Goldeneye. Like a Phoenix from the ashes.

After a six-year hiatus, the time had finally come to get a new 007 adventure off the ground. Having been entangled in never-ending rights disputes, Timothy Dalton had been waiting for a long time in the sidelines to make another movie. Some very nice ideas had been bounced around in an attempt to breathe more life into a character that, in many people’s minds, had turned stagnant and was in dire need of a revamp. Nothing ever came to fruition though, and by the time 1994 came around, the powers that be at MGM/UA did no longer consider Dalton a viable commercial option to bring the character back into vogue for the 90s. He was kindly requested to publicly step down, a fact that both Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, who had already taken over Eon Productions by that time, sorely lamented, as they were sincerely hoping to honour the commitment they’d made with Dalton to stick with him for at least one more picture. Dalton made a public statement, and gracefully stepped down as requested leaving both the character, and the whole future of the franchise in the hands of an actor who’d been offered the part once before, but had to give it up at the last minute; Pierce Brosnan. But how did this come about, and how exactly were the filmmakers planning to modernize a character that, according to public opinion, seemed old-fashioned and ill-suited for modern times?

Inception

As soon as the legal issues had been resolved, the filmmakers started playing around with the idea of how to best bring the iconic character of 007 back into the spotlight. First, they had to find a story that would fit within the modern sensibilities of a new world order in which the Cold War was no longer the status quo. They found such a story by screenwriter Michael France. France had recently penned the script to the highly successful Renny Harlin directed Stallone action-vehicle Cliffhanger (1993), and had even been to Russia doing research on a story in which James Bond came face to face with an obscure criminal organization by the name of Janus, comprised of former KGB agents and various terrorist and mercenary groups from around the globe. Their latest coup had been the robbery of an experimental fighter helicopter provided with stealth technology and immune to electromagnetic energy pulses. The organization then uses the helicopter to steal the activation codes for a space satellite weapon that activates an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse), to erase any trace of their theft. Bond’s mission is to recover the stolen codes, a mission in which he will be helped by Natalya Simonova, a computer programmer who used to work at the Severnaya station where the weapon was based. Along the way, Bond will encounter old foes, unlikely allies, and a surprising ghost from the past who comes back to haunt him. The seed of the story was very much liked by both Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, who insisted however that more rewrites were done to streamline the story and some of the characters. First Jeffrey Caine, and later Bruce Feirstein, with un-credited help by Kevin Wade, were brought on to help with the re-writes. A director had already been picked by the producers. Michael Campbell had been brought to the attention of the hire ups at MGM/UA on account of his previous movie; No Escape. The producers were mostly impressed by the way in which Campbell had made a relatively low-budget Sci-fi movie look like an A-list movie. His list of TV credits were also quite impressive, as he had directed for the BBC the highly successful TV series thriller, Edge of Darkness, and the spy-thriller Reilly: Ace of Spies, which had been a source of inspiration for the Bond producers. They were also pretty confident that he could both, deliver the movie in time, and make every cent spent on it show on the screen. With this in mind, and Campbell being a self-confessed James Bond fan, everything seemed to be on track for a successful new take on the character. Apart from his usual Director of Photography Phil Mehéux, who had up until that point, lensed every movie ever directed by Campbell, the filmmaker didn’t draw too far away from the well as he pretty much asked the majority of the technicians who had worked on all the Bond movies over the years, to come back. So it was that Peter Lamont came back on Production Designer duties, and so did the likes of Stunt Coordinators Simon Crane, B.J Worth, model maker and Special Effects wizard Derek Meddings and several others who’d grown professionally making the magic for the Bond movies. Some new blood was also incorporated into the mix like Costume Designer Lindy Hemming, who provided the magnificent wardrobe for the multiple characters, and the excellently tailored Brioni suits for the new 007, and Luc Besson’s frequent collaborator, the new-age composer Eric Serra, contributing for the movie what was hoped would be a new soundscape for the character, and resulting in one of the most criticized, and head-scratching decisions ever made for a Bond soundtrack, with the exception of Michel Legrand’s jazzy score for the un-official James Bond entry Never Say Never Again, Irvin Kershner (1983).

