Friday, November 27, 2009
Hope Springs Eternal
The 1995 release of Pierce Brosnan’s first James Bond film, GOLDENEYE, seemed to begin a mini-tradition of bringing films in the series out right around Thanksgiving time. Pretty appropriate, actually, considering how Bond films have become a tradition themselves and it seems perfectly appropriate for a family to eat dinner then go out to the theater to see the latest film (TOMORROW NEVER DIES came out closer to Christmas, but the point still stands). I think I did it one year myself when visiting my sister in D.C. The release of the film came after a lengthy six-year absence during which the future of 007 was put into question over complex issues that involved problems with United Artists, perceived dissatisfaction with Timothy Dalton in the role and other matters. The exciting teaser trailer which played for months introducing Brosnan asking, “You were expecting someone else?” got everyone excited and it’s safe to say that the film was almost considered a smash success even before it opened. When it finally did and everyone got to actually see Brosnan in action the whole world seemed to smile in agreement. Moving on from the hard-edged approach of the Dalton films, the goal of GOLDENEYE was clearly to make the series popular again as well as restart things for a new generation—it’s not as radical as what occurred years later with CASINO ROYALE but that wasn’t what people wanted at the time. They wanted Brosnan to finally take possession of the role and that’s really all the film had in mind. Looking at it fourteen years (!!!) after it opened reveals a film that is nice and fairly enjoyable but it still bears signs of uncertainty that came along with introducing this new incarnation of the character.
Nine years after being involved in a skirmish in the Soviet Union that ended with the death of fellow agent Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is lounging around in Monte Carlo doing nothing in particular aside from being evaluated when he meets the enticing Russian beauty Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), who he suspects is up to something. He’s right, of course, and it turns out that Onatopp is in league with a mysterious crime organization named Janus with their eye on procuring an experimental military helicopter which will allow them to steal the disc named Goldeneye, designed to control several satellite weapons. The theft ends with a massacre at a Russian satellite outpost which results in an unexpected survivor, beautiful computer programmer Natalya Siminova (Izabella Scorupco). Bond is assigned by the new ‘M’ (Judi Dench) to find Goldeneye as well as find who is behind the plot and his path takes him to St. Petersburg in search of the face behind Janus where he discovers….well, not to give anything away but if someone who’s name is on the poster gets killed during the pre-credit sequence, what do you really think is going on?
Taking another look at GOLDENEYE now reveals a film that is perfectly decent and never in any way dull but still not quite as energizing as it was on opening weekend way back then. The immediacy of the post-cold war element as well as the use of computers in the plot certainly places the film at the time it was made in and while this all might slightly date the film this isn’t really a bad thing. What’s more evident is how the film seems to be struggling with figuring out exactly what this new version of the character is going to be—how funny, how serious, how much action. As a result, it winds up having a bit of a prefab feel in an attempt to make it as accessible to everyone as possible. The character of James Bond seems to be explained to us almost as much as we actually see him do stuff. It almost feels the way a Bond film really should, but somehow just misses the mark. The screenplay by Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Ferstein (story by Michael France) leaves a number of things unaccounted for throughout—there’s really no reason to have Bond in Monte Carlo at the opening, let alone being ‘evaluated’—for doing what? How he spends a vacation? Of course, the powers that be clearly wanted to make all this as much of an introduction to this new Bond in the world we would expect to see him in but it feels like the film went through so many rewrites that some things got lost along the way. When Bond arrives in St. Petersburg in particular it feels like things have to tread water for about twenty minutes as characters who ultimately serve little purpose get introduced and much exposition is spoken (some of it off-camera as characters drive to a destination). Tcheky Karyo is introduced in a way that anticipates a significant role as a Russian bureaucrat but he’s dispensed with pretty quickly. Likewise Gottfried John, who does get a big introduction in the pre-credit sequence and buildup as “future iron man of Russia” General Ourumov but when he exits it happens so quickly that I literally missed it while blinking on this viewing. The film spends so little time on the details but lavishes so much attention on the stuff it assumes we want that it has Bond order drinks just so he can say “shaken, not stirred” but none of the characters wait around for them to arrive.
Along with bringing in some of the tried-and-true Bond tropes, the film includes some dialogue in the conflict between Bond and Trevelyan of the ‘we’re not so different, you and I’ that seemed to become very popular in these movies during the 90s. There’s also stuff like 007 stating ‘what keeps me alive’ in an attempt to actually dig deep into what makes the character tick. None of it seems very necessary and it’s not nearly as interesting as the film seems to think it is, although Judi Dench's much-praised banter with Brosnan as she deems him a 'sexist, mysoginist dinosaur. A relic of the cold war,' is immeasurably helped by how the two actors play this stuff. With any worries that this one would fail in the past, later Brosnan entries seemed to table these types of discussions which is probably for the best. After all, everyone has their own idea of who James Bond is and should be—my take on it might be different from yours, yours different from someone else’s. Sometimes having Bond (whoever is playing him) give a one-word, deadly grave response to something is all we’ll ever need to know about him and how he feels about what he has to do.
