Whatever one thinks of the now-concluding Daniel Craig era of James Bond, it obviously represented a major change in direction from the Pierce Brosnan years, which carried the franchise from its 1995 reboot into the early 2000s.
While Craig’s Bond took a more serious, realistic, and serialized approach to the unkillable spy, Brosnan’s Bond was more … say, what was Brosnan’s deal as Bond, anyway?
He wasn’t a devastatingly handsome brute, like Sean Connery, or a “blunt instrument” like Craig (though he’s briefly described that way in Die Another Day!). He also wasn’t exactly a Roger Moore-style avuncular swinger-quipster. He was better-received in his time than his predecessor Timothy Dalton, yet both Dalton and one-time Bond George Lazenby have since garnered some appreciation for movies that attempted to alter the Bond formula.
Brosnan, the ultimate in-betweener, is seemingly considered almost nobody’s favourite. He’s the compromise Bond who ushered the franchise through a changing blockbuster landscape, then was abruptly dropped before he could really fulfil his vision for the character. (This despite each of his movies making more money than the last.)
Yet in retrospect, Brosnan’s era of Bonds holds up better than its reputation circa Craig’s takeover would suggest, through a combination of its own ’90s-isms and anticipation of what Craig and company would later do with the series.
First, there’s no discounting Brosnan himself, an actor both perfectly cast in the part and quietly sceptical of it. It’s not that he appears disengaged or stranded by the silly material. He’s as capable as anyone at reciting the classics with élan, especially his regular issuances of “Bond. James Bond.” But his take on the famous spy has a workaday vibe that suggests some discontent beneath the debonair exterior.
The Craig series foregrounds Bond’s screwed-up psyche; when it’s not providing an origin story in Casino Royale, it’s elaborating on that origin and/or filling in more backstory in subsequent films. Brosnan’s Bond doesn’t carry the same grim anguish or reluctance — he retires far less often than Craig, and he’s more playful than the serious-minded Dalton.
But Brosnan still has a louche quality; when he turns up in a scraggly beard and long hair in Die Another Day, it just feels right, as does the occasional intimation that his womanizing is more weakness and pathology than fantasy.
Some of this is easier to read in retrospect; taking the James Bond role can re-orient an actor’s career, and this is especially true for Brosnan. He was seen as so well-suited to the role that he was poised to take the part a decade earlier, before it ultimately went to Timothy Dalton — and like Dalton and Moore before him, Brosnan saw the biggest hits of his career as Bond.
His subsequent roles sometimes seemed to be interrogating his rightness for Bond, as well as the character’s place in popular culture: The Tailor Of Panama and The Matador in particular depend on Bond for their effectiveness. That self-satirizing/self-loathing take on the character may not be a part of Brosnan’s actual Bond movies, but it doesn’t come from nowhere, either.
Despite his lightweight reputation, Brosnan doesn’t smile nearly as much as Moore, delivering his laugh lines with dad-joke deadpan. In his later entries in particular, he seems to be steering Bond in a less ridiculous direction.
The movies didn’t always oblige their leading man. It’s been pointed out repeatedly, for example, that Brosnan’s swan song, Die Another Day, features Bond surfing, fencing with Madonna, and driving an invisible car around an ice castle. Despite these outlandish trappings, there are sustained passages in the ’90s-era Bonds that share some common ground with the Craig series, most likely because they share plenty of personnel.
Despite the hard reboot that Casino Royale was supposed to represent, that film rehired Martin Campbell, director of the previous Bond reset, GoldenEye; several of the Craig Bonds maintain Judi Dench as M, casting from the Brosnan era so irresistible that, like J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, it was deemed foolhardy to make an immediate substitution; and all five Craig Bonds are at least co-written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who worked on Brosnan’s last two outings.
It’s that last rehiring that seems to have generated the strongest connections between the Brosnan and Craig eras. Purvis and Wade’s very first credited Bond film, The World Is Not Enough, makes a conscious effort to give 007 a bit more human frailty, both professionally and physically.
In the extended opening sequence, MI6 suffers an attack from the inside, and after a long, destructive chase scene, Bond loses his mark, who blows herself up rather than submitting to capture or cooperation, and sustains a serious injury as he just barely escapes. The movie throws to the usual theme-song credit sequence with him hanging helplessly off the side of a building, and when it rejoins Bond, his arm is in a sling. As George Lazenby would say: “This never happened to the other fellow.”
