British Secret Service agent James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and fellow agent 006 Alex Trevalyan (Sean Bean) run into trouble on a mission in the Soviet Union that leaves Trevalyan in dire straits. Nine years later, Bond is ordered by M (Dame Judi Dench) to look into a stolen fighter helicopter and a group called the Janus Syndicate. The Janus Syndicate and their crazed head are set to use the Russian electromagnetic pulse satellite of the film’s title to cause all manner of financial havoc. Famke Janssen plays the ravenous, murderous Xenia Onatopp, a member of Janus. Izabella Scorupco is pretty programmer Natalya, Alan Cumming is Natalya’s slimy male equivalent Boris, and Gottfried John plays adversarial Russian General Ourumov. Tcheky Karyo doesn’t have his finest hour playing no-nonsense Russian Defence Minister Dimitri Mishkin.
Going through the Bond franchise again, I’ve found myself changing my opinion on two films, including one Pierce Brosnan entry that I like more now than previously, to the point where I’ve had to adjust grades and rankings. This 1995 debut outing for the Irishman in the part…is not that film, but it almost could’ve been. Directed by Martin Campbell (“Escape From Absolom”, “Casino Royale”, the unfairly maligned “Green Lantern”) it’s not a bad film, in fact some of it is very good and I liked it a bit more this time around. Brosnan is certainly the best Bond since Connery, I think that’s indisputable, he’s certainly better than Daniel Craig and George Lazenby. If you like lots of action in your Bond film, there’s plenty of that here, certainly. We also get one of the series’ best Bond girls in Famke Janssen’s sexy yet frightening Xenia Onatopp. I even liked Sean Bean’s villain a lot more this time around. One of the series’ most popular entries, I’m still grading this just a shade under a recommendation. Why? Believe me, this is so damn close to getting a recommendation, it’s only by a small margin that this one has the score it receives. The reasons are two in number; Length, and one rather important, uncharismatic performance.
As always, let’s start at the beginning though. We get an absolutely abysmal gun barrel theme from Eric Serra (“Rollerball”, “Bulletproof Monk”, “Lucy”), which doesn’t even sound like the James Bond/007 theme at all. What the hell, Eric? It’s the worst gun barrel music to date, that’s for sure. We rebound with a brilliant opening bungee jump stunt that we all saw a hundred times in the trailer in the seemingly endless months before its original release. It’s a very clever, slow reveal of our new Bond actor, which I really liked. The best thing about the pre-credits sequence is Pierce Brosnan, who shows just about every string in his bow from the outset: He can act, he can do the serious action hero stuff, he can be suave, and he can also be funny. On the latter, what I like is that his one-liners are Connery-esque, not fatuous Moore-era puns that make you groan. Moore seemed to toss off one-liners because he could, with Connery and Brosnan they are quality, not quantity. Brosnan and Sean Bean make a fun pair in this opening, action-packed sequence sullied only by Serra’s terrible electronic music score. It’s not overall as bad as some of the 80s Bond scores (“For Your Eyes Only” and “The Living Daylights” in particular), but Christ it’s a dud. Serra’s synthesised percussive shit comes off like a temporary score they eventually planned to replace but forgot or had to rush the film out. It also doesn’t make enough use of the Bond theme or title song in the overall score and even the more iconic elements are botched anyway. Daniel Kleinman is a really fine successor to Maurice Binder, giving us a real bang-up job on the titles design here, including a fallen Lenin statue. The apparently now retired Tina Turner is a perfect choice for the Bono/The Edge-penned title tune. She sings the absolute fuck out of it, and she’s probably a lot better than the song itself, really (and I like the song just fine).
Because this is a new Bond for a new era and that era was/is a PC one, we get a rather different Miss Moneypenny in Samantha Bond. The actress is perfectly fine in the role, but this Moneypenny doesn’t need to pine over 007, she already has a fella of her own. More to the point, The Samantha Bond version of Moneypenny is just a touch too scolding of 007, and even suggests he might be sexually harassing her. However, then she teasingly suggests he needs to make good on his promises. I don’t think the series had quite figured out what the late 90s version of Miss Moneypenny was going to be at this point. The Craig era 007 films, if they’ve gotten anything right, they’ve managed to get Miss Moneypenny right for the modern era. I think the lovely Naomie Harris is a much superior Moneypenny to Ms. Bond (and frankly she’s the best Moneypenny to date). Dame Judi Dench is unquestionably the best and most accomplished performer to have graced the role of M. However, this for me is once again an interpretation indicative of a franchise unsure of what they want the character to be in this era. Dench is terrific, but they haven’t quite gotten the balance right, her somewhat butch feminist take here is a tad too strident and heavy-handed, they’d give it a little more finesse and refinement in future episodes (She was especially good in “The World is Not Enough”). I think that part of the issue is that M’s dressing down of Bond as a ‘misogynist dinosaur’ is seemingly more of a damnation of the pre-Brosnan Bond actors rather than the Bond she’s actually talking to in the scene. Brosnan’s 007 isn’t that much of a pants man, really so she comes off as frankly a bit of a bitch. Desmond Llewellyn (AKA gadget master Q) always seemed to work well opposite Pierce Brosnan and indeed their first go-round here is great fun. There’s an especially funny bit in their scene where a guy gets stuck in a phone booth that you simply have to see for yourself. At one point, Brosnan even manages to make Llewellyn laugh, and I doubt it was scripted that way. Certainly no previous 007 made Llewellyn break out. Lovely stuff. American character actor Joe Don Baker makes up for his fatuous villain in “The Living Daylights” by playing CIA man Jack Wade here, he’s jolly good. He calls Bond alternately Jimmy, Jim, and Jimbo all within the space of about a minute. Funny, and Baker is clearly having a whale of a time. Alan Cumming is also fun as a shifty computer geek named Boris. Look out for a great bit with Robbie Coltrane, who like Baker’s Wade makes the first of multiple appearances here as hard-to-hate Russian criminal Zukovsky. He’s terrific, but the main reason the bit is great is because of an uncredited and Russian-accented Minnie Driver giving her one memorable performance as Zukovsky’s mistress. She belts out a horribly off-key Russian-accented version of ‘Stand By Your Man’. Brilliantly funny.
