For years, even before he was Bond, Pierce Brosnan seemed a natural choice to have a licence to kill.
The story is that he visited the set of For Your Eyes Only to see his wife Cassandra Harris, who was playing the Countess who is romanced by Roger Moore’s James Bond.
Producer “Cubby” Broccoli immediately considered the Irish-born actor for the next Bond, but his contract on the TV show Remington Steele prevented him from taking it. So they went with Dalton. A legal dispute delayed the shooting of a follow-up to 1989’s License to Kill, and when EON and MGM was finally ready to make Goldeneye in 1994, Dalton was out and Brosnan was in.
I think Brosnan was a good choice for Bond. He has the physicality and the looks, and most importantly, he isn’t immediately likeable. He was in four movies as 007, and as they went along they got progressively worse, but the actor got better. His Bond became more ruthless; and his aging suited the character. The last one, Die Another Day, reached the levels of silliness that scuppered some of the Moore films, but in the centre of the picture, Brosnan’s Bond was harder and colder than ever.
I don’t know that I loved any of the Brosnan films ouright, but they did modernize 007, gave the series some geopolitical heft. Bond became a contemporary, post-Cold War government fixer. It suited him.
Goldeneye (1995) | Directed by Martin Campbell | Written by Martin France, Jeffery Caine and Bruce Feirstein | 130 min
The movie starts with a classic stunt, a man in black jumping off a dam. It’s Bond, of course, joining agent 006, Alex Trevelyan (Sean Bean, great casting as a foil for Bond), to blow up a Soviet weapons facility. Trevelyan is apparently killed, but Bond gets away, blowing up the entire facility. Then we have the credits and the Tina Turner theme (written by Bono and the Edge), which I’ve always liked. Strangely, it reminds me of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs”.
Years later Bond is tracking Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco, not so interesting), who knows about a satellite defense system that’s fallen into the hands of a former Russian general-turned-crime lord. Of course there are multiple betrayals, exploding bases, firefights, etc, and it all gets pretty damn confusing before it makes sense. This is a quality of most Bond movies and it’s hardly a detriment to the entertainment value. When I’m lost, I never lose faith that eventually Bond will find his way to the centre of the plot. All the audience has to do is trust that 007 knows what’s going on, even if we don’t.
In Goldeneye, there’s a lot to enjoy: the ghosts of the Cold War that haunt the story, the Monte Carlo, St Petersburg and Caribbean locations. Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp, the Russian assassin who kills with her thighs, is delicious, easily one of the series’ best villains. I love how much she seems to enjoy her work.
A surprising action set-piece takes place through the streets of St. Petersberg as Bond commandeers a tank. Brosnan seems more comfortable than Dalton as James Bond. Introduced is a delightful new Miss Moneypenny is the ideally named actor Samantha Bond. And best of all, a new M, played with relish by Judi Dench. I love this exchange:
M: Good. Because I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms, though lost on me, obviously appealed to that young girl I sent out to evaluate you.
Great stuff. This new, excellent dynamic has extended right through to Daniel Craig’s Bond. If anything, M is even more nasty to him.
On the debit side, Goldeneye feels like one of the longest Bond movies in the franchise. Way too much time is spent with the dull Natalya, and the forward momentum grinds to a halt more than once. But when it clicks, it explodes.
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) | Directed by Roger Spottiswode | Written by Bruce Feirstein | 119 min
In some respects, Tomorrow Never Dies—and what does that title even mean, anyway—is as much fun as Goldeneye. It might be even better, in that the problems with pacing of the earlier film have been solved, and this one costars the amazing Michelle Yeoh, a great actor and martial artist. Unfortunately, it’s undone a bit by a villain who couldn’t be more limp.
The bad guy is media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce, who I generally like, just not in this), basically Ted Turner with bigger ambitions. He wants to provoke a war between the UK and China, the idea being that if there’s a change in the Chinese administration, his cable channels will appear before billions of Chinese eyes. To complicate matters, Carver’s wife, Paris (Teri Hatcher), is an ex-girlfriend of Bond’s. (It’s strange to think of James Bond being able to sustain a relationship long enough where someone might call herself his girlfriend. Maybe it was more of a fling.) Of course, Bond uses her to get to Carver, and it doesn’t work out so well for her.
