M: You don’t like me, Bond. You don’t like my methods. You think I’m an accountant, a bean counter more interested in my numbers than your instincts.
James Bond: The thought had occurred to me.
M: 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.
James Bond: Point taken.
Goldeneye ended Bond’s longest break, six years after its predecessor, License To Kill. In License, we saw Timothy Dalton highlight Bond’s anger, empathy and underlying angst, which had always been somewhat present in the books but almost never brought to the surface. Goldeneye obliterates that portrayal to the extent that the opening sequence effectively erases the Dalton era entirely.
With Pierce Brosnan, we get a return to the suave, dispassionate agent of the Roger Moore films, but without feeling like we’re in the presence of a distressingly randy uncle. Brosnan’s Bond is totally unflappable: in Die Another Day, we see him take fourteen months of torture, then escape and stride into a five-star hotel — bearded, and in soaked prisoner clothes — like he’s ready to play some canasta.
Alec Trevelyan: I might as well ask you if all those vodka martinis ever silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed… or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women for all the dead ones you failed to protect.
And with Pierce Brosnan we get Judi Dench as M, a performance so good that it continued long into the Daniel Craig era. She’s the right kind of elder guardian: disapproving, often eye-rolling, but with a solid trust in Bond’s abilities and an obvious affection that doesn’t stay buried for long.
That scene up there is fantastic in many ways, but mostly for being joyously honest about the paradox that the Bond franchise has to juggle in the nineties. As the teaser trailer — probably my favourite for any film, ever — reminds us: New world, new rules, new threats. But you can still depend on one man.
Goldeneye takes the potential weakness of the now dated, amoral, aesthete hero and wraps it in the movie’s central conflict of old versus new (celebrated most obviously in the title sequence, with Soviet icons being destroyed). As part of this refreshing honesty, the movie admits that Bond is most evidently not a good guy, but he still happens to be the right guy.
Natalya Simonova: You think I’m impressed? All of you with your guns, your killing, your death. For what? So you can be a hero? All the heroes I know are dead. How can you act like this? How can you be so cold?
James Bond: It’s what keeps me alive.
Natalya Simonova: No. It’s what keeps you alone.
For a movie that takes such obvious glee in its execution, it’s notable that all of its heroes — even the main bad guy, Sean Bean’s Alec Trevelyan — spend most of their time angry and frustrated in their situations. In contrast, the characters that the movie is keenest to mark as villians, such as Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp (not so much a femme fatale as a murder fetishist) and Alan Cumming’s geeky traitor Boris Grishenko, are ultimately damned for the sin of enjoying their work too much.
It is the gift of Judi Dench’s M that she reframes the ultimate man’s man as an emotionally-stunted, dangerous child, thus allowing the recent movies a more subtle depth while still revelling in the antics. It leads us into the Daniel Craig Bond, mixing the coolness with the damage better than anyone before him. And it’s kind of perfect that, when Dench leaves the series, she shows that the M all but stands for Mother.
M: I fucked this up, didn’t I?
James Bond: No. You did your job.
M: Orphans always make the best recruits.