Pierce Brosnan is criminally underrated as James Bond.
Before we dive into the argument, there are a number of concessions that I need to make. First, as the Irish writer here at The Escapist, I will concede that nationalist pride is probably clouding my judgment. Second, even with the possibility of my patriotism shining through, I am not so bold as to suggest that Pierce Brosnan is the best James Bond, although he might be the second best.
The case against Brosnan’s Bond is strong, so strong that even Brosnan has bought into it. “I have no desire to watch myself as James Bond,” he confessed to The Telegraph back in 2014. “It’s just never good enough. It’s a horrible feeling.” That’s heart-breaking. It’s almost as heart-breaking as Brosnan’s beautiful, mournful reprise of S.O.S. in Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again.
Brosnan starred in two terrible Bond films. There is no excuse for Die Another Day, a film so dire that it mandated a hard reset with Casino Royale. It makes a solid argument for itself as the worst Bond film ever made, which is some accomplishment in a franchise that includes Diamonds Are Forever and The Man with the Golden Gun. In contrast, The World Is Not Enough is merely a curate’s egg of a film.
Despite not always having the best or most consistent material with which he might work, Brosnan brought a lot to the role. He was the perfect Bond for that moment in time, which seems ironic in hindsight. Famously, the producers had wanted to cast Brosnan in 1986, after Roger Moore left the part. Brosnan had been working on the television show Remington Steele, but it had been canceled. However, perhaps due to excitement over Brosnan’s casting as Bond, Remington Steele was then renewed at the last minute, inadvertently preventing Brosnan from playing the spy.
Brosnan would step into the role almost a decade later, when he replaced Timothy Dalton for GoldenEye. Following the critical and commercial disappointment of the attempted reinvention of the franchise in License to Kill, Bond had been rested. Many doubted whether James Bond had a place at the end of the 20th century, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the U.S.S.R.
These tensions simmer through the Brosnan Bond films. GoldenEye introduces Brosnan-as-Bond in a flashback to a Cold War infiltration, establishing him as a man out of time. The audience is then reintroduced to Bond in the present day undergoing an “evaluation.” There is a sense in which GoldenEye understands that the audience can no longer assume Bond is fit for purpose.
GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies accept that the world has moved on. M is now a woman, played by Dame Judi Dench. Russia has transformed itself into a grotesque capitalist playground. Britain prepares to surrender Hong Kong back to the Chinese, accepting that the sun has finally set on the British Empire. All is change. Even Q (Desmond Llewelyn) retires in The World Is Not Enough.
The beauty of Brosnan’s Bond is that he exists in contrast to that changing world. Both Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig have (rightly) been praised for the vulnerability that they brought to the role of James Bond, creating a sense of ambiguity about what they do and how they do it. In contrast, Brosnan portrays Bond as a fixture of the landscape, a certainty in increasingly uncertain times.
The characters in GoldenEye express cynicism about Bond’s place in the world. In their first scene together, M bluntly labels Bond “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.” Bond’s old friend Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) has abandoned the idea of state service in favor of personal enrichment. His old rival Valentin Zhukovsky (Robbie Coltrane) is now a black marketeer.
The most remarkable thing about Brosnan’s Bond is that he refuses to internalize any of this anxiety. M might send a young woman to evaluate him, but Bond just seduces her inside his Aston Martin. The Cold War might be over, but Bond will still drive a tank through the streets of St. Petersburg. Brosnan’s Bond is untroubled by doubt or introspection. He just is.
This is the beauty of Brosnan’s Bond. “When the world is the target and the threat is real,” the trailer to GoldenEye promised, “you can still depend on one man.” It is hard to imagine the versions of Bond played by Timothy Dalton or Daniel Craig lasting long in their line of work. Dalton’s Bond goes rogue in License to Kill, his second and final film. Counting his brief resignation at the end of Casino Royale, Craig’s Bond has quit three times in his five films.
