How Pierce Brosnan’s ‘GoldenEye’ Revived James Bond
Timothy Dalton's late-'80s tenure had ended after just two movies, followed by a six-year franchise hiatus. Tough guy Sean Connery and the more jokey Roger Moore, who between them starred in 14 earlier Bond films, still loomed large.
And was 007 even relevant in a post-Cold War age?
"The skeptics were out in full: The world felt there was no need for another Bond," Brosnan told The Guardian in 2019. "So, the challenge was enormous."
Brosnan had actually signed on as Bond for 1987's Living Daylights, but NBC held him to a television contract by opportunistically renewing Remington Steele at the last moment.
"I'd done all the photos with the iconic gun pose," Brosnan told The Irish Post in 2019, "My late wife and I were about to toast our new life with a bottle of Cristal when my agent called and said, 'It's fallen through.' It was because I couldn't get out of Remington Steele."
Dalton took over, then the series ran out of steam. But late producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli never gave up on Bond – neither did Brosnan, who was available by the mid-'90s.
They'd met years before when Brosnan stopped by during production of 1981's For Your Eyes Only to visit his spouse Cassandra Harris, who played Countess Lisl von Schlaf.
"It was so, so exciting to be on a James Bond set and to have your wife be a James Bond girl," Brosnan told Esquire in 2020. "And, of course, we would joke about me being the next James Bond – never thinking or wishing or desiring the role. But I think every actor has it in his mind to play James Bond."
Watch the 'Over the Edge' Scene From 'GoldenEye'
Signed up for the 17th entry in the franchise, Brosnan now had to deal with expectations.
"I know I have this one chance to get it right," Brosnan told The Virginian-Pilot in 1995. "I feel a great responsibility to the role. There are big shoes to fill. Sean Connery is the man I kept seeing when I looked over my shoulder."
Brosnan later revealed that Goldfinger, the third installment in the series, was the first film he ever saw in Technicolor. He was just 11 years old.
At the same time, however, Brosnan and the filmmakers liked the twinkle of humor Moore subsequently brought to the role. GoldenEye, released on Nov. 13, 1995, would attempt to incorporate both approaches.
Named for the Jamaican home of 007 creator Ian Fleming, the film found James Bond battling with former agent-turned-nemesis Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), who'd gained access to a deadly satellite system developed by the former Soviet Union. That plausibly world-threatening narrative played out against Bond's entanglements with the humorously named Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), a trained assassin who used pleasure as a deadly weapon.
"I didn't want to get caught between what Sean and Roger had done," Brosnan admitted in his interview with The Guardian. "Yet, at the end of the day, my take was a little bit of what both had brought to the role. I leant towards Sean's style, but couldn't deny Roger because GoldenEye was made in the tongue-in-cheek manner people had become used to."
In the end, Brosnan said having to cool his heels for a few years helped him to a deeper understanding of the Bond character.
"I thought it was the end of the world but, looking back today, it all happened for the best," Brosnan told The Virginian-Pilot in 1995. "I was too young for the part back then. Today, I'm a bit wiser and have a few more scars on the soul."
He displayed a canny knack for both the bare-knuckled action scenes, and those times when a nudge and wink were required. No other Brosnan-led Bond film walked this fine line so deftly.
"Trying to play this role, I could see Roger's way of playing it; I could see Sean's way of playing it," Brosnan told Esquire. "And I stole from both, because both had meaning to me – and once I allowed myself to do that, I was free to find my own personification as the character. And it's trusting yourself, having confidence in yourself to stand there and deliver."
Watch the 'For England, James?' Scene From 'GoldenEye'
The industry wasn't so sure, leading to production cash-flow issues along the way. For instance, a key scene where tanks roll through St. Petersburg had to be filmed on a replica set at the U.K.'s Leavesden Studios.
"It was budgeted at $55 million, ludicrously little by today's standards," GoldenEye director Martin Campbell told The Guardian. "I think United Artists had doubts about how the audience would respond after the big gap. The press had been asking if Bond was relevant."
In a happy twist, however, Moore stopped by and that served as an early validation for Brosnan. "I was a huge fan of Sir Roger Moore's," Brosnan told Esquire. "I was very honored and very proud to stand beside him that day. He was very gracious."
Then GoldenEye became a sizable hit, raking in $355 million. They'd managed to thread the needle, presenting a more modern Bond with just enough old-school swagger. Still, a stressed-out Brosnan told The Irish Post that he could only manage "great relief" – nothing more. The pressure never abated.
He'd go on to star in three more installments in the series through 2002, but with diminishing returns. Brosnan eventually came to feel his Bond was "never good enough," he told the Daily Mail in 2018, because his initial film's deft balance was missing. "I was caught between Sean Connery's Bond and Roger Moore's Bond – and it was only really in GoldenEye that I did my Bond."
He'd never stopped taking other acting roles, memorably appearing in 1999's The Thomas Crown Affair and 2001's The Tailor of Panama. Later star turns included 2005's The Matador, 2008's Mamma Mia! and 2010's The Ghost Writer, among many others. As with the late Connery before him, however, Brosnan will always be associated with 007.
"Once you're branded as a Bond, it's with you for ever," Brosnan told Yahoo! in 2020. "So you better make peace with it and understand that when you walk through those doors and pick up the mantle of playing James Bond."