Robbie Coltrane Gave The James Bond Franchise One Of Its Best Frenemies

Martin Campbell's 1995 film "GoldenEye," the first James Bond film to star Pierce Brosnan, was about 007's place in a post-Cold War world, a world where international espionage suddenly took on a very different shape. The plot of the movie involved leftover Soviet war satellites and leftover resentments. "GoldenEye" looked back over the previous three decades and found that quite a mess had been left behind. James Bond had to face the fact that his suavity and action hero capabilities, while cool, didn't necessarily help the world politically in the long run. 007 did not singlehandedly end the Cold War. But "GoldenEye" is no downer, presenting these conflicts with the usual action panache, dazzling charm, and periodic goofiness (there is a villainess named Xenia Onatopp) that marks the series. It's one of the best James Bond movies. 

In one of the film's lighter scenes, Bond has a meeting with an ex-KGB-member-turned-Russian-gangster named Valentin Zukovsky, played by the late, great Robbie Coltrane. Zukovsky's first scene is a masterclass of character introduction. He strides confidently into his own nightclub, closed during daylight hours, while a trio of cabaret girls rehearses on stage. He adjusts one of the singers' outfits and grumpily comments on the demands of the new free-market economy. Bond steps out of the shadows behind him and puts his pistol up against the back of Zukovsky's head, cocking the hammer. Zukovsky has maybe a half-second of panic before he realizes what's going on, and instantly relaxes. 

"Walther PPK, 7.65mm. Only three men I know use such a gun," he says, smirking confidently. "I believe I have killed two of them." James Bond returns with a "Lucky me," but one of Zukovsky's thugs appears to point a gun at 007's head. "I think not," Zukovsky says. 

We instantly love him.

Zukovsky the charmer

Zukovsky was mostly written to be something of a cliché — he is merely a Russian gangster who points James Bond toward the next step in his quest — but Coltrane was seemingly eager to let the character have a little more pizazz. He shoves Bond into a chair, pointing out that the spy is a little rattled. "Shaken, not stirred?" he lamely jokes. Bond merely asks him who nearby is strangling a cat. It takes Zukovsky a moment to realize that Bond is referring to the (quite awful) cabaret singer (played by Minnie Driver) struggling to sing the Tammy Wynette classic, "Stand By Your Man." Zukovsky, instantly enraged, whips out a gun of his own and nearly shoots James in a very sensitive area. "That's Irina," he says, "my mistress." 

The conversation that follows is about how MI-6 is an outmoded organization, and how Zukovsky walks with a limp thanks to an old gunshot wound inflicted by Bond. The two men hate each other, naturally. But they also kind of respect each other. They certainly understand one another, and they jibe with one another's confidence. It's rare that an actor can sit opposite James Bond and be just as charming as intimidating. In this scene, one can see into a parallel universe where Coltrane played Bond. 

The two proceed to make a deal that pushes the plot forward, and continue to make jibes. It's one of the more interesting exposition scenes in a film series that often has trouble making its exposition interesting. It helps that Coltrane is so very funny.

Zukovsky the badass

Zukovsky returned two films later in Michael Apted's "The World is Not Enough," with Coltrane upping the character's charm quotient and expanding him into a wonderful, capable badass. In that movie, James Bond bursts into a well-decorated board room holding a thug hostage. At the other end of the room, two beautiful models are crowded around a man in a chair. When the women wheel around to look at Bond, Zukovsky sits in the middle holding a small spoon of caviar. Zukovsky, it seems, enjoys the finer things in life. 

This scene is mirrored later in the film when Zukovsky finds himself in a small room with Dr. Christmas Jones (Denise Richards). While he's busy making a mildly lascivious comment, Bond breaks into the room behind him, once again holding a random thug at gunpoint. Coltrane is scared, then annoyed, then weary. "Can't you just say hello like a normal person?" he wonders, almost to himself. "The World is Not Enough" also features Zukovsky in action, and he's seen striding confidently through a violent gunfight, walking with a cane, casually offing foes with a rather large semiautomatic weapon. Coltrane is unfazed by the gunfire, and audiences see the badass he always was. 

Zukovsky is a character audiences actually believe had a pre-existing relationship with Bond, prior to his scenes. Given the chance, he would continue to be an asset and occasional enemy. Like ex-spouses, Zukovsky and Bond continue to snipe at one another ad infinitum, often admitting that they have matching skillsets and can aid each other well. 

Sadly, Zukovsky sacrificed his own life to save Bond from a trap (using a cool trick shot, no less). It was a missed opportunity, because Zukovsky would have been greatly appreciated if he popped up in other Bond films. 

R.I.P. Robbie Coltrane.