Background: with a 6 year gap between Licence To Kill and Goldeneye, whereas before no film in the franchise had taken more than 3 years, generally 2 and even when they were switching Bonds they were able to maintain that momentum, fans did start to wonder if the disappointing Dalton era had done what no amount of evil super villains and their henchmen could accomplish and kill off James Bond once and for all.
The reality behind the gap was far more mundane. Eon had started to work on the 17th film in 1990, as they had a 3 picture deal with Timothy Dalton to fulfil. The problems began when for whatever reason the Broccoli's parted company with writer Richard Maibaum, who had been largely responsible for writing 13 of the films. In hindsight this may have been a good thing. Maibaum's scripts had become increasingly stale and formulaic and Licence To Kill had been mostly written by Michael G. Wilson. John Glen also departed, so a new director had to be found.
Dalton stated in a 2010 interview that the script was ready to go and they were talking about directors when the entire project got stuck in development hell. Danjaq (Bond's parent company) sued Pathe (the new owners of MGM/UA) over a plan to sell the distribution rights off cheaply. The legal battle was resolved in 1992 and Dalton's contract had expired in 1990. The whole thing probably left him with a bitter taste in his mouth and he walked away officially in 1994.
I'm not sure what film they were really writing back in 1990, but I doubt it bore much resemblance to what later became Goldeneye. Goldeneye was not the first film to not use a Fleming title, that was Licence To Kill, but it was the first to not draw inspiration from any of the author's works. The title is the name of his Jamaican estate, which is believed to have come from the codename for one of the plans he oversaw for Naval Intelligence during WW II.
The story was written by Michael France and completed early in 1994. It was script doctored by Kevin Wade (the inspiration for the name of CIA agent Jack Wade) and Bruce Feirstein. The dialogue in Goldeneye is cut above anything done before and this elevates the film above a lot of its predecessors and some of its successors in my estimation.
When making the film Eon had to draw into account that the world had changed since 1989 and Bond was an anachronism in a modern world, as was their hidebound version of MI6, which did not seem to have moved forward between 1962 and 1989. Everything was shaken up. The sets were refurbished and updated, the production values were upped considerably (at times watching the Moore's and the Dalton's I got the impression I was watching a TV show with a big budget). Goldeneye was a cinema experience, no TV show could ever do what it did) and the cast was shaken up, only one old cast member remained (no prizes for guessing who it was, either). By this stage Cubby Broccoli's health was failing (he passed away seven months after the film was released) and his stepson and daughter held the reins, although Cubby was given a consulting producer credit. I doubt he would have let Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli shake it up as much as they did if he'd been able to prevent it. He liked what they had and couldn't see it's failings.
There was a freshness about everything related to Goldeneye, from the casting choices (some of the best casting the films have ever enjoyed) to the look and feel of the promotions and then the film itself. This looked like a cinematic experience and there was a real feeling of anticipation amongst fans when the film was released. I know I felt it.
Story: the story got back to real Bond. The Cold War was well and truly over, but that didn't mean that James Bond was no longer needed.
After the pre credit sequence and the credits have rolled (they featured a lot of Soviet Union motifs, mostly falling and it may have been an acknowledgement that while we were away the world, especially the one Bond moves in had changed a lot) we see Bond racing down a winding road to Monte Carlo with a clearly terrified, but rather pretty young woman seated next to him. In a nod to the series history, the car Bond is in is a silver DB5, last seen in Goldfinger. The person he is racing, a rather wild looking woman is driving a red (do they come in any other colour?) Ferrari.
In Monte Carlo whilst playing banco or baccarat (over the years he had drifted away from what was Bond's signature game and also Fleming's favoured one, to be seen playing dice in Diamonds Are Forever, backgammon in Octopussy and blackjack in Licence To Kill) Bond encounters the driver again. The scene where he sits down and exchanges pleasantries with her put me in mind of the character's introduction via Sylvia Trench in Dr. No and the gambling scene where he helps out Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Her name is Xenia Onatopp (although he never came up with it, that name is pure Ian Fleming) and she's a wild one. Her current beau is Chuck Farrell an admiral with the Royal Canadian Navy and therefore outranks Bond as a commander.
