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The Man Who Saved James Bond – 30 Years since Pierce Brosnan's 007 announcement

Three-hundred and fifty journalists and many more cameramen from all over the world gathered 30 years ago today at the Regent Hotel in London. The new James Bond was going to be announced. Gordon Arnell, Head of Publicity of EON Productions, introduced a long-haired and beardy man in a navy blue Armani suit. Yet no one was surprised, since everybody knew who this man was – Pierce Brosnan.

Born in Drogheda, County Meath, Ireland, Pierce Brendan Brosnan always seemed destined to play James Bond. He was born on May 16, 1953, a little over a month since Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel CASINO ROYALE was published. Anyone who has studied both the 007 phenomenon and the life of Brosnan would certainly agree that of all the actors who played the character, nobody was more driven to the role than him. It was almost as if it was God’s mandate that he would indeed, sooner or later, play the ace of the British spies. And for the sake of Christian references, there are exactly 33 (the age of Christ) days separating the “birth” of the literary Bond from the birth of the Irish actor.

Just as Ian Fleming succumbed to a heart attack, on August 12, 1964, Brosnan arrived in London to begin his education. Over a month later, he went to a local cinema to watch his first film in Technicolor. The retinas of the 11-year-old Pierce registered the naked body of a young lady painted in gold, a Korean sidekick throwing a deadly hat, and “a cool guy who could get out of any situation.” The film was GOLDFINGER, directed by Guy Hamilton and starring Sean Connery. It was the third James Bond cinematic adventure, and that film, he claimed in many interviews, made him want to become an actor.

Graduating from drama school, he married Australian actress Cassandra Harris. Joining her on the set of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY in Greece, as she played Countess Lisl opposite Roger Moore’s 007, Brosnan was introduced to producer Albert R Broccoli in 1981. He became the first option to succeed Moore after his retirement. Convinced by his wife, he moved to America and soon became a TV star thanks to his role in REMINGTON STEELE. After Moore retired concluding his extensive Bond trajectory with A VIEW TO A KILL in 1985, the producers remembered Brosnan and one year later he performed screentests, took promotional photos and his announcement as the fourth 007 to star in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS was almost ready. On the other hand, REMINGTON STEELE was facing cancellation, but taking over the hype of the “new Bond”, MTM decided to give the series another try and used a clause in the contract to tie in Brosnan. EON refused the popularity and fanbase of Steele to overshadow Bond in a film that would come out during the series' 25th anniversary, so the deal fell through and the role went to Timothy Dalton.

Flash-forward eight years later. Cassandra Harris had died of ovarian cancer and Brosnan is now a widower, raising three kids as he handled his career, which included some low-budget action productions (LIVE WIRE, THE DEATH TRAIN), comedies (MRS. DOUBTFIRE) and the very popular adaptation of Stephen King’s THE LAWNMOVER MAN. Simultaneously, Bond became for many people a product of the past with no reason to exist after the fall of the Soviet Bloc. The 90s have been taken over by muscular heroes in t-shirts drinking beers at the nearest bar, the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson. Although a third film starring Timothy Dalton was announced for the beginning of the decade, there have been several legal complications caused by Giancarlo Paretti's MGM/UA takeover and the Welsh actor didn't want to return for only one film despite an interesting script was been developed by Michael France involving a traitor 00 agent conspiring against the West in the post-Soviet Russia. It was time to cast a new actor in the role.

At 12.35 pm on June 1st, 1994, Pierce Brosnan was resting at his residence in Malibu. The phone rang. It was his manager, Fred Spector: “Hello, Mr. Bond. You’ve got the part!”

The Irish actor was enthusiastic, but he held the cards close to his chest. Beyond the international success that comes with playing James Bond, this achievement was the materialization of something Cassandra had told him years before dying: “One day, you’ll be Bond.”

The memories of a child, the tragedy of a husband, the dream of an actor, the tribulations of businessmen attempting to revitalize a franchise and the expectancy of millions of aficionados all over the world hoping that those well-known four words at the end of LICENCE TO KILL weren't vague. All of these arrows met on that afternoon at the Regent Hotel where Pierce Brosnan greeted the world press, conceded some interviews, took a Martini for the cameras and then flew to Papua New Guinea to shoot ROBINSON CRUSOE, hence his not-so-Bondian look. He knew it was big, but he didn’t know how big it was until he arrived on the island and a couple of native kids pointed at him saying “James Bond”.