Casting

With a constantly re-worked script pretty much locked by the time Campbell was all but ready to start Principal Photography, the world press was finally ready to meet the man who would step into the shoes of James Bond; Pierce Brosnan. The official unveiling took place at the Regent’s Hotel in London. Sporting long hair and a beard for his upcoming role in Robinson Crusoe, Rod Hardy and George Miller (1997), the press was a little taken aback by the physical appearance of the new 007. But no one was more taken aback, and surprised by the news, than the man himself. As previously stated on my review of The Living Daylights, John Glen (1987), Brosnan had already been offered the role back then, but had to bow out due to his contractual obligations with the Remington Steele TV show. The actor was somewhat hesitant and cautious about getting excited for it all over again as, and I quote; “He didn’t want to get jerked around again”. When the news were all but confirmed by his agent, the actor was beyond ecstatic. He was excited to give it his best, as he’d been a huge admirer of both Sean Connery and especially, Roger Moore, whom he freely admitted years later had taken a lot of cues from to build his own 007. Brosnan felt that humour was an element that had been seriously lacking in the last two entries, and wanted it to be re-introduced as part of the character’s makeup.

For the all important role of Bond’s archnemesis, Alec Trevelyan, A.K.A former 006, the producers went with actor Sean Bean. The British actor was very popular in the UK for the ITV Sharpe TV show which run from 1993 to 1997. The producers were looking for an actor of around the same age and built, that could be a match to Brosnan in the hand to hand combat scenes, and who could’ve conceivably been thought of as a potential candidate to play the role of James Bond himself. German actor Godfried John was chosen to play the part of General Ourumov, who’s in cahoots with Trevelyan. Scottish actor Alan Cummings was offered the role of computer programmer geek Boris Grishenko, Turkey-born French actor Tchéky Karyo played the role of Russian Defense Minister Dimitri Mishkin, an old acquaintance of Martin Campbell’s from his Edge of Darkness days, American actor Joe Don Baker, came back to the series as Bond’s CIA contact in Russia, Jack Wade. This was the actor’s second appearance in the series after he’d played the villain in The Living Daylights, John Glen (1987). British actor Robbie Coltrane fulfilled the role of Valentin Zukovski, ex-KGB agent, who runs guns, and who has an old score to settle with Bond. An important, and rather surprising contribution was that of Judi Dench, who plays the role of M. Having M being played by a woman instead of a man was screenwriter Bruce Feirstein’s idea, and Campbell suggested that if the role had to be played by a woman, it might as well by a star. Dench was a prestigious stage actress at the time, and had even worked with Bernard Lee, who’d played the role of Bond’s boss for the first ten movies. She was a bit nervous about taking on the role, but thanks to both her performance and choice of wardrobe by Lindy Hemming, she did a wonderful job of it. The only actor from the old movies who was asked to come back was Desmond Llewellyn as Q. Llewelly was more than happy to reprise his role, and surprised to be the only one from the old cast asked to come back, as not even Caroline Bliss, who’d played the role of Miss Moneypenny in the two previous movies was. She was replaced by an actress aptly named Samantha Bond, who happened to be very good friends with Bliss since Grammar School. Both Samantha Bond and Judi Dench, each in their respective ways, give Bond a good tongue-lashing, Moneypenny no longer being the meek, ever-expecting secretary pining for Bond’s elusive affections, and Dench describing him as a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the cold war. The 90s had brought on more awareness towards certain sexist attitudes that were no longer deemed appropriate, a change especially in the attitude towards women that would be further reflected in the way the Bond girls would be portrayed by their respective actresses.

