Bond is back – 007 strikes Gold again

007_1In the 1960s, James Bond movies represented the height of hipness and sophistication in pop entertainment. Sean Connery’s portrayal of Ian Fleming’s super secret agent appealed to just about everybody. Men wanted to be him. Women wanted to be with him. Conservatives saw him as a team player fighting the spread of communism. Swingers saw him as the ultimate embodiment of the Playboy philosophy.

Since that time, the series has been faced with a steadily growing problem: how to maintain the credibility of a cultural icon so closely tied to a specific era in history? Fleming created the character in the Fifties, basing the character on his WW2 experiences – even by the end of Connery’s stay with the series, the martini sipping, cold blooded Bond seemed to be losing his relevance in a world grappling with the problems of the Viet Nam War, exploding racial tensions, and all the problems caused by a relatively sudden surge in global population. Some even began to see Bond as a symbol of the establishment Enemy – the fascist white male, abusing women and killing foreigners, with the complete support and approval of the Free World governments.

In the ’70s the series slipped increasingly into camp – a surprisingly bad decision, considering that the multitudes of Bond send-ups (including everything from Get Smart to Neil Connery in Operation Kid Brother) had long since worn out their welcome. Though Roger Moore is a very likable actor, his outings as 007 carried with them the sheen of winking self-parody, reaching the apex when Bond actually goes undercover as a circus clown in Octopussy. The ’80s entries tried to dodge the issue, presenting us with a toned-down PC version of the character – a family-safe secret agent for Reagan/Bush years.

The 18th 007 epic, GoldenEye takes a more courageous and refreshing path by attempting to deal with the problem directly. Instead of trying to change Bond, (as in the comparatively chaste Timothy Dalton edition), now Bond is forced to see that, while he was off saving the world, the world may have left him behind — “A dinosaur!”, as the new M (winningly played by Dame Judi Dench) puts it. Here Bond’s arch enemy is not some evil genius, but a twisted image of himself in the form of the traitorous 006 (Sean Bean). Here he not only has to face the attacks of his enemies, but the probing questions of ally and foe alike, as when his smart, sexy new girlfriend Izabella Scorupco challenges his cold-blooded attitude. His views on feminism are assaulted not only by M’s verbal barbs, but quite physically by the cigar smoking psycho assassin Xenia Anatopp (Famke Janssen, last seen boring us in Lord of Illusions), who gets her kicks by squeezing the life out of men between her steely thighs. And now that the 40-year economic war is finally over, Bond must face the fact that the people he’s risked his life so many times to defeat are now supposed to be his allies. While the old Bond dealt death to legions of Godless commies, now you wince a little at scenes of 007 mowing down soldiers just doing their jobs. Indeed, most of the film is set in formerly communist territory showing the changing face of that side of the world – even going so far as to tear down a few landmarks. And since the Berlin Wall is long gone, we’ll have to content ourselves with seeing Bond blow up a helicopter amid a graveyard of discarded Lenin statues.

Which is not to say that James spends the whole film on a psychiatrist’s couch — GoldenEye really delivers the goods in the action department. From the opening bungie jump from a huge dam, to thrilling chase through St. Petersburg involving a stolen tank and a freight train, the Bond series tradition is upheld with some of the best stunts and f/x ever. And the plot – a tensely unraveling intrigue involving renegade Soviets using a satellite weapon system to wreak havoc – is an even mix of technological complexities and daredevil mayhem to rival the best of the series, a welcome change of pace from the mushy inanities presented in the last few adventures. The familiar staple ingredients of the series – the flirting with Moneypenny, the briefing from M, the visit to Q’s workshop, the exotic locales, etc. – all make their returns without falling into cliché. The script seems almost like a patchwork of all the most successful elements of previous Bond pictures given a fresh twist, while director Martin Campbell (No Escape) keeps everything moving at a lively pace. Also, the title sequence is the most bizarre one ever, while the familiar music has been given a crisp new sound.

Pierce Brosnan takes the role of 007 as if he were born to it – not surprising perhaps, considering his history with the character. The Irish actor claims that Goldfinger was the first film he ever saw, and helped in his decision to go into show business. His late wife Cassandra Harris appeared in For Your Eyes Only. He would have taken the role in 1986, if not for the interference of NBC executives who wanted him to continue as Remington Steele (a character which played with the Bond image). It’s just as well – the intervening years have lent him an air of authority and confidence he would have lacked, and GoldenEye is a much better picture than those he would have had to endure in the ’80s. No need to trust my judgment as to his sex appeal – as he turned to fire down the trademark gun barrel to start the picture, I heard gasps from several females in the theater.

Brosnan is equally at home in all other Bond arenas, whether it’s downing a martini at a Monte Carlo baccarat table or grimly cutting loose with a machine gun. He never once betrays the character, showing a keen insight into what makes it work so well, aided by a fine supporting cast including Joe Don Baker who walks tall as a friendly CIA agent – a different role than he had in The Living Daylights. If Brosnan continues with the series (and he’s signed to do at least two more), he’ll take Moore’s place as the #2 Bond (and incidentally, since the prologue is set 9 years in the past, he’s Bond before Dalton).

Bond is indeed back this time, in the best 007 film in 20 years.

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