The shooting of GOLDENEYE began in January 1995 at Leavesden, a former WWII aerodrome and Rolls-Royce factory turned into a film set by the hard labour of Peter Lamont, the series' production designer since 1981. From there to Switzerland, Puerto Rico, France, Monaco and Russia, the film directed by Martin Campbell was a direct answer to those thinking James Bond was anchored to a political context or the traditions of the 1950s, when the first novels were published, or the 1960s when the first films turned Ian Fleming’s spy into a sensation. No matter how much the world had changed, how women occupied hierarchic places in British Intelligence, how KGB agents became arms dealers or how everything could be destroyed by typing a few commands into a computer – GOLDENEYE was the ultimate proof that James Bond can defeat anything and anyone without changing his essence. The film didn't just translate the same old Bond for modern audiences, it proved that the same old Bond was worth it and could be appealing to people in their early teens or late childhood as well. With a masterstroke, the seventeenth film in the EON series closed all those adventures where 007 battled olive-uniformed troops and led us towards the problem of the last leg of the 21st century.

Much has been written about the troubled production of TOMORROW NEVER DIES, released in Christmas 1997. The script suffered many rewrites as the film was being shot and the producers felt it was wise to avoid the original scenario, revolving over the handover of Hong Kong to China, a real-life event taking place months before the film hit the screens. Pierce Brosnan’s second outing as James Bond modernized the formula of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, having a media mogul using his sensationalist headlines and tampering with the navigation system of the British fleet to get them into a war with China, a war that will grant him the exclusive broadcasting rights he was refused in that territory. While frequently undermined in comparison to GOLDENEYE’s more complex and intriguing plot, the Roger Spottiswoode film recognized the power of communication technologies as a destructive weapon and in a way predicted the current times of constant feuds between world leaders and media corporations. James Bond went from being a recycled Cold Warrior proving his worth to fighting a man with Big Brother delusions, replacing presidents from the comfort of his blue-lighted newsroom where he manipulates the world. But while Winston Smith succumbed to the power of Oceania’s tyrannical leader, Bond turned the wicked fantasies of Elliot Carver into an epitaph sung by k.d. Lang in the end credits song “Surrender”. It was all about giving the people what they wanted.

Pierce Brosnan demanded a less action-oriented story for the final 007 adventure of the millennium, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, and he got his way. Director Michael Apted, known for his drama background and films with strong female leads, gave Bond an emotional challenge as described by producer Barbara Broccoli: “He thinks he found Tracy, but he actually found Blofeld.” 007 feels compelled to protect a young businesswoman, Elektra King, whose oil tycoon father was killed in an explosion at the MI6 headquarters. The man responsible is Renard, a terrorist sought by British Intelligence who survived a bullet to the head from 009 and is slowly dying. Renard had previously kidnapped Elektra and the threat of his return is looming over her shoulder. Bond travels to Azerbaijan and Turkey to watch over her, unable to resist her beauty and innocence. The big twist comes when Bond learns that Renard and Elektra were working together and she is using the terminal man, infatuated with her, to achieve her own goals: eliminate M, who advised her father not to pay the ransom back in the day, and provoke a nuclear meltdown under the Bosphorus to become the only oil provider in the region.

There is a perceptible vulnerability in the main characters, from Bond to the villainess, her henchman and M herself, whose actions in the recent past catalyze the key events of the film. Nevertheless, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH isn't without a large number of imaginative action sequences, like the moment 007 is chased by helicopters wielding giant saws at a caviar factory in the Caspian Sea or a pumping ski chase through the Caucasus Mountains battling murderous Parahawk machines.

The most melancholic touch of this production has to do with the farewell of Desmond Llewelyn, whose Q retires after 35 years of service. Having served as the quartermaster for Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton, he now reprimands Pierce Brosnan a little but leaves him a timeless message in his final scene: “Never let them see you bleed. And always have an escape plan.” What makes the situation more poignant is that Llewelyn died in a car crash one month after the release of the film. “There are many Bonds, but there will be forever one Q. Today, I lost a friend,” Brosnan declared upon hearing the news.

THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH opened in November 1999 and not only confirmed that Ian Fleming’s creation could survive the 1990s, but certified he was more than ready to face new challenges as the new millennium was knocking on the door. 007 had become MGM’s most bankable asset, as shown by a trade ad in May 2000 proclaiming Pierce Brosnan as “The Billion Dollar Bond”, stating that the gross of his first three outings surpassed the billion-dollar mark at the worldwide box office.

The new millennium brought a renaissance of the fantasy genre and action scenes with exaggerated stunts were everywhere, as noted by the commercial success of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 and CHARLIE’S ANGELS. With the release of the twentieth James Bond film slated for November 2002 to coincide with the series’ fortieth anniversary, a world-changing event struck society: two commercial planes crashed on the World Trade Center in New York on the morning of September 11, 2001. The threat of any Bond villain, without further warning, became real. Suddenly, regions that we thought of as “secure” weren’t secure anymore. Hollywood reflected a duality in their productions: as much as they avoided making explicit references to 9/11 or bombings in action movies, they came to the conclusion that we had entered a much more aggressive world. A world where the enemy could be anywhere and strike at any time. This notion would influence the production of DIE ANOTHER DAY considerably.

From the very first minutes, the Lee Tamahori film addresses this grim feeling with colourless shots of the Demilitarized Zone in North Korea, a no-man’s land behind enemy lines where James Bond infiltrates to dispatch one Colonel Moon, whose conflict diamond and illegal arms trade operations serve to bankroll his plan to emerge as the leader who would make the West shake with fear. It was supposed to be a quick operation, but an informant at MI6 tipped Moon off Bond's identity, blowing his cover. The secret agent seemingly succeeds in eliminating the officer after an intense hovercraft chase, but he is ultimately captured and tortured for 14 months. Bond is exchanged for Moon’s right-hand man Zao and freed, but stripped away of his 00 status and sent for reevaluation. Determined to find the traitor who gave him away, our hero escapes from MI6’s floating clinic and heads to Hong Kong and Cuba. On the Caribbean island Bond has a rapid confrontation with Zao, interrupting the DNA transplant session he was undergoing to alter his appearance. He also meets a curvaceous brunette, Jinx, who turns out to be an NSA agent on the trail of the North Korean terrorist. It appears the man now answers to a mysterious British-Argentinean businessman, Gustav Graves, a person of interest MI6 was also investigating. M concerts a reencounter with Bond and reinstates him, sending him to Iceland to see what Graves is scheming. Attending a reception at the businessman’s Ice Palace, he reacquaints with Jinx and Graves’ publicist Miranda Frost, actually a British agent planted by M in his organization. After saving Jinx from certain death, 007 finds out that Miranda was the person who tipped off Colonel Moon about Bond's real identity and that she has been conspiring with Graves all along. Much to his surprise, he also learns that Gustav Graves is none other than the apparently deceased Colonel, who survived his confrontation with Bond and had –successfully– performed the same gene therapy as Zao in Cuba. Surveying the skies on his Antonov jet, Graves/Moon plots to emerge as a Communist world leader threatening South Korea, Japan and the West with a diamond-based satellite that can project a deadly laser beam and melt anyone opposing his new world order.

Although DIE ANOTHER DAY was notably criticized for the way the special effects were handled and for abiding too much to this mix-and-match of extravagancy and grittiness so characteristic of the Hollywood of the early 2000s, the film was a commercial success and many journalists celebrated this different take on James Bond. If GOLDENEYE pondered 007’s relevancy in a post-Cold War world, DIE ANOTHER DAY took this one step further and antagonized him with MI6 in a scenario where the Americans (almost inexistent in the Brosnan era) have taken the lead on the War on Terror.