For the all important roles of the Bond girls we have two very interesting choices; Dutch actress Famke Janssen plays the role of sadistic, thigh-crushing assassin Xenia Onatopp. The actress was approached by the filmmakers after they’d seen some footage of a film the actress was shooting in the USA for MGM, Lord of Illussions, Clive Barker (1995). She came in, and did a terrific reading of the casino scene which totally convinced the producers they’d found the right actress for the job. The other side of the coin, the “good Bond girl”, so to speak, went to Polish actress Izabella Scorupco. The casting agent Debbie McWilliams was struggling to find an actress for the role, and was looking everywhere in Europe, until she happened to find herself in the office of a Swedish casting agent who showed her rushes of the movie that Scorupco was shooting at the time, Petri Tears, a medieval drama in which the actress spent most of the running time dressed as a man. McWilliams liked her very much, and chose her for the role of Natalya Simonova, the Russian Computer programmer who helps Bond stop Trevelyan. Her role in the movie was to be somewhat of a breakthrough role for Bond girls in the series as, this time around the Bond girl would be even more resourceful, self-reliant, and instrumental in the development of the action. Strides had been made over the years in this terrain, but the producers were even more adamant to bring across the point that times had changed for the better, and that Bond would have to change with them.

The largest soundstage in Europe

Even before the script had been finished, the filmmakers were faced with the problem of finding a soundstage large enough to fit in the immense sets that the movie was going to need. This was to be an even more larger in scale production than any of the previous ones had been, and the, by all accounts, too small sound stages in Pinewood were no longer a suitable option. While scouting all over Europe for set space, the crew came upon the solution closer to home than they could’ve imagined. Leavesden Aerodrome, home to a former Rolls Royce factory, where they used to build aeroplanes during WWII, was the place chosen by the crew to shoot the next 007 adventure. It was up to the technical crew, under the direction of Peter Lamont, to build one of the largest, working soundstages in Europe. Over the years, the ever-growing soundstage would be host to George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace (1999), and many other Hollywood blockbusters until it became the home base for the Harry Potter movies (2001-2011). The entirety of the interior of MI6 HQ (situation room, M’s office..), Valentin Zukovski’s nightclub, a faithful recreation of a whole floor of the Montecarlo Casino, the control room of the Severnaya station, the interior of Trevelyan’s underground base of operations under the submerged control antenae, and the interior of Trevelyan’s bulletproof train were all built in Leavesden. Associate Producer Anthony Waye was able to secure the French goverment to loan the crew one of their experimental prototype Tiger helicopters that was parked on top of a naval vessel at Monaco’s port. The crew had a very limited time to make use of both the helicopter and the ship, and had to breeze through the shots in all but two days. The crew also made use of many exterior locations like the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico for establishing shots of Trevelyan’s hideout, a local beach in the area that was secluded enough for the crew to shoot one of the most romantic scenes in the movie, Verzasca Dam in Lugarno, Switzerland, for the bungee-jump scene at the beginning of the movie that serves as an establishing shot for the Arkangel Chemical Factory in USRR, Montecarlo for the Casino scenes at the beginning of the movie, the Alpes-Maritimes, and its twisting roads for the cat and mouse car chase scene between Bond’s Ashton Ashton Martin DB5, and Onatopp’s red Ferrari, the Swiss Alps for the scene in which Bond jumps off a cliff with a motorcycle to try and catch up with a rapidly-falling-into-a-ravine, pilotless plane, Nene Valley Railway in Northhamptonshire doubling for the Russian Railway station from which Trevelyan’s bulletproof train takes off, the SIS HQ in Vauxhall, London, for establishing shots of MI6 HQ, and finally St Petersburg, Russia, where the crew went to get some establishing shots, and where a good chunk of the tank chase sequence throughout its streets was done.

