Bond, James Bond: The 90s, by Kyle Anderson
After a decade of lackluster James Bond movies, and the two Timothy Dalton outings being undeniably meh, the franchise needed a change and a breather. After 16 films in 27 years, with a three year gap between 1974 and 1977 being the longest space between productions, the whole thing was in need of some perspective. One of the biggest enemies to Bond’s continued success was the end of the Cold War in 1991. The Soviets had been 007’s most constant sparring partner since the beginning. In fact, the character of James Bond himself was borne out of the Post-WWII atmosphere. Spying existed during the 1930s and 40s, but it became an art in the decades following. If the series was going to keep going, they’d have to reevaluate the political climate and Bond’s place within it. The films by this point were incredibly formulaic and silly and the plots were each more ludicrous than the last; much of that would have to go. There are component pieces that must be present for it to be a James Bond film, but there needed to be some way to shake them up. Also, the character of James Bond, always intended by Fleming to be a cipher, a human, a paper-pusher with a gun, was now a well-worn, stale superhero that always reset at the end of each film. The biggest upgrade would have to be to Bond himself. Replacing Dalton would be Irish born Pierce Brosnan, famous in America as TV’s Remington Steele. This article will look at the four films Brosnan made as the secret agent between 1995 and 2002, (GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, and Die Another Day) the ways in which the series attempted to change and upgrade for the 90s and beyond, and how successful each film was at doing so. I’ll tell you right away, they started off on the wrong foot.
After six years away, James Bond returned in style with 1995’s GoldenEye. Each of Brosnan’s four films were directed by a different, first-time series director and kicking it off was New Zealand director Martin Campbell, who at this point had mainly directed British television drama. Campbell’s take on the series was to load the film with spectacular yet believable stunts and practical effects. It’s immediately evident, from the many gorgeous aerial shots to the amount of destruction leveled throughout, that GoldenEye is a very expensive film. Indeed, its budget was $60 Million, the most of any Bond film and close to double what the previous film’s had been. While John Glen’s five films all had the same level of 80s soft-focus photography, Campbell brought true scope and depth to his camera and a crisp, clean detail to each frame. Campbell’s camera is always moving, but he allows the action on the screen to dictate where and how fast. It’s arguably the best looking and best directed of all the Bond films.
Brosnan brought a new physicality to the character as well as a swagger not seen since Sean Connery. This is a Bond who’s seen a lot of bad things and done a lot worse. He’s still quick with the innuendo and snide to all the baddies, but he’s got an air of professionalism and world weariness Roger Moore at even his oldest and fogiest never possessed. They also addressed the idea of Bond being possibly passed his prime. The new M, whom I’ll discuss later, refers to him as “an outdated, misogynist dinosaur, a relic from the Cold War.” Bond had a totally different world with which to contend. He was no longer fighting whole nations; he was fighting terrorists using biological, chemical, and technological warfare to obtain their goals. Brosnan’s Bond had to change with the times while still maintaining the overall attitude of the character. There was also an attempt to make Bond more personally involved in the plots, either having emotional or familial ties to at least one character in each of the films as well as being honor-bound to complete his mission and not just forced to for work.
The pre-credit sequence of GoldenEye sets up more of the character’s back story than ever previously seen. The story starts in 1986 where 007 is deep in Soviet territory to infiltrate a chemical weapons facility with Alec Trevelyan, agent 006 who is also Bond’s closest friend. Both men were orphaned at a very young age, spent their youth in boarding schools and eventually joined the British military. The two are seen working amazingly well together, however they’re soon discovered and Trevelyan is killed. Bond finishes the mission and blows up the facility. Nine years later, Bond is investigating the mysterious Janus Crime Syndicate who manages to steal a prototype military helicopter that can withstand an electromagnetic pulse. They fly the copter to a bunker that controls the GoldenEye weapons satellite. Janus massacres the staff and steals a control key to the GoldenEye before using the satellite to destroy the compound, taking only one programmer, Boris, with them. Little do they know that a second programmer, Natalya, has also escaped. M send Bond to investigate and eventually gets a meeting with Janus himself, who is revealed to be none other than Alec Trevelyan, badly scarred after the explosion in the opening. He tells Bond that his parents were Cossacks, Russians who collaborated with the Nazis, and now Alec vows revenge on Britain for its part in his parents’ death.
