Twenty Years Hence: The Franchise Players (Goldeneye and Batman Forever)

With America, always thinking twenty years back, in full-on transition from early ’90s nostalgia to late ’90s nostalgia, I’ve decided to take a quick look back at the state of the cinema world in the middle year of that decade, 1995, fittingly a time when films were really just a curious mix of the past and the future, stuck with one foot chaining them to the rotting corpse of the ’80s and another leg stumbling over itself to reach the 2000s while that decade was still a glimmer in the eye. 

Goldeneye

A Bond film released in 1995, a shocking and unprecedented six years after the previous film in the franchise, had to be something. It had to be an event, spread by rampant corporate ’90s chic advertising and the pungent aroma of word of mouth. It had to be a success, even if future films in the franchise weren’t. The filmmakers had to prove themselves once. 1997, 1999, and 2002 brought future Pierce Brosnan Bond films before things were rebooted yet again, and they were all dismal affairs, among the worst in the series. But, as it turns out, once was enough. Martin Campbell’s Goldeneye is a gas of an action thriller, spoken with brash candor and a superfluity of styyyyyle to spare. It’s not great cinema, but it understands Bond more than any film released since the Connery era. And it knows that to understand Bond, it has to move forward with Bond, to take him in new directions, to adapt him without losing his essential essence.

Perhaps the best thing about 90’s Bond is that it managed to provide the needed respite from the detached, often disinterested qualities of the Michael Mann and Lethal Weapon cocktails of Timothy Dalton’s late 80’s Bond films (fine films both, but not particularly Bond-like either). At the same time, however, it never loses sight of the essential fascination of that dueling pair; their cold-blooded quality, if properly held back and contained, provided a satisfyingly brutal come-down from the too-frothy high-spirits of a pithy Moore. Goldeneye manages to have it both ways, being harsh and justifiably terse without ever dripping over into unnecessarily cruel, all the while at the same time exuding sly style and fun without ever losing itself to fluff. The action, especially, benefits here; while it loses itself once or twice to something lame and forced (a…I suppose “car chase” is the word… that fails on every level), the bulk of it, from the kinetic flurry of the purring opening to the brash, bold, seismic shifts of the highlight tank chase, really come through in the end. Neither sequence is too light nor too dark, too fleet nor too leaden, and they both work like gangbusters.

Certainly, at the narrative level, Goldeneye is nothing spectacular, although it’s presented with flair and conviction through sharp, forward-moving camera angles and a surprisingly understated use of sound (which is well, for the actual score is quite bad). It’s post-Soviet heavy, with vengeance and monomaniacal brutishness on the brain, and more than its fair share of globalized corporatism. The only uplifting outburst is the villain, a surprise then, but twenty years later, I see no issue with proclaiming that Sean Bean is a great villain, exuding both Shakespearean superiority and primal intensity. He has seldom been better than here.

The big question on anyone’s mind with Goldeneye, presumably more-so before its release than the twenty-years-later of now, is Bond himself, and while Brosnan lost big in the ensuing three films of his tenure coasting on sudsy action snark and overly-produced panache, he hits a home-run here. Owing more to the clinical assassin stylings of his predecessor Timothy Dalton than many might assume, but with enough ’70s-speckled levity so that he never lowers himself to the dour, un-Bondian crime thriller meanness of Dalton’s lows, he’s a dynamite Bond through and through. Fittingly, his performance fits rather nicely into the general American cinema theme of 1995, and its entire decade for that matter: defining the soulless, personality-free modern era through a sometimes precise, sometimes haphazard reconstruction of the past decades of cinema to the point where this recombination of the old instills in the new a genuine personality of its own. This was 1995 after all, and corporate blockbusters were on their way to soulless boredom, but the train there took often fascinating pit-stops in just about every decade of the twentieth century you can imagine. I haven’t found the 1900s yet, but I’m sure they’re hiding somewhere not too far from plain sight. You just have to do a little digging.

Elsewhere, there are just a number of dynamite little numbers that congeal into a critical mass of sharp action entertainment, all coated in Campbell’s consistently lithe, hard-hitting action direction punctuated by edits in all the right places. The opening theme, for instance, is pretty amazing, all the more so because it is sung by Tina Turner, who has no business ever being this good. Yet she is, giving a purrfectly low-slung, sinuous, nasty performance that verges on malicious in a way no other Bond film yet had or would since. Elsewhere, there’s the tricky role of a recast M, now played by a never-sharper Judi Dench with tact and a punishing bluntness to spare. There are some shames, like the way the film fetishes the fall of the Soviet Union without any real idea of what to do with the shift toward a Russia prismatically headed in every which direction it could find in the early ’90s. It’s just sort of vague window dressing the film insists is part of its core identity, locking in on the fact that this “isn’t your daddy’s Cold War Bond anymore” without much effect. There are at least a few good aural and visual quips wittily reflecting the new-found American cultural imports to a post-iron-curtain Russia.

