This movie was a tremendous part of my childhood. Viewed now, it's a lot more than the sum of its parts: despite scripting flaws (check out Boris's ridiculously easy password puzzle and the inexplicable way Natalya misunderstands it), a bland love interest, some erratic music, a precredits setup that never quite makes sense (did Trevelyan turn bad after he survived, or was it a setup he arranged with Ouromov?) the ugliest bit of product placement in movie history (I'm thinking about that hideous BMW, the result of a deal signed so late there was no time to rewrite the script to have Bond actually do anything with it besides drive it) and a duff ending, it's never lost its charm. Why is this movie so gorgeously exciting? Martin Campbell's direction, Terry Rawlings's flashy editing and the great Derek Meddings's model work obviously play a huge part (no movie with a bungee stunt down a vast dam at the start and a tank chase halfway through ever is going to lose its charm), as does Brosnan's assured debut. It also has that asset so crucial to an action movie: a strong villain. Sean Bean's screen presence as Alec Trevelyan is a good match for Brosnan's and both his unveiling as the villain and Bond's parting with him have a genuine emotional sting.
It's also due to some time off. The six-year gap between Licence to Kill and this film coincided with the end of the Cold War. This gave us six years in which our conceptions of what a Bond film was and who Bond was were consolidated. This isn't just the gunbarrel that opened the previous entries in the series, it's the legendary gunbarrel sequence that opens the James Bond films, here refined in glorious CGI form by Daniel Kleinman so that it shifts perspective as it glides across the screen. As it opens onto a stunning shot of a gigantic dam with a figure running across the top, the audience in the cinema are hushed: is this Bond? How is he going to prove his mettle after all these years of Schwarzenegger and Stallone? At this point, the figure leaps off the dam on a bungee rope, and the audience's doubts over that question are silenced as a stunt more outstanding than in any action film released in those Bond-free years unfolds. The whole precredits sequence is tightly paced and niftily constructed (Nerve gas facility as the location, a quip as the new Bond is unveiled, Russians as the villains, the film's main antagonist as Bond's partner on this mission, his shocking death, Bond's escape) and ends with an equally astounding stunt as Bond drives a bike off a mountain range and glides without a parachute into a freefalling plane. It's a reminder of why Bond precredits sequences are legendary, and that no other films do openings quite so well.
The tank chase works by the same magic. It's not just a superbly helmed and edited combination of great stunts, effects and modelwork, but a reinstatement of the unique excitement of a Bondian action sequence: this guy in a smart suit is going to outwit all those armed soldiers, the hero is going to rescue the girl, the villain is going to be reduced to exasperation and then admiration (the look of wonder on Natalya's face and Ouromov's hipflask-guzzling as the tank pursues them and Trevalyn and Xenia's obvious admiration as he prepares to derail them - "Bond - only Bond..." - are lovely touches), Bond is once again in an unusual vehicle and the Bond Theme is heard for the first time in six years. It's for this reason that the punchline of Bond adjusting his collar feels joyous rather than coming across as a moment that smugly falls back on cliché as it would do if done today (as is slightly true of Brosnan's reprising of it in The World Is Not Enough's boat chase).
The Q scene is all the more marvellous for Desmond Llewellyn's aging since the last film. His frailer voice gives him the air of a wizard, and the two uncharacteristic moments - his laughing at one of Bond's jokes, and the "Don't touch that! It's my lunch" gag - give the sense of a character who has grown old with Bond and us, rather than a figure who shows up to go through stock "really, 007!" routines. Note how much the sandwich gag has been borrowed since - notably in Stormbreaker. Here, it's superbly delivered and laugh-out-loud funny. The comedy technicians in the background who fall afoul of various gadgets have by now become part of a modern myth: we expect them to be there because it's Q's workshop, just as we expect to see boulders in a Roadrunner cartoon and treasure in Aladdin's cave. Even the BMW can't spoil this scene.
The use of the Russians in this movie also feels elegiac. The precredits sequence and the character of Ouromov (the splendidly haggard Gottfried Johns) both evoke our memories of the kind of people Bond fights. It's actually a barely accurate memory, considering Bond didn't fight Russians (not counting those that had defected and were working for stateless organisations like SPECTRE) onscreen until the 1980s, yet oddly it feels accurate, like the memory of Sherlock Holmes wearing a deerstalker and British sitcoms featuring the vicar coming to tea. Offsetting this, and creating the sense that the series will be looking elsewhere for its villains, is Daniel Kleinman's stunning title sequence in which statues of Russian icons come breaking down, the similar imagery in Trevelyan's junkyard and the scene in which Bond expresses regret over British actions for the first time in the series, being well-versed enough on the dark side of British history to know about the betrayal of the Lienz Cossacks and, lowering his eyes, describing it grimly as "not exactly our finest hour." (It's a tentative, relatively safe step: to date, it remains to be seen whether the series would allow Bond an opinion on the crimes of the British Empire. It might be wishful thinking of mine to imagine that Bond could be left-wing, but the series has never quite dared to make him express right-wing opinions either.) We clearly won't be meeting simplistic Russian baddies like Ouromov again, but the more complex figure of Zukovsky is set up for a return.