A quick search with Moneypenny establishes Xenia's background as a Russian fighter pilot and her current suspected links to Russian crime syndicate Janus. Bond knows something is up and his suspicions are confirmed when Xenia steals a prototype helicopter. It isn't the theft that concerns Bond, it's the fact that it can withstand an electromagnetic pulse (they were all the rage at the time. With their capability to knock out electrical equipment, especially computers, they'd become the new H bomb. The science fiction TV series Dark Angel imagined a future world crippled by the detonation of an electromagnetic bomb that took out the US, and it came out in 2000, 5 years after Goldeneye and TV can often take some time to catch up with cinematic concepts).
Bond airs his concerns about the theft of the helicopter back at MI6, which has been given a high tech facelift, to Bill Tanner (not played by James Villiers this time) and is told that the new M (who he derisively refers to as a dragon lady and a bean counter in reference to her former life as a politician) discounts the theft as the Goldeneye project that the Russians were developing is no longer viable. That changes when the Severnaya security complex in Russia is hit by something that can only be an electromagnetic pulse.
Bond's first onscreen meeting with the new M (startlingly a woman) doesn't go well and she tells him exactly what she thinks of him, the words 'sexist, misogynist, Cold War dinosaur' are used. I quite liked this. M may be female and not an ex armed forces veteran, but she knows what Bond is and she doesn't have to like him or what he represents to use him, she also tags him as having a bit of a death wish, which is also true. This was the first time I'd seen them seriously examine the multiple flaws Bond's character has, and he also displayed a good deal of cynicism that had not been present before. Connery may have had some of it, but Moore certainly never did and Dalton never really got time to explore that side of the character.
Q provides him with the usual toys before packing him off to Russia, interestingly the car he winds up with is a BMW. The realities of product placement and doing deals with certain suppliers had come to the Bond films. Aside from the muscle car era of the late 60's and early to mid 70's, Bond had always driven British made cars (the Bentley, Aston Martin and Lotus). Q's lab was awesome, I loved the little touches in the background. It's like there is another movie happening behind Q and Bond. The poor lab tech who tests out the phone booth and is then jammed up against the glass when the airbag in it goes off, and who we then see carried out by others still stuck in the booth, is a particular highlight, and injected some wonderful visual comedy into a film that didn't offer many opportunities for that.
In Russia Bond starts going after Janus, the crime syndicate he believes responsible for the hit on Severnaya as well as the helicopter theft. He has an encounter with Xenia in a sauna where she attempts to kill him using her favoured method of crushing between her extraordinarily powerful thighs. Goldeneye was a good deal explicitly sexier than any earlier Bonds, which showed that standards had relaxed and allowed the films to grow up. Xenia is clearly turned on by killing people, whether she's suffocating them between her legs or gunning them down. This was the sort of thing Fleming wrote about, but that the films could never slip past the censors. I did like Bond's rather ingenious method of getting Xenia to release her leg lock, as they were in a sauna, he sat her very firmly on the hot griddle containing the superheated stones that provide the steam. That got her attention and made her let go quick smart.
The Russian episode also introduced the characters of CIA agent Jack Wade (more on him and the actor who played him in Casting) and former KGB operative Valentin Zukovsky turned nightclub owner and 'businessman' (also more on him in Casting), interestingly Minnie Driver has a cameo as Zukovsky's girlfriend where she manages to successfully murder Tammy Wynette's country classic Stand By Your Man. (Driver's appearance was interesting, this was at the height of her popularity, so to do this odd little cameo seemed a little strange and maybe the producer's way of demonstrating exactly how powerful and successful the series still was).