The movie still Roger Moores its way out of Bond’s predicament — Bond seduces the MI6 doctor into clearing him for active duty, and he’s only mildly hobbled by his shoulder injury.
The Brosnan series takes another crack at bringing the splashy opening action sequences back down to earth in Die Another Day. Once again, the spectacular opening chase ends with Bond far from triumphant, this time captured by North Korea; in a major break from tradition, the ensuing credits sequence is part of the narrative, portraying the 14 months of torture that Bond endures at the hands of his enemies. Bond doesn’t even escape; he’s traded back to MI6, where his double-0 status is promptly revoked, forcing him go rogue.
The idea of a breakable, fallible Bond is tantalising enough that Skyfall essentially hybridizes the openings of World and Die: Once again, Bond is injured and left for dead before the credits role, then later fudges the paperwork allowing him to return to the field.
The casual-Bond sneakiness of his disavowal and rogue spying in Die Another Day is mirrored by a majority of the Craig films, including the new and similarly titled No Time to Die.
GoldenEye even has a dry run of sorts for Silva, the Skyfall villain played by Javier Bardem.The earlier movie pits Bond against Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), a former Agent 006 who, like former agent Silva, feels betrayed by his former employer — and even shares Silva’s facial scarring to literalize his pain, albeit in a less memorably grotesque fashion.
Skyfall-style revenge against M also figures into The World Is Not Enough. Repetition and recurrence is part of Bond’s whole formulaic deal (why else would Brosnan engage in the series’ umpteenth ski-action sequence in World?) — but the Brosnan series deserves credit for introducing elements, decades into Bond’s on-screen history, that were promising enough to repurpose for more stylish, more critically acclaimed movies later on.
Though Purvis and Wade seem to have worked the hardest to give Brosnan the more distinctive and grounded version of Bond he often spoke in the press about wanting, his first two movies hint at some greater depths, too.
In GoldenEye, some of this is plainly “lip service,” as Bond says during one of his obligatory double-entendres: Having M call him a “misogynist dinosaur” and Moneypenny making reference to sexual harassment don’t actually affect the character much; they could just as easily be rewritten to say “it’s the ’90s, now, baby!” (Though, on the other hand, they’re not exactly outdated 25 years later, as far as winking self-criticisms go.)
Some other dialogue and plot points, though, feel like teasers for what’s to come, both in this series and the next one. “How can you act like this? How can you act so cold?” asks “good” Bond girl Natalya Simonova. “It’s what keeps me alive,” Bond answers, though Natalya has a retort: “No, it’s what keeps you alone.”
Evil 006 asks Bond whether he can “find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women, for all the dead ones you failed to protect.” Again, the movie doesn’t exactly follow up on that idea, but Bond’s brief relationships do produce more anxiety in subsequent installments.
In Tomorrow Never Dies, he’s provoked into a chilly rage by the death of the “bad” Bond girl, who is treated as a genuine ex-girlfriend, rather than a former conquest. He appears similarly unsettled by the betrayal of Elektra (Sophie Marceau) and her loyalty to her former kidnapper. Bond has shown pitiless anger toward this kind of behaviour before, but he rarely seems so intoxicated — and so personally insulted by his own misreading.
Throughout these developments in the four Brosnan movies, the standard flirtations, dalliances, and beddings continue. While this (and other assorted Bond backsliding into over-the-top spectacle) might seem like evidence of this cycle’s muddled quality, in context of the broader series it makes more sense.
If the Craig movies (which, to be clear, are generally quite good, with several all-time highlights) spend a lot of time openly mulling over whether there’s a place for James Bond in today’s modern world, the Brosnan movies portray a superspy who doesn’t hesitate to complete his crowdpleasing mission, while still betraying little glimmers of uncertainty about his lifestyle.
Craig’s Bond takes this further by going rogue and/or retiring frequently, and at his own discretion. The Brosnan 007 maintains a sense of duty to everything from his country to his pun delivery. When he’s forsaken by MI6, he ultimately wants back in.
His four movies want back in, too. They want to deliver old-fashioned James Bond-brand spectacle even in the face of nagging doubts about the formula’s, and its hero’s, viability.
Today, even a self-doubting Bond is supposed to come with the confidence that a whole universe of Bond lore is exactly what audiences want and need. If Brosnan seemed too easy a choice to make for truly inspired casting, maybe that was his strength: His ability to seed doubts in plain sight, without a lot of self-serious fuss, as blockbusters unironically exploded around him.