As I said earlier, if you like a lot of action in your Bond film, you’ll get plenty of that in this film. Machine guns in particular are a frequent presence here. More importantly, Bond drives a tank at one point. A fucking tank, so take that every other Bond movie. It’s the best thing in the entire film, and being that it’s the one scene in the film not scored by Serra himself but someone else, it’s also the scene with the best incorporation of the familiar James Bond theme. There’s no guitar in it, but I’ll take what I can get.
The villains, as is often the case when there are more than one, are a bit of a mixed bag, but in hindsight actually not too bad. I’ve previously underrated Gottfried John a tad, and while he won’t be remembered as anywhere near one of the great Bond villains, he provides a an OK secondary villain. Sean Bean I’ve definitely underrated in the past, and he gives a terrific performance (he even has a Bond villain facial scar, which is a nice touch). The only issue I have with him is that by casting someone like Sean Bean and killing him off in the opening scene makes it completely obvious that he’ll return and probably be our lead villain. Suspense is robbed. The one-two punch of villainy here still works better than in “The Living Daylights”, and at least they’re smart enough to get the reveal over and done with halfway through the film. It would’ve been a disaster to delay it much longer. The main thing I like about Bean’s casting aside from his obvious acting ability, is that he’s a good physical match for Brosnan, not something the series has often delivered with its villains, even the best of them. I think “Tomorrow Never Dies” is the better film, but Bean is a much better villain than Jonathan Pryce.
Where the film really scores though, is in its chief henchman (or ‘Bad’ Bond Girl if you prefer) Xenia Onatopp, played in a star-making turn by Famke Janssen as a woman who seemingly gets turned on by killing. Stealing the entire film with a definite aggressive animal sexuality, she’s a sexy but evil Fiona Vulpe/Fatima Blush-type with more than a touch of May Day’s physical aggressiveness. Her sauna scene with Bond is the most bizarre blend of sex scene and fight scene I’ve ever seen. When Bond gives her a climactic karate chop to the back of the neck (instead of a donkey punch?) you have to wonder just what the scene is doing in an otherwise very PC film, but the film goes to great lengths to show that Onatopp is dangerous and evil. Whatever you make of the scene, you’ll clearly never forget it or Ms. Onatopp. Clearly one of the best Bond Girls of all-time (possibly even better than Vulpe and Blush), she also spills over enough into the henchman category in which she is also one of the best. Unfortunately, the other Bond Girl is where the film runs into quite the stumbling block. Nastassja Kinski-lookalike Izabella Scorupco never really happened as an actress and there’s a good reason for that: She’s tedious, uncharismatic, and uninteresting. In the looks department she’s not my type either, but that kind of thing is wildly subjective. For me, Scorupco’s Natalya Simonova joins Tanya Roberts’ Stacy Sutton, Maryam d’Abo’s Kara, Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier, and Lois Chiles’ Dr. Holly Goodhead at the bottom of the Bond Girl pile. Brosnan never had problems generating chemistry with his ladies after this, and certainly there are sparks with Janssen here, but with Scorupco…nothing. I think that falls on Scorupco, really especially since Janssen is playing an evil gleeful murderer and she has better chemistry with the hero. I actually think Scorupco is worse here than I initially thought from previous viewings of the film.
Length, a dreadful music score, and a bland lead Bond Girl detract from what is at the very least the closest thing to a Connery era Bond film since “Diamonds Are Forever” (“Never Say Never Again” never felt overly Connery-esque despite its star). Scripted by Jeffrey Caine (“The Constant Gardener”, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”) and Bruce Feirstein (“Tomorrow Never Dies”, “The World is Not Enough”), the main difference this era of Bond film brings is a dose of political correctness. Pierce Brosnan makes for a really good Bond, Sean Bean is a solid villain, and Famke Janssen steals the show as vampish Xenia Onatopp. This one’s just OK overall though it’s better than Martin’s other go at a Bond film, the wildly overrated, dour “Casino Royale”.