Sitting down and actually watching this film was surreal for me, since this was the first Bond film released during my lifetime. Alright, I was only three, but I do have plenty of nostalgia for the N64 game, which everyone in my generation played. As a result, it’s hard not to watch this film and say things like: “Man, I hated this level” and “Oh he’s picked up the Klobb! That gun sucks!”
We’ve blinked and arrived in the 90s. Dalton has been ditched in favour of Pierce Brosnan. The world has changed a lot in the space of five years, and this insecurity about the end of the old status quo is reflected in the movie itself.
Indeed, a lot of executives were worried about how a character like Bond could exist outside of the Cold War – which is a little weird considering that James Bond didn’t actually fight communists all that much. Various ideas were tossed around, with EON even considering making an origin story prequel set just before Dr No.
Instead, they opted to make a movie about that very same anxiety about Bond’s role. Goldeneye is the first Bond movie to question whether its own premise and protagonist is still actually relevant. Because of this, the script fights damn hard to win us over. The critique and deconstruction of Bond that began in the eighties continues with Brosnan, but with a more nineties flavour, and Bond discovers irony. Instead of averting the clichés, the Brosnan era calls attention to them and mocks em.
This is a technical writing trick known as ‘lampshading’ – de riguer in the 90s as everyone who’d ever heard of Tom Stoppard tired to make pop culture postmodern. Buffy The Vampire Slayer is probably the best example of it, when a script says: “I know this is silly, you know this is silly; but can we just enjoy it and move on?”
Dalton’s Bond tried to be an honourable bloke in an ugly world. But Brosnan’s Bond regresses back to an arrogant chauvinist. The difference is that the world around him has moved on, and the rest of the cast seems fed up with his politically incorrect attitudes. Even Moneypenny now treats his sleazy flirting as the sexual harassment it always was.
The most prominent prosecutor in the trial of Bond is Alec Trevelyan, who takes all the things that Scaramanga half-assed and does them properly. Alec is played so charmingly by Sean Bean that you sometimes forget who’s supposed to be Bond and who isn’t. Not only that, but he’s framed as a close friend to 007, and their banter convinces us that they’re tight as arse cheeks, despite the fact that we’ve never seen or heard of Alec until now.
Trevelyan comes from a family of of Lienz Cossacks who were betrayed by the British when attempting to defect from the USSR in World War II, and harbours a grudge against his old mate. Jim buggered up the timings on a bomb during their last mission together, leaving him to die with a fucked-up face. This means the Anti-Bond is a lot more potent this time around, and when he and Bond spar, we know Bond is relying on every trick in the book to come out on top. In fact, sometimes chance is the only thing saving his skin.
However, much like with Red Grant in From Russia With Love, 006 and 007’s interactions have a strong whiff of sexual tension. It’s quite easy to imagine when Alec chuckles and reminisces about old times that he’s referring to him and Bond getting drunk and fucking for three days straight on a mission in Kosovo. Likewise, when Alec admonishes Bond for his womanising, it feels like a gay guy grumbling that his bi partner still prefers ladies. He’s so jealous of England he won’t stop bringing her up. Um, hello? Like, obsessed much?
Another person who’s quick to call out JB’s bullshit is the new M, played by Judi Dench. She’s a welcome addition to this franchise, but we’ll discuss what makes Dench’s M so brilliant when we get to Daniel Craig, since their relationship is explored in much greater depth there. All you need to know now is that her scenes are charged with a repartee which makes the exposition enjoyable, as opposed to a dull chore. Take a gander at this exchange:
M: The prime minister's talked to Moscow. It was: 'an accident on a training exercise.' BOND: Governments change. The lies stay the same. [...] M: Would you like a drink? BOND: Thank you. Your predecessor kept some cognac. M: I prefer bourbon. Ice? BOND: Yes. M: We pulled the files on whoever may have had access or authority at Severnaya. The top name on the list's an old friend of yours [...] Our political analysts say he doesn't fit the profile of a traitor. BOND: Are these the same analysts who said that GoldenEye couldn't exist? Who said the helicopter posed no threat and wasn't worth following? (PAUSE) M: You don't like me, Bond. You don't like my methods. You think I'm an accountant, more interested in numbers than your instincts. BOND: The thought had occurred to me. M: Good. Because 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. BOND: Point taken. M: Not quite. If you think I don't have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong. I've no compunction about sending you to your death. But I won't do it on a whim, even with your cavalier attitude towards life. (BOND looks uncomfortable.) M: I want you to find GoldenEye. Find who took it, what they plan to do with it, and stop it. If you come across Ourumov, guilty or not, don't run off on a vendetta. Avenging Alec Trevelyan will not bring him back. BOND: You didn't get him killed. M: Neither did you. Don't make it personal. BOND: Never. M: Bond... come back alive.
Wow. The screenwriters have learned some vital lessons from License to Kill: namely that M is a much more effective character when his/her ruthlessness is played up. M is meant to be Bond’s boss first and foremost, and she has to consider him expendable. Therefore, their relationship needs to be fraught with a degree of conflict. MI6 is far more interesting when it’s as much of a hinderance as a help to Bond’s personal objectives.
However, despite Dench giving Brosnan a thorough dressing-down, her last line does reveal that she cares for him to an extent. This dialogue is less bitter and biting than in LTK, but it means the briefings between 007 and M have changed from direct orders to complex negotiations.
Indeed, for the first time we seem to have a script that actually takes into consideration what women might want out of a Bond film – and I’m not just talking about James and Alec’s melodramatic yaoi drama. Aside from M, we get another strong female character in the form of Natalya Simonova.
Natalya works because she’s the most ‘everywoman’ Bond girl we’ve ever seen. She doesn’t have a daft name or a glamorous job or special abilities (well, aside from coding, but whatever). Instead she’s a fairly ordinary (albeit gorgeous) woman caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and Izabella Scorupco does a decent job of showing her grow from a deer-in-the-headlights to a certified badass. Obviously, this makes for a far more watchable character than a whimpering airhead in a bikini who the movie fails to convince us is a trained agent.
However, all this is somewhat marred by the character of Xenia Onatopp, who feels like she might have been one of May Day’s old roommates. I’m honestly torn on whether I like Xenia. She’s another utterly ridiculous Henchman and a femme fatale with a stupid name, and it’s hard not to giggle at Brosnan gurning while she suffocates him with her thunder thighs. Despite the blatant fanservice, the movie always juxtaposes her sex appeal with her creepy sadism, showing her being aroused to the point of ecstasy by death and violence. This way, we still get the obligatory domme character, but macabre enough to be horrifying.
The rest of the cast is good too, with a Cracker-era Robbie Coltraine showing up as an old Russian enemy of Bond (who I feel was originally meant to be John Rys-Davies again) and Alan Cumming as incel hacker Boris. Look at that: we’re finally at the point where the respected British character actors aren’t just old dudes I recognise from Doctor Who.
I won’t go over the plot, because it’s pretty standard: there’s a superweapon, hacking, betrayals, a tank chase, and plenty of cute references and funny moments. Much the like The Spy Who Loved Me, it’s hard to put my finger on what exactly makes it all so fun. There’s no single element that elevates it. It just seems like everyone felt like they were meeting a challenge by keeping Bond alive. It was a big risk, and it payed off. Even after all the shit this franchise has put me through, I would happily watch Goldeneye any time.
… The game’s still better though.