The flashbulbs were at the ready. The pens sat between fingers, poised to take notes. Fingers hovered over recorder buttons. Each journalist was ready to make a killing.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the new James Bond: Mr. Pierce Brosnan!” The reveal of a the next actor to step into the shoes of the world’s most famous secret agent has always been an event in and of itself, but something felt particularly prescient, even calculated, on June 8, 1994. Brosnan was emblematic of a neo-classical direction for James Bond, at once suave, cool, pleasantly bland – therefore, ineffectual – and yet contemporary enough to attract a crowd. Realistic, but not too jaded; retro, but not too dated. “[Brosnan] has the sexual mischief of the old James with a superman’s derring-do and self-confidence in handing wit and weaponry,” opined Alexander Walker. Such a carefully curated 007 would not only go into the actor, but also into the film itself.
True, Brosnan had been in the running for years prior, even screen testing as early as 1981 for the film For Your Eyes Only, but there were always conflicts: either the producers didn’t think the Irishman was ready for the part, or his successful television series Remmington Steele was creating scheduling issues, or his contract was preventing from Brosnan from taking time off.
Timothy Dalton’s James Bond could retroactively be thought of as prototypical of Daniel Craig’s: gritty, world weary, alienated, and alienating. Audiences weren’t taking to it, as the returns on Licence to Kill in 1989 only amounted to a comparably paltry $34 million, up against a budget of $36 million. Its world box office gross racked up $156.2 million, but though Bond was a piece of iconography out of the UK, the British action hero’s infiltration into the United States as a pop cultural institution felt significant, and judging by the response to Dalton’s films, worrisome. Here was a Bond that did not have sex, at least not in the kinda sorta explicitly implicit way that had been embedded into the franchise’s DNA.
In addition, here was a Bond whose reactionary ‘realism’ to the world outside of the movie theater didn’t really provide a brand of escapism that audiences preferred. Drug lords, digging up UK and USSR tensions, and even making Bond go rogue in a world where the UK didn’t really need him, never mind the US, wasn’t what US audiences particularly wanted. In Bond’s place, they had films like True Lies and Lethal Weapon.
Five years had passed since License to Kill failed to make much of an impression in the United States and EON Productions, run by longtime producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, daughter of Bond franchise conceiver Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and half-brother to Michael, was starting to worry.
Legal issues and the question of rights to the property floated around the offices of EON, and its parent company Danaq, proceeding the lackluster receipts from Licence to Kill. MGM and United Artists, the distributor of the Bond films, also began to worry, as, for them, Bond was their tent pole property: films that cost a pretty penny to make, but whose returns more than made up for it. More important than that was Bond’s pop cultural status: iconography. The sleek suit, the coiffed hair, the drinks, gadgets, and women. Yet all of this would be put into dangerous flux, concerning all involved.
That six year hiatus would engender constant speculation, a phenomenon that was at the time, kind of quaint, but now common practice with nearly any big budget film. This was technically the pre-Internet age, as far as film fandom went, and would only serve as an appetizer for other highly anticipated reboots like 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
Dalton refused to return, as the wait had been too long. Five years. Much had changed socio-politically in those five years. Michael France drafted the screenplay for GoldenEye, which took its name from Ian Fleming’s Jamaican home where he wrote many of the Bond stories. The introduction of a new actor in the role meant, for producers, a reengineering of the Bond engine, so to speak. The title itself was part of rebooting Bond: it was the first film to be given an original title, and not at least loosely based on anything Fleming had written. Furthermore, it meant that such a sociopolitical atmosphere would be imbued into the script, which would go through rewrites by Jeffrey Caine, and ask the audience, “In a post Cold War world, do we even need James Bond?”
