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The Six Faces of 007: Pierce Brosnan

To celebrate James Bond’s 50th birthday on screen (and the release of Skyfall), we’re going to take a look at the character and his films. We’ve already reviewed all the classic movies, so we’ll be looking at his iconic baddies, and even at the character himself.

I have a great deal of affection for Pierce Brosnan’s term as James Bond. I think the actor easily portrayed the most rounded James Bond since Connery, capable of being an angel or a killer as the script demanded it. His run got off to a solid start with (for my money) the most consistent two-fer in the franchise’s history. (Taken together, I’d argue that GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies are the perfect revision and update of the Bond mythos.) While the last two films of his tenure were awkward and uneven efforts, Brosnan never gave the role less than his all. He has gone on record as being disappointed that his term as James Bond didn’t last longer than four films and, despite the mess of Die Another Day, I can’t help but agree with him.

I was quite shaken by his departure…

I think Brosnan worked well as something of a “consolidated” James Bond, offering a take on the character that seemed to draw on all four of his official predecessors in one way or another. He had Sean Connery’s elegance and sophistication, Lazenby’s emotional vulnerability, Moore’s warmth and humour and Dalton’s ruthlessness. Naturally, not all of these aspects of the character compliment one another, and Brosnan was often asked to play three or four contradictory aspects against each other.

In The World Is Not Enough, for example, we’re asked to believe in a Bond who can fall completely in love with a woman he just met – like Lazenby. We’re also expected to believe that he’s a brutal killer – like Dalton. Yet he punctuates the violence with witty and charming one-liners – like Moore. And he does all this while playing a weirdly disconnected cool – like Connery. These aspects seem at war with each other, much like The World Is Not Enough finds its script struggling to balance serious introspection, dark character beats and surreal camp within the same film.

He enjoyed a nice run, to be fair…

It’s to Brosnan’s credit that he held The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day together as long as he did. Roger Moore has gone on record describing Die Another Day as too ridiculous for his tastes. However, it’s Brosnan’s damaged Bond who centres the movie for as a long as possible, before the awful production and terrible script conspire to drown him in a melting ice hotel constructed of watered-down Bond tropes. That metaphor was a little awkwardly-constructed, but I stand by it.

Appropriately enough, given his performance, Brosnan’s four scripts seemed to take the character through a somewhat rushed version of his historical evolution. GoldenEye returned the character to his more emotionally grounded early adventures, anchored very much in the aftermath of the Cold War that informed the earliest efforts in the series. Tomorrow Never Dies recalled the heightened set pieces and action of the late Sean Connery era, like You Only Live Twice.

Gun to my head, he’s my second-favourite Bond…

In contrast, The World Is Not Enough seemed like a very weird, surreal and ill-advised amalgamation of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and some of the earlier Roger Moore films. Die Another Day saw the series reaching the same campy excess that defined Moonraker, the nadir of the Moore era, and the franchise’s biggest shame. As such, given Brosnan’s take on the icon had a very clear narrative arc mirroring the early section of the character’s history on film, it seemed appropriate that his portrayal felt like a conscious effort to draw on his four predecessors.

More than that, though, the Brosnan era seemed fixated on the idea of legacy, and of history. Not necessarily the history of the franchise itself, but defining the characters by events from their own past. For the first time, Bond really felt like a fully-drawn character, more than one who existed rather loosely from one film to the next. Even Sean Connery’s Bond might as well have come into being the instant we spotted him at the casino, and George Lazenby doesn’t feel like the man who toppled Dr. No or Goldfinger – trinkets in his desk notwithstanding.

Watered down a bit?

Brosnan’s Bond has a very tangible sense of personal history. GoldenEye opens with him on a mission during the Cold War, detailing the loss of a character who seemed to be an old friend. (Roger Moore would bump into an old acquaintance or two from time to time, but it never felt quite so real.) Indeed, that first film also confirms that Bond is an orphan, his parents dead in a “climbing accident.” Tomorrow Never Dies sees Bond encountering an old flame, one who remembers that he sleeps with a gun under his pillow, as in Thunderball. Even M seems to have a more developed history than her predecessor, as The World is Not Enough is anchored in a decision she made years ago, coming back to haunt her.

Thanks to touches like this, the world of Brosnan’s Bond feels more developed, and more realistic, than that inhabited by any of his predecessors. Bond had a recurring cast outside his MI6 office. While earlier films struggled to keep the same Felix Leiter between movies, Bond interacted with Valentin Dmitrovich Zukovsky twice. He also had his own CIA contact in the form of Jack Wade, who also appeared twice. (I always though it was a shame they dumped Wade when the CIA played a role in Die Another Day.)

