Director: Martin Campbell
Writers: Michael France, Jeffrey Caine, Bruce Feirstein
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Judi Dench, Izebella Scorupco, Famke Janssen
Genre: Action, Adventure
This past month saw a “proper spy movie” sequel (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and a neo-Bourne attempt to start a morally ambiguous revenge-driven espionage franchise (American Assassin). So we’re going retro and looking at how the longest-running spy franchise has handled the theme of revenge: first up, Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye.
Violence/Scary Images: Frequent and casual. People are shot, blown up, strangled, crushed by debris, and frozen solid by liquid nitrogen.
Language/Crude Humour: Curiously sparse. D**n and h**l are used.
Drug/Alcohol References: There are several scenes of characters drinking.
Sexual Content: Frequent and disturbing. Partially shadowed naked women are shown in the credits, there are scenes that begin as clothed sex scenes and become murders, a woman is kissed against her will, and a couple kiss and roll about on the ground.
Other Negative Content: Sexual harassment is treated as a laughing matter, and women are generally valued to the degree that they are sexually desirable.
Positive Content: Revenge is depicted as a pointless path that leads to destruction.
The opening scene of GoldenEye shows James Bond/007 (Brosnan) doing the following: bungee jumping off a dam, telling a guard in a bathroom that he forgot to knock before punching him out, and then telling 006 (Bean) that he’s late because had to stop in the bathroom. Then 006 dies during their mission.
From this, we can conclude the following: that Bond does everything in the most ridiculous way possible, that this movie is deeply silly, and that this movie wants to have moments of serious emotion. The question is whether the ridiculous and silly can co-exist with the serious. As the movie goes on, the mix is complicated by another element: sexism.
The sexism is blatant but achieves a marvelous harmony of style with the rest of the movie; it is both ridiculous and serious. Bond seducing his examining officer or the orgasmic fight scenes with Russian antagonist Xenia Onatopp are as bizarre and dreamlike as Bond getting into a plane in free-fall. The leaden conversation with his love interest about emotional attachment is just as serious as the barbed conversations with the resurrected and treacherous 006.
The movie is at its best when it’s silly. In action scenes, this creates a sense that anything could happen as long as it is cool, and even creates a what-now tension – a scene with one character unknowingly clicking an exploding pen on and off plays with almost Hitchcockian tension. In character scenes the silliness lets you accept the sexism as the price of entry to this adrenaline-drugged dream and let it go – though it remains clearly the dream of a sexually obsessed man who needs a wider vision of masculinity. In serious scenes, there is no such escape valve and the sexism becomes as stilted and annoying as the revenge.
Oh right, the revenge. It’s twofold – 006’s revenge on the British government for handing his Cossack ancestors over to Stalin in 1945, and 007’s revenge on 006 for faking his death and trying to EMP London. Yes, 007 is avenging 006’s revenge. Does the movie acknowledge the self-absorbed circularity of this plot? Certainly not – the revenge theme is a no-fun zone that must be taken seriously with serious faces and serious acting.
GoldenEye attempts to do something interesting with the revenge plot with a contrast between the two avengers. 006’s big-picture view of history – how the betrayal of the Cossacks affected his family, the meaninglessness of all the dirty jobs he did for the British government – leads to a very personal betrayal of his friend James Bond. But Bond’s anger is personal; he is propelled through the second half of the movie by both the desire to bring down a traitor and to protect his love interest. Abstract attachments corrupt personal relationships, while personal attachments strengthen abstract loyalties (like patriotism).
This contrast might be rather spiffing but it depends on the relationship between 006 and 007, which despite Bean’s efforts never feels human. Brosnan plays an over-the-top secret agent fantasy quite well but doesn’t give a sense of a person underneath the shell (as Craig managed later in Casino Royale). He is an alien visitor who thinks the previous Bond movies are historical documents – an upper-crust and veddy British incarnation of muscular machismo, a cultured Rambo.
In the end, the treatment of revenge is a microcosm of the movie: a great deal of potential but undermined by the poor juxtaposition of the unbearably po-faced and the sublimely ridiculous. Either the performances needed to be less grounded or the direction needed to be more so.
Despite this, there are moments of brilliance where a scene manages to stick with one tone. Bond’s tour of Q branch and the tank chase are among these. But a 130-minute movie can’t live off the energy of perhaps thirty minutes of great action comedy. GoldenEye is no more than a historical document detailing the progression of sexism in action movies.
+ No limits + Some great chases and action scenes
- No limits - Tonally incoherent - Sexist
The Bottom Line
Some movies with weird ideas about gender relationships can still be enjoyed because they are a unified and coherent work (like Roman Holiday). This is not one of those. Skip it unless you are a Bond completionist.