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James Bond at 53: The ’90s (and One Extra)

James Bond at 53: The ’90s (and One Extra)

After a decade of lackluster James Bond movies, and the two Timothy Dalton outings being undeniably meh, the franchise needed a change and a breather. After 16 films in 27 years, with a three year gap between 1974 and 1977 being the longest space between productions, the whole thing was in need of some perspective. If the series was going to keep going, they’d have to reevaluate the political climate and Bond’s place within it. The films by this point were incredibly formulaic and silly and the plots were each more ludicrous than the last; much of that would have to go. There are component pieces that must be present for it to be a James Bond film, but there needed to be some way to shake them up.

Replacing Dalton would be Irish born Pierce Brosnan, famous in America as TV’s Remington Steele. Brosnan brought a new physicality to the character as well as a swagger not seen since Sean Connery. This is a Bond who’s seen a lot of bad things and done a lot worse. He’s still quick with the innuendo and snide to all the baddies, but he’s got an air of professionalism and world weariness Roger Moore at even his oldest and fogiest never possessed. They also addressed the idea of Bond being possibly passed his prime. The new M, whom I’ll discuss later, refers to him as “an outdated, misogynist dinosaur, a relic from the Cold War.” Brosnan’s Bond had to change with the times while still maintaining the overall attitude of the character. There was also an attempt to make Bond more personally involved in the plots, either having emotional or familial ties to at least one character in each of the films as well as being honor-bound to complete his mission and not just forced to for work.

Goldeneye

GoldenEye introduces us to Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), codename 006 and the closest thing to a brother James Bond has been shown to have. We find out (spoilers) that he was working for the Russians because of his hatred of Britain for killing his Cossack parents. It is discussed in the books, and implied in the earlier films, that Bond has no family, nothing except the job. Here, it dives into the fact that to be a Double-O, one generally comes from a very specific background of state-sponsored schooling and early military service. To put oneself in harm’s way time and again, they should have no ties. Which is why Bond resigns when gets married in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (he doesn’t stay retired of course because his wife is killed six minutes later). With a personal life like that, it’s only natural for family bonds to be created at work. Trevelyan knows Bond better than anyone, and they are repeatedly said to have been like brothers. Bond’s guilt over initially getting Alec killed is matched by the anger he feels upon learning of Alec’s criminal enterprise. Trevelyan represents what Bond could easily become if he let himself lose sight of duty.

GoldenEye also tries to drastically change and update the sexual politics of the series. In the late 70s and 80s, the Bond women generally got stronger and more professional, however were still easily wooed by Bond’s heroic manliness. In GoldenEye, the women all held their own. Or most of them. There was still the obligatory ridiculous woman who Bond tricks and beds early in the film, but she’s the exception and not the rule. The character of M, played by Bernard Lee and Robert Brown in the previous films, was now played by Judi Dench. Whereas the previous “M”s, especially Lee’s, were equal parts superior and stern father figure, something Bond, an orphan, was severely lacking, this new M is totally unimpressed with Bond, thinks he’s thoroughly reckless. He, likewise, feels she’s an unnecessary ball-breaker whose by-the-book style gets in the way of accomplishing missions. It’s their growing, begrudging at first, respect for each other that’s not only a central portion of this film, but indeed the entirety of the Brosnan regime.

M

Bond women usually fall into three categories: the good one, the bad one, and the one he just sleeps with to sleep with one who usually gets killed. In this new, pro-feminism (or attempt thereat) way of making Bond films, both the good one and the bad one are given a great deal more pathos while the ones he just sleeps with remain eye candy. The bad Bond girl in GoldenEye is certainly a memorable one. Famke Janssen portrays the customarily suggestively named Xenia Onatopp, a former Soviet fighter pilot who joins Trevelyan’s Janus syndicate. Not only is she incredibly good looking, she’s completely sadistic and insane. The good one in GoldenEye is computer programmer Natalya Simonova played by Izabella Scorupco. Even though Bond needs to save her, she’s definitely not a damsel and the two work as a team throughout much of the film trying to stop the GoldenEye satellite from destroying the United Kingdom. She initially isn’t very interested in Bond romantically, but dammit she can’t help herself.

GoldenEye is just a fantastic movie, and it’s sort of unfortunate that it came first in Pierce Brosnan’s run because every subsequent film is compared to it, and not particularly favorably if you ask me. There’s no real cohesion to any of the four movies, but I do appreciate that they keep a growing family of supporting characters which, M, Q, and Moneypenny aside, did not really exist in the earlier films. You have Michael Kitchen and Colin Salmon playing member’s of M’s staff and friends of Bond, you have Robbie Coltrane in two films as Russian gangster and sometimes ally Valentin Zukovsky, you have John Cleese as Q’s assistant in The World is Not Enough who becomes the new Q in Die Another Day, and you have Joe Don Baker in GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies as friendly, Southern CIA man Jack Wade, a sort of replacement for Felix Leiter.

Tomorrow Never Dies

After successfully maintaining a fairly realistic tone in GoldenEye, the filmmakers brazenly went another way with 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies. Enough people must have complained about the earlier film’s lack of gadgetry and stupid gags so they upped the quota severely while still attempting to depict Bond having deep, personal issues and as such create a movie that’s very uneven. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode, the acclaimed director of Turner & Hooch and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Tomorrow Never Dies suffers from an excess of one-liners and a lack of believability, not that it’s not cool that Bond gets a BMW that he can drive using a cell phone or anything. The plot involves a worldwide media mogul named Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) using technology to start a war between Great Britain and China in order to have exclusive broadcast rights of it. In a similar plot thread from The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond “meets his match” in the form of Chinese secret agent Wai Lin, played by Michelle Yeoh. Yeoh kicks ass and looks good doing it, but she just doesn’t really belong in this film; she’s weirdly too credible. Despite a pretty impressive sequence where Bond and Wai Lin, handcuffed together, must ride a motorcycle through the cramped streets of Saigon while being chased by a helicopter, the rest of the action is pedestrian and either silly or just unexciting.