He’s a lover and a fighter…

Brosnan was really tasked with shepherding the Bond archetypes out of the Cold War, and helping Bond navigate a decidedly more politically correct world order. GoldenEye finds Bond as something of a relic, stalking the casinos of Monte Carlo in his finest tuxedo, but losing money at the tables and reduced to seducing the evaluators sent to appraise him, little more than a gigalo. When he has a suspicion about one of the people he encounters, Moneypenny stresses that Bond is confined by standard operating procedures. “M authorizes you to observe Miss Onatopp but stipulates no… contact without prior approval.” He’s effectively neutered.

Even Moneypenny has moved on. Called in after a late night, Bond is disappointed to discover that she’s been “on a date with a gentleman”, suggesting that Moneypenny is more than an office secretary whiling away the hours between flirtations with the nation’s top secret agent. When Bond jokingly wonders what he would do without her, Moneypenny puts the boot in, “As far as I can remember, James, you’ve never had me.” This is rather interesting reversal of the traditional dynamic, where Bond was clearly the one in control of their relationship.

Double-uh-oh!

It would be easy to present Bond as an outdated archetype, and GoldenEye explores that idea quite thoroughly. When Bond meets the CIA’s man in Moscow, it’s hardly the efficiency and glamour we’ve come to expect. Wade expresses the idea that Bond is simply behind the times. “I mean, for crying out loud… another stiff-ass Brit, with your secret codes and your passwords. One of these days you guys are gonna learn just to drop it.”

I think one of the strongest aspects of Brosnan’s time in the role was the way that it acknowledged the shifting times, but also rebuilt Bond in a way that made the character and the franchise both modern and recognisable. I’d argue they did it in a more subtle and nuanced way than the recent Daniel Craig reboots did, maintaining perhaps a bit more of the decades of history that came beforehand.(That’s not to dismiss what the Daniel Craig films have done, but rather to contrast the approach.)

Forming a Bond under fire…

In a way, GoldenEye was the story of Bond surviving all this rather pointed and nuanced criticism of him as a character and the series as a franchise. Tomorrow Never Dies, I’d argue, demonstrated that the classical Bond tropes and devices could still be used in service of a good story, regardless of how the times had changed. It featured the same familiar devices and character archetypes, but updated for a new generation.

However, one of the touches that I quite liked about Brosnan’s take on the character was the idea that Bond is an inherently brutal and angry character, beneath the calm exterior and the sharp suits. Going back to Connery, that’s something I’ve always liked about the character – the notion that beneath his Cambridge education and his tuxedo and his wine knowledge, Bond is a very aggressive and almost animalistic character. Brosnan’s Bond was capable of being as brutal as Craig’s take on the character, but he contrasted Bond’s violence with his sense of class much better.

The clinic needs a headshot for identification purposes…

Despite Brosnan’s sophistication, it’s telling that the first three Brosnan films end with Bond killing an unarmed villain in cold blood. In GoldenEye, after disarming Alec Trevelyan and dangling over the edge of the satellite dish, Bond drops him to his death. In Tomorrow Never Dies, he throws Elliot Carver into torpedo that acts like a grinder. In The World is Not Enough, he shoots an unarmed Elektra King at close range. While Carver and Trevelyan arguably deserved it, The World is Not Enough was careful to present King as much as a victim as a villain.

Brosnan portrayed Bond in keeping with Dalton’s take on the character, creating the sense that Bond was a very unhappy man who masked his own inner demons with a nice suit and sharp witticism. (Arguably, though, that portrayal dates back to Sean Connery and even into Fleming’s source material.) It was a decidedly nuanced and challenging portrayal of the character one that contrasts with Daniel Craig’s slightly less sophisticated version. Craig’s iteration of Bond makes little effort to conceal his rather mean streak, while Brosnan instead suggested that it lurked just below the surface – ready to emerge if the situation called for it.

Wrestling with his demons… and their henchmen…

It’s truly impressive that Brosnan is able to play that sort of cold-blooded brutality without losing the audience, often mingling it with a faint sense of tragedy. It’s a shame that the movies didn’t necessarily develop this portrayal – or any consistent portrayal at all. Brosnan also had a gift for the sense of humour expected from Bond, and many of my favourite Brosnan moments are “little” touches that could easily have been left on the editting room floor.