Death-defying stunts

One of the most remarkable and memorable aspects of this movie is the greater amount of action set pieces that are in it, even more so than in any other Bond movie before it. First off, the movie starts with a remarkable stunt performed by stuntman Wayne Michaels for the pre-credits scene in which Bond has to bungee-jump off the top of a dam to the very bottom of a ravine where there is a secret passageway into the chemical factory. On his way down, he has to take out a grapple gun attached to a belt in his suit, shoot the grapple onto the metal surface at the bottom of the dam, and laser his way in, using the laser cannon fixed on top of the grapple gun. Many aspects of the stunt had to be taken into consideration, not the least of which was the fact that the wind velocity and direction had to be perfect in order for the stunt to work. The wall was concave, which made it difficult for Michaels to control his descent without smashing his body against the concrete surface. For that, the crane onto which the cable was attached had to be sufficiently outwards to allow Michaels enough leeway if the cable recoiled. After many tries in which the crew attached weighted mannequins, and even a tree trunk of roughly the same size and weight, with these almost inevitably crashing against the wall before many of them even got to the bottom, the weather conditions were finally ideal enough for Michaels to do his jump. The difficulty of the jump was also compounded by the fact that Michaels had to get the grapple gun out in camera before reaching the bottom. Amazingly enough the stunt was achieved, and when edited together with the bits and pieces done by Brosnan in the soundstage, it was seemless. The next stunt takes place at the end of the pre-credits sequence in which French stuntman Jaques Malnuit drives the Italian Cagiva motorcycle off the cliff, and after the pilotless plane. The first part of the stunt was done by Malnuit, while the second part was supposed to be done by B.J Worth, a veteran of the Bond stunt team who’d worked in numerous Bond films like Moonraker, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, and Licence to Kill; whenever there were aerial stunts involved. It was actually Worth, who was in charge of coordinating and directing the stunt, but as many times as he tried, he could not get the stunt to work properly, with the idea being that he had to be able to match the velocity of his freefall with that of the descending plane, with weight and gravity always one step ahead. Unable to get the shot, the stunt crew had to wrap up, and recreate the whole stunt in a soundstage with Pierce Brosnan hanging from cables from the roof. The process shot had an unrealistic quality to it that has never quite satisfied both the filmmakers and the audience. For the cat and mouse car chase scene between Bond’s DB5 and Xenia’s red Ferrari, the filmmakers went back to the expertise of an old acquaintance of the Bond family; the French stunt driving team of Rémy Julienne. For the scene to work properly, and for the on-road performance of the DB5 to match that of the Ferrari’s, Julienne and his team had to alter the mechanics of the car. The sequence was heavily storyboarded and shot by second Unit director Ian Sharpe, who also took charge of most of the action in the pre-title sequence and the tank chase around St Petersburg. The tank chase was one of the most difficult action set pieces from a logistical point of view. Barbara Broccoli was in charge of supervising Main Unit in St Petersburg, with the crew having to replace lots of street furniture overnight for breakable materials and props, to be replaced to their original state once they were finished. The local authorities were always a pain in the neck for the Bond crew, even after having acquired all the necessary permits to shoot, because of all the local neighbour’s complaints about the noise and the havoc the crew was wreaking in their beloved city. It was decided that it would be better to work in a more controlled environment by making use of all the extra room that the backlot at Leavesden afforded them. A section of the city of St Petersburg was recreated on the backlot to finish the tank chase, and especially for the crucial scene in which the tank crashes against a truckload of Perrier water.

Brosnan and Bean tried as much as possible to do their own stunts, having occasionally to be doubled by the likes of Wayne Michaels or Simon Crane, but the majority of their hand to hand fight in the dark engine room of the antenae was done by them. This scene was a nightmare for Phil Méheux to shoot because of the darkness of the room, and the fact that both Brosnan and Bean were dressed in dark colors. In the end he came with a solution to his dilemma by having holed up panels put up on the sides of the room to allow some natural light to come through.