GoldenEye, directed by Martin Campbell, is mildly radical in how un-radical it is. James Chapman, in his book License to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films, quips that GoldenEye is “Old wine in new bottles.” The shift that was made from Roger Moore’s aging and clownish James Bond to Dalton’s more explicitly violent and cynical one might have been too jarring for audiences, even those of whom that didn’t especially care for Moore in the role (the films were consistent box office successes). This meant that GoldenEye, as the one of the first Hollywood reboots, would have to find the perfect concoction to make 007 appealing again. What use did the movies have for a superhero that was emblematic of British imperialism under the guise of class and slickness? And what use would it be to open a can of worms, put salt in the relatively fresh wounds of the Cold War?
The film elides those questions by directly addressing the audience, sometimes more explicitly than others. Ushered into the offices of MI6 is Judi Dench as M, a figure now androgynous, but willfully confronting both Bond’s and the audience’s sexism of lowered expectations. “You think I’m an accountant, a bean counter more interested in my numbers than your instincts,” Dench states dispassionately. “The thought had occurred to me,” Bond replies. Writer James David Patrick notes, “With the subversion of the dominant male hierarchy, GoldenEye rewrites the course of Bond more dramatically than any other film in the series.”
The hook is this: “Good, because I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms, though wasted on me, obviously appealed to that young woman I sent out to evaluate you.” To say that M snarls this line at James Bond would be a disservice, but nonetheless, her assertion is pointed: we don’t need James Bond, but we want him all the same. And that was the key thing that EON, MGM, UA, Michael G Wilson, Barbara Broccoli, and Pierce Brosnan had to hone in on. This time, with double the budget.
It wasn’t a matter of outgrowing a property’s use as a capitalistic venture, but being able to find how and to what degree that property is malleable. James Bond is relatively unique in its very versatility, its reactionary response to contemporary issues or trends, and its oscillating reinventions.
GoldenEye stands out in the Bond films, second only to Casino Royale, because of how snugly the film fits within the canon, but how contemporary it was designed to be. Part of Bond’s reinventions were contingent on making the elements of the Bond formula relevant or versatile to any context. But GoldenEye, more than the other films in the series, feels a little postmodern. It is at once stunningly contemporary and yet exists in a funny vacuum where it’s still the 1960s. Part of the dialectic of the film are those two ideological positions, rooted in time, clashing with one another: an optimism of the ‘60s manifesting in the coolness of fashion and cars and accessories, and a cynicism of the mid-‘90s, where computers are a gateway to hell and Russia is still smarting after the fall of the USSR in ‘91.
Mark O’Connell, author of the memoir Catching Bullets, commented, “The mid 1990s (particularly in Great Britain) were a culturally vibrant time - where vintage music, fashion and cinematic influences from yesteryear had great currency.” Nostalgia and mining from the past is the hallmark of the reboot, these days so geared for audiences already familiar with the property, and tweaked ever so slightly to reflect a contemporaneous relevance. “All Bond films straddle the old and the new,” O’Connell remarks. “GoldenEye certainly had to include the expected ingredients so that it felt like a Bond film, and that it would lay its cards out for the younger audience members who were less familiar with 007 in the cinema.”
Pierce Brosnan’s ability to straddle the line between contemporary and retro is one of the keys to GoldenEye being as successful as it was: charming and old worldly enough to satiate long time fans of the film series, yet aware of the social mores and technology enough to not be alienating to younger audiences.
Contemporary reboots, from A Nightmare on Elm Street to The Amazing Spider-Man to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (ironically, another Ian Fleming creation) struggle, in comparison, to find that balance when walking the line between old and new. Less a riff on the creation of neo-classicism, contemporary reboots offer shallow retreads rather than reinventions and reappropriations. How GoldenEye carefully balanced tone, however, would be something that Christopher Nolan would take inspiration from, in addition to narrative nods, when conceiving his The Dark Knight Trilogy.
Yet, however much flack Brosnan has gotten since he exited the role after 2002’s Die Another Day, GoldenEye has emerged as well regarded in the Bond canon. How it functions as a successful reboot, borne out of financial crisis and questioning, is contingent on the fact that it addresses, without being smug, why we love the world’s most famous secret agent. Read the tagline, “You know the name. You know the number.”