Is James Bond still a Big Gun? -- Pierce Brosnan takes aim at a new audience in ''Goldeneye''

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated November 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST
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Midnight in Monte Carlo. Secret agent James Bond dashes out the doorway of a swank casino and hops behind the wheel of a vintage Aston Martin DB-5, just like the one that blew its top in Goldfinger. He gives his black tie a rakish tug. Shifts gears. Steps on the gas. Forgets to unlock the parking brake and sputters to a stall.

Take 2: James Bond climbs into the DB-5. Shifts gears. Steps on the gas. Pops the clutch and stalls again.

Take 3: Bond gets into the DB-5. Shifts gears. Accidentally sets off the car alarm.

Clearly, these are trying times for 007. Six long years have passed since the character last appeared on movie screens. The Cold War is over. The old reliable supervillains — SMERSH, S.P.E.C.T.R.E., the KGB — have all been retired to the ash heap of history. Even women are different in the 1990s — it’s almost impossible to find one named Pussy Galore anymore. And now, the ultimate indignity: The guy who’ll play Bond in the next three films — a former television actor, no less — obviously wouldn’t know an ejector seat if he sat on one.

”Sorry! My fault!” Pierce Brosnan apologizes, stumbling out of the DB-5 as crew members scramble to shut off the alarm. ”I touched something I shouldn’t have.”

Actually, despite his dubious driving technique, Brosnan, 42, may be the best thing to happen to Bond since the vodka martini. Many names were mentioned for the role of the greatest spy in film history — Mel Gibson, Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, even Sharon Stone, back when producers thought a female face might freshen the series — but Brosnan’s casting in Goldeneye, the 18th Bond movie, opening Nov. 17, turns out to have been a pretty clever idea after all. More menacing than Roger Moore’s Bond Lite, less labored than Timothy Dalton’s licensed-to-bore Bond, Brosnan’s 007 is being pitched as the next best thing to Sean Connery’s original.

Unlike the last few films — which flirted with such un-Bond concepts as monogamy and serious character development — Goldeneye is clearly trying to recapture that old Bond magic. All the classic ingredients have been poured into this one and stirred slightly, but not shaken too much. It’s got exotic locales, like St. Petersburg, Puerto Rico, and Monaco. It’s got way-cool gadgets, like exploding pens and laser beam-firing wristwatches. It’s got over-the-top villains, like Sean Bean as turncoat agent 006, who hijacks a Russian space weapon and threatens to destroy London’s economic infrastructure (big whoop, but never mind). And it’s got the Bond bombshells: Swedish model Izabella Scorupco as 007’s No. 1 babe and Dutch actress Famke Janssen (Lord of Illusions) as a sexy ex-Soviet assassin with killer thighs.

”We kept getting letters from people asking us to give them back Bond,” explains coproducer Barbara Broccoli, daughter of legendary Bond producer Albert ”Cubby” Broccoli. ”So we tried to distill it. We tried to get back to the essence of Bond.”

And not a moment too soon. As the fifth actor to take on the movie role (not including Woody Allen’s Jimmy Bond in Casino Royale), Brosnan inherits a film franchise that’s been fraying at the edges for years — and not just because the Cold War went out of business. Bond flicks used to be churned out like clockwork every two years, but a lawsuit over distribution rights has held up production since 1989; meanwhile, the action genre has sped ahead with movies like True Lies and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series. And the economics of filmmaking have changed drastically since 007 dominated the action market, back when Arnold’s only stunts were on the jungle gym. In 1962, Dr. No was made for less than $900,000; nowadays, respectable action movies start at $50 million. And just to ratchet up the pressure some more: MGM/UA, Bond’s home, has been financially shaky for several years, despite such recent hits as Get Shorty and Species. It’s currently owned by Credit Lyonnais, a foreign bank that, by U.S. law, must find a buyer for it by mid-1997. Obviously, a reenergized 007 would make the studio a more attractive property when Credit Lyonnais begins shopping it around later this month.

Connery, Moore, Dalton, even one-shot wonder George Lazenby — they had it easy. All they had to do was save the world. Brosnan has to save the franchise.

Bond, of course, had been offered to Brosnan before. In 1986, while he was learning to be dashing and debonair on NBC’s Remington Steele, Cubby Broccoli asked him to take over from the retiring Moore. Brosnan jumped at the chance. His wife, actress Cassandra Harris, who died of ovarian cancer in 1991, had played a Bond babe in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, so he already felt connected to the series. More than connected, really. More like cosmically riveted.