I love the moment in the opening of The World is Not Enough where Brosnan is dangling from a henchman but gets stuck half-way – giving the rope a playful-and-calm tug to pull the henchman loose from the desk he’s holding. The short scene after he kills Elektra is also strangely affecting, even if the rest of the script pretends that it never happened. Similarly, his interactions with the torturer in Tomorrow Never Dies or Xenia in GoldenEye demonstrate Brosnan’s easy charm in the role – just as smooth as Moore, but with an edge like Connery.

Always a cool customer…

Brosnan is probably my second-favourite actor to play Bond, behind Connery himself. It’s a remarkable performance, and it’s a shame that the final couple of scripts were never quite up to the talent of the leading man.

The six faces of 007:

We’ve got full reviews of all of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond films, if you want to check ‘em out:

13 Responses

  1. Brosnan was definitely the best James Bond! He is just so strikingly handsome and sexy!

  2. You nailed Brosnan’s performance as Bond perfectly. Of course, Connery is the original and the standard for all other actors to live up to, but Brosnan captured all of the various aspects of the character perfectly, moreso than any others, including Craig. His shooting Elektra point blank was one thing that saved the often dreadful “TWINE.” It was also his performance and interaction with Halle Berry that elevated “Die Another Day” from pure camp to oddly entertaining.

    • Yep. His performance in The World is Not Enough often reminded me of Roger Moore in his lesser efforts, trying to find a consistent character in a jumble of one-liners, paint-by-numbers plotting and action set pieces. He did it all very well, but the script didn’t allow him to tie it all together.

  3. Reblogged this on Drndark.

  4. Yes, Yes to all of this.

  5. For some reason I never truly liked Brosnan as Bond. He acts and looks like Bond but something did not feel right to me.Apart from Goldeneye I never re-watched the other movies(too over the top for this era) , maybe it was the movies. I am currently re-watching the series on blu-ray so I am anxious to see if my opinion about Brosnan and his movies have changed.

    • I’ll be interesting. I’m in the minority in adoring Tomorrow Never Dies, if only because it’s a very Bond-y Bond film. The World is Not Enough is interesting, with some great character work, but no sense of tone, terrible jokes and pretty cheesy set pieces. Elektra’s claustrophobic attack should be a huge character moment… but it’s in a freakin’ golf ball.

      I can’t defend Die Another Day, except to suggest that Brosnan is far better than the material deserves. His Bond seemed angry without ever losing it, which was his speciality when it came to Bond. The ice motel was the perfect metaphor for Brosnan’s Bond – the cold and elegant exterior melting from the inside.

      GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies are my Bond double feature of choice, though. I think they play to each other’s strengths. GoldenEye accepts the world has changed, and Bond needs to, but Tomorrow Never Dies suggests all the familiar tropes can still work. It’s like how Quantum of Solace is a lot stronger watched back-to-back with Casino Royale, but with the bonus that Tomorrow has none of the internal problems that plague Quantum. (It just lacks the strengths of GoldenEye – nuance, sophistication and characterisation.)

  6. I have a hard time judging Brosnan – mostly on whether his portrayal of Bond was great or just good.

    He was the most well-rounded Bond, but at the same time, this meant he was the least unique and the least innovative. He definitely looked the part and he was the most transparent actor of the bunch. The other actors have injected their personalities into the character. Craig is Craig. Moore was Moore. Lazenby was Lazenby. But with Brosnan, I just saw him as Bond, for better or worse.

    I won’t hold the mistakes of his 3 movies after Goldeneye against him. Poor writing – not his fault. But it’s unfortunate, that because of them, I haven’t seen as many good moments with Brosnan as I should have.

    • I think that’s a fair point. I think Brosnan is probably the least well-defined of the Bonds. Including Lazenby, that’s saying something.

      However, there was always a rawness and a pettiness to Brosnan’s Bond that I liked. Even when he was making quips, it seemed like Brosnan’s Bond was angry at the world. I think that Brosnan is what you’d get if Daniel Craig’s version developed finesse. Brosnan’s Bond always knew what to say and do, but he could be astonishingly mean-spirited at times. He straight-up executes unarmed Bond villains in his middle two films, moments that are shocking in context because they are among the rare moments where Brosnan’s Bond seems to actually feel something.

      (I still think Tomorrow Never Dies is criminally underrated as a “back to formula” Bond film.)

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