Monday, October 24, 2011

Definitive Bond Marathon: Goldeneye (1995)

(directed by Martin Campbell)
The Goldeneye mission was a rarity in that the origins of what propelled agent 007 (Pierce Brosnan) into action dated back as far as nine years prior. During the twilight years of the U.S.S.R., agents 007 and 006, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) infiltrated a Soviet energy compound with the objective destroying the production facility. General Ouromov (Gottfried John) and a platoon of soldiers intercepted our men in the field before they could complete the mission. The Russian general murdered 006 in cold clood, leaving 007 to set the explosives for a quicker pace than anticipated and rush to safety in a daring plane escape. As 007 flew away, the Soviet facility erupted into a ball of flames. Little did MI6 know that this was merely the beginning.

Some nine years later. A major terrorist attack occurred on a Russian (post-Soviet Union) computer programming facility in Severnaya with a satellite weapon long since only rumoured: the Goldeneye, a space bound weapon which can emit a supremely powerful electro-magnetic device, causing incalculable damage to whatever target its users order it to focus on. M (Judi Dench) sent 007 to Saint-Petersburg for it was suspected that the Janus group, which centralizes its operation in the historic Russian city, was behind the attack and now in possession of the satellite’s control device. It was there that Bond finally caught up with the lone survivor out of Severnaya, Natalia Simonova (Izabela Scorupco), who would aid 007 for the remainder of the mission. The stakes were raised further still when the true identity of the Janus group’s leader was revealed. On old ‘friend’ from the past had re-emerged in a shocking way...

After what must have felt like an interminably long 6 year wait (I was a bit young at the time and therefore did not notice), James Bond returned in the autumn of 1995. The world of Hollywood movies had changed with Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The socio-political world that the literary and cinematic Bonds operated in had changed: gone was the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Gone was Bond himself, what with Timothy Dalton choosing not to resign once his contract expired during the long hiatus. United Artists, after financial turmoil, got their act together enough to make some more films by the early 1990s and at the top of the list was, of course, James Bond. Virtually all of Fleming’s stories had been translated to the silver screen, so the time had come to create a new Bond, a Bond with enough history to remind audiences that he was still the same, but also in line with the new world we lived in. Hence the famous, geek squeal inducing the teaser trailer.

It’s a new world

With new enemies

And new threats

But you can still depend

On one man

A silhouette of Bond walks onto the screen and with his Walther PPK blasts the letters of that last phrase to leave only the numbers 0 0 7. He walks into the light, revealing Pierce Brosnan.
‘You were expecting someone?’

Cue a rock version of the James Bond theme and a montage of what looks to be incredible action and sexy women.

Breath a sigh of relief. 007 is back in action!
You Tube it. It’s bloody brilliant.

Goldeneye, strengths, weaknesses and all, is one of the most important entries in the entire
series, the single most important one being, unsurprisingly, the very first, 1962’s Dr. No. Its importance resides not just in the fact that it has plenty more strengths than weaknesses, but for its place in the series. To be more specific, I am referring to the timing of its release and how it dealt with said timing. Two notions emerge from this train of thought. The first and more evident one is that is had to be great if the franchise was going to return in full force after an overly long hiatus. Was this going to be only a last hurrah or a true continuation of something fans had cherished for literally decades? Could new fans be won, such as youngsters who were unaware of Bond in the late 80s? 16 years later, with production set to begin in the coming weeks on Bond’s 23rd big screen adventure (Goldeneye was the 17th), I think we know the answer to those questions.

