I feel sort of the opposite about this one than I did about Licence to Kill - a lot of the elements in the film were pretty lackluster, but on the whole the movie succeeded both as a Bond film and as a decent action movie.
First of all, I don't really know what to do with Pierce Brosnan. He is, to my mind, the suavest of all Bonds, able to effortlessly charm a woman right out of her pants. I'm not sure he's great at a lot of the old-fashioned elements (the Bond lifestyle doesn't quite fit him exactly right; he's always seemed to have a bit too much of the "ain't I a stinker?", above-it-all persona to really ease into the 60's era cool of classic Bond), but he's a good enough action star to make the character work on that level, and he certainly doesn't look uncomfortable in evening wear the way that Timothy Dalton did. The movie around him here really has a propulsive momentum, but Brosnan almost floats above it, allowing the waves of the film's rhythms to wash into shore while he looks on in amusement. It's not a great fit but, as with Dalton in The Living Daylights, it's good enough for now. We'll see how he holds up going forward.
The plot, if you didn't know it. 007 is on a mission to destroy a Soviet chemical weapons factory, and it's a joint mission with another 00 agent played by Sean Bean. Bean's character is allegedly killed during the course of the mission but Bond succeeds in blowing up the factory. Cut to a decade later, the Soviet Union no longer exists (the key theme, if there is one, of the film, that of hoary old spies dealing with a changed world) but a shadowy figure who, surprise surprise, turns out to be that same 00 agent is plotting to take over a Soviet-era weapon satellite that can fire a pinpointed EMP blast. He plans to steal a bunch of money from the Central Bank of London before wiping out the entire financial system of the city, which will both cover his tracks and cause a massive, global financial meltdown. Bond stops him, gets the girl, and rides off into the sunset.
So, Sean Bean. The (now) beloved Bean, thanks to the fact that he's starred in the two biggest fantasy franchises in the world. He's the first 00 agent we've ever met in the flesh other than Bond and his backstory is convoluted, to say the least. His character, Alec Trevelyan, has parents who were Lienz Cossacks, but he ended up working for the British government in MI6. His life is basically a series of nested double crosses: you've got the double cross of the Cossacks themselves, fighting with the Nazis and against their (nominal) country; then the double cross of the British government, who promised to protect the Lienz Cossacks but who turned them over to Stalin; Trevelyan's double cross of them by going to work for the British government, and then his double cross of the British when he comes back from the dead in the form of "Janus" to put the aforementioned plan in action. It's all extremely confusing, and I thought his motivations got really murky once his plans were revealed - he has some sort of personal vendetta against Bond despite the fact that, during that opening sequence, he encouraged Bond to leave him behind and complete the mission. It turned out he must have been working in concert with the Soviet general who (the audience is given to believe) shot him dead, because that general is one of his henchmen in his Janus guise. I'm still pretty confused about who exactly Trevelyan is and what the hell is his deal. Bean's performance is very small and contained, and really doesn't help us to figure out this mess.
The Bond girl, Natalya Simonova, is played by Izabella Scorupco and I wanted so much to like her but she is such a bland presence that I just can't bring myself to care about her one way or the other. She gets dragged around by the machinations of the plot because she's a computer scientist and is familiar with the Goldeneye weapon. Her agency is almost entirely confined to scenes in which she types on a computer running Hollywood Operating System, otherwise, she's just there, alternately being taken captive or being rescued in turn. There is a scene early on when Alan Cumming's character teases her with a riddle about one of his passwords, and he very clearly types 5 characters on the screen, and then later when Natalya is trying to figure out the password she both completely botches the riddle and tries a whole bunch of 4-character passwords. And it's a little thing, but the hair and wardrobe department does her no favors, giving her frumpy-dumpy outfits and an ugly haircut.
Famke Janssen's Xenia Onatopp is much better, a character who straddles (no pun intended) the line between believably weird and insanely theatrical. No, just kidding, she sits on that line and squeezes it to death with her thighs. She's all theatricality, getting genuine orgasmic delight out of every violent act committed in her general vicinity, but it's funny and sexy and Janssen is legitimately the most entertaining thing in the movie.
Alan Cumming, on the other hand, runs right past the line that demarcates when someone has gone too far over the top and keeps right on going. He's an actor that I like quite a bit, but his theater background is on full display here and it is just way too much. Plus, his "Russian" accent has almost completely disappeared by the end, replaced by his native burr, and as much as I enjoy that accent come on Alan, at least make an effort.
Samantha Bond as Moneypenny is an immediate and massive improvement over Caroline Bliss, and she and Brosnan have a very nice chemistry.
And then there is Judi Dench. It was unquestionably a casting coup that they managed to get her to fill the role of M, but boy does she have essentially nothing to do in this movie.
Tina Turner should win the "best Shirley Bassey in years" superlative, and I mean that completely sincerely. I'm not even sure that "GoldenEye" is a great song but goddamn does Turner do it up right.
I am still annoyed that BMW had a long tenure supplying the Bond Car, starting with this movie. Yes, it's extremely provincial to complain about the ultimate British icon driving a fucking German car but that's my grandmother's influence and she's right.
There is a long, extremely slapsticky scene in Q labs, featuring an exploding pen (which plays a part in the plot), a giant airbag in a telephone booth and some sort of ejector seat. "We are not repeating the Dalton era" is what this scene screams.
This movie may have the most per capita quippery of any film thus far, including the Moore era. In fact, I'd be shocked if it didn't blow every other Bond movie so far away in this department. Brosnan is asked to deliver a lot of quips.
A pre-fame Minnie Driver shows up in a short scene, as some sort of burlesque singer/dancer with a terrible voice (that the movie lampshades).
Alec Trevelyan's train is supercool, and it's too bad it is given such short time on screen. Bond movies only really reference themselves, and this train says, "We saw From Russia With Love too, and here is a thing to remind you that we once made it."
Bond in a tank? Bond in a tank. The amount of destruction Bond does during this scene must add up to the GDP of several small countries.
Trevelyan puts Bond in not one but two elaborate death traps that Bond obviously weasels out of. A careful CEO of Evil Industries, he is not.
Bond sleeps with some easy ministry bureaucrat near the beginning, and Simonova. He never sleeps with Xenia, but I'm pretty sure she got off during one of the scenes where she's trying to kill him, so you can count that as another half.