The special effects work is interesting in how the film comes right at that point as practical work (you know, like actual models) was quickly becoming digital and soon resulted in the Bond films looking a lot like every other blockbuster that gets made. Here, at least, some of it does feel a little old-school and helps give it a feeling like it all deserves to be seen in a theater with the biggest screen possible. Fittingly, it was the final film featuring the work of effects maestro Derek Meddings, to whom it’s dedicated. Some of the uncertainty extends to the use of violence as well with a lot of people getting machine-gunned (even for one of these films) but very little in the way of blood or squibs ever seen. There are a few points here and there where it feels like slight cuts were made to keep the PG-13—it doesn’t hurt things that much but it does feel like they weren’t quite sure how far to go with things. GOLDENEYE gets a number of things right but also quite a few wrong as well, a one-step forward, two-steps-back approach that became the norm for the Brosnan entries, each of which seemed to have different strengths and weaknesses unique to each entry. All this said, it’s still a James Bond film, with a variety of the elements that you want from one and it pretty much falls in the middle of the pack. Director Martin Campbell has a knack for giving us some grace notes throughout in the luxurious settings of places like Monte Carlo and the film does have a nice, wide-open feel to it but he did a much better job in all respects in 2006 when he introduced the next actor who played Bond in CASINO ROYALE. Still, this one isn’t an embarrassment. It’s fun, enjoyable, no doubt about that. But after it was over I felt like popping in one of the really good ones to get the full effect.
What is an embarrassment, and a very unfortunate one, is the score by Eric Serra. With composer John Barry presumably unwilling to return to the series they decided to go with a new approach by using Luc Besson’s regular composer and certainly what was heard in something like LA FEMME NIKITA is very striking. But it not only comes out all wrong it feels so lackluster in how it’s dropped into the picture, as of Serra either lost interest somewhere along the way or maybe even choked under the pressure with the score that is there coming off so sparse at times that it feels like the film is getting almost no support from it. Whether it’s the worst Bond score of all time is open to debate (Marvin Hamlisch’s THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and Michel Legrand’s NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN would also be in the running) but there are points where what is heard is as damaging to a film—any film—as I’ve ever heard from a film score. Every once in a while there’s a brief glimmer heard that sounds like it could be a genuinely modern take on Bond music, and in fairness there are a few of these moments, but they go away fast and the climax in particular winds up giving off a ‘meh’ response instead of any sort of excitement almost entirely due to the lameness of the score. Just imagine the final moment of the teaser with the actual Bond theme instead of the nothing that’s there and you can get an idea of what is sadly missing from this film. I’ve heard scuttlebutt over the years that the producers wanted to replace the score but with the release date looming there was just no time. As it is, they did have conductor John Altman put together a new version of the tank chase music, as well as the scenes leading up to it, featuring the classic theme and when this facsimile of the Bond sound suddenly appears this deep into the movie it’s like everything suddenly springs to life. Finally, it feels like the person behind this music is actually, thankfully excited that this is really a James Bond movie that they get to score. It’s not a perfect compromise considering how different it is from what’s heard during the rest of the film, but at least it’s something (for the record, both the opening song, even if it is written by Bono and The Edge, and Serra’s closing number are each pretty weak as well). Beginning with the next film, TOMORROW NEVER DIES, David Arnold was brought in to handle the duties and while his successful aping of the Barry sound has given way to a more propulsive, techno oriented approach over the years, his approach has certainly been more beneficial to the films.
People wanted to see Pierce Brosnan in this role, they were waiting for it. He’s good here, but not as strong as he would be a few films later. His more serious moments are best, with the lighter stuff seeming not quite right. Maybe I’m also not crazy about the idea of Bond wearing a sweater, as we see him right after the opening credits. To me, it makes James Bond seem more like someone who does all this as a lark on weekends, not someone who really lives this life, but maybe that’s just me. Sean Bean is a fairly decent villain, Alan Cumming is appropriately annoying as the secondary hacker bad guy but Famke Janssen is awesome, absolutely fantastic as Xenia Onatopp, taking what seems to be written as a gimmicky bad guy, best at crushing men with her thighs, and bringing a surprising intensity to it. She manages just by her quiet presence in some scenes to keep herself active even when the character isn’t much more than just a henchman. She dives headfirst into the role with such a ferocity that it makes us wish she were around more than she is. Yes, Janssen absolutely is ultra-hot as well, but plenty of beautiful women have been unable to do much with the parts they were given in these movies and there’s a reason why Janssen was able to have a career after this film. She knows how to work the camera and she knows how to get us to miss her when she’s offscreen. By comparison, Izabella Scorupco comes off as a bit of a wet blanket. Beautiful, yes, but always pouting and when held up against the insanity of Xenia Onatopp, not nearly as much fun. The film also introduced Judi Dench as ‘M’ but judging how they don’t figure out a way to bring her back for a final gag seems to mean that they didn’t quite realize what they had in her—we’re left hanging there, waiting for something and then suddenly the end credits quietly begin to roll. As a result, the closer doesn’t really have the kick it needed. Also introduced here and returning in later entries were Joe Don Baker as Jack Wade, Robbie Coltrane as Valentin Zurkovsky, Samantha Bond as Moneypenny and Michael Kitchen as Bill Tanner. Desmond Llewelyn is of course back in his legendary role as ‘Q’ and gets us to smile the instant he appears.
No one is ever going to entirely agree on all the Bond films they prefer and one of the things wrong with GOLDENEYE is that it tries to be all things to all fans. Certainly one thing that helped CASINO ROYALE succeed so well is how it totally committed to the serious, pulpy approach it took. GOLDENEYE isn’t in that league, but it does have exotic locations in far-off places, decent action, beautiful women, silly one-liners. It does enough of these things well-enough that it winds up enjoyably entertaining in the long run, something that I’m sure played great with all those families who saw it after their turkey dinners, even if it is a little hollow in spite of all its attempts at depth. It’s still surprising to think that it came out fourteen years ago. Bond will go on through the years, no matter who is playing the character and we’ll probably go on arguing about each of those films as well, trying to come to some sort of agreement as to who this character is and why we continue to obsess over them.
“Enjoy it while it lasts.”
“The very words I live by.”