On September 25th, 2012, MGM Home Entertainment released the 'Bond 50' collection, a box set that contains no less than 22 films from the James Bond franchise's first 50 years. In order to provide the most comprehensive coverage, High-Def Digest will review each of the discs in this package separately. For the index of all reviews in this series, as well as details regarding bonus content exclusive to the box set, see our 'Bond 50' hub review.
"Ready to save the world again?"
After the box office disappointment of 'Licence to Kill', James Bond went AWOL from cinema screens for six years. This period remains the franchise's longest gap without a new movie. In the meantime, star Timothy Dalton dropped out and the producers needed a whole new direction for the series. The audience's appetite (and expectations) had risen significantly with the success of imitators such as James Cameron's blockbuster 'True Lies', which managed to do everything a 007 movie was supposed to do, but bigger and better. In response, the 1995 release of 'GoldenEye' reinvented the Bond formula as a big-budget rollercoaster thrill ride. Fans eagerly embraced the return of the world's greatest secret agent. The movie was a huge hit. In his fifth official incarnation, James Bond was resurrected yet again.
'GoldenEye' was also something of a vindication for new star Pierce Brosnan, who slid into the Bond role as though he'd been groomed and prepared for it for years. In fact, he had. Producers previously offered Brosnan the lead in 1987's 'The Living Daylights', but he was forced to decline due to a contractual conflict with his TV series 'Remington Steele' (which was ironically canceled soon after). The actor embodied a very appealing mix of his two immediate predecessors. He had the debonair charm of Roger Moore, with a touch of Timothy Dalton's darker edge. Brosnan could deliver a flippant pun, but was also athletic enough to appear competent in an action scene. If anything, the decade-long delay before his first appearance as the character gave him time to mature and weather comfortably into the role.
The plot this time out pits Bond against Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), the rogue former Agent 006, who has hijacked a satellite-based Russian EMP weapon (the "GoldenEye" of the title) and plans to use it to send Great Britain back to the Stone Age. At the villain's side is henchwoman Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), one of the most gleefully evil of all the series' famous Bond Girls. With the support of Russian computer whiz Natalya Simonova (the lovely Izabella Scorupco), Bond travels first to St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida) and then to Cuba, where he will confront his nemesis at a secret underground lair beneath the world's largest satellite dish. This is still a Bond movie, after all…
With nearly double the budget of any of its predecessors, 'GoldenEye' raised the franchise's stakes considerably. It was quite a gamble for a series that many worried may have exceeded its expiration date. Even more so than any earlier 007 entry, this is a full-tilt action movie. Bond carries an assault rifle as often as his iconic Walther PPK. Director Martin Campbell (who would later return for 'Casino Royale') choreographs a number of elaborate action set-pieces, the highlight of which has Bond smashing through the streets and buildings of St. Petersburg in a stolen tank.
To address complaints that the Timothy Dalton pictures had been too dour and grim, Campbell and his writers lightened the tone and mood considerably, though not nearly to the goofy extremes of the Roger Moore years. Nonetheless, 'GoldenEye' has some rather over-the-top and silly scenes, including an early physics-defying stunt involving a motorcycle and an airplane. A comic relief storyline featuring Alan Cumming as an obnoxious computer programmer grates on the nerves a little bit more each time I watch the film. Frankly, anything the characters say about or do with computers is entirely ridiculous. Despite the generally slick production values, some of the visual effects have not aged particularly well.
However, those issues are fairly easy to set aside. 'GoldenEye' is a fun movie that works far more often than not. In contrast to his following three pictures, 007 relies more on his skill and wits than on crazy gadgets, of which he has very few here. A laser watch and exploding pen play only minor parts in the plot. Q presents a BMW that he claims is fully armed and tricked-out, but Bond never puts it to use.
