James Bond, agent of change

The Bond franchise requires new variations on old themes. Like Judi Dench as M. By Adam Mars-Jones

The name's Bond. Samantha Bond. She plays Moneypenny in Goldeneye, but she's only one of the women in the movie who sets limits to the actions and assumptions of the hero. Moneypenny says sweetly that some day Bond is going to have to make good on his innuendo, but M is more forthright, describing him to his face as a sexist misogynist dinosaur and a relic of the Cold War. In the role, Judi Dench gives Stella Rimington a masterclass in how to be head of the Secret Service without looking like a power-dressed bunny rabbit. M comes up with a positively deadly comeback to one of Bond's weaker sallies, by referring to experiences way outside of his range: "If I want sarcasm, I'll ask my children, thank you very much."

Even the film's love interest (or "Bond girl" in the language of the franchise), Izabella Scorupco playing Natalaya, doesn't spend the whole time cowering. Her computer skills materially advance the plot, and she gains confidence over the course of the film. She denounces Bond for his coldness, and even interrupts an interrogation when it becomes heated by telling Bond and the Russian defence minister that they're behaving like boys with toys.

In fact Goldeneye proves that the dinosaur can change his spots. Although M criticises Bond's cavalier attitude to human life, we see no unprovoked bloodshed - hardly any blood at all, come to that, despite a hefty body count, as the film is calibrated for a 12 certificate. There isn't a lot of sex, either, though innuendo levels are high. The title tune may be a big brassy Tina Turner number, but the song over the closing credits is somewhat in Sting manner. It's called "The Experience of Loving".

Franchise - a word used without embarrassment in the press kit - is exactly the right description for the Bond films. You don't want to tamper with a successful formula, but you daren't repeat it exactly without risking Roger Moore - I'm sorry, I meant to write boredom. But while McDonalds can turn out a constant product and merely alter its advertising to address consumer worries - freshness, nutritional value, environmental responsibility - the Bond franchise has to come up with new variations on old themes.

Some formula elements recur unaltered: Desmond Llewelyn as Q, the tedious boffin. That hallowed piece of montage in which the viewer is shot by Bond while unwisely attempting to hide in a spiral sea shell. A pre-title action sequence that uses up 17 per cent of the film's special effects and stunts budget. A title sequence featuring many naked women in an abstract landscape of kitsch eroticism.

The most interesting development is the way characteristics that used to belong to the hero have been redistributed, as the ideological kaleidoscope shifts, to a female villain. Famke Janssen, playing Xenia Onatopp (joke names used to be the hallmark of the Bond girl, but now even that element has been shifted), is sexily predatory and ruthless. She gets to deliver the post-violence wisecracks that were always the feeblest element of the films (though Schwarzenegger likes them so much he incorporated them into his franchise): after she's fired a machine gun at a ventilator to kill anybody who might be hiding there, she says: "I had to ventilate someone." Xenia Onatopp even gets to do the smoking. She smokes cigars.

Goldeneye makes a vague attempt to reformulate its politics after the end of the Cold War. In practice, this means shaking the historical kaleidoscope and making Star Wars a Russian rather than an American enterprise, and a workable technology rather than a defence budget scam. The Russians have a device fired from a satellite that can destroy all electrical equipment over a huge area, and now someone has stolen it. So the villains tend to be Russians, as in the good old days, but now they're gangsters and renegades.

The dialogue contains references to Siberian separatists and the "flea- market economy", and the screenplay includes a scene set in a club where Russian lovelies in cowboy gear grind out "Stand By Your Man". But you wouldn't know from Goldeneye that anything was disintegrating socially, or that huge tracts of the ex-Soviet Union weep fall-out and pollution. The film's idea is closer to the current advert which shows Tatiana in her dacha checking tractor prices on her computer - samovar and software in perfect harmony.

Rather bolder is a plot strand suggesting that the villain's motive is revenge on a British government that in 1945 sent the Cossacks back to Stalin, despite its assurances to them. It's odd to have Bond acknowledging that this was a dark moment of our island story, just as it's odd to have him examine the new-generation BMW that Q issues him with no mention of its foreign origin. Perhaps in future films he will murmur "for the European Economic Community" rather than for "England" as he unleashes his latest bout of mayhem. It's a tricky business, trying to modernise Bond's patriotism without making it dissolve altogether.

Martin Campbell directs fluently and even with flair. A sequence of a tank chase in St Petersburg at about the halfway mark is probably the high point in terms of action - old-fashioned but undeniably exhilarating. The script, by Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Feirstein from a story by Michael France, is never stupid and leaves little dead time between excitements.

Pierce Brosnan turns out to be well suited for the role of Bond. Of course, to think that the film couldn't be made without him would be like saying that McDonalds would stop making burgers if it couldn't buy one particular cow. But he doesn't suffer from Connery's moral impatience with the role, Moore's suave floundering or Dalton's nagging superiority to the acting assignment - his inability to forget he had played Antony to Vanessa Redgrave's Cleopatra. Connery was the definitive Bond because he was both a real actor and a real star, however little he liked the character he was playing. Brosnan's performance works because, paradoxically enough, he isn't quite either an actor or a star. There's no sense of power held in check, of unused resources. Still, he walks lightly and confidently in those bespoke footsteps.

n On release tomorrow

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