There are other subtle differences: the villain is from Bond's past and used to have the same job, Bond is now explicitly shown to work for MI6, Bond's childhood is mentioned for the first time, and M finally acknowledges what so many filmgoers have been thinking: that Bond is "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur; a relic of the Cold War." She then tells him what his mission is, and adds "come back alive." It's a marvellous scene because in a few minutes it destroys the Bond-M relationship and Bond as a figure, only to leave them stronger and more credible. It's the kind of risk-taking that the series doesn't do enough, and Skyfall missed a trick by introducing a mellow M, rather than one with a similar relationship of mutual distrust.
The film isn't quite able to dramatise this more critical look at Bond fully: the beach scene with Bond and Natalya is a little awkward. When Trevelyan says "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," all Bond can do is look taciturn. A recurring problem to be discussed on this blog will be the struggle to present Bond with dramatic conflict - he may seem briefly disgusted by Scaramanga's assertion that they are kindred spirits, he may tell Tracy he loves her, he may seem desolated when cradling Tracy's dead body, he may tell Anya he had no choice but to kill her lover because they were both professionals, he may warn Melina about vengeance, he may briefly admit that Paris got too close for comfort and he may seem appalled at Felix and Della's fate, but those brief moments don't really shatter his stoicism: he still seems like someone ready for the next action sequence. The best the series can manage until Casino Royale - and after it - is moments that surprise us (Bond's allusion to "a very useful four letter word" when responding to Scaramanga, his change of mood when Anya brings up Tracy's death, his claim in The Living Daylights that "if he fires me, I'll thank him for it" and his response to Silva's flirtation with "what makes you think this is my first time?" in Skyfall). From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice and Live and Let Die were the only Bond movies that were brilliantly successful in writing Bond as an iconic rather than dramatic figure, a figure who galvanised the film as part of a mise-en-scene of moments that simply couldn't have taken place in other films. Since then, aside from holidays like The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker and Die Another Day that go for a reheated version of the Goldfinger\You Only Live Twice style without the inspiration, the series has tended towards trying to develop Bond as a dramatic character - that is, a character with emotional layers as you would find in quality drama - but doesn't pull it off until Casino Royale and hasn't done since.
GoldenEye is also let down by the attempts to to make Bond and Natalya's romance the fulcrum of the film, countering Bond's emotional detachment and betrayal by Trevelyan. The problem is not just Isabella Scorupco's lack of charisma, but the extent to which she is blown off the screen by Famke Jannsen's perfectly pitched turn as Xenia. This is the last time in the series that anyone has dared go over the top, but Jannsen manages the much trickier act of going successfully over the top. Sadly, the film kills her off before the climax. Had she been the film's leading lady, the sparks between Jannsen and Brosnan would have given the film more of an emotional edge. As it is, we get that oddly misjudged moment where Bond, having just dispatched Trevelyan, exchanges the soppiest of smiles with Natalya, and as the giggling lovers depart (and let's not even get started on what Wade's line "maybe you two would like to finish 'debriefing' each other at Guantamano" sounds like now) the film ends to the strains of Eric Serra's disastrous love song "The Experience of Love" (comfortably the worst song ever heard in a Bond film).
One way in which the Craig films score over the Brosnan ones is that in the former the writers have a much more mature attitude towards a female M. The attitude towards M in the first three Brosnan films is patronising, in a way not dissimilar to Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks's attitudes to feminism during their period in charge of Doctor Who in the 1970s. In both cases the attitude is: we agree that feminism is a good thing, but it's jolly funny all the same. When Zukovsky remarks "I hear the new M is a lady?" there's no suggestion he's being patronising: we've clearly meant to regard M's gender as something that can't be ignored. Therefore M is expected to put up with her own Chief of Staff calling her "the evil queen of numbers", her top agent openly admitting he doesn't like her, and both of them bitching about her behind her back. In Tomorrow Never Dies, when Admiral Roebuck sneers "sometimes I don't think you have the balls for this job", M doesn't indicate this is unacceptable behaviour - as it clearly would be in the world of the Daniel Craig movies - but merely replies with a subtly undercutting quip ("perhaps, but the advantage is I don't have to think with them all the time") which enforces the sense that the gender difference cannot be ignored. The Craig-era M would have told Roebuck to fuck off, and rightly so.
Yet for the most part GoldenEye works because the sense of the anachronistic, the elegiac and of the renewal of an old favourite on the one hand and the stupendous action on the other complement each other so well. Far from a perfect film, but full of examples of why action cinema and Bondian cinema are worth having. And if you're 12 years old in 1995, it's better than Mozart.