Highlights include Bond and Michelle Yeoh’s Chinese agent Wai Lin escape through the streets of Saigon…
…and the finale on Carver’s stealth boat in the South China Sea. Bond gets a new Q-Branch car this time out, but disappointingly it’s a BMW. Not that I have anything against the German car in the era of the European Union, excellent vehicles that they are, but Bond’s signature autos should always be British. (That said, there’s a great sequence where he controls it from its backseat with a hand-held device. He really seems to be having fun.)
The World Is Not Enough (1999) | Directed by Michael Apted | Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Bruce Feirstein | 128 min
Brosnan and the ’90s Bond movies are in a groove by this point, so why in the world did they think to cast Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist named Dr Christmas Jones?
In the history of women in Bond movies, she’s actually not so bad, and it’s not her that makes this 19th edition of the Bond franchise feel a bit overstuffed. It may be churlish to complain that there’s a sense we’ve seen it all before when talking about a Bond movie because, let’s face it, there are tropes that repeat from picture to picture. But this one measures up as a middling entry at least partly because of a lack of fresh action ideas.
The film has Bond tracking down the murderer of a British oil tycoon, who it turns out is another refugee from the Cold War, Renard (Robert Carlyle), a former Soviet agent with a beef against MI:6. He has a bullet in his brain, put there by Agent 009, and it’s made him invulnerable to pain. Neat trick. The tycoon’s daughter, Elektra (Sophie Marceau), may be the next target of Renard’s, and her company is trying to build a controversial oil pipeline through Azerbaijan.
The relationship between Elektra and 007 is fraught, even when it’s not much of a surprise she has sinister motives; she’s easily the best thing in the movie, and one of the series’ most complex antagonists.
And the pre-credit sequence boat chase through the London docklands is pretty damn impressive. But we also get yet another ski chase, another souped up BMW with remote control and missile capabilities just like the last movie, and unimpressive action set-pieces like the one with a helicopter and a giant saw. Yawn. Thankfully, The World is Not Enough is topped off by an impressive finale on a nuclear submarine in the Istanbul harbour.
Robbie Coltrane makes a welcome return, playing Valentin Zukovsky, a character who first showed up in Goldeneye. And Judy Dench’s M plays a bigger part in the film, especially in the third act, deepening her relationship with her subordinate. This picture marks Desmond Llewelyn’s final as Q, the longest serving cast member in the entire franchise. In the picture he introduces his replacement, who, wonderfully, is John Cleese.
Die Another Day (2002) | Directed by Lee Tamahori | Written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade | 133 min
Here’s a Bond movie where so much is right, but at the same time, so much is completely wrong. I’d say the bad outweighs the good, but as with every entry in the franchise, there’s plenty of entertainment value.
The last of the four Brosnan-as-007 pictures, , starts strong. Bond is captured in North Korea, imprisoned and tortured for 14 months. This grim, intense opening sets the film up as a darker entry, but that tonal shift never quite delivers. Instead we get fey British madman Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) and his giant laser satellite, Korean killer Zao and the diamonds stuck in his face, and far too much CGI for a James Bond movie.
Previous to the Brosnan Bonds, EON tended to cast ingenues in the “Bond Girls” roles, but with Michelle Yeoh and Teri Hatcher, they began to consider more known quantities. Halle Berry was probably the most “known” co-star in a Bond film, and as Jinx Johnson, the chemistry she shares with Brosnan makes for some fun moments. Her “recreation” of the iconic Honey Ryder intro from Dr. No, complete with knife on the hip, is a highlight.
And Rosamund Pike, in her first feature, does good work as a chilly and duplicitous MI:6 agent.
Though Die Another Day does see the return of a stylish Aston Martin as Bond’s vehicle of choice, introduced by Cleese’s Q, this one actually has the power to become invisible. As much as credibility is stretched in Bond movies, an invisible car is simply not on. (See the comment above regarding the CGI.)
Thinking back on the film, I’m trying to block out the unbearably silly sequences where Bond surfs on an arctic tidal wave and Jinx almost drowns in a ridiculous, melting ice hotel. Madonna also cameos as a fencing instructor with a peculiarly mid-Atlantic accent, but barely registers. For her to hardly make a ripple you know something has gone off the boil.