Bond is usually shown to have acquaintances, and even friendly work relationships as in the case of Felix Leiter, but nothing as close to family as we see in the case of Alec Trevelyan. It is discussed in the books, and implied in the earlier films, that Bond has no family, nothing except the job. Here, it dives into the fact that to be a Double-O, one generally comes from a very specific background of state-sponsored schooling and early military service. To put oneself in harm’s way time and again, they should have no ties. Which is why Bond resigns when gets married in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (he doesn’t stay retired of course because his wife is killed six minutes later). With a personal life like that, it’s only natural for family bonds to be created at work. Trevelyan knows Bond better than anyone, and they are repeatedly said to have been like brothers. Bond’s guilt over initially getting Alec killed is matched by the anger he feels upon learning of Alec’s criminal enterprise. Trevelyan represents what Bond could easily become if he let himself lose sight of duty.
GoldenEye also tries to drastically change and update the sexual politics of the series. In the late 70s and 80s, the Bond women generally got stronger and more professional, however were still easily wooed by Bond’s heroic manliness. In GoldenEye, the women all held their own. Or most of them. There was still the obligatory ridiculous woman who Bond tricks and beds early in the film, but she’s the exception and not the rule. The character of M, played by Bernard Lee and Robert Brown in the previous films, was now played by Judi Dench. Whereas the previous Ms, especially Lee’s, was equal parts superior and stern father figure, something Bond, an orphan, was severely lacking. Now, not only is the new M a woman, she’s also totally unimpressed with Bond, (see the earlier quote) and thinks he’s thoroughly reckless. He, likewise, feels she’s an unnecessary ball-breaker whose by-the-book style gets in the way of accomplishing missions. It’s their growing, begrudging at first, respect for each other that’s not only a central portion of this film, but indeed the entirety of the Brosnan regime. Not to be outdone, the tired, effete character of Miss Moneypenny also got a much-needed upgrade. For 14 films, Lois Maxwell played Moneypenny as adoring James Bond yet knowing he’d never do anything more than flirt with her. This eventually grew into a sort of pathetic puppy dog routine during the later films, even getting to where she openly begs him to marry her. It’s a funny joke, get it? Much like Roger Moore, Maxwell was getting up there in age when A View to a Kill and seeing two geriatric people flirt is off-putting for anyone, so when Dalton took over, Moneypenny was recast with actress Caroline Bliss. Bliss was a complete non-entity in these films and aside from a couple of brief exchanges, might as well not have even been in the film. In GoldenEye, Moneypenny is played by Samantha Bond (fitting), who would play the role for all of Brosnan’s tenure. While it’s clear that this Moneypenny has some kind of affection for Bond, she, at least in the first couple of films, is not going to put up with his intentionless advances and gives him a proper dressing down in her very first scene. It’s refreshing, but it does come on a little strong and before too long in the films, she’s back to being a lonely spinster.
Bond women usually fall into three categories: the good one, the bad one, and the one he just sleeps with to sleep with one. In this new, pro-feminism (I guess) way of making Bond films, both the good one and the bad one are given a great deal more pathos while the one he just sleeps with, sadly for the, just remain eye candy. Oh darn. The bad Bond girl in GoldenEye is certainly a memorable one. Famke Janssen portrays the customarily suggestively named Xenia Onatopp, a former Soviet fighter pilot who joins Trevelyan’s Janus syndicate. Not only is she incredibly good looking, she’s completely sadistic and insane. Her fun quirk is that she kills men during sex by squeezing the life out of them with her incredibly muscular legs. Also she gets sexual gratification from machine-gunning people. So that’s fun. It’s pretty sexy, it must be said. Out of all of Bond’s bad ladies, Xenia definitely takes the most glee in violently murdering people. She’s also one of the few he doesn’t sleep with, instead having a scene where she tries to kill him with sex in a sauna. The good one in GoldenEye is computer programmer Natalya Simonova played by Izabella Scorupco. Even though Bond needs to save her, she’s definitely not a damsel and the two work as a team throughout much of the film trying to stop the GoldenEye satellite from destroying the United Kingdom. She initially isn’t very interested in Bond romantically, but dammit she can’t help herself. I like that they made a strong, spitfire female character who wasn’t an ass-kicker. She was good at what she did, which was tech stuff, and she doesn’t let herself get manhandled, but she’s not an expert fighter, which too many times happens when they try to make a female strong in action movies.
GoldenEye is just a fantastic movie, and it’s sort of unfortunate that it came first in Pierce Brosnan’s run because every subsequent film is compared to it, and not particularly favorably if you ask me. There’s no real cohesion to any of the four movies, but I do appreciate that they keep a growing family of supporting characters which, M, Q, and Moneypenny aside, did not really exist in the earlier films. You have Michael Kitchen and Colin Salmon playing member’s of M’s staff and friends of Bond, you have Robbie Coltrane in two films as Russian gangster and sometimes ally Valentin Zukovsky, you have John Cleese as Q’s assistant in The World is Not Enough who becomes the new Q in Die Another Day, and you have Joe Don Baker in GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies as friendly, Southern CIA man Jack Wade, a sort of replacement for Felix Leiter. Baker played the bad guy in the earlier The Living Daylights meaning he’s been in more Bond films than Timothy Dalton, a fact that makes my brain and heart hurt.