The magic of Derek Meddings

One of the best contributions to the movie were those from model maker and Special effects Supervisor Derek Meddings. Meddings was no stranger to bringing the world of 007 to life as he’d been a fixture for the James Bond movies on and off since Live and Let Die, Guy Hamilton (1973). His incredible model work helps bring to life some of the most impressive action set pieces of the movie, most of which were built on Leavesden’s back lot. Among these we have a model built to scale of the Severnaya control station complemented with a Tiger helicopter model as well that was used for establishing shots, as well as some incredibly detailed forced perspective shots in the scene in which Grishenko comes out of the station to have a smoke and the station’s main building and antenae come be seen in the background. Equally impressive are the shots of the Russian Migs crashing against the antenae which is all model work enhanced with a little bit of some early CGI. His are as well the shots of the exploding chemical factory in the pre-title sequence which was all a miniature. A mixture of live action and model work was also used for the scene in which Bond and Natalya are trapped inside the Tiger helicopter which is rigged to explode. A miniature tank and bulletproof train was used for the scene in which Trevelyan’s train rams Bond’s tank. But the most impressive model set which Weddings and his crew built is probably Trevelyan’s base of operations; a control antenae that is submerged under an artificial lake. Meddings and his crew copied the design of the real Arecibo Observatory antanae, and built an exact replica in the back lot, having it rigged to come out of the water on cue. When married with the live action footage of Bond and Natalya walking up to it that was optically inserted, the end result is so photorealistic, it’s hard to tell which part is a model, and which part isn’t. Unfortunately Meddings didn’t live long enough to see his best work on the big screen, having died a few days before the premiere. The film was posthumously dedicated to him. As a matter of fact, this review is kind of my own homage to two brilliant minds and contributors to the way James Bond movies looked on the big screen; Derek Meddings and Peter Lamont, who passed away a few weeks ago. Their time in the Industry, and especially working on the Bond movies, defined a way to work and artistry that is sadly lost these days, where CGI, be it good or bad, runs rampant. They will be forever missed, and their work a living testimony of what true filmmaking of the highest order looks like.

Critical and Financial reception

Goldeneye was very well received by both critics and audiences alike. Both modern and established audiences liked the new James Bond. Pierce Brosnan had passed the test with flying colors, ushering in a new era for the character. The movie had a cumulative worldwide gross of $352,194,034 million, and it was, up until that point, the highest grossing movie in the franchise. James Bond was alive and kicking, financially healthy enough to keep going for a few more rounds but, what do I think of Pierce Brosnan’s baptism of fire in the franchise?

Personal thoughts

This movie has enormous significance to me. I already was a James Bond fan by the time Goldeneye came around. I’d discovered the character first on TV airings as a little kid, and would fall in love with the character all over again when I started renting all the old movies on VHS. I was pretty much aware of the fact that we hadn’t had a Bond movie for six years, for whatever reason, and was really hyped to get to see this one on the big screen, as I’d never seen a Bond movie on the big screen before. Needless to say, the movie lived up to my expectations and more. I was enthralled from beginning to end. Everything from the story, the characters, the sets, the special effects; it all worked for me. Sure, Brosnan still seemed a little stiff, and wouldn’t really come into his own as the character until the next movie; Tomorrow Never Dies, Roger Spottiswoode (1997). When you remove the bias, Goldeneye is everything you come to expect from a James Bond movie; an interesting plot of world domination, exciting villains, beautiful, lethal and resourceful Bond girls, amazing action set pieces, a great title song by an equally great singer; Tina Turner, and good old-fashioned special effects. More modern efforts have aged more badly due to shoddy CGI, i.e; Die Another Die, Lee Tamahori (2002), but this one still stands the test of time. I consider it to be one of the great Bond titles, and certainly the best one that Brosnan was ever in. It’s certainly not in the same league as say From Russia with Love, Terrence Young (1963), or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Peter Hunt (1969), but it sure holds its own against the rest, and even better some others, Octopussy, John Glen (1983), or A View to a Kill, John Glen (1985). It’s certainly more action-oriented than the ones that came before, and it’s highly entertaining, but I still have some minor issues with it. One of them would be the score by Eric Serra. It just doesn’t work for me. He does do however an interesting rendition of the Monty Norman theme for the gunbarrel sequence but, as for the rest of the score there are only a couple of dramatic tracks that I really liked, mainly the Casino scenes music, and Natalya’s theme. Thankfully, the music was changed for the tank chase scene in St Petersburg. The editor Terry Rawlings was having difficulty matching Serra’s score to the images on-screen, and so it was agreed that Serra’s Arranger, John Altman, come up with more suitably Bond-sounding music. As I mentioned before, Brosnan seems a little bit stiff, but that’s understandable given that this was his first time playing the character. It usually takes at least two movies to warm up, and get into the character. Those are really my only two hangups regarding the movie, but they don’t really detract from my overall enjoyment of the movie. It’s bucketloads of fun, and one of the best in the series overall.

Thanks for reading.

Published by flickgeeky

Love cinema and everything that has to do with it, from the screenwriting to the filmmaking process, acting, to its final presentation on the big screen and finally, to its home media release

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: