"James Bond, stiff-ass Brit" - James Bond
Now, this is interesting. For the last few months, ITV has broadcast one James Bond film a week on Sunday afternoons. But this Sunday afternoon, we've got a Midsomer Murders double-bill to look forward to. Meanwhile, Bond's been shunted back to Friday nights. Why?
Because this week's outing is GoldenEye. It might be hard to remember now, almost 20 years since it was released, but GoldenEye was a revolutionary Bond film. For the first time in the franchise's history, the producers looked outside of their own dreary pun-drenched bubble and paid attention to actual cinematic trends. As a result, the budget was ramped up, the action sequences were supercharged and we came to meet Pierce Brosnan. Brosnan was sleeker and suaver than any Bond we'd met before – and in possession of the light touch that Timothy Dalton either lacked or refused – but with a physicality that could keep up with contemporary action stars. Brosnan's tenure would end miserably in a flurry of invisible cars and Madonna-mandated swordfights but, if this is your first time watching GoldenEye, you're in for a treat. Also, stop reading now, because I'm about to spoil the hell out of it.
"You're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the cold war" - M
Reading on mobile? Watch the GoldenEye trailer here
The changes in GoldenEye weren't just limited to the new budget and lead. Bond also got a new haircut – an enormous pouffy semi-mulleted construct that looked like it took several hours to get right – and a new boss in Dame Judi Dench. She spends much of the film griping and grousing. She hates Bond because she suspects that an alcoholic murderer who's probably riddled with all sorts of sexually transmitted diseases might not be the kind of guy you want around in times of national importance. But she also hates the modern world at large, at one point complaining that the American government relies upon CNN for intelligence. God, imagine if it did that now. We'd all be effed.
But, despite M's protestations, GoldenEye is clearly a sign of Bond attempting to move with the times. He no longer smokes. He struggles with his place in the world now that the USSR has been broken up (and presumably some sort of treaty has been written to stop egomaniacal baddies from hollowing out volcanoes). One of the villains – the one who crushes hapless men to death with her thighs during sex – is almost certainly an allegory for Aids. Bond even makes a crack about safe sex here. That would have been unthinkable in the past. And then, most notably of all, he's forced to deal with the impact of his past mistakes in ways that none of his prior incarnations had the emotional toolkit for.
"If you think for one moment I don't have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong" - M
Plot has never been the strong point of the James Bond films – even Skyfall, for all its plaudits, could have been avoided if only M had thought to phone up YouTube – but GoldenEye's story is incredibly well crafted. That's largely thanks to Sean Bean's role as 006, a former ally left for dead by Bond whose descent into evil is partly triggered by 007's endless thoughtless murder. It forces Bond to confront his own transgressions (albeit in such a superficial way that he still gets to barrel around several important parts of Moscow in a tank) in a way that he wouldn't be forced to again until the era of Daniel Craig as EmoBond 2.0.
But, just on the off-chance that I'm reading too much into a fluffy blockbuster about exploding pens and laser-watches, GoldenEye is possibly the first Bond film that works as pure spectacle, too. By the mid-90s it was easier for us to see the world, so we were all much less impressed by a shot of the Pyramids or the sight of a man eating an avocado. But a man bungee-jumping off a dam and then motorbiking off a cliff so that he could skydive into a plummeting plane and fly it away while a Russian military base explodes behind him? Even today, that's sort of impressive.
• If you hadn't guessed, GoldenEye the film is one of my favourite Bond films. But GoldenEye the videogame is one of my favourite games full stop.
• Further reading on why GoldenEye is such an important instalment: this Film School Rejects post hits the nail on the head.
• Just to temper my enthusiasm for this film, I have to admit that the sight of James Bond artlessly spraying a machine gun around with all the delicacy of Schwarzenegger is something that still jars to this day.
• Apparently, John Woo was the first choice to direct GoldenEye. For the life of me, I can't work out whether a mid-90s John Woo Bond film would have been the best thing ever or the worst thing ever. Definitely one of those two things, though.
• I've tried to limit these Bond recaps to one instalment per Bond. But I might make an exception with Pierce Brosnan, simply because Die Another Day is so mindbogglingly awful that I can't allow it to pass without comment.