All things considered though, it’s a shockingly successful return to form for a franchise that hadn’t known the pleasures of life at the top in a couple of decades (it wouldn’t again for over a decade, but that is better left unspoken for now). It’s well-mounted, well-reasoned, sharp in just about every area, and boasts a dynamite Bond that bridges the smug elitism of Connery, the daffy troubadour warmth of Moore, and the brutal, chilly ice of a Dalton. The only thing it really lacks, kind of like its titular character, is an identity all its own; it’s very much an amalgamation, a safe, respectable, playing all sides sort of slick piece of thriller action entertainment. But directed by Martin Campbell on his best behavior, it’s so impressively produced that it’s a damn sight of good entertainment, lack of personality or not.

Score: 8/10

Batman Forever

As bad as Batman Forever is, let no one say it is a purely corporate motion picture. The inclusion of Jim Carrey as the Riddler and the will to let him go completely unhinged on camera, to lose himself to his mojo and have no one bat him down with a broom or an umbrella, is the most corporate decision any producer could have made in 1995, the height of Carrey’s worldwide appeal. The film around Carrey, however much it becomes the Carrey showcase for a hefty portion of its run-time, is not corporate, nor is it wholly devoid of its own personality, as ghoulish and numbing as it may be.

For one, the look of the film is actually something to marvel at, as much as it induces vomiting over the course of two hours. The look of the film is hyper saturated in a certain high-contrast neon quality that accentuates the Riddler’s green and Two-Face’s purple, capturing at once a certain sense in the set design and cinematography that these two cavort and make play with the city and Batman and that they control just about everything in Gotham. Outside of this, it also has the nifty effect of having Gotham played by a candy-coated, macabre cartoon. Now, at the time, this was somewhat nauseating, but twenty years later when comic book films lack any visual personality whatsoever, this playful quality coating the film is a breath of sugary fresh air.

The look is also, unfortunately, the film’s tomb, for it saps the film of any sense of rhyme or reason and siphons out any energy from the rest of the product, much as the unrestrained Carrey and the unhinged Jones do with their Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck show. In short doses, Jones is a blast (Carrey less so), but they take too many queues from Tim Burton’s Batman films by aping Nicholson’s Joker and losing themselves to the laughing gas. Now Burton’s films survived this villainous-focus precisely because Burton was a talented enough filmmaker to only give just enough time to his villains, and to ensure his villains were just so dementedly weird with just enough restraint to not implode on themselves. The Nicholson focus is still an issue in the 1989 film, but things are even worse here for Schumacher’s lack of judicious verve. If Burton was a careful, deliberate swath of purposeful but looney Gothic decay, Schumacher is a toxic oil spill that swallows everything else in its path.

It’s all just too busy, without the good sense to trust the audience for more than few seconds to ingest the material without something shiny or calorific spewing across the screen. At some level, I admire this unending parade of nonsense, but if you want to go for a cartoon, you have to lose yourself to the ethos, and Schumacher has failed this test wholeheartedly. This is not a cartoon’s cartoon, but a big-budget drag in cartoon clothing, and that’s no fun at all. The glee coating the surface never trickles down to the core of the film, which narratively lacks the absurdism its look ought to dictate (there are a few out-there bits, including a back alley brawl with voodoo-touting thugs that is matched in its energy only by its ridiculousness and its out-there racism, but these moments are few and far between).

In place of something useful, we have a bone-dry retelling of the first two films with two new villains who join up to respectively, kill old friend Bruce Wayne/ Batman for transforming him into a maniac (Two-Face) and to take over the world with a brain device that beams TV signals directly into brains (The Riddler, a former scientist for Wayne Enterprises who tried the device on himself and lost a few screws). A new love interest for Batman, Chase Meridian played by Nicole Kidman, and Robin (Chris O’ Donnell, who can’t much be bothered), join in on the fun but don’t do much. If the script had been stricken with a case of oddball weirdness to match its set design and cinematography, we’d have something, but instead its form-fitting Blockbuster schlock done-up with Schumacher’s un-aromatic sense of humor.

Unfortunately, the script just isn’t there, playing like it desperately realizes how inept it is at basic story mechanics and excusing itself under a layer of villainous chicanery it can’t shake. Despite the look, and Val Kilmer’s admittedly formidable performance in the title role, the things that work about Forever in small doses just fall apart over its off-putting incalcitrant debauchery and awkward sense of unending foppishness and misguided humor. Schumacher just can’t take a damn thing seriously, and this alone allows the film an aloof, semi-deranged quality, but it’s too often caught between these impulses and the needs of a more conventional summer blockbuster, weighing down each other and ending up somewhere in the betwixt blank space between them. It would probably also help if Schumacher’s sense of flighty fun was more deranged and demented and dizzying and less …idiotic. But we can’t have everything, can we? Besides, we already have that film. It was made in 1966. If you plan on watching Batman Forever, you should take a trip back thirty years and see what the delightfully arcane pop-art of the ’60s brought to Batman’s table once upon a time.

Score: 5/10

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