Since the franchise’s 1962 inception, every film has ended with variations on a theme: James Bond Will Return. Some named the adventure to follow and two of them called that shot incorrectly, but the sentiment is now accepted sooth. The only questions are when and, after five or so answers to that, who. This year marks 25 years since the last time the return of 007 was an openly admitted if.
Upon release of 1989’s License to Kill, the sophomore outing for Timothy Dalton and the lowest-grossing Bond adventure to date, the actor read the writing on the recently fallen Berlin wall: “My feeling is this will be the last one. I don’t mean my last one. I mean the end of the whole lot.”
He was close. License to Kill is a movie of lasts. For two-time Bond Dalton. For five-time Bond director John Glen. For 13-time Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum. For direct inspiration from Ian Fleming’s novels, or so it seemed at the time. For completely practical special effects. For franchise godfather Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who had produced every Bond mission since the very beginning and took the financial fallout as a sign that he no longer knew what people wanted in their espionage. If 007 was to remain gainfully employed in a post-Cold War world, something had to change and fast.
The standard Bond production process used to bear closer resemblance to military exercise than artistic expression. The first sixteen serialized missions were released at an average rate of one every 1.6875 years. As the scale blossomed and the budget lagged, Swiss-watch workmanship behind the camera was rewarded with loyalty – it took seven directors to make the last nine James Bond films and only five to make the first sixteen. The 007 war machine would’ve ground on into Dalton’s third adventure – ‘80s TV crime expert Alphonse Ruggiero turned in a treatment and First Blood’s Ted Kotcheff was courted to direct – until the sale of MGM and United Artists put the agent on indefinite leave.
In the meantime, Cubby Broccoli passed the reins to his daughter and stepson, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. They scrambled to have another Bond ready to shoot as soon as the red tape cleared, but neither luck nor fate were on their side. Timothy Dalton’s contract expired in 1993. Cliffhanger screenwriter Michael France junked an entire script the following year when True Lies scooped most of his set pieces. By the time he came up with another story and Dalton decided to strap on the shoulder-holster again, the newly reorganized MGM/UA lost faith. The franchise was old, the Soviet Union dissolved. By the time Bond returned, audiences would’ve had six years to forget him, a record since tied by the latest delay of No Time to Die. The studio agreed to greenlight another on one condition – Dalton was out.
Names like Mel Gibson and Liam Neeson were tossed around but there was never much doubt that the fifth James Bond would be Pierce Brosnan. He already had two chances – first in 1986, until his Remington Steele contract nixed it, and again in 1989, when Thunderball rights-holder Kevin McClory tried to cast him in his second unofficial remake, Atomic Warhead. Third time was the charm. It absolutely had to be.
The profound import of GoldenEye is best stated in the breathless opening narration of its behind-the-scenes featurette: “What you are about to see is how the Broccoli family and United Artists restored the world’s greatest secret agent to his former glory.”
Dalton slander aside, it’s hard to argue with the reintroduction. Setting a Brosnan-era precedent, GoldenEye opens on a crackerjack prologue. By the end of his run, they bested the movies that followed. The difference here is poetry.
A great wall holds back the western edge of Russia. The gate at one end squeaks open against its will – Bond is loosed from his cage. He runs full sprint, making up for lost time. Halfway across the concrete expanse, he hooks one carabiner to the railing and another to his boot. He jumps and, in one uninterrupted shot that beat the Mission: Impossible tradition by at least a decade, plummets 720 feet. By the time Tina Turner starts to sing, he blows everything up, along with his only friend.
Six years after the Berlin Wall fell and four after the Soviet Union collapsed, Bond wrote it all off in nine-minutes flat by destroying it himself. The new war would be fought in the ruins, forever and ever, between heroes and villains scarred from the blast.
The ill-fated 006 lays out his philosophy right before everything goes to pieces – half of everything is luck, the rest fate. What he fails to factor, and what GoldenEye does for the first time ever, is choice. Until then, 007 had been a blunt instrument of revenge, a hard man in mourning, and a government-sanctioned grenade, but never did he personally reckon with the geopolitical consequences of his decisions, let alone those of his employer.
The villain, Alec Trevelyan, is his shadow down to the casting – Sean Bean was a long-odds candidate to play Bond. They have the same tastes, the same devil-may-care sense of humor, and the same cancerous black hole where their humanity used to be. When Alec asks James if the martinis drown out the screams of his body count or the woman-of-the-week is warm enough to forget the trail of cold ones buried around the globe, he’s not just dissecting his former coworker, he’s waxing nostalgic.