It isn't until Bond meets Janus and founds out that he's Alec Trevelyan Agent 006, who James believed had been murdered 9 years previously (more on that in pre credit sequence) and is knocked out and placed in the prototype helicopter rigged to explode that he encounters Natalya Simonova, a computer programmer and one of only two survivors of the attack on Severnaya, carried out by Xenia and General Ourumov, an old adversary of Bond's. The other is childish hacker Boris Grischenko, who survived because he's secretly working for the other side. Natalya knows this, Boris was how she was captured, but Bond doesn't at this point. Bond uses all his ingenuity and knowledge of aircraft to get he and Natalya clear of the helicopter before it goes boom by activating the eject mechanism.
While that saved their lives it also got them taken prisoner by the Russians and slated for execution as enemies of the state. The intervention of Ourumov saves Bond accidentally and he takes Natalya. This sparks off one of the best, most innovative chase scene I have ever seen filmed. Bond pursues Ourumov in a tank. Bond always pushes the envelope when it comes to chase scenes and the tank tops them all. It doesn't go around things or try to avoid them, it simply goes over or through them as it's designed to be near indestructible. I'd love to know how much of their budget went on the scene, because they smashed everything to bits and pretty much trashed downtown 'St Petersburg'.
They weren't satisfied with that and had to destroy the train that Janus holed up in, but the criminal got away, however not before Bond had killed Ourumov (I found that a little anti climactic, the guy's been a thorn in his side for nearly a decade, he's a lot of the power behind the whole scheme, although Janus is the mastermind, yet Bond just shoots him) and Natalya had worked out where Boris was holed up and where Janus intended to launch the Goldeneye weapon from.
The action crosses to Cuba. Mostly they're going after Janus, once they can find his base, which in shades of Blofeld's volcano stronghold in You Only Live Twice, is concealed under a man made lake, that also hides the enormous satellite dish he needs to direct the pulse. Overall not a minute of Goldeneye's 2 hour plus running time is wasted, except for in Cuba. They shoehorned in a fairly clumsy, and to this viewer, unnecessary scene where Bond falls in love with Natalya. It really only serves to establish that he sleeps with her and to not make the ending look overly formulaic and without any real reason behind it.
The final climax is worthy of any Bond film. Xenia is disposed of by Bond when he manages to get her crushed against a tree by the weight of the helicopter she was attached to when she attacked him. Rather fitting that she should meet her end that way, live by the sword, die by the sword.
Natalya and Boris go head to head and Boris is eventually brought low by his own overconfidence and Bond's exploding pen.
While they're doing that Bond is taking on Alec in the bowels of his base. The fight scene between the two is excellent and brilliantly choreographed, considering that they were both trained as 00 agents it makes perfect sense that they're evenly matched as they know all the same dirty tricks. Bond's ruthless side comes to the fore when he knowingly drops Trevelyan off the antenna to land on the disc itself, the fall doesn't kill him, that happens when the antenna falls and lands on him. Connery's Bond could do this, but didn't often show it. Moore's did do it, but it was never believable, Dalton also tried hard, but audiences didn't buy it either. The new Bond can get away with it and sell it.
In a variation from accepted convention Bond picks up Natalya and over her playful protests carries her to the waiting CIA helicopters (courtesy of Jack Wade) for transport to Guantanamo Bay where they can debrief those who need to know.
Bond was back and in a big way! Goldeneye is a superb example of the franchise, which by now had almost become their own genre.
