its 25th anniversary, the film maintains all of the hallmarks of the franchise, but retains an imprint of the era in which it was made, spotlighting a pivotal moment not only when the franchise was in flux, but when culture was re-evaluating what it needed from James Bond, and what he had to deliver to stay relevant. 

The 1990s hardly marked the first time that Bond and the series’ priorities were examined or called into question. Even before Sean Connery abdicated the role for George Lazenby’s brief but exceptional tenure, media experts wrote articles about the character and franchise as sexist, violent and materialistic, and those reactions only accelerated after Roger Moore took over and gave the character a winking jocularity, and as he aged, a creepy, predatory quality to the character’s conquests. Because Pierce Brosnan was at the time locked into playing the title role on Remington Steele, he couldn’t accept the role in time for The Living Daylights, leading to Timothy Dalton’s decidedly more sober interpretation of the superspy in that film and the underrated Licence to Kill.

But before Brosnan could fully take over the role, much happened with the franchise. In August 1990, a year after the release of Licence to Kill, longtime Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli split with writer Richard Maibaum, who worked on all but three of the previous films, leading to a revolving door of writers and prospective directors before Michael France (Cliffhanger) delivered a draft in 1993 that they could move forward with. For better or worse — and Maibaum worked on several of the worst installments, along with the best ones — his expertise and experience with the character and conventions of the series was arguably peerless. Concurrently, longtime distributor MGM fell into a legal scuffle with Broccoli’s company Danjaq, which owned the Bond film rights. And after a four-year hiatus from the screen, producers refused to let Dalton play the character only one more time, as he originally intended — leading to Brosnan returning to the part that he lost some seven years prior.

Meanwhile, whether as a result of changing times or changing perceptions of the character, James Bond could not be the same guy in 1995 that he was in 1989, much less 1985, or 1962. Dalton’s seriousness as Bond felt slightly like an overcorrection after Moore’s final appearance in A View to a Kill, where at 58 he beds women as easily as ever (including Tonya Roberts, and somewhat hilariously, the queen Grace Jones). A new Bond would have to wrestle at least a little bit (and it turns out, literally) with his lothario’s lifestyle if he were to adjust to the times, and a new tone would need to be struck to balance the cheekier elements of his heroism. If Connery’s performance became a platonic ideal of bone-dry humor leavened with the right edge of calculating indifference, Bond would have to be charming enough for his latest conquest to at least consider bringing him home to meet the parents.

The other, perhaps more important shift was in the movies against which Bond now competed. During Connery’s heyday, Bond was an outlier, quietly chugging along against adult dramas, war films, and eventually, stories of international intrigue that were inspired either creatively or commercially by the franchise. But in the 1980s, action movies borrowed many elements of the Bond template to build a tentpole in the middle of the industry that no one film series would be able to dislodge. This meant that Bond was more accurately competing as an action movie than a Bond movie for audience dollars, and as a result, the flourishes would need to fit the action mold rather than Bond’s firmly-defined one.

Of course, six years is a massive span of time in moviemaking terms, which provided both advantages and obstacles for the follow-up to Licence, a film that truly has some of the most terrific practical and vehicular stunts of its era, and indeed in the entire series. So now Bond was competing with Die Hard and giant blockbusters with massive set pieces and heroes capable of throwing out pithy one-liners (ones Bond essentially popularized) with weaponized glibness. The action had to be bigger, and the character had to be rougher, tougher, more sexy and more sensitive. Luckily, the filmmakers had Brosnan, who cut his teeth as a spy on TV in a series that firmly balanced that divide between cloak and dagger and tongue in cheek. And they had a whole new toolkit of CGI and other tricks to create sequences to put Bond in brisker and more brutal danger than ever.

Did it work? At the time, yes. Goldeneye grossed more than $350 million worldwide, setting Brosnan up for three more installments and paving the way for Daniel Craig’s series of films that looked much more intensely as the character’s interior life, and his role in an international landscape that would appropriately be more complex and nuanced. Casting Judi Dench as M instantly alleviated some of the claims of sexism lobbied (again, for decades) against the franchise, especially given how often she puts him firmly in his place: “You’re a sexist misogynist dinosaur,” she says. “A relic of the Cold War. Your boyish charms are wasted on me.” But if the franchise grew up at all, it was only in half measures; his jokes with Samantha Bond’s Moneypenny about sexual harassment are limp boy’s club efforts at acknowledging the changing power dynamics between men and women that sound weaker because of the effort given to speak them out loud. And of course there’s Famke Janssen’s orgiastic, homicidal Xenia Onatopp — a great performance sneaking out of a puerile fantasy named after an unimaginative limerick.

One of the things the film does that audiences hadn’t seen before is explore the MI-6 hierarchy, introducing Bond’s colleague 006 (Sean Bean, initiating a trend of dying on screen that he couldn’t possibly have known). But even with several really terrific action scenes (the tank chase is absolutely first class) and a few too preposterous to take seriously (the physics of the pre-credit plane escape are entirely idiotic), the movie builds essentially to the same climax as one of its predecessors, You Only Live Twice, which also features a massive apparatus hiding beneath a man-made lake. What remains today is a film that wants to have its cake and eat it too — demonstrate it’s smarter than the clichés it’s recycling, but also get the laugh lines from using them, while surpassing the other action movies it was competing against with as much bombast as possible (battling Die Hard with a Vengeance, Apollo 13, Batman Forever and Waterworld in ’95 alone). 

And so, 25 years later, Goldeneye arguably ranks as the best James Bond movie of the Pierce Brosnan era, but it’s also emblematic of the piecemeal nature of those films’ individual and collective success, each nailing certain aspects (casting, choreography, stunts) without consistently tying them together into a cohesive whole. In a moment that the franchise needed to be updated and refreshed, the Bond producers and storytellers chose to compete against the specter of commercial foes rather reckoning with character’s own inconsistencies and demons; while it obviously worked — only one installment since its release made less money, and most made a lot more — there’s something slightly disappointing about a franchise so tied to and synonymous with masculine signposts to choose ‘stirred’ over ‘shaken’ as the right path for its hero to take.