As the 1990s’ reboot of 007 in GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan is under at least as much pressure as Roger Moore was when he took over. But, like Moore (at least in the ’70s), Brosnan wears the pressure gracefully. When Moore became James Bond, in 1973’s Live and Let Die, George Lazenby had already failed to fill Sean Connery’s tux; Connery returned for one (supposedly) last appearance in Diamonds Are Forever and then bequeathed the franchise to Roger Moore, who did something very smart. Realizing that many 007 fans wouldn’t accept him either, Moore projected a certain indifference — “Who cares if you like me? I’m Bond now. Deal with it” — that worked quite well as Bondian insouciance. In his own style, Moore was true to Connery’s cool impassiveness, and he outlasted Connery (until his indifference festered into boredom). Then came Timothy Dalton, a fine, classically trained actor who took the role altogether too seriously (this from the man who’d seemed able to camp it up in 1980’s Flash Gordon); he outlasted Lazenby by one film. Now comes Pierce Brosnan, who would have been Bond instead of Dalton if he hadn’t been tied to Remington Steele. He stands in relation to Moore and Dalton the way Moore stood in relation to Connery and Lazenby, and there’s the added pressure of proving the Bond franchise still has legs.
Should we care? I don’t have an emotional stake in James Bond. The movies are essentially Cold War cartoons having no more to do with reality than Boris and Natasha, and many of the 007 films have a lot of dead space in between the outlandish stunts. The latter isn’t true of GoldenEye, which, under the direction of Martin Campbell (No Escape), moves like a bullet. And Brosnan, like Moore, understands that Bond isn’t a serious endeavor. The idea is to have fun in the role and look slick doing it. He does. GoldenEye isn’t anything great, but it’s certainly one of the least boring Bond entries (how’s that for damning with faint praise?), and Brosnan takes much of the credit. Some of Bond’s demons parallel Brosnan’s (Bond lost his wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; Brosnan lost his wife to cancer), and Brosnan brings this to Bond without making a big point of it or weighing the action down. Bond’s womanizing and brutality, we realize now more than ever, were cemented when he lost the only woman he would ever truly love.
Oh, yes, and stuff blows up too. GoldenEye delivers the goods — the massive set pieces so absurd the audience laughs and gasps at the same time. If you blink, you miss the plot, which has something to do with computers and big weapons and a scheme to wipe out England’s economy. (If the movie is a big hit, it can only reflect the deep American concern about the well-being of British finance.) Sean Bean, unmemorable as the terrorist villain in Patriot Games, is equally forgettable here as the renegade Agent 006, the big arch-villain this time. He has issues with Bond dating back to a shared botched caper, and he sports a Blofeld facial scar that makes him no less boring. His cohort is Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), a hyperventilating man-killer who crushes her victims between her powerful thighs. This is perfectly in keeping with the Bondian take on sexual women: They’re fine if they can be seduced; if they’re the seducers, watch out. The woman-who-can-be-seduced here is Izabella Scorupco as Natalya, a smart Russian computer hacker. Think Sandra Bullock in The Net with a Natasha accent. Perhaps the biggest challenge Bond faces in GoldenEye is how to peel off all of Natalya’s layers of frumpy clothes.
All this, and stuff blows up, too. If the Bond films have one saving grace, it’s their escalating game of “We bet you haven’t seen this before, or if you have, you haven’t seen it this ballsy.” GoldenEye sets the tone right off the bat, when Bond hops onto a motorcycle, chases a pilotless plane off a cliff, goes into free-fall, catches up to the plane, slips behind the controls, and pulls it out of a certain crash. Even Indiana Jones would be impressed. Indy would, however, know what to do with the tank near the end. When 006 seizes Natalya, Bond comes after them in a massive Russian tank, bashing through cars on the street and finally derailing a train. Brosnan (in his close-ups, anyway, when we’re not watching his stunt doubles) plays these scenes wittily, striking the ideal balance between self-aware parody and focused seriousness. So does the director. GoldenEye in general is fast and light.
Is this what movies were meant to do? It’s what Bond movies were meant to do, anyway, and though the 007 movies feel less liberating and fresh now that we routinely get a dozen big, dumb spectacles a year, at least the Bond revival may show Hollywood how it should be done. If the series can stay as painless and mindlessly engaging as GoldenEye, it has a future.