Director: when John Glen left the franchise after Licence To Kill, they needed a new director. Losing Glen was a blow, he'd been with the films for so long and directed more than any previous director, so his replacement had to be carefully chosen. Originally John Landis, Ted Kotcheff and John Byrum were looked at, but that was before the legal action. By the time that was done with none of those was available, John Woo was offered it and turned it down, although said he was honoured to have been asked, and New Zealand born director Martin Campbell was given the job. Campbell is in my opinion the best director the franchise has ever had. He just knows how to direct an action film. He had a top notch cast to work with, boasting the likes of Judi Dench, Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan, Famke Janssen and Robbie Coltrane, but he keeps all his balls in the air and doesn't ever let them drop. He got over the painfully obvious green screen effects that had plagued the series since Dr. No by using close ups of the actor's faces and focussing on the controls of cars and planes, etc..., keeping the shots where the unrealistic backgrounds showed up to a bare minimum. The chase with the tank was a stroke of genius. The action is thick and fast and some of the shots, especially in the pre credit sequence are absolutely breathtaking. Campbell not only set a new standard for Bond, but the action film in general with Goldeneye.
James Bond: Dalton's contract had expired and he'd left the franchise so a new Bond had to be found and given the gap between the last film and this one, the choice was more important than ever before. Get it wrong this time and Goldeneye could be Bond's last stand. Both Mel Gibson (totally wrong for the role in my opinion) and Liam Neeson (an interesting choice, could have done a very good job and plays a similar character in the Taken films) passed on the role. They went back to Pierce Brosnan, the man who should have been Bond, but for his NBC contract and Remington Steele. One of the carrots for casting Brosnan and not a higher profile actor was his relatively low salary, which allowed the film makers to spend the rest of their budget elsewhere. In some ways I think Brosnan not getting Bond in 1987 was a good thing. It allowed the actor to develop and hone his skills and define his role. In between the cancellation of Remington Steele and being offered James Bond again he performed in a variety of roles, including the Cold War thriller The Fourth Protocol with Michael Caine. He'd also gained life experience (his wife Cassandra Harris, known for her role in For Your Eyes Only, passed away tragically young in 1991) and the look that a few years gives an actor. He was in his early 40's when he made Goldeneye, as opposed to mid 30's when originally offered The Living Daylights. From the first time he appears on screen the thought just runs through the mind that this IS James Bond. He has the looks and the manner. He combines Connery's edge with Moore's urbanity, and adds something of his own. Moore had a little quirk where he raised his eyebrow, Brosnan has his own, often after a dangerous and dirty stunt he'll self consciously straighten his tie. He simply owned the role. He was the perfect man to take the films bravely into a new era.
Alec Trevelyan (006/Janus): this was the first time viewers had ever really seen a 00 agent as anything other than corpse or a number (we got 009 in Octopussy, but as he was wearing a clown costume at the time and died very soon after I don't think he really counts). Alec Trevelyan was a real character with some depth and a connection to Bond. The twist of making him a traitor with a long held family grudge against the British government was inspired. Therefore they had to get an actor who could sell that. Enter Sean Bean. Bean was already known in the UK for his portrayal of 19th century soldier Richard Sharpe in the TV adaptations of Bernard Cornwell's historical fiction book series. He had the look and the manner to carry the complex, grudge holding Trevelyan. Since playing the role he's become known for dying in most of his roles, although Sharpe is one of fiction's great survivors and he didn't die as Odysseus in Troy. Bean is better known for his portrayals of the doomed Boromir in the first Lord of the Rings film and Ned Stark in the HBO show Game of Thrones. One of the few actors to transcend the Bond villain role.
Xenia Onatopp: plenty of people rate Xenia as a Bond girl. I don't. She fits the profile, beautiful, sexy, dangerous and played by a former model, but she's a bad guy. She's basically a henchperson. She's a good character, though. A former fighter pilot, she enjoys hurting people and gets aroused when killing, whether that's gunning them down or crushing them to death between her legs. They needed an actress who could do that. Famke Janssen is a Dutch former model. Goldeneye wasn't her first film, but it was definitely her break out role. Her accent wavers a bit, but she's quite compelling to watch. She's one of those models who can act and she's since gone on to play Jean Grey in Marvel's X-Men films and Liam Neeson's wife in the Taken films, as well as a number of other assorted roles that not only showcase her looks, but also her acting skills.