”It’s weird,” he says. ”It sends tingles down my spine when I think of it. This character has been in my life for so long. It was the unconscious seed of my wanting to become an actor. When I was growing up in Ireland, we had no cinema, no TV. Then I went to London with my parents and they took me to see this big movie. I was this green Irish lad — I was 10 — and I saw this naked lady covered in gold paint and this man who could kill with his hat. It was Goldfinger. That was the first movie I saw.”

NBC, though, wouldn’t release Brosnan from his Remington Steele contract. Negotiations grew bitter. Brosnan says Broccoli offered to wait while he shot six more episodes to finish out the show’s fourth season. But NBC wanted Brosnan to return to film 22 more after he had become Bond, presumably so the network could claim 007 for its prime-time lineup. Broccoli decided to find another actor. ”It was greed,” Brosnan says of the network’s proposal. ”Greeeed.”

Instead, the part went to Timothy Dalton, a gifted Shakespearean actor who inadvertently did more damage to Bond than Ernst Stavro Blofeld ever dreamed possible. Retooled as a sort of New Age agent — sensitive, caring, politically correct — Dalton’s Bond couldn’t have been more bland. ”Tim is a good actor,” says Brosnan. ”But he wasn’t serviced well by the product. They diluted the character too much. Bond’s a sexist. He’s a killer. If you take that away from him, you take the rug out from under the guy’s feet.”

Dalton’s license to kill expired after his second film. In 1990, Italian entrepreneur Giancarlo Parretti acquired MGM/UA and a huge amount of debt. Fearing that Parretti would short-sell Bond’s precious distribution rights to help pay for the purchase, Broccoli filed lawsuits to stop him. Within months, Parretti drove the studio into near-bankruptcy and abandoned his Hollywood plans, but the Bond lawsuits lingered and production remained frozen until a settlement was reached in 1992. By then, Dalton’s contract with the Broccolis had run out.

The producers went looking for a new Bond — and a new concept. They toyed with the idea of making 007 a woman. Of making him black. Of making a period piece set in the 1960s. They even considered Connery’s idea of pursuing Quentin Tarantino to direct (they went with British director Martin Campbell, who made last year’s sci-fi prison movie No Escape). Ultimately, they chose to return to basics, bringing back the Aston Martin, the shaken martinis, the pneumatically gifted female companions. ”Bond is not PC,” says coproducer Michael Wilson, Cubby Broccoli’s stepson (Broccoli, 86, has a ”presents” credit on the film but has been recuperating from a heart attack he suffered last summer). ”If you expect this guy to know how to change diapers, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.”

Still, Goldeneye does make some concessions to the ’90s. Bond’s boss, the formidable M, played for years by the late Bernard Lee, is now played by Dame Judi Dench. Her character thinks 007 is ”a sexist, misogynist dinosaur” and even sends a female psychiatrist to evaluate him (Bond seduces her, natch). More shockingly, Scorupco wears not a single skimpy swimsuit through the entire picture — although she does have to croak one of those classic save-me ”Jahhhmes!” (”To play a good bimbo, it is not so easy,” she insists.) Then there’s Janssen’s character, a you-can-have-it-all modern gal who wears leather jumpsuits from the Edward Scissorhands collection and kills people by squeezing them to death during sex. Okay, so she’s not exactly Hillary Clinton, but at least she’s assertive.

One modernization that Goldeneye could not achieve, however, was a Schwarzeneggerian $100 million budget. MGM/UA was willing to put up $60 million, tops. And that, frankly, may be one reason Brosnan finally ended up getting the part. Before his heart attack, Broccoli reportedly offered Mel Gibson $15 million to play Bond (”Too boring,” Gibson supposedly said at the time). Broccoli was also said to have waved large sums at Liam Neeson (”Too frivolous,” Neeson reportedly sniffed). Brosnan, on the other hand, not only wanted to play Bond, but was willing to do it for a pittance: a reported $1.2 million.

By skimping on star salaries, the producers were able to throw more money at things like a lavish tank chase sequence filmed in St. Petersburg. ”On most movies with big, expensive stars, you’ll have a $50 million budget but only $10 million ends up in the movie,” says Jeff Kleeman, the MGM/UA executive in charge of Goldeneye. ”But because of Pierce, we were able to reverse that formula.”

