The new Bond film, Spectre, opens in London later this month, and I chanced to hear the theme song the other day. It's not Shirley Bassey, John Barry, Don Black and/or Leslie Bricusse, but what is? Still, one tries to keep an open mind about these things. While we're waiting for Daniel Craig's fourth outing as 007, I thought we'd revisit Pierce Brosnan's first - from 1995, Goldeneye:
By the time of Die Another Day, Bond scholars had gotten a bit sniffy about Brosnan's Bond, complaining that he'd turned him into an Irish chancer and making snide cracks about the amount of CGI required to suck in Pierce's beer gut for the sex scenes. But anyone who values a series that's been running for nearly two-thirds of the entire history of talking pictures owes a debt of gratitude to what Brosnan did in Goldeneye. A lot was riding on his debut. It was the first 007 film since License to Kill, and the intervening six years had seen a lot of legal wrangling as well as a general consensus that the humorless Timothy Dalton had drained a lot of the life out of Bond. Had Pierce Brosnan's debut misfired, we might not be looking forward to Spectre this month.
But in his two opening scenes Brosnan claims the role and obliterates Timothy Dalton. Sean Connery and Roger Moore were so impressed they were going round London telling everyone Pierce had obliterated any memory of them, too. In the pre-titles sequence, Bond descends from the ceiling into an occupied Soviet toilet and apologizes for not knocking. And then he knocks the guy out. Very droll. He's on a mission deep inside Russia with 006, played by Sean Bean, whose pre-action catchphrase "For England!" Bond seems faintly embarrassed by. The action and the effects and the banter and the brio are well integrated, and the climax in which 007 struggles to pull a stolen fighter jet out of a straight vertical nose-dive is impressive. [CORRECTION: Tom Bascom writes to remind me that the "fighter jet" is, in fact, a little twin-prop puddle-jumper.]
Things then nose-dive artistically speaking with the title song. Having run out of Ian Fleming novels to adapt, this new film is named after Ian Fleming's house in Jamaica, which can't have been the easiest assignment for the songwriters:
That's the house
The house with the drop-dead views...
At any rate, the resulting song is entrusted to Tina Turner, the bandy-legged melisma queen of the Eighties giving it her best Dame Shirl. The writers are U2's Bono and The Edge, doing their somewhat unsatisfying best to recapture the John Barry glory days. Personally I would have preferred them to leave the song to someone else and, given their strikingly under-nourished appellations, content themselves with a cameo:
'My name is Edge. The Edge.'
'My name is Bono.'
'No. Just Bono.'
But forget about all that. After the song we see Bond - back in an Aston Martin, a silver DB5, and taking the hairpin bends of the Grand Corniche at full throttle. In the passenger seat is the Sloaney Serena Gordon, who's been sent out by M to perform a psychological evaluation of Bond. So naturally he seduces her and thereby aces the test. "James," she tells him, "I'm as broad-minded as the next girl but..."
She's interrupted by a sports car flying past, driven by a maniacal femme fatale.
"Who's that?" asks Serena Gordon.
"The next girl," says Bond.
A car chase ensues, but just for sport. Then Bond's in his tux and at a swank casino ordering his martini shaken, not stirred, while the cackling femme, one Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), professes to prefer it straight up. Soon she's choking a Royal Canadian Navy admiral to death with her thighs. Back in London Judi Dench and Samantha Bond have taken over as M and Miss Moneypenny respectively. Dame Judi dismisses 007 to his face as a misogynist relic of the Cold War while the kindlier Moneypenny is more indulgent.
The plot - set in just-post-Soviet Russia - is strong, with a rogue general, a psycho nympho, and my old dancing partner from the first night of Cabaret, Alan Cumming, in the then novel role of computer nerd. The traitor to MI6 comes freighted with a lot of not only personal history but in fact a genuinely interesting and obscure bit of Anglo-Soviet history. As usual, it all goes off the rails in the final 15 minutes when everyone's running around the inside of a volcano or whatever it is with random explosions going off all around as Bond and the girl run hither and thither looking for the off-switch for the nuclear laser.
But up till then Martin Campbell (director) and Cubby Broccolli (in his final Bond outing as "consultant producer") give us as good a 007 film as seen in years. Decades, in fact. There are sharp lines by various screenwriting hands: M introducing a new real-time eavesdropping gizmo by explaining that "unlike the Americans, we prefer not to get our news from CNN"; a post-Felix Leiter CIA guy complaining about "tight-assed Brits" hung up on their secret passwords.
But it's Pierce Brosnan's movie, revitalizing the role with a shrewdly poised take on the character. Timothy Dalton near killed Bond because he felt guilt about playing him and compensated by making him riddled with a lot of boring self-doubt. Brosnan is at ease with the Sixties swinger shtick and happy to swing on, through the Nineties. His usual cracks about "rising to the occasion", etc, are received rather wearily by his boss, his enemies and the new Moneypenny - but they're very welcome after Dalton. Brosnan has a somewhat distracting tic here of self-consciously adjusting his shirt and tie, as if they don't quite fit him and he's nervous Roger Moore's eyebrow will suddenly pop up from inside his collar. But it had settled down pretty nicely by the next movie.
The worst thing about the film is John Barry's stand-in Eric Serra, whose score is terrible, especially when accompanying the big set-piece action sequences. For Tomorrow Never Dies, they signed Barry's true heir, David Arnold, and ensured that the series retained his distinctive musical style.
On a "Don't try this at home, children" note: Way back in 1995, for complex logistical reasons, I caught Goldeneye at a shopping mall somewhere in suburban Massachusetts. Skidding into the parking lot with seconds to spare, I got hopelessly lost and wound up on the pedestrian walkway. But, as it seemed to be the most direct path to the multiplex, I stepped on the gas, entirely failing to notice in the crepuscular gloom a rather steep flight of descending steps just ahead. By the time my (rental) car had bounced its way to the bottom, the local ne'er-do-wells were standing round applauding. "Is this a promotion for the film?" asked one, as I got out. I smiled enigmatically. Actually, I was feeling more like Q, acutely conscious that the car had looked better with more paint on it and vaguely wondering whether any of the bits of automobile scattered on the path behind me were vital to its continued operation.
~Speaking of Shirley Bassey Bond themes by John Barry and Leslie Bricusse (plus Anthony Newley), don't forget Mark's very own version of "Goldfinger".