Boris Grischenko: Boris is the egomaniacal computer hacker with mad skills, but possessed of a puerile mind and sense of humour, he has a habit of referring to anyone he considers his intellectual inferior or unable to combat his hacking as a 'slughead'. I do occasionally wonder why they didn't try to find a Russian actor for the role, but Scottish actor Alan Cumming does a good job with it, and Boris' cry of 'I am invincible!' has gone down as one of the more memorable Bond phrases and makes the character one of the quirkier henchpeople.
Arkady Ourumov: henchperson number 3. Ourumov first encounters Bond in the pre credit sequence and the two hate each other from that point on. Ourumov is the front man for Janus' plan and wants it to catapult him into the position of being Russia's next 'Iron Man'. The broken nosed visage of German actor Gottfried John, combined with a prosthetic scar, give him the ideal look and manner for Ourumov.
Peripheral roles: the only actor retained from the old Bond films to reprise his role was Desmond Llewelyn as Q. Caroline Bliss was never right for Moneypenny and only worked sporadically after Licence To Kill, in which her role was little more than a cameo. Robert Brown was in his 70's by the time Goldeneye was made and may have been considered too old for the role. Q's always looked old and he's so loved by audiences that I think there may have been an outcry if he'd been removed from the cast. His lab scene is again a highlight and he bounces wonderfully off Brosnan, who deliberately aggravates him, his light touch is perfect when Brosnan's Bond tells Q that he believes he's familiar with the use of a belt. Llewelyn is excellently crusty and delivers one of his best remembered lines when Bond picks up a salad roll and begins to examine it, no doubt wondering what weapon it's hiding, Q snatches it out of his hands crying: 'Don't touch that! It's my lunch!'
M: the casting of M was one of Goldeneye's big shocks. M had always been a crusty old ex Navy type. Even when Tanner filled in for him in For Your Eyes Only he was still an MI6 agent, a male one at that. Robert Brown was largely cast due to a superficial resemblance to Bernard Lee, audiences were meant to accept that they were the same person, just as Bond's appearance keeps changing when a new actor steps into the role. This time Eon cast a (gasp!) woman as M! It's believed that the real life appointment of Stella Rimington as the director general of MI5, influenced the decision to make the role of M a female one and not an ex Navy person. Highly respected actress Judi Dench was given the plum role. I'm not sure if any other actresses were considered, but Diana Rigg could have done a good job and seeing as how she'd played Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service it would have been an extremely controversial choice and got some tongues wagging. Helen Mirren would have also been a good choice, although she's a good 10 years younger than Dame Judi, and my thoughts may be influenced by seeing her in the Red films. Both Bernard Lee and Robert Brown were seasoned actors who played their roles well, but in this first film Dame Judi acts rings around them. Best M ever!
Moneypenny: after the disastrous Caroline Bliss and Lois Maxwell hanging onto the role for far too long I wonder if thought was given to scrapping the role altogether. British actress Samantha Bond (total coincidence, but amusing when it popped up on the credits) stepped into her shoes. She plays it perfectly. She fences verbally with Bond, does not stand for any of his nonsense and does a better job than anyone since Lois Maxwell's performances in the early (pre retirement) Connery films.
Jack Wade: I don't know if the role was really needed, but the rough and ready Wade is amusing at times. After having Felix's legs eaten off in Licence To Kill, the producers had to find a new CIA contact and that's where Wade comes in. He's a new character created specifically for this movie. Interestingly American actor Joe Don Baker, who had played bad guy Brad Whitaker as recently as The Living Daylights got the role, and his very laid back attitude is in stark contrast to the rather more by the book Felix Leiter.
Valentin Zukovsky: the character is again used mostly for laughs, but they made a good choice by casting Scottish comedian Robbie Coltrane in the role. Coltrane was already well known in the UK when he accepted the role, having done a number of films and starring in the detective series Cracker. His comic timing and repartee with Brosnan work perfectly in Goldeneye. I'm particularly fond of his opening line when Bond puts a gun on him from behind and he says: 'A Walther PPK. I only know 3 men who use such a gun and I've killed two of them, so you must be James Bond.' He would also later transcend the Bond role becoming loved by audiences worldwide as half giant groundskeeper Rubeus Hagrid in the Harry Potter series.
