GoldenEye Director Martin Campbell Had A Jarring Introduction To The James Bond Fandom

Martin Campbell's 1995 film "GoldenEye" is the one of the best James Bond movies, at least top-three level, and Pierce Brosnan is the best James Bond, full stop. I will be taking no further questions at this time. 

Of course Brosnan's 007 debut in "GoldenEye" had a lot of baggage to unpack. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989 and the coup in the Soviet Union in the summer of 1991 put a damper on the future of James Bond. The character was, after all, invented as an espionage agent when the Cold War was in full swing, and his spy shenanigans were specifically designed as a power fantasy invented by an English author. The last 007 film released in theaters prior to the drawing of the Iron Curtain was John Glen's "Licence to Kill," which was moderately well-received (it has a 78% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes) but is rarely mentioned among the best Bonds. After that, the character took a lengthy hiatus. 

By 1995, James Bond seemed to be effectively dead. At best, one more round could be made to retire the character altogether. Why keep a Cold War spy when the Cold War is over? Indeed, "GoldenEye" seemed to serve that function, with M (Judi Dench) saying directly to James Bond's face that he is a "dinosaur" and doesn't serve a purpose any longer. Also, social mores were changing and Bond's cavalier treatment of sex and women was falling out of fashion.

Campbell had made some good decisions for the character. Or so he thought. At a 1995 Bond convention in New York, he fielded questions from longtime Bond fans. And, as he described in a 2021 retrospective article in Empire, they weren't happy. 

The way things were

What Campbell did with "GoldenEye" was deftly bring a new Bond into a new operational ethos, arguing that echoes of the Cold War will remain; The story involves about Soviet satellites, computer hackers, and a bitter ex-MI6 agent played by Sean Bean). In ably traversing the new political landscape, 007 proved that he will always have a use in a world of deranged would-be supervillains. He is not only uniquely qualified to face the ripples caused by the fall of the Soviet Union, but his particular skillset is still well-matched for megalomaniacal doomsday fetishists. 

Nothing doing. Campbell was shocked to learn that old-world Bond fans objected most strenuously. The filmmaker recalled:

"I was in New York with 'GoldenEye,' and I was invited to one of those fan conventions. I was naïve enough to think these people didn't take this kind of thing seriously. And I went out on stage and I was amazed at the questions. They hammered me."

According to the retrospective, the fans objected to, in no particular order: The fact that James Bond now drove a BMW instead of his traditional Aston Martin. The relatively low level of silliness in Bond's trademark gadgets (even though Desmond Llewellyn still played the inimitable Q). The choice of Brosnan as Bond. And, most shockingly, that the role of M, Bond's grumpy old boss, was to be played by Judi Dench. A gender-flipped M was, as Campbell recalls it, thought to be a terrible decision.

The new M

The role of M was played by actor Bernard Lee for 11 Bond movies, ending his tenure with "Moonraker" in 1979. Lee was replaced by Robert Brown for the next four movies, playing the role through "Licence to Kill." The next seven Bond films would see Dench in the role. Dench played the part even more sternly than her predecessors, openly criticizing Bond and having even less patience with his schoolboy charms. One might argue that it was Dench's sternness that allowed the new Bond to fly. MI6, "GoldenEye" openly stated, was serious business. She was a number-cruncher and was obsessed with protocol, a perfect balance for the devil-may-care 007. 

The James Bond universe gently reboots itself every so often, with the character existing merrily outside of time. People change identities a lot in the Bond universe, including Bond himself. For years, however, a Bond fan would be able to squint and kind of pretend that certain characters weren't shifting identities. It's not that Blofeld was being played by someone new each time. It's that Blofeld is a shifty villain who sometimes looks different. The casting of a woman in a role previously played by men interrupted fan's illusion. 

Also misogyny. Can't forget the misogyny.

GoldenEye vs. Casino Royale

Curiously, Bond went through a similar political reboot in 2006. Campbell also directed "Casino Royale," which took 007 and toughened him up for the modern age. Daniel Craig played the role as a violent, humorless thug. Bond was now prepared to savagely beat bad guys with his fists and angrily chug whiskey. He was infused with the blood of Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer. Torture was a thing now. "Casino Royale" was the post-9/11 Bond the same way "GoldenEye" was the post-Cold War Bond. 

Yes, technically "Die Another Day" was the first post-9/11 Bond film — it was released in November of 2002 — but that film was incredibly clumsy in acknowledging real-world terrorism. Bond was tortured in the opening act, then went on a merry adventure with an ice castle and an invisible car. The vibe is as if "Batman & Robin" opened with a scene from "24." 

Dench was one of the few actors who remained from the Brosnan era to the Craig era. And while it is an odd choice in terms of continuity — when exactly did M meet Bond? — few of the "Casino Royale" fans seemed to react negatively to her presence in that film. Indeed, audiences were so taken with "Casino Royale" — its gruffer tone, its smaller story, and its way-better-than-average script often have critics ranking it above most films in the series — that M's multiple-continuity straddling hardly mattered. The role now effectively belonged to Dench, and she helped usher in a whole new era of Bond yet again.

It makes one curious to know if any of the more vocal 007 fans at that fateful 1995 convention still had any objections in 2006.