After successfully maintaining a fairly realistic tone in GoldenEye, the filmmakers brazenly went another way with 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies. Enough people must have complained about the earlier film’s lack of gadgetry and stupid gags so they upped the quota severely while still attempting to depict Bond having deep, personal issues and as such create a movie that’s very uneven. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode, the acclaimed director of Turner & Hooch and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Tomorrow Never Dies suffers from an excess of one-liners and a lack of believability, not that it’s not cool that Bond gets a BMW that he can drive using a cell phone or anything. The plot involves a worldwide media mogul named Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) using technology to start a war between Great Britain and China in order to have exclusive broadcast rights of it. Pryce plays the character with a great deal of bluster but at no point does he seem dangerous, nor does his giant German bodyguard Stamper (Gӧtz Otto) despite his peroxide blonde hair. In a similar plot thread from The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond “meets his match” in the form of Chinese secret agent Wai Lin, played by Michelle Yeoh. Yeoh kicks ass and looks good doing it, but she just doesn’t really belong in this film; she’s weirdly too credible. Despite a pretty impressive sequence where Bond and Wai Lin, handcuffed together, must ride a motorcycle through the cramped streets of Saigon while being chased by a helicopter, the rest of the action is pedestrian and either silly or just unexciting.
Since the Bond/Trevelyan relationship in GoldenEye had worked so well, they attempted to explore more of the character’s storied past. They couldn’t very well do 005 or someone like that, so they decided it should be Bond meeting an old girlfriend… Elliot Carver’s wife, Paris, played by Teri Hatcher sees Bond at a party for her husband’s new media venture while he’s pretending to be a banker named Bond, James Bond. She knows who he really is, of course, and slaps him immediately. Seems he ducked out on her in the middle of the night several years ago and never called her again. This seems to be Bond’s MO, but it’s implied that he had some kind of deeper feelings for her but didn’t want to put her in danger. Later, Carver uses his wife to attempt to drive Bond out in the open, whereupon the old lovers immediately sleep together. Carver, jealous, then has his wife killed and attempts to make it look like Bond did it and then committed suicide. It doesn’t pay off. They were definitely trying something with this idea, but Bond’s had 6 million ex-girlfriends and in each movie it looks like he’s going to end up with them. Being reunited with someone he loved and left and then getting her killed would be a very dramatic moment in someone’s life, one that might even lead to behavioral change, which would be an interesting twist on the character. Too bad by the end of the movie he and Wai Lin are shagging in the back of a slow boat to (or from, it’s unclear) China.
Bond’s female relationships get even weirder in the next film, 1999’s The World is Not Enough (or TWINE in promotional materials). This is a fascinating movie for a couple of reasons. It was directed by former DGA president Michael Apted whose body of work is very difficult to pin down, having done everything from the award-winning Up series of documentaries, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Gorillas in the Mist to things like Nell, Extreme Measures, and the Jennifer Lopez abused-wife-fighting-back movie Enough. Secondly, in story terms, the film gives Judi Dench’s M a much more prominent role in the action, being both the instigator of the action and the target of the plot. It’s the very last appearance of Desmond Llewellyn as Q, having appeared in 17 of the first 19 films. It features a Bond girl who you think is a damsel and then find out is the evil mastermind, the only time in the series that the main villain as been a woman. It has a plot that’s, if overly complex, at least intriguing. But it also features one of the most annoying, superfluous characters in any of the James Bond films, one whom I believe could be wholly excised from the film, despite being in over half of the film, and almost none of the structure would be affected.
The plot of TWINE sees Bond retrieving money for M’s personal friend, oil tycoon Sir Robert King. After returning the money, Bond realizes too late that it had been booby trapped and King is killed. MI6 follows the money to terrorist Renard (Robert Carlyle) who, after an earlier assassination attempt, has a bullet lodged in his brain that will eventually kill him, but has currently left him unable to feel anything, pain or pleasure. A few years ago, Renard was behind the kidnapping of King’s daughter, Elektra (Sophie Marceau), who was eventually rescued in an operation which M had personally overseen. M assigns Bond to protect Elektra, expecting Renard to make another attempt on her life. After getting close to her, and of course sleeping with her, Bond begins to suspect the increasingly reckless heiress of being up to something and possibly even being in league with Renard as he steals nuclear weapons in an attempt to destroy Istanbul’s oil pipeline, giving Elektra a monopoly on foreign oil. It’s a typical Bond movie plot, yes, but the Bond-Elektra-Renard-M connections are quite well played and sort of break new ground. Bond is put in a strange position as Elektra kidnaps M; usually he saves women, he doesn’t kill them.