Since the Bond/Trevelyan relationship in GoldenEye had worked so well, they attempted to explore more of the character’s storied past. They couldn’t very well do 005 or someone like that, so they decided it should be Bond meeting an old girlfriend… Elliot Carver’s wife, Paris, played by Teri Hatcher, sees Bond at a party for her husband’s new media venture while he’s pretending to be a banker named Bond, James Bond. She knows who he really is, of course, and slaps him immediately. They were definitely trying something with this idea, but Bond’s had 6 million ex-girlfriends and in each movie it looks like he’s going to end up with them. Being reunited with someone he loved and left and then getting her killed would be a very dramatic moment in someone’s life, one that might even lead to behavioral change, which would be an interesting twist on the character, but they didn’t do that, ultimately.

Wai

Bond’s female relationships get even weirder in the next film, 1999’s The World is Not Enough (or TWINE in promotional materials). In story terms, the film gives Judi Dench’s M a much more prominent role in the action, being both the instigator of the action and the target of the plot. It features a Bond girl, Elektra King played by Sophie Marceau, who you think is a damsel and then find out is the evil mastermind, the only time in the series that the main villain has been a woman. It has a plot that’s, if overly complex, at least intriguing. But it also features one of the most annoying, superfluous characters in any of the James Bond films, one whom I believe could be wholly excised from the film, despite being in over half of it, and almost none of the structure would be affected.

At the 57 minute mark of the film, Bond goes undercover at a nuclear silo, having impersonated a Russian scientist on villain Renard (Robert Carlyle)’s employ, and meets – and I can’t believe I have to type the following words – an American nuclear physicist named Christmas Jones, played by Denise Richards. There’s so much wrong with this sentence. Upon seeing her, in a tight tank top and short shorts, a guard or somebody says “She’s not interested in men.” Uh oh, she’s gonna be a tough nut to crack. Bond, in character, has a brief yet innuendo-filled conversation with her whereupon it’s revealed she is indeed a tough nut. There is NO OTHER SCENE in the entire film where she needs to be there or is even much of a focus. Yet, she’s with Bond in nearly every single scene for the rest of the movie. She uses her nuclear physics know-how to solve problems, yes, but those problems were very clearly added to the script to give her something to do. So why is she in this movie?

Christmas

What I think happened, and this is just a theory, is they had written the script in its entirety without that character in it and the studio or some head mucky muck decided there needed to be another Bond girl. There can’t just be one, especially if she’s a bad guy, no matter how interesting that might be, so they did the very minimum of rewriting to include Christmas Jones in with what was already established. Her name is Christmas Jones for the groan-and-eye-roll inducing line during the final sex scene, “I thought Christmas only comes once a year.” The film was never in danger of being a masterpiece, but it would have been a pretty solid movie if everything had been the same and Chrismas had been omitted. With her, it’s just an aggravation.

Brosnan’s final turn in the role came in 2002, the 40th anniversary and 20th film of the franchise, Die Another Day. Now, there are dumb Bond movies, like Diamonds are Forever and Octopussy, and there are silly Bond movies, like Moonraker and You Only Live Twice, and there are even really bad ones, like A View to a Kill, but I can’t think of any that combine all three in such a ridiculous fashion as Die Another Day. Almost every scene in this movie is annoying and dumb and the plot makes almost zero sense, so I’m not even going to try to explain it. It attempted to commemorate the milestone in the series with references to past films and they’re all incredibly obvious and feebly executed. Brosnan looks as though he’s on cruise control as he walks around the film with the swagger of any middle aged man feeling like he’s living the high life. The film, directed by another journeyman director, Lee Tamahori, forsakes any practical effects and realism for CGI and sets that look like they came out of the 1960s Batman TV show.

Skiing

The offenses of Die Another Day include, but are not limited to the following: a North Korean general’s kid, the bad guy, undergoing gene therapy to pass for a British playboy, an Aston Martin with the ability to become invisible through the use of thousands of cameras projecting the outward onto the opposite side of the car (what?), Madonna as a fencing coach, a speed-up/slow-mo car chase on ice, a hotel made of ice, a mirrored satellite that uses the sun’s rays like a laser beam, green screen Bond paragliding/surfing on the computer generated tidal wave caused by a rapidly-melted glacier, a room full of CG lasers, and Halle Berry as a jive-talking CIA agent named Jinx. The last one might be the most egregious, however, as the character of Jinx as well as her handler, Agent Falco played by Michael Madsen, were created for this film with the sole intention of making a spinoff franchise. This film is utterly, insipidly stupid all the way down to the auto-tuned, techno theme song by Madge herself. For coming in on such an amazing high, Brosnan goes out on an incredible, franchise-worst low.

There you have it: GoldenEye was amazing, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough were dumb, and Die Another Day was awful. Not a great legacy for such a generally solid and consistent James Bond. Still, to last four films, and have them be among the biggest money makers in the series, is an achievement in and of itself. From what I understand, Brosnan was keen to remain in the role, but after such mixed-to-awful reviews for his last effort, the studio decided they needed yet another renewal, this time in the form of a proper series reboot. Next time we’ll be discussing Daniel Craig’s three films, how different they are from each other, and the future of the franchise as Spectre hits theaters.

Scorupco

Images: MGM/Sony

Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor as well as a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Talk about all the spy shenanigans you’d like with him on Twitter!

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