Sunday, 30 April 2017

GoldenEye: Bond back from the dead

Ba-ba-ba...BA-BAM! The Midnight Ramble closes out another month with yet another review of yet another James Bond movie, 1995's GoldenEye

It's 1986. James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and his fellow Double 0 Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) are on a mission at a chemical weapons lab in the Soviet Union. Trevelyan dies during the operation, leaving Bond to blow up the site and escape.

Cut to nine years later. The cold war over, Bond is dealing with changing times and a new (female) M (Judi Dench). When a Russian satellite station is attacked, Bond is put on the case to find the only survivor and prevent the titular weapon from falling into the wrong hands.

Bond's investigation leads him into conflict with a criminal organisation known as the Janus syndicate, and their leader, a resurrected 006...

After a six year break, during which Bond's Cold War milieu folded, and Timothy Dalton had resigned from the role, Bond 17 had a lot riding on its Brioni-clad shoulders.

Compared with License to Kill's fumbled attempt at revisionism, GoldenEye manages to overcome the obstacle of 007's perceived irrelevance with style and intelligence. A careful balancing act of being both fresh and vintage, it proved to be a major hit with existing fans,while providing an entry point for new viewers.

As an intro to the series, GoldenEye is hard to beat: you get great action, interesting characters and all the other ingredients of classic Bond, but within a contemporary frame. Unlike its predecessor, the filmmakers here retain the lush visual style which remains a hallmark of Bond, and is rooted in classic Hollywood-style continuity story-telling. It is a style which can be adapted to any context. Every time the series has gone for  a different aesthetic (License to Kill; Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace) that does not tie into the story or Bond's milieu, the resulting film fails.

Martin Campbell is the modern hero of the Bond movies. In a previous post, I went into his abilities as a filmmaker, so I won't spend too much time on his contribution. But suffice it to say that Campbell's work here plays an enormous part in this movie's success -- including his leading man.

Re-watching GoldenEye, it's interesting to see how young and fit Pierce Brosnan is. Compared to his later movies, he is a bit stiff, but that works for the movie -- GoldenEye's Bond is cold and methodical. Considering this movie is directed by Casino Royale's Martin Campbell, it makes sense. Brosnan's cool, methodical portrayal is less melodramatic than his later performances, and echoes in many ways the detached economy Daniel Craig has in Casino.
The rest of the cast are really good. Sean Bean makes for a fine bad guy. He's not one of the all-timers, but it is an interesting concept to have Bond face one of his own. The filmmakers under-cook their relationship a bit (the finale, while a good scene, lacks the intended emotional catharsis), but overall he is solid antagonist for this post-Cold War adventure -- and it is always a plus to have a bad guy who combines brains and brawn.

It helps that he is backed up by a great pair of hench-persons:

Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) is the best supporting villain the series has had since Jaws. A half-winking tribute to past femme fatales like Fiona Volpe and May Day, the character rides the line between cartoon and genuine threat expertly.

Gottfried John is also great as the more idiosyncratic General Ouromov. Smirking, drinking and sweating constantly, he casts a strangely human figure. The others may be completely insane, but Ouromov knows he is doing bad things -- which makes him the most despicable of the bunch. It's a bummer that he exits early -- as a character, he is more fleshed out than 006.

One of the movie's major (and unheralded) successes is in its female lead.
Played by Izabella Scorupco, Natalya Simonova is more fully developed than most of the female leads that precede and follow her.

A computer programmer, Natalya is intelligent and has skills that Bond does not. But she is not invincible. A human counterbalance to Bond's superman, she provides an emotional weight to scenes which, in any other Bond movie, would have little emotional impact (think back to previous movies where villains hijack a vehicle or piece of technology -- here it is grounded in Natalya's point-of-view, which converts the Russian technicians from cannon fodder to actual people). What is interesting about her character is that Martin Campbell aligns his camera with her POV throughout the movie, from her introduction during Onatopp's attack on the Sevranya facility, through her meeting with Bond and interactions with the film's villains. The filmmakers also give her more agency -- she has a sense of humour, she comes up with her own plans, is also smart enough to learn Bond's trade secrets, and even point out the moral ambiguities of Bond's character. She deserves more fans.

The movie's only real flaw is Eric Serra's score -- sounding like mash-up between elevator music and porno movie scores, it makes the movie sound even older than it is. Clearly, the producers felt the same way because they parachuted composer John Altman in to come up with a more orchestral score for the famous tank chase (Serra's version was released on the soundtrack album).

Here is Serra's rejected score for the scene.

And here is John Altman's track, as re-recorded by the Prague philharmonic orchestra.

It is a testament to how good the rest of the movie is that the music is not detrimental to its impact.

This is the first Bond movie I ever saw. I did not grow up with the video game because my parents were not fans of gaming systems so all I had was the movie, which I didn't own but caught on TV a couple times.

As the Brosnan era came to a close, I found this was the one Brosnan that I would watch again and again. Tomorrow Never Dies used to have that title when I was younger, but GoldenEye has more to it, in terms of the movie's story, characters and on a pure filmmaking level. Some parts of it have dated, but overall it is still enormously entertaining.

Taken as either an old-school action adventure, or an encapsulation of the Bond series, GoldenEye is terrific.

Previous reviews

Diamonds Are Forever

The Man With The Golden Gun


For Your Eyes Only


A View To A Kill

The Living Daylights

Licence to Kill

Tomorrow Never Dies

The World Is Not Enough (2010); (2017)

Die Another Day

Casino Royale

Quantum of Solace

Spectre (2015); (2016)

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