Pierce Brosnan turns sixty-five today, which makes it as good a time as any to reflect upon the Irish actor’s long and multifaceted career. There are perhaps numerous observations to be made about his body of work, but let’s get right to the point: Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond is the most significant portrayal of 007 to date. This might draw ire from fans of Daniel Craig, Sean Connery, and the others, but listen, I’m not saying that Brosnan was the “best” Bond, but rather that his performances (in GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, and Die Another Day), beyond just conveying the quintessential Bond persona, represent a crucial turning point for the iconic franchise.
Brosnan’s first lines as 007, in GoldenEye (1995), come when he dangles from an air vent and into a bathroom stall occupied by a Russian soldier. “Beg your pardon, forgot to knock,” he says, before punching the man out. This harkens back to the older versions of Bond, the sort of “polished” suave that Sean Connery embodied so well. With his smooth handsomeness and perfectly gelled hair, Brosnan’s Bond could certainly, at first glance, be mistaken for a Connery rip-off, but there’s far more to him.
While there is plenty of the old-fashioned Bond in Brosnan, he also contains inklings of the future, of the sort of flawed and cynical Bond that Daniel Craig would bring to the table. In the beginning of GoldenEye, Bond and fellow agent Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) each say, “For England,” in honor of their mission. At the end of the film, when Trevelyan (now the villain) is on the verge of falling to his death, he implores Bond to speak those lines again, presumably in an attempt to strike a chord in Bond and encourage our hero to show mercy. But Brosnan’s Bond replies, “No. For me,” and let’s Trevelyan fall to a gruesome death.
Brosnan had everything one could want from a Bond (the seductive charm, the arrogance, the sense of humor and comedic timing), and at the right time. When GoldenEye was released, it had been six rocky years since the last Bond film (License to Kill, starring Timothy Dalton). During that window, rightsholders fought over Bond’s future and the franchise all but went stagnant. It’s a testament to Brosnan that he revived what was then a lukewarm, possibly dying franchise. Even Die Another Day, which featured Bond driving through a hotel made of ice in an invisible car, was a huge box office success. On the precipice of Jason Bourne, Brosnan’s Bond was a blockbuster action hero for the 90s.
GoldenEye is a respected film (perhaps in part because of the classic video game that it spawned), but Brosnan’s other turns as Bond were not so well-received. Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, and Die Another Day, are for the most part considered mediocre films. The villains were often implausible and the plots were too nonsensical to be taken seriously, but is that something that should be put on Brosnan’s shoulders? Rather, it is a testament to Brosnan that he still found a way to charm us through these films, to make them entertaining even at their very worst. Brosnan did his best with the material that was handed to him, and it’s certainly worth wondering how he would have interpreted the script of Casino Royale (2006).
In addition to bearing the weight of lackluster stories, Brosnan shouldered the transition into a new age of Bond. As the first legitimately post-Cold War Bond, Brosnan’s enemies were less political and focused more on somewhat outrageous technological premises. As fanciful as it was, though, the technology in these films wasn’t as far-fetched as it probably seemed in the 1960s. In the leap from the 80s to 90s, all of the typical Bond campiness was suddenly situated in a world catching up to its own technological fabulist storytelling. In that sense, Brosnan entered at just the right moment where the campiness and extravagance of the past hit all the right notes, while paving the way for the more dour and realistic films that Craig would cultivate. That’s not to mention, of course, the significant increase in product placement, from remote-controlled BMWs to snazzy new Ericsson mobile phones.
One scene in particular stands out among all of the others during the Brosnan-Bond Era: The GoldenEye tank chase. For those who haven’t seen the film, this is relatively self-explanatory. Bond commandeers a Russian tank and tears through the streets of St. Petersburg in pursuit of the bad guys who are holding his female co-star captive. This moment perfectly encapsulates Brosnan’s Bond. The close-ups and medium shots of him driving the tank ensure that Bond’s hair and suit remain in pristine condition while he completely destroys the world around him in pursuit of a single (and, not coincidentally, female) goal. There’s the elegant and suave Bond in the suit, but there’s also the Craig-esque brawler who will do whatever it takes (including destroying a city) to complete his mission.
Brosnan portrayed James Bond from 1995-2002. GoldenEye came out the same year as Waterworld and Mortal Kombat, and Die Another Day (the last of Brosnan’s films) came out the same year as The Bourne Identity. Over these seven years the action genre underwent major changes and it’s unsurprising that Brosnan’s tenure ended where it did. It is also unsurprising that the next installment of Bond, Casino Royale, was created as a franchise reboot and borderline-origin story. Sure, one can argue that the Brosnan films were so bad that they necessitated a complete overhaul to reinvigorate the series, but that might be missing the point.
Rather, whether you liked his films or not, Pierce Brosnan acted as an essential bridge from the old Bond to the new Bond, weathering significant social and cultural changes. He did the best he could with the stories that were handed to him and found a way to conclude one Bond’s chapter and usher in a new one. Without Pierce Brosnan’s Bond, we might not have had the response of Daniel Craig’s iteration. With the announcement that Danny Boyle is set to direct the next (and twenty-fifth) Bond, it’d be easy to lose sight of the Brosnan Bond, which is why it’s important that we remember him as more than a relic of the 1990s. But, why? For cinema? For history? For England? No. For Pierce.