At the 57 minute mark of the film, Bond goes undercover at a nuclear silo, having impersonated a Russian scientist on Renard’s employ, and meets…and I can’t believe I have to type the following words… an American nuclear physicist named Christmas Jones played by Denise Richards. There’s so much wrong with this sentence. Upon seeing her, in a tight tank top and short shorts, a guard or somebody says “She’s not interested in men.” Uh oh, she’s gonna be a tough nut to crack. Bond, in character, has a brief yet innuendo-filled conversation with her whereupon it’s revealed she is indeed a tough nut. There is NO OTHER SCENE in the entire film where she needs to be there or is even much of a focus. Yet, she’s with Bond in nearly every single scene for the rest of the film. She uses her nuclear physics knowhow to solve problems, yes, but those problems were very clearly added to the script to give her something to do. So why is she in this movie?
What I think happened, and this is just a theory, is they had written the script in its entirety without that character in it and the studio or some head mucky muck decided there needed to be another Bond girl. There can’t just be one, especially if she’s a bad guy, no matter how interesting that might be, so they did the very minimum of rewriting to include Christmas Jones in with what was already established. The way I see it, she serves three reasons: 1) the obvious one, for eye candy. Denise Richards was fresh off of her champagne-covered role in Wild Things and was an object of many young men’s fancy. 2) For exposition purposes. There are portions of the plot that are clear to Bond, but might need explaining to the audience, so they put her there so she could say “what’s that?” or “why did you do that?” for the benefit of those watching. 3) So that Bond had somebody to rescue in the third act. It’s not enough that he has to stop Renard from detonating the nuclear reactor on a slowly flooding submarine; he has to also make sure Deadweight Jones doesn’t die so he can feel her up during the denouement. Her name is Christmas Jones for the groan-and-eye-roll inducing line during the final sex scene, “I thought Christmas only comes once a year.” The film was never in danger of being a masterpiece, but it would have been a pretty solid movie if everything had been the same and Chrismas had been omitted. With her, it’s just an aggravation.
Brosnan’s final turn in the role came in 2002, the 40th anniversary and 20th film of the franchise, Die Another Day. Now, there are dumb Bond movies, like Diamonds are Forever and Octopussy, and there are silly Bond movies, like Moonraker and You Only Live Twice, and there are even really bad ones, like A View to a Kill, but I can’t think of any that combine all three in such a ridiculous fashion as Die Another Day. Almost every scene in this movie is annoying and dumb and the plot makes almost zero sense, so I’m not even going to try to explain it. It attempted to commemorate the milestone in the series with references to past films and they’re all incredibly obvious and feebly executed. Brosnan looks as though he’s on cruise control as he walks around the film with the swagger of any middle aged man feeling like he’s living the high life. The film, directed by another journeyman director, Lee Tamahori, forsakes any practical effects and realism for CGI and sets that look like they came out of the 1960s Batman TV show.
The offenses of Die Another Day include, but are not limited to the following: a North Korean general’s kid, the bad guy, undergoing gene therapy to pass for a British playboy, an Aston Martin with the ability to become invisible through the use of thousands of cameras projecting the outward onto the opposite side of the car (what?), Madonna as a fencing coach, a speed-up/slow-mo car chase on ice, a hotel made of ice, a mirrored satellite that uses the sun’s rays like a laser beam, green screen Bond paragliding/surfing on the computer generated tidal wave caused by a rapidly-melted glacier, a room full of CG lasers, and Halle Berry as a jive-talking CIA agent named Jinx. The last one might be the most egregious, however, as the character of Jinx as well as her handler, Agent Falco played by Michael Madsen, were created for this film with the sole intention of making a spinoff franchise. This film is utterly, insipidly stupid all the way down to the auto-tuned, techno theme song by Madge herself. For coming in on such an amazing high, Brosnan goes out on an incredible, franchise-worst low.
There you have it. GoldenEye was amazing, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough were dumb, and Die Another Day was awful. Not a great legacy for such a generally solid and consistent James Bond. Still, to last four films, and have them be among the biggest money makers in the series, is an achievement in and of itself. From what I understand, Brosnan was keen to remain in the role, but after such mixed-to-awful reviews for his last effort, the studio decided they needed yet another renewal, this time in the form of a proper series reboot. Next time we’ll be discussing Daniel Craig’s two films, how different they are from each other, and the future of the franchise as his third installment nears completion.