Not that the production didn’t run into the occasional unexpected expense. One morning in St. Petersburg, for instance, the crew arrived at the set to find Russian troops surrounding the area, threatening to open fire if they started filming. As it turned out, a high Russian official had decided that the movie owed a few last-minute permit fees — $3 million worth. ”They tried to gouge us,” Barbara Broccoli says. ”We had to meet with a minister in the middle of the night, but we got around it.”

Not even SMERSH ever sank that low.

Leavesden, England, about an hour’s drive from London. Inside an abandoned Rolls-Royce factory-turned-film studio, a soundstage filled with hundreds of tropical plants is steaming under hot klieg lights. It’s supposed to be the Cuban jungle, where Bond has just crash-landed in a small airplane. Crew members with fire extinguishers spray the plane’s smoldering wreckage and prep it for another take, while in a corner, Janssen practices head butting with the film’s fight coordinator. (Janssen, by the way, was so perfectly cast in the role, she sent one actor to the hospital during filming. ”What can I say?” she smiles. ”I got carried away.”)

Brosnan, meanwhile, is lounging in a director’s chair, biting into an apple, contemplating the future of 007. ”I would like to find a chink in his armor,” he says. ”I would like to pull back the layers a little. When Sean did him in the ’60s, it was a straight-on, macho, bam-bam-bam kind of character. Now we’re in the ’90s and we have cinematic heroes that are a lot more f—ed up. Mel Gibson put the gun in his mouth in Lethal Weapon. The guy was an animal.

”I don’t want to deconstruct Bond or do a Method Bond or anything like that,” he says. ”But a scene with Bond sitting in a room, with the camera slowly zooming in on him, showing him in pain — that’s what I mean. Peel back the layers, show his dark side.”

Goldeneye peels on occasion (it’s the first film to reveal, for instance, that Bond was orphaned). And director Campbell has given the film an edgy, fashionably frenetic style (”Those old Bond movies really took their time,” he says). Still, for Bond to survive in the new world order, he’ll need more than an infusion of angst or a Pulp Fiction makeover. He’ll need to recapture some of the ineffable Bondian charisma that hooked people in the first place. His producers will have to relearn some old tricks — like how to get an audience’s adrenaline pumping with just the first few chords of his theme song. In a word, Bond will have to become cool again.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of suggestions about how he can do that.

”He should have a virile core underneath the charm,” offers action director John McTiernan (Die Hard, Predator, Die Hard With a Vengeance). ”That’s the key to the Bond character. The charm should be a mask for the danger. A charming man is only interesting if he’s capable of killing. Otherwise, he’s a charming bridge player.”

”Bond should be more human,” suggests Hong Kong-gone-Hollywood director John Woo, whose nuke-on-the-loose thriller, Broken Arrow, opens next spring. ”He should care more about the people in the movie. Also, because I’m John Woo, I’d give him two guns to shoot at the same time.”

And while Brosnan wasn’t asking, here’s another piece of advice for him: ”Don’t underestimate the role,” says Sean Connery. ”Whatever Bond does, he has to appear to have a reasonable intelligence. He has to be graceful and move well. He has to be a dangerous person. He has to have a certain measure of charm. And he has to make it all look effortless.”

A long, impossible list, but there are some encouraging signs that Brosnan can pull it off. For one thing, he clearly doesn’t underestimate the part. ”I was the man who could have been, should have been, would have been Bond — but who lost it,” he says. ”And now the role has come back to me. So the thing to do is not hold it too tightly. It’s like mercury. If you try to hold it too closely, it slips through your fingers.

”I don’t want to tempt fate,” he says, ”but it feels good, it feels right. I’m at a good age for the role. I’ve lived a fair bit of life. A certain amount of s— has happened. I remember when my wife got the part in For Your Eyes Only. I had just finished a play in the West End and was out of work. She got the movie, so the kids and I went with her in the back of the airplane. I can’t help but reflect on that right now, on how this role came into my life.”

The crew has set fire to the airplane again and is ready for another take. ”You know,” Brosnan says as he prepares to save the world once more, ”sometimes I find myself saying some of these lines in the mirror, because they’re just so classic. It’s like Hamlet. ‘To be or not to be.’ You just have to go for it. You have to make it yours. You have to make it real.

”’The name’s Bond,”’ he says, sounding extremely real. ”’James Bond.”’


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  • Martin Campbell