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If there is one constant in this universe of ours–at least in the past fifty years–it is surely the reliable, steady, and constant release of a James Bond film. That and maybe reboots. So reliable in fact is a 007 movie that a gap in their release becomes a somewhat significant and potentially society-collapsing issue. Such was the case leading up to the 1995 announcement of GoldenEye, a film that saw the first Bond movie hit cinemas in over six years, the longest absence in the franchise history. And so when it did hit theaters, it was kind of a big deal. Saving society and all.
The film marked the start of actor Pierce Brosnan‘s run as the new Bond, replacing Timothy Dalton, who had resigned from the role in 1990, awaiting his third film in the series that was eventually shut down over film rights, sending it all packing. While the dispute was costly for producers, it was fans who lost the most as it looked as if there might never be another Bond film at all. But of course that all changed, and GoldenEye saved the series, putting expectations at an all time high, featuring a story that would see Bond in his first adventure after the fall of the Soviet state and the end of the Cold War. This was serious stuff. No Russians? That’s like having a Back to the Future movie without a DeLorean. You could do it, sure, but how would it ever make sense?
Well, in truth, it might take place after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it clings to the past as best it can. And Russians. The plot is one of those over-complicated storylines that is also at the same time pretty simple, meaning that while the actions of the characters are clear, their motivations are not always so. It follows Bond of course, starting the film with partner 006, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), infiltrating a Soviet chemical weapons facility nine years before the main story. In the aftermath of that mission, it is thought Trevelyan is killed. Now in the present, Bond is working alone, trailing a beautiful but suspicious woman named Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) whom he discovers steals an experimental Eurocopter Tiger helicopter. He wonders what’s she up to? And more importantly, how can he make that name come true for him.
She and her accomplice, Russian Colonel Arkady Grigorovich Ourumov (Gottfried John) fly that copter to Siberia, to a secret satellite bunker, killing everyone at the site and making away with a thing called the “GoldenEye,” an electromagnetic Soviet space weapon from the Cold War. Oh, when I said “everyone'” just then, I really meant “almost,” as Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco), a highly-skilled programmer, survives and manages to escape the attack, ending up working with Bond to track the device down and stop a very familiar madman from using it to destroy the world’s financial markets. Cue the gadgets, the sex, and lots of old and a few new Bond-isms.
Directed by Martin Campbell, who would later go on to reboot the series again with Daniel Craig‘s first Bond movie, Casino Royale, GoldenEye was a huge box office hit and a critical favorite, earning praise for it performance, clever self-awareness, and action sequences. The best in the Brosnan canon as Bond, it is a fast-paced, fun, and often intelligent movie that injected some authenticity into the series and made Bond feel a bit more vulnerable than before, even as Dalton made attempts to do so in his last outing. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
So yes, there’s the opening bit. Bond (or rather British stuntman Wayne Michaels) leaps off a dam in a spectacular stunt that set the tone for the film entire. It was glorious for how it raised the stakes in what the new era in the Bond franchise was hoping to take, stating from frame one that Bond was back, and he was bigger and badder and more extreme (that was a 90s thing) than ever.
That said, while that scene deserves all the credit it should, if there’s is a moment that truly defines the film, one that established a link to the past while almost literally plowing a path to the future, it is an action-packed sequence on the streets of St. Petersburg. Here’s why.
After the destruction of the bunker, Natalya does a bit of work on her own, knowing who was behind the attack, and trying to learn why. However, she gets betrayed by someone she thought she could trust and ends up a prisoner of Ourumov and Onatopp. Likewise, Bond has also been betrayed by a man he thought he could trust and so he and Natalya end up in the cockpit of that Eruocopter Onatopp stole, it filled with an explosive. Makes sense. One doesn’t just kill Bond. One goes out of their way to muck it up with complications.
Taking a page out of Die Hard 2, Bond and Natalya manage to escape that big boom only to be captured by someone else. Now in St. Petersburg, the two face questions about who they are and what they know, but not for long, as is expected. On the run again, Bond must fight his way out of a building with Natalya, who isn’t so lucky, getting captured and stolen away from the compound. Bond takes after her, being the hero he is. But also being Bond, does it with a bit of flare. And a tank.
First of all, the escape through the facility before she gets kidnapped is pure Bondian bliss, with tons of henchman firing aimlessly, unable to hit Bond from even an arm’s length away. He however is ever the resourceful hero, outsmarting them all, never out of breath, cool, collected, and hair just perfect. It’s actually a pretty tense scene, with Campbell’s solid direction pacing it fast and electric.
After Natalya literally falls into the bad guy’s hands, James makes a break through a window, out of the upper floor of the Archive … using his belt–earlier we saw Q show it and damn it, the movie’s going to use it–and lands in the motor pool where a fleet of Russian T55 tanks are parked. No sense not putting one of them to use.
With Natalya stuffed in the backseat of a car and hastily driven away, Bond does what Bond does and takes after. Now in a tank, he smashes through the compound wall and gives chase … but let’s stop here and take a second to appreciate how good this particular smash is because it really, really is. Beginning with the lead car screeching around a corner at high speed, this enormous, highly-imposing concrete wall in the background, it seems like just an obligatory shot of a car speeding away.
We don’t think twice because this is your standard car on the run shot. We’re not suspecting what’s about to happen when … well … this happens:
Bond bursts through that wall like it’s bits of paper mâché (which is likely true anyway), leveling it in holy-damn-crow-that-was-awesome style and we can’t help but cheer a little inside. We’ve checked our brains a long while ago, and the pure limbic rush of wanton destruction in the name of rescue is the stuff we crave most. What follows is an epic tank-versus-car run through the narrow downtown streets of the historic Russian city, with plenty of chaos and humor and more than a little symbolism. And that right there is where this moment takes a turn. At high speed. On tank treads.
Bond has never been about subtlety. There’s no room for nuance and metaphor in a franchise built on over-the-top action, sexual innuendo, hi-tech gadgets, sexual innuendo, tuxedoes, and sexual innuendo. And yet, somehow, a British James Bond driving a Russian tank bearing down on a disillusioned Cold War general in a flimsy beat up car says a lot about the possible interpretations of the scene and the film’s overall message.
Putting aside logic and logistics and common sense and physics and narrative lapses, focusing on raw entertainment and filmmaking storytelling structure, this intense action sequence really can’t be beat in the film. It houses a number of Bond standards, including the spy’s dogged methodology, attention to gentleman’s etiquette (love how he adjusts his tie at one point), risk all attitude, and unflappable charisma. That’s entirely thanks to Brosnan who so greatly embodies the character, he makes us rethink about what and who Bond is, easily taking the mantle and hefting it on his shoulders for the next generation. Yes, he was sought to play Bond in the late 80s, before Dalton was cast, unable to get out of a television contract, but thank goodness for that, because as a 90s Bond, he’s the perfect pick. It’s this scene in fact where the newbie finally wins us over, the first half of the movie a kind of, okay, show us what you’ve got and we’ll give this thing a look-see feel, but here, the votes are in and he’s our man. Done and done. Brosnan is Bond.
GoldenEye holds a special place in any true Bond film fan’s heart, a rebirth for the franchise that somehow felt totally fresh, a bit of a trailblazer in pushing themes and ideals forward that was still playfully attached to the bits that got it there. While it has become a bit of a relic, it remains one of the best films in the long series, strengthened by its direction, a smart and likable new lead, and its devotion to outstanding action, including a tank chase in the streets of St. Petersburg. A great cinematic moment.