The second notion, one that plays directly into the plot of the film, was the type of 007 the filmmakers delivered. Bond’s raison d’être was for the West (read: the English) to have a super spy to fight for them during the Cold War. That no longer existed, but that also did not imply Russia was not an important international player. Like the teaser trailer said, new enemies and new threats. Therein lies one of the explanations as to why James Bond, the character and his film series, is, in a strange sense, ‘unkillable.’ There are interviews in which the producers say that the only reason they would stop making them is if people stop going to see them. Why? Because notwithstanding that frightful potentiality, Bond can’t just stopped since he can be continuously adapted. 60s Bond, 70s Bond, 80s Bond, 90s Bond, 00s Bond, a new Bond next year in can always change and yet always remain true to itself. Goldeneye recognizes that Russia has changed drastically, it plays on that factor, sometimes jokingly, sometimes not, but it always works. It’s a film in which the writers and especially director Martin Campbell know exactly how to play the cards at their disposal.No discussion about the film is complete without a assessment of the new 007 du jour, Irishman Pierce Brosnan. I for one never, ever understood the criticisms launched in his direction. One does not have to love the adventures his Bond has (they can be considered a bit bloated when compared to some earlier films), but the attacks on Brosnan, in my opinion, are unjustified. After so many different actors had taken on the role before him, what exactly was left to do other than make the new Bond a mish-mash of everything that came before and why would that even be a bad thing? When Brosnan is dead serious, the intensity of the performance is fantastic. He looks good in fight scenes and seems fit enough be a super spy. He can pull off the throw away one liners with effortlessness on par with the godfather of 007 jokes, Roger Moore. That mixture of acting skills, both in line delivery and physicality, make him the most complete Bond since the original, the great Sean Connery. The only thing that ever held Brosnan back were the scripts and the dialogue given to his character, which, when we got to Die Another Day, were certainly of lesser quality. Despite that, I have always been under the impression that Pierce Brosnan gave 100% in the role and for that, he earns top marks as 007, especially here in Goldeneye.

The writers and director Campbell do try a few tweaks that never sat well with some people. Monneypenny warning Bond that his advances may land him in hot water for ‘sexual harassment’, and a lot of characters kind of belittle him throughout the film: Natalia ordering him to ‘Get us out of here!’ in the train sequence), M taking some real good shots at his ego and personal history, Valentine Zukovsky (the indelible Robbie Coltrane) making him look like a fool, etc. Personally, the only one of those elements that bothers me a little is the Monneypenny one. I mean, that’s a pretty big change to have suddenly not so impressed by him. Interestingly enough the producers totally ditch that idea in the next Brosnan films. As for the rest, I think it’s okay to have Bond receive some lashing every now and then. As great as he his, he can’t be perfect. Who doesn’t like the scene between Bond and Zukovksy anyways?

-Valentin Dmitrovitch Zukovsky: He wants *me* to do him a favor! My knee aches every single day! Twice as bad when it is cold. Do you have any idea how long the winter lasts in this country? Tell him, Dmitri.
-Bodyguard: Well, it depends...
-Valentin Dmitrovitch Zukovsky: SILENCE!

I laugh out loud every single time during that scene and I’ve watched this damn movie more times than I care to count. The Minnie Driver cameo? A thing of brilliance. To just treat her character like garbage like that in a Bond film...that’s something. She flips Zukovsky the bird!

The Bond girl is very, very interesting in Goldeneye. Natalia feels very much in tune with what a modern, intelligent Bond girl can be while still remaining true to the nature of the role in such a film. To an extent, she can read through 007’s shallowness. His bombastic ways of fighting, the need to hunt down a former friend who must be killed, the loneliness induced by his supposed selfless and heroic profession, etc. It could be argued that on one side, she isn’t at all attracted to the sort of man James Bond is, and I don’t think a lot of real world women would be. But at the same time, the whole romanticism of traveling to Cuba and tagging along with a dashing spy wins her over. While remaining an actual individual, she still fits the mould of a 007 leading lady, which is a dichotomy that I find fascinating. Oddly enough, Izabella Scorupco is probably the most dressed down Bond girl of them all. Apart from the one scene on the beach where she adorns a very sexy swimsuit-dress (or something of that nature), there is not a whole lot of sex appeal with regards to her fashion style. Her face, on the other hand, is a real peach.

Sean Bean is one of my favourite Bond villains if mostly for the fact that it is Sean Bean. The man rarely, if ever, gives a poor performance, and to see him relish at the opportunity to kill 007, an old friend and former colleague in the fight for Queen and country, is amazing. There isn’t much more I can say other than that. Sean Bean in a Bond film. You can’t lose.

Martin Campbell certainly likes his Bond movies to be as big as possible. Run time is not much of an issue with the director. There is no need to rush through everything in 90 minutes in a thrill-by-the-minute dash that leaves the viewer breathless. Rather, he allows a lot of the characters and plot points to breath and develop at a sufficiently comfortable pace. The immediate post-title sequence scenes are an attempt to move away from tradition. Instead of having Bond enter M’s office for the immediate briefing, the film has 007 stumble upon one of the movie’s central antagonists, Xena Onatop (Famke Janssen) practically by happenstance. Something looks fishy, he investigates a little bit and it turns out Xena may be a greater danger than just in bed. One thing leads to another and only then is Bond officially sent packing on a mission. Added on to that is the entire Severnaya scene which introduces the viewer to Natalia. On paper it all seems like a lot of plodding just to pad out the running time and give the viewers as much as possible, but it all works perfectly well. It never really feels like the movie is taking longer than it should even though, at least by Bond film standards, the story does take more time to get into high gear. Then of course are the memorable action scenes, such as virtually everything that occurs in the pre-credit sequence (my favourite of the series), the tank chase and the wild gun fight and brawl between Bond and Alec at the hand, a brawl in which the kicks and punches feel as if they actually hurt. Goledeneye is a film with an epic feel to it. Just the little detail have telling the audience that the pre-title sequence occurs 9 years before the actual mission is great. 9 years between events in Bond’s life. For all we know, the pre-title sequence happens before Dr. No or Goldfinger.
That adds a lot of meaty weight and a sense of history to the character.

So what holds the film back from greatness? A few details and one huge mistake. The details concern the presence of Famke Janssen and Alan Cumming, and especially their characters. Jensen plays the aforementioned Xena Onatop, one of the wildest, most curious creations the series has ever witnessed. She’s Pussy Galore on ecstasy. The performance is alright, although a bit more cartoonish than everybody else in the picture. Every time I watch the movie, I am under the impression that, by about the 1 hour mark, Campbell and the writers didn’t know what to do with her anymore. After the sauna scene, which is fantastic (‘That depends on your definition of safe sex.’), we really don’t see much of her anymore. In fact, she’s killed off even before the climax truly kicks into gear. That last aspect always screamed ‘confusion’ on the part of the writing. Alan Cumming is not an actor I tremendously fond of and, like Xena Onatop, feels a bit out of place with the rest of the picture. It’s as if the producers simply wanted a big name actor to play the annoying, rival computer programmer to Natalia and so went out and hired Alan Cumming.
The huge mistake, a mistake in my humble opinion at least, is the score. Two exceptions. First, there are a couple of beautiful, romantic suites that plays a bit at the beginning when Bond enters the casino (‘We Share the Same Passions’) and once more when Natalia escapes her now destroyed place of employment . Second, the tank chase in St Petersburg welcomes a rousing rendition of the James Bond theme. Apart from those two cues, the Goldeneye score is a gross miscalculation. It’s cold, industrial techno style goes against anything remotely Bond-like, but not in a way that fits because of how audacious it sounds. No, it just doesn’t fit. As music, it doesn’t sound interesting. As Bond music, it’s anti-tradition to the point of being downright bizarre. Musical scores are immensely important to me as a film lover, so if I notice how bad it is, then points must be unfortunately docked off the score sheet. Eric Serra is responsible for the music and hiring him was not a good idea.

marked Bond’s thunderous return to the big screen. Re-adapted, re-imagined, but still unmistakably the super spy we know and love.


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