Bill Tanner: after last showing up in For Your Eyes Only, Bill Tanner makes a brief appearance in Goldeneye. James Villiers was far too old for the role by 1995, and after being passed over for M I doubt he would have accepted it anyway, and so it went to Michael Kitchen, better known now for the title role in the wartime series Foyle's War.
Natalya Simonova: Natalya is one of the new breed of Bond girls. She's resourceful and intelligent as well as being independent. In the looks department she's outshone by Xenia Onatopp, but I think that's important in establishing that it's no longer just about the looks. Polish-Swedish model/singer/actress Isabella Scorupco played the role, dyeing her usually blonde locks a dark brown to play the rather mousy programmer Natalya. I actually thought she did a more than adequate job and was certainly above the likes of Lois Chiles and Britt Ekland.
The Curse of the Bond Girl: as Isabella was always more interested in modelling and singing than acting I don't think she's done that badly for herself since. She doesn't do a lot of acting and almost nothing in English. She's also revived her singing career, hosted a season of Sweden's Next Top Model and branched out into comedy in 2013. Being a Bond girl should give her plenty of material.
Pre credit sequence: they open this in stunning fashion with a bungy jump down a sheer dam wall to gain entrance to a Soviet military installation. It's established that it takes place 9 years before the state of Goldeneye. Viewers get to see the backstory of how James and Alec infiltrated the base, James believed Trevelyan had been killed by Ourumov, and so set the timers on the bombs to three minutes rather than 3, and this is how Trevelyan earned his scarred face, it's also partly behind the alias of Janus, the two faced Roman god, because one side of Trevelyan's face is perfect and the other quite badly scarred. The opening contains one of the more unbelievable stunts as Bond rides a motorcycle off a cliff and then goes in pursuit of a plane to make his escape in. Despite how impossible this is, at the time audiences swallowed it happily and strapped in for the ride.
Gadgets: we got to see a grappling gun with a laser site, which allowed Bond to make his entrance into the Arkangel facility in the pre credit sequence. They did have plenty of gadgets in this one, but didn't overdo it. In fact most of them seem to appear in the lab sequence. There's the transmitter/fax machine in Bond's car which he uses to get information on Xenia from Moneypenny The helicopter, which as far as I know does not exist, has to be a gadget, as is the Goldeneye device that sets off the electromagnetic pulse bomb. Q's X-ray document scanner is pretty nifty, shame it was set into a silver tray, otherwise Bond could have used it. Q gives Bond a BMW (which raised a few eyebrows at the time, but I'm pretty sure there was a sponsorship deal at work there) which is equipped with a parachute braking system, stinger missiles, an ejector seat and a radar, unusually for a Bond film, none of them are ever used in the field. In fact I think Wade got to drive the BMW more than James did. The belt with the grappling hook comes in handy. Bond's Omega watch had a laser and a trigger for an explosive device, I don't remember him being issued with it, so it may have been a case of deus ex machina when he and Natalya used it to escape the about to explode train in Russia. I did love the pen, click it 3 times to arm it, and then click to disarm it within 4 seconds. It was snaffled by Boris and he accidentally set it off with his continual spinning and clicking of it. I can't miss Q's leg cast which has a rocket launcher built into it.
Music: they went all out for the song. Getting Bono and The Edge to write it and Tina Turner to sing it. While everything the Irish duo from U2 did at the time turned to gold, it was a good 5 years after Tina's peak. While nearly everything else about Goldeneye works I don't think this did. It was a hit, largely because of its association with the film and the U2 connection. Tina does her best, but is saddled with a less than inspiring track and while she tried to channel Shirley Bassey she doesn't quite manage it.