The biggest Fleming influence, save the name of his Jamaican estate, is Trevelyan’s backstory. It owes a debt to Moonraker, in which the half-disfigured survivor of an Axis war crime becomes a hero to Britain only to turn on it in an act of secret vengeance. The difference with 006 is the guilty party. His father was a Cossack, part of a splinter faction against the Soviets in World War II. Despite the conflict of Allied interest, they befriended the British forces, who promptly handed them over to Stalin for mass execution.
Bond’s equal-opposite is a festering byproduct of the Queen and Country he so nobly and blindly defends. GoldenEye shies away from connecting these dots or any similarly unflattering to major markets – the internet loves to jab The Living Daylights for valorizing a resistance group that would later become the Taliban while this movie ends with the CIA inviting Bond to use Guantanamo Bay for his traditional post-mission sex – but it’s a profound concession from a franchise that never portrayed Her Majesty’s Secret Service as anything less than a divine authority.
Even on a personal scale, GoldenEye doesn’t quite twist the knife as much as it could or should. If Trevelyan is his obvious shadow, Xenia Onatopp is Bond’s stone-sober reflection. With a performance that should’ve guaranteed Famke Janssen marquee stardom, Onatopp is introduced not as a villain or even a “Bond girl,” but as another Bond. She holds court at a baccarat table, dispatching the latest challenger without breaking a sweat and lighting a smoke in eulogy, just like Connery at the very beginning of Dr. No. By Bond’s assessment, they have a lot in common – fast cars, high stakes, and dangerous bedfellows. She soon corrects him, adding vodka martinis and homicidal tendencies to the list. She’s a 00 lost in the shade of a different flag, only one step farther from the light than Bond – the sex and violence finally blurred into the same chemical release. Their conflict, however, is never more than hormonal.
There are two scenes in GoldenEye that promise a more self-reflective future for the character. He first discovers his old chum’s betrayal in a junkyard of Cold War glory. Statues of Communist heroes rot in the middle of a dead forest, time and decay slowly rendering them anonymous and returning them to the dirt. Cinematographer Phil Méheux shoots it like an Expressionist nightmare. It is for Bond. He’s walking through a graveyard expecting to see his own ghost. To his horror, he does.
Then he broods. 007 always had his moments of soul – Dalton finally played the psychic toll of Fleming’s novels – but never did he take time out of his schedule for it. Brosnan hunkers down on a postcard beach and wonders if he can kill the closest thing he has to family. When Natalya, an underappreciated Bond woman played with welcome fire by Izabella Scorupco, asks him how he can be so cold, Bond gets as honest as a secret agent can: “It’s what keeps me alive.”
Neither of these scenes would ultimately pay off until director Martin Campbell returned to the franchise 11 years later to introduce the next Bond in Casino Royale. Of all the actors to wear the Walther, Brosnan pulled the shortest straw. You can see where he wanted to take character in the movies he made between Bonds, like The Thomas Crown Affair and The Tailor of Panama. He was in early talks for Casino Royale, hoping to end his tenure on something better than series-nadir Die Another Day. In the 2012 documentary Everything or Nothing, he remembers the call that ended it all a full decade later with a noticeable lump still in his throat.
GoldenEye did exactly what it was intended to. James Bond was back and for less than the price of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. The Aston was swapped for a BMW. His wrist would never again be graced by anything less than Omega. Judi Dench took over as the first female M and Moneypenny said the overdue magic words, “sexual harassment,” foreshadowing a more complex portrayal of women to come. After Campbell, the directors got stranger, if rarely so well-suited. A two-years-late video game port made 007 a superstar on a whole new medium to a whole new audience. At a global take of about $356 million, the belated return of James Bond made more than both of Dalton’s movies combined.
But for better or worse, the Bond franchise is a creature of habit. The every-other-year production schedule returned and the immediate follow-up, Tomorrow Never Dies, became the first to cost more than $100 million, substituting money for time. It also introduced the reliable scribes of modern Bond, Bruce Feirstein, who’s handled most of the video games, and the writing team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who have worked on every film since. As much as it tried to shake up the series, GoldenEye’s ultimate and unfair legacy is the start of another comfortable groove for Bond to settle into.To paraphrase the film’s final confrontation, 007 always did the job for England. In GoldenEye, he did the job for nobody but himself – and for the first time, wasn’t sure if he even could.