The movie introduces Judi Dench as the new no-nonsense M, Joe Don Baker (last seen as a villain in 'The Living Daylights') as Bond's new CIA contact, and Robbie Coltrane as a Russian arms dealer. All of these will become recurring characters during Brosnan's run. Keep an eye out for a then-unknown Minnie Driver in a small walk-on part.
Tina Turner contributes a terrific theme song, and the series' first CG opening credits sequence is very visually striking. The Euro-funky musical score by Eric Serra was quite controversial during release, but actually plays better now, and has many reflections of his later work in 'The Fifth Element'.
In his first and certainly best outing, Brosnan makes a great James Bond. Unfortunately, the franchise wouldn't treat him too well in subsequent installments, especially not the final two of his short four-picture reign.
The 'Bond 50' box set marks the first appearance of 'GoldenEye' on the Blu-ray format. A standalone edition (initially exclusive to the Walmart retail chain) is also available.
Even though all of the discs in the box set that had previously been released back in 2008 remain locked to Region A, first-time Blu-rays such as this one are region-free. The menus on the disc have the same layout and design as the other Bond titles.
Somebody screwed this one up. 'GoldenEye' is one of the worst-looking (if not the worst-looking) titles in the 'Bond 50' box set, and I think I know the reason why. When Lowry Digital remastered most of the Bond catalog for the Ultimate Edition DVD sets in 2006, fans complained that the 'GoldenEye' transfer appeared to be zoomed-in and missing picture information from all four sides of the frame. Rather than correct this error with a new transfer, MGM instead dusted off an even older high-def master, one presumably struck for the earliest DVD release. In support of this theory, 'GoldenEye' is one of only two (pre-'Casino Royale') movies in the box set without a Lowry Digital credit screen after the movie's end credits. (The other is 'The Spy Who Loved Me', which was granted a brand new transfer.)
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer has a very "processed" appearance, with blatant Edge Enhancement artifacts and Digital Noise Reduction filtering. The contrast has also been artificially boosted, which frequently crushes black levels and reduces visible shadow detail. Textures are often smoothed over, with mushy facial features. The DNR is so sloppily applied that numerous shots start off swamped in video noise (which is distinctly different than real film grain), until the filter kicks in a few seconds later and wipes that noise away (along with real picture detail) right before your eyes.
I wouldn't go so far as to call the disc unwatchable. The edge ringing tones down eventually and becomes less hard on the eyes (though never entirely goes away). Basically, the movie looks like a mediocre cable broadcast. It's a big disappointment, but I've suffered through worse on Blu-ray.
On the plus side, the 2.35:1 picture appears to be properly framed, without the cropping issues from the last DVD. I guess that counts for something.
'GoldenEye' was the first James Bond movie produced during the 5.1 digital surround era. As such, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is the only English-language option on the disc. Unlike the older titles in the set, this one has no mono or stereo alternate tracks.
As an early 5.1 mix, the movie was produced during a time when sound designers often went out of the way to emphasize the channel layout with aggressive ping-ponging directional effects and throbbing bass. This can be kind of fun, but grows fatiguing after a while. The bass is extremely loud and boomy.
While sound effects are crisp enough (that famous squeak during the prologue sequence is still great), fidelity as a whole is a little muddy. Tina Turner's vocals during the theme song sound dull and are swamped in bass.
The bonus features on the Blu-ray previously appeared on the Ultimate Edition DVD released in 2006. (Some of them go back further than that.) Even though they're all technically encoded on disc at 1080i resolution, the majority appear to have been upconverted from standard definition.
Other than the commentary, most of this material is promotional in nature and not very substantive.
Pierce Brosnan's first outing as Agent 007 remains his best. 'GoldenEye' is still a lot of fun. Sadly, the Blu-ray has quite poor video quality. The audio and bonus features are also unexceptional. Regardless, if you're a fan of the movie, this is the best we've got for the time being. Whether on its own or as part of the 'Bond 50' package, this disc rates a qualified recommendation.
James Bond will return.