Pierce Brosnan's final appearance as James Bond would come in a virtual form with the 2004 video game EVERYTHING OR NOTHING, published by Electronic Arts. This closed another facet of the Brosnan era that had an influence on the success of his films, beginning with the revolutionary GOLDENEYE 007 for Nintendo 64, a title released in 1997 and based on the 1995 film whose popularity (although it may sound impossible) went beyond Bond and is still considered one of the best and most lucrative first-person shooters of all time. TOMORROW NEVER DIES and THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH also had video game adaptations, although they weren’t embraced in the same way as Rare’s classic. Not too pleased with having to be tied to already established characters or action sequences, Electronic Arts decided to aim for original James Bond adventures in 2001, starting with AGENT UNDER FIRE, which featured a synthetic model for Bond. Trying to take advantage of the release of DIE ANOTHER DAY in 2002, Electronic Arts reached a deal with Brosnan and the actor lent his appearance for 007 in a story that blended elements of MOONRAKER and YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, including outer space action. For EVERYTHING OR NOTHING, Brosnan provided both his appearance and voice to James Bond and was joined by a cast roster that included Willem Dafoe, Heidi Klum, Shannon Elizabeth and Richard Kiel returning as Jaws. Up to these days, these titles are replayed frequently by gamers all over the world, who show off diverse kinds of challenges on YouTube, like beating a level in less than two minutes or discovering secrets few people had known back on the day they were released.

The departure of Pierce Brosnan from James Bond was abrupt, unexpected, and unexplainably miserable. A phone call as he was shooting AFTER THE SUNSET in the Bahamas was enough to leave the man who has been the face of 007 in a myriad of products from soda cans to video games out of the picture, and suddenly the betrayals of Alec Trevelyan, Elektra King and Miranda Frost didn’t feel as cold-hearted as those from the entertainment industry, even when he wanted to return and three top executives at MGM considered he still had a future as 007. The actor has expressed his discomfort with the situation many times, but has eventually reconciled with the situation and still remembers gracefully his days as the British spy. Impossible not to do, after all. Bond encloses his first major cinema experience, his marriage with the woman he loved and lost, and that role of honour of carrying the torch of what Ian Fleming conceived and Sean Connery popularized, making him the role model for kids and teens as Sean had been in the sixties.

For us, Brosnan’s portrayal of Bond brings back memories of golden times. And while not everyone will agree, this goes even beyond his excellent personification of 007, for there were different elements that made these films unadulterated fun: that tank chase over the streets of St Petersburg, the svelte body of Famke Janssen in a loose bathrobe, the frenetic evacuation of a nuclear torpedo somewhere in the Russian border, those sublime songs by Tina Turner and Garbage, the sensuality of Halle Berry coming out of the seas and that fencing duel where an old British club is almost torn apart.

Recently, there has been some contempt towards the script of the films in this era, ignoring that most of the celebrated new takes seen during the reboot era emanated directly from elements seen in these berated works. While the work of people like Michael France, Bruce Feirstein, Neal Purvis or Robert Wade appealed to different familiar elements of the series (satellite weapons, for starters), they offered a few interesting twists and “first times” that made the Brosnan films the perfect version of a modern Bond adventure. GOLDENEYE may have been that spectacular lift-off of a character in a near-death situation, but TOMORROW NEVER DIES, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH and DIE ANOTHER DAY also gave our hero different and exciting challenges we have never seen him experience before.

On a personal note, the Brosnan era also connects us to happy times now gone: that evening watching Bond driving his remote-controlled BMW at the local cinema with our dad, that Saturday afternoon shooting our friends out with Klobbs at the Facility, or the moment when we walked around the street and saw a poster of a flaming girl with a gun announcing the return of the spy we loved.

Pierce Brosnan left a legacy of excellence in the vast universe of James Bond, because it was his version of the character which guaranteed the timelessness of the cinematic formula devised by Albert R Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, and of the fascinating persona of Ian Fleming’s 007. It showed that Bond’s time is not yesterday or tomorrow, but today. Decisions taken by those handling the intellectual property have unfortunately gone against this unspoken commandment. And, sadly, warped worldviews and people possessing them got in control that led to the franchise’s self-destructive image when the Brosnan era was discarded in favor of a poisonous one in 2006 and the franchise forever lost its image and soul. Now, a dull tombstone at the Faroe Islands is erected as a monument to betrayal. They may prefer to find Bond there, but we prefer to find him saying his classic introduction to a beautiful brunette in the Casino of Monte Carlo, preventing the launch of a missile in the South China Sea or spraying diamonds over the smooth torso of Halle Berry, even if we have to resort to our physical media to do so.

Thank you, Pierce, for being that hero we could always count on.


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