I have two confessions to make about Brosnan’s four Bond films.
First, they all blend into one in my mind in a way that none of the others’ films do. It’s pretty easy to keep (say) Thunderball and You Only Live Twice separate; or Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only. But while I remember seeing Brosnan in a sequence where he’s chasing a nuclear bomb down the inside of an oil pipeline, I can’t honestly remember if it was Tomorrow Never Dies or The World Is Not Enough.
The second confession is: I love them all. No, they don’t always make a whole lot of sense. Yes, you can criticise them for many of the same faults as the Roger Moore films that mostly failed to impress me. But there is a conviction and panache to them that makes them work. Brosnan’s films feel to me like Moore’s done right. Partly this is because of technical advances in film-making: the effects in 1995-2002 were much better than in 1973-1985. But a big part of it is just that Brosnan is so much more convincing as both a fighter and a lover than Moore was. If Dalton was a failed attempt to replicate Connery, then Brosnan was a successful attempt to surpass Moore.
Brosnan’s debut may have been his strongest outing, and certainly contains what I think remains the most audacious stunt sequence I’ve ever seen in a Bond film, or maybe anywhere. The pre-credits sequence culminates in Bond’s escape plane, unmanned, taxiing off a cliff; and he jumps after it on a motorcycle, catches it in mid-air, climbs into the cockpit and flies away. It’s stunningly conceived and brilliantly executed; and if it has nothing to do Fleming’s Bond, it has this in its favour: it takes itself seriously.
I can hardly overstate how important this is. It’s fine for Bond films to contain flagrantly unrealistic sequences, and it’s fine for us to laugh at them. But the films must never ever laugh at themselves, otherwise the spell is broken. If the films themselves don’t care, how can we? The nadir of this kind of thing of course occurs in Octopussy‘s Tarzan swing. If Brosnan’s films are Moore Done Right, at least part of the reason is this straight face.
Also: tank chase! (Really needs to be seen on the big screen!)
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Which was this one again? Oh yes, the one with Jonathan Pryce as Robert Maxwell. It’s hard to remember much about this one. I seem to recall it was rather fun, though.
Bonus points: Michelle Yeoh is excellent in this, a fine example of when they try to make the Bond girl be Bond’s equal, and emphatically succeed.
The World is Not Enough (1999)
Lots to like here. There’s a sensational opening boat-chase. We have the first memorable bad-guy in a while — Renard, the one with the bullet in his brain that is progressively killing all his senses. There are two strong female characters, which I suppose represents some kind of attempt to drag Bond towards, if not actually into, the 21st century: Sophie Marceau is convincing as the potential kidnap victim, and Judy Dench is given a chance to flex her muscles as M — a marvellous performance that shows a steely character. (Casting Dench as the new M was one of the masterstrokes of the Brosnan era.) There’s also a genuinely surprising twist, which is a rarity.
I think we can all agree that Denise Richards, bless her, does not exactly convince in the role of a nuclear physicist. But I’m prepared to overlook that.
Die Another Day (2002)
Widely derided, sometimes described as the worst of all the Bond films, Die Another Day seems to attract a level of hostility that I find baffling. Yes, the plot is more than usually inchoherent, but against that we have Toby Stephens’ fine Max Zorin-like performance as the genius billionaire Gustav Graves, and the sense of a real clash of wills between him and Bond. We also get maybe my favourite of all the Bond girls: Rosamund Pike’s reserved, distant portrayal of Miranda Frost is pitch-perfect.
Perhaps Die Another Day suffers in reviews because its best material is front-loaded. The opening twenty minutes or so, with Bond captured and imprisoned in North Korea, then traded back to Britain but considered suspect because of the possibility of brainwashing, is as tough as anything in the pre-Daniel Craig canon. In retrospect, that opening sequence seems to belong to the Craig era, and the second half of the film to the Moore era; the graft is an unhappy one, and perhaps the truth is that Die Another Day is a pair of excellent half-films that don’t make a coherent whole. (See also: Pixar’s Up.)
In the end, Brosnan can look back with some satisfaction on his tenure. You can question how much sense his four Bond films make, but they’re consistently exciting and — this is important — interesting. There are ideas in there, which was rarely the case in the Moore films. The ideas are not always developed very persuasively, but at least they’re there. Someone was making an effort.
The problem that afflicts the Brosnan Bonds is that there is little sense of narrative, certainly no sense at all that all these things are happening to real person and are having any effect on him. Certainly the events in these four films could have occurred in any order — the Bond who returns from the North Korean prison, once he’s shaken off the immediate after-effects, is in no way a different man from the one in the three earlier films.
By the end of the Brosnan run, Bond had become a superhero in all but name: virtually invulnerable, with superhuman strength and endurance, and omnicompetent to a degree that precludes suspension of disbelief. When Bond returned, this had changed dramatically: it’s hard to believe that only four years elapsed between Die Another Day and Casino Royale.