25 Years Of 'GoldenEye': What Pierce Brosnan's Debut Could Teach The Bond Franchise

·7-min read
Photo credit: Keith Hamshere - Getty Images
Photo credit: Keith Hamshere - Getty Images

From Esquire

November 21st 2020 marks 25 years since the release of 1995’s GoldenEye. Which will make men of a certain age - my age, 36 - feel very old, but also warm inside. As did Esquire’s watchalong with Pierce Brosnan, which gave me all the other feels and - along with mainlining John Gardner’s official continuation books that include novelisations of GoldenEye and 1989’s Licence To Kill - helped get me through the first lockdown.

GoldenEye was my Bond film. At 11, I was just old enough to sneak into the 12 certificate, although market research showed boys my age didn’t know or care about Bond. TV rights wrangling had led to a six-year hiatus - the longest in the franchise’s history - following License To Kill, which underperformed commercially, partly because of its 15-rating, and was considered too dark. (Liking it is fashionable now, less so then.)

Against even the studio’s expectations, GoldenEye was a smash hit. It turned Bond from something my dad loved into something I loved, and still love now I am a dad. Some of that alchemy is, of course, down to the legendary N64 game. But GoldenEye is a great Bond film, and I’ll challenge anyone who says otherwise to a deathmatch on Facility with remote mines.

Now the longest-serving Bond, Daniel Craig is retiring at 52 after over 14 years in the tux. Young fans who came on board with his own barnstorming debut, 2006’s Casino Royale, are… not so young. And with speculation mounting over the secret identity of the seventh 007 before anybody has seen next year’s No Time To Die, it’s a good time to look back wistfully at what GoldenEye got right - and Bond 26 could learn from.

Make a great first impression

In an early draft, GoldenEye’s pre-credits sequence was set at a wine auction on a train, where the villainous sommelier blew his cover by serving Bond before the ladies present - a nod to Donald “Red” Grant’s red-with-fish faux pas in From Russia With Love, but hardly vintage. And that’s before Bond was to drive his Aston Martin along the train roof.

Whereas GoldenEye’s pre-credits proper is up there with the best in the franchise. (I’d argue it’s the best.) What Empire called “the most important ten minutes in Bond’s career” didn’t just bring 007 back with a banging bungee jump off a dam, or expertly tease the reveal of Brosnan (because it was really a stuntman). It also ably demonstrated that Bond doesn’t just quaff martinis in casinos and blithely introduce himself to enemies. He’s a highly trained operative capable of single-handedly infiltrating a Soviet chemical weapons facilities… Wait, 006 is there too? And he’s Sharpe? OMFG.

Roger Moore would’ve been proud of Brosnan’s first line, delivered hanging upside down from a ventilation shaft above a toilet cubicle. “Beg your pardon - forgot to knock,” Bond quips to the stunned soldier before punching him out cold. But this is no joke, as evinced by the execution of 006. The Soviets are not pissing about. Bond is in genuine danger. The nail-biting stand-off is as gripping as the subsequent explosive action.

And while Bond’s escape, driving a motorcycle off the side of a mountain to catch a falling plane, is on paper as preposterous as any set piece in the franchise, it’s played deadly straight - and with a conspicuous absence of Union Jack parachutes.

Photo credit: Keith Hamshere - Getty Images
Photo credit: Keith Hamshere - Getty Images

Find the right leading man for the job

GoldenEye was written for Timothy Dalton, but the studio wanted to appeal to a new audience with a new Bond. Or rather an old one, as Brosnan had been set to star in 1987’s The Living Daylights only for the makers of his TV series Remington Steele to capitalise on the publicity by reviving the show. His standing among Bonds probably hinges on your age during his tenure, and we won’t talk about 2002’s Die Another Day. But to me, Brosnan is cool AF and never more so than in GoldenEye, as convincing dealing out repartée at the baccarat table in Monte Carlo as he is running and machine-gunning through the St Petersburg archives. Get you a Bond who can do both.

Photo credit: Richard Davis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Richard Davis - Getty Images

Create a good baddie

In that early draft, the treacherous Trevelyan was Bond’s former mentor, and older. He became younger so he could go toe-to-toe with Bond - a break with the franchise tradition of villains outsourcing manual labour to henchmen, and one that proved a masterstroke. Because Trevelyan is also - plot twist! - 006, he has skills and wristwear (the Omega Seamaster, also making its debut) to compete with Bond (who Sean Bean supposedly auditioned for in The Living Daylights, making the parallels even neater). Their rivalry is especially perilous for 007, and personal - but not as contrived as Blofeld being Bond’s stepbrother. Trevelyan’s taunts - “You know, James, I was always better” - really sting. He knows what buttons to press, metaphorically and on Bond’s watch.

GoldenEye’s bruising satellite dish showdown was inspired by From Russia With Love’s brutal train fight between Bond and Red Grant, technically a glorified henchman but effectively a great villain because, like Trevelyan, he’s established as an anti-Bond (only bigger, stronger and meaner) who makes you really fear for 007’s wellbeing. Compare those hard-hitting scenes to, say, Spectre’s derivative train fight with the hench but otherwise underdeveloped Mr Hinx, which completely lacks any dramatic punch.

Set the right tone

Spectre tried to bring back the trademark Bond humour hitherto mostly lacking in the Craig era but only succeeded in undermining any tension - like when Bond gets stuck behind a slow-driving pensioner while fleeing Mr Hinx, who has just gouged out a colleague’s eyes at the all-hands meeting with his otherwise pointless metal thumbs. Their supercar pursuit has none of the impact or wit of GoldenEye’s tank chase. (That tie-straighten!)

Admittedly, GoldenEye has more than its fair share of one-liners, plus a standard-issue comic-relief briefing by Desmond Llewelyn’s Q. But there’s also a cold, hard edge - not least to Judi Dench’s newly installed M, who tells “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” Bond: “I’ve no compunction about sending you to your death.”

Goldfinger was held up as the, er, gold standard for GoldenEye, which explains the gratuitous inclusion of the DB5 that somehow keeps pace with a Ferrari 355 - even less plausible than 007’s high-speed seduction of his psychologist with the aid of his armrest champagne cooler. That’s swiftly followed by Bond quaffing martinis in a casino and blithely introducing himself to Xenia Zaragevna Onatopp: “Onatopp?” “Onatopp.”

Famke Jansen’s femme fatale might’ve just been Alotta Fagina, so to speak, if she weren’t an indelible sicko who gets off on crushing men to death between her legs. (Thankfully I didn’t understand that enough as a boy to be overly disturbed.) Which is to say that GoldenEye, like Goldfinger, balances light and dark. It’s good, mostly clean fun.

Photo credit: Phil Dent - Getty Images
Photo credit: Phil Dent - Getty Images

Hire Martin Campbell to direct

Then mainly known for TV work, Campbell had only previously directed one film: 1994’s No Escape, starring Ray Liotta. And his budget of $55m for GoldenEye was, even in those days, measly for a “big” action film. (Fun fact: he has a cameo as a cyclist toppled over by the DB5 and 355.) But he more than repaid the producers’ faith, breaking franchise box office records and ushering in a new Bond era - a trick he repeated with Casino Royale. (Fun fact: he has a cameo as the Miami airport tanker driver who gets his neck broken.) Campbell has said he’d consider directing a third Bond film - provided there was also a new 007: “Never say never.” Well, certainly not again, anyway.

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