In contrast, it’s hard to imagine Brosnan’s Bond ever giving up his line of work. He enjoys it too much. He could never do anything else. Brosnan characterized his approach to the role as a hybrid of the brutality of Connery and the charm of Roger Moore. Those elements are frequently juxtaposed in his performance, suggesting a man who is capable of acts of incredible brutality while dismissing them with pithy one-liners.
This is particularly obvious in the way that Brosnan’s Bond approaches the idea of intimacy. His predecessor was notably chaste, in large part due to the AIDS crisis. In contrast, his successor is prone to excessive emotional attachment, falling in love with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) in Casino Royale and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) in Spectre. In contrast, Brosnan’s Bond uses intimacy as a tool of the trade, like Connery or Moore.
When Brosnan’s Bond reconnects with Paris Carver (Teri Hatcher) in Tomorrow Never Dies, it is to “pump her for information.” However, while the character has not changed, the world has. The films are more ambivalent to Bond’s cold and calculated use of sexuality, treating it not as a romantic fantasy, but a source of anxiety. Indeed, both GoldenEye and The World Is Not Enough feature female villains who weaponize their sexuality as readily as Bond.
In some ways, Brosnan’s Bond feels like a version of the character attuned to the post-nationalist age. This version of Bond was raised and trained as a government assassin and was an effective tool of statecraft. However, against the backdrop of “the end of history” as Great Britain faded to the shadows, the traits that made him such an instrument of state power become more unsettling.
Brosnan’s Bond only truly goes rogue in Die Another Day, his last film in the role. Most of the time, he is able to indulge his own personal impulses within his professional remit. Bond’s own desires and his official role frequently collapse into one another, blurring the lines between Bond as an individual and a spy. In GoldenEye, the threat to the state is an old friend. In Tomorrow Never Dies, the way into a mission is to seduce an ex-girlfriend.
The climaxes of Brosnan’s films make Bond’s brutality both personal and professional. Brosnan’s Bond isn’t just capable of violence. He enjoys it. As Trevelyan dangles off the edge in GoldenEye, he asks, “For England, James?” Bond coldly replies, “No, for me.” Bond then drops his opponent to his death and crashes a satellite dish on top of him for good measure.
At the end of Tomorrow Never Dies, Bond brutally beats an aging newspaper tycoon. Jonathan Pryce was only on the cusp of 50 when he worked on the film, but his white hair and smaller frame made him seem much frailer. Bond feeds his unarmed adversary into a torpedo that is effectively a giant shredder, taunting him, “You forgot the first rule of mass media, Elliot: give the people what they want.”
The World Is Not Enough is perhaps the most personal example. Bond confronts Elektra in her bedroom. “You wouldn’t shoot me,” she taunts. “You’d miss me.” Bond shoots the unarmed woman who has caused him so much pain at point blank. “I never miss,” he quips over her body. M arrives in time to catch Bond caressing Elektra’s limp body. Sex and violence never intermingle more uncomfortably than they do with Brosnan’s Bond.
There is something surreal in each of these sequences, in the manner in which Brosnan’s Bond is fulfilling his role as an international spy while also avenging a personal betrayal. Brosnan’s performance in these sequences is striking: arch and cold, yet also teasing pain and pleasure underneath. Those emotions have been buried so deep that they rarely surface.
This is the beauty of Brosnan’s work in the role. There is a real sense of his version of James Bond as the kind of man who could do this work for so long without any hesitation or exhaustion. The closest point of comparison is perhaps Christian Bale’s work in American Psycho, released a year after The World Is Not Enough. There is something there, in those sharp suits and slick black hair.
Brosnan’s performance as James Bond is frequently overlooked, in large part because it stands in sharp opposition to the two actors either side of his tenure. Modern pop culture is populated by characters like Craig’s Bond, violent men tormented by the brutality that they witness and inflict. Perhaps this paradox absolves the audience of guilt over their enjoyment of such spectacle. It’s okay to enjoy such violence, so long as one feels bad afterwards.
Pierce Brosnan offers a much more unsettling and provocative take on James Bond, as a man who relishes his work even as the films around him gently question it. Those questions haunt GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, or The World Is Not Enough like an accusation. As audience members, do we enjoy that brutality just as much as he does?