Telling people that you didn’t much care for the new James Bond film is a little like saying that you don’t like popcorn or Coke. After all, what’s not to like? Even a middling entry in the Bond series — and that certainly describes Goldeneye — is sure to feature all the stuff that lures us, over and over, to the latest 007 extravaganza. Really fast cars! Exotic games of baccarat! Amazing gadgets! (In this one, there’s a belt that conceals…a lengthy utility cord.) All those naughty double entendres that might have been cribbed from a 20-year-old copy of Playboy! Are we having fun now or what?
As you’ve probably gathered, I think the Bond series, after three decades and 17 films, has entered a near-terminal state of exhaustion. (For the record, I still like popcorn and Coke.) Goldeneye, like all Bond films, has some good moments; I enjoyed the lavishly preposterous opening sequence, in which Bond motorcycles off a cliff and free-falls toward an airborne propeller plane. Pierce Brosnan, to his credit, inspires less nostalgia for Sean Connery than did his dour predecessor, Timothy Dalton, who always looked as though he were trying to solve a math problem in his head. Still, just about everything in Goldeneye, from its rote nuclear-weapon-in-space plot to the recitation of lines that sound like they’re being read off stone tablets (”Shaken, not stirred!”), has been served up with a thirdhand generic competence that’s more wearying than it is exhilarating. Brosnan, for all the blitheness of his throwaway style, has a presence that’s as light as balsa wood. You never really believe he’s James Bond. He’s just a spryly presentable British preppie — the empire’s new tux.
The excitement of the Bond series was its cock-of-the-walk celebration of jaunty masculine authority, which it made both cheeky and hip, injecting it into suave thrills that were unavailable anywhere else. Now, however, those same thrills are available everywhere, and usually in a more high-octane form: in Bruce and Arnold and Steven Seagal movies, in Tom Clancy thrillers, in The Fugitive, Batman Forever, and Lethal Weapon XXVII. I sat through the labored action histrionics of Goldeneye — run-of-the-mill explosions and ”breathless” escapes, Bond rolling a tank over cars in St. Petersburg — in a déjà vu stupor. In a sense, the series’ creators have stopped even trying to surprise us. The opening-credits sequence, which might have been scored to, say, a grungified Courtney Love anthem, instead features the overly established Tina Turner (singing a tuneless drone cowritten by Bono and The Edge). In place of the megalomaniac sci-fi villains of old, we get stolid, normal-looking Sean Bean as a former comrade of Bond’s who’s out for vengeance.
In one regard, Goldeneye does try to nudge Bond out of his anachronistic rut. Sprinkled throughout the movie are references to the new power of women. Bond gets accused by his latest flame, Natalya (Izabella Scorupco), of being cold and scared of commitment. He has to endure Moneypenny’s japes about sexual harassment. And, most entertainingly, he comes up against the Russian assassin Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), a psycho vamp who combines the lethal movements of Bruce Lee with the sexual fantasies of Madonna, crushing victims to death in the midst of orgiastic S&M bouts. (She’s such a pain freak that when the train she’s on is about to crash, she grins with lascivious pleasure.) I don’t know whether the Bond series has a future, but if Xenia Onatopp ever returns to try for world domination, he may finally get a battle worth fighting.