Short Take: GoldenEye might be forgettable, but its tongue-in-cheek playfulness and its suave lead are a breath of fresh air compared to the overly serious blockbusters of today.
With an aesthetic of hard-lined doorways, two-tone grays, and primitive visual effects, GoldenEye appears today as a quintessential 90s action movie; striving hard to be an amusement park ride but nonetheless unable to extinguish the soul of patient cinematic storytelling. To call GoldenEye a cross-section of the evolving times, measures as both its greatest strength and most glaring weakness. Never able to ratchet up either of its attempted elements, the film takes on an interesting tongue-in-cheek tone, even if the pace at times feels to be moving in slow motion.
The world’s security is a risk after a terrorist group run by former MI6 spy, Alec Travelyan, steals codes to engage an electromagnetic reactor known as GoldenEye. After the group tests the electromagnetic pulse on a Russian facility only one woman, Natalya Simonova, survives. MI6 assigns James Bond to investigate the situation. After learning that Alec plans to destroy the world as a way to avenge the death of his parents, Bond and Natalya must work together to stop the terrorists before they destroy the city of London.
Pierce Bronson’s James Bond, with nary a crease in his suits or a hair out-of-place, looks like he was wrenched from the media executive department on Sterling Cooper and dropped into the middle of international espionage. Without a sense of urgency or superior muscle tone, Bronson looks like he’s unsure why he’s there. Unlike the passionate intensity that emerges later in the series through Daniel Craig, Bronson doesn’t seem to fear for his life or worry that perhaps the plot to destroy the world might actually work. I was struck by how easygoing this Bond remained. As a result, its hard to feel much tension in the plot either, since Bond doesn’t seem terribly concerned. What this Bond does possess is a magnetizing charm and a playful wit. At one point calling himself a “stiff ass Brit,” Bronson portrays the hero with a whimsy and suave playfulness that fits the desired camp of the franchise. Even while M calls him a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur,” it feels far less demoralizing to watch women fall for the careless Wall Street Banker Bond, seeing as they don’t seem overly invested in him just as he not them.
Watching GoldenEye today, I was pleasantly surprised that the narrative evolved with patience, often prioritizing conversation over fight scenes. Perhaps a product of a time when digital enhancements were hardly an option, there’s an opportunity to engage with the characters and get a footing for the plot that doesn’t come through in the later films. When the action set pieces do emerge, they feel something like sluggish down cartoons. During the most extensive chase scene, James Bond, already driving a bombastic military tank, uproots a horse statue, only to carry it above him through the streets. The villains too share a caricature quality. None more so than the over-sexed Xenia Onatopp, who pushes the intersection of violence and sex to a comic degree by unleashing a woman who gets orgasmic pleasure from killing. This character thread climaxes in a “foreplay” fight in a sauna. With a wink and a nod, the filmmakers understand where 007 movies butter their bread, and somehow within the camp a self-aware entertainment surfaces.
A slowed down thriller with some intriguingly fun characters, GoldenEye doesn’t question James Bond’s past or make you dubious about his psychological health. Instead, this film, with a hero who well might be on Ambien, feels like an easygoing amusement park ride that has no interest in being heady at the cost of a good laugh. While I found myself cackling at the silliness, there’s an even greater joy that comes from knowing those elements were at least mostly intentional. [B]