Pierce Brosnan was not a great James Bond and, was not in any great James Bond movies.
Of the four Bond films in which Pierce Brosnan starred, one was good (Goldeneye, 1995), one was mediocre (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997), one was bad (The World is Not Enough, 1999) and one was astoundingly bad (Die Another Day, 2002). Die Another Day was so off-the-rails crazy terrible that producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson found it necessary to reboot the series entirely with the superb, Daniel Craig-starring, Casino Royale (2006). In the role of Bond, Brosnan was never great, just fine, but he seemed a natural pick: he is dark, traditionally handsome, he is both debonair and masculine, he has a sexy accent, and possesses a combination of Sean Connery’s cool, Roger Moore’s sense of humor, and Timothy Dalton’s intensity. There is a fundamental, unmistakable “Bond-ness” to Brosnan. One can imagine that well before he was in the running to play Bond, Brosnan could look in the mirror and think “I am Bond, James Bond”. While this quality ultimately landed him the role, it did not do him or the movies any favors. Bond films in the Brosnan era never found the right tone. Each, but especially the last two, is an unwieldy attempt to combine Connery’s edge, Moore’s campiness (more so with each film), and Dalton’s violence (Die Another Day is the one in which Bond is tortured in a North Korean prison camp for several months and drives an invisible car). Because Brosnan is so fundamentally “Bond-like” he never brings uniqueness to the role, and/or gave the films a direction in the way that Daniel Craig has done (outstandingly. Craig is the best Bond, sorry purists). Perhaps Brosnan did bring his own persona to his portrayal of James Bond, but because his persona is “James Bond”, it the effect of bringing nothing new to the role.
Where Brosnan’s “Bond-ness” has been used to stunning effect is in films in which the actor is not explicitly playing James Bond, but where his history of playing Bond is used to inform is portrayal of other characters. Brosnan’s films The Matador (2005) and, to a greater extent, The Tailor of Panama (2001) show us what Bond would be like outside of the world of James Bond. That is: He would be gross.
In The Tailor of Panama, director John Boorman’s adaptation of the John le Carré’s 1996 novel of the same name, Brosnan plays Andrew Osnard, an MI6 operative newly assigned to Panama City on a dull assignment monitoring activity regarding the canal. In an early scene, a superior informs Osnard that he has been exiled because of “Gambling debt, blown cover, and the wives… the wives.” (Get it? he’s an MI6 agent who gambles, blows his cover, and sleeps with other men’s wives. Get it? Get it?)
Upon his arrival in Panama, Andy acquaints himself with Harry Pendle (Geoffrey Rush), the titular haberdasher, who has entrée to the men of power and influence who comprise his clientele, and whose wife, Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis), is a high-level aide to the administrator of the Panama Canal. In trade for information, Andy promises funding for Harry’ s failing farm and, lacking any real information, Harry gives Andy lies regarding a Chinese takeover of the canal and an underground resistance. Andy does not question Harry’s fabrications as they serve his own selfish ends, and the two of them merrily stumble toward an international catastrophe.
Rush is, as is his routine, excellent as the loveable, desperate Harry, but its Brosnan’s show; Andy is charming, crude, smooth bastard. Where James Bond exists in a world of sophisticated adult sexuality, with liaisons arranged via witty repartee over the baccarat table, Andy is all base tawdriness, eye-banging anything in a skirt like a 45-year-old fratboy. The film’s best running joke is Andy’s insistence on homo-erotically pushing Harry out of his comfort zone, arranging information exchanges in a brothel and a gay club. Andy is, decidedly, a smooth operator. The only character who sees through his bullshit is Louisa, who is still entirely un-charmed even if she senses the danger he represents to her husband.
Brosnan, Rush and Lee are terrific in the leads. The supporting cast is peppered with ringers (Dylan Baker is particularly great, and hammy, as a U.S. general with a chip on his shoulder about relinquishing control of the canal). It's a funny, economic script by le Carré himself (with help from Andrew Davies and Boorman) and crackerjack direction by old master Boorman. The Tailor of Panama is as good a political thriller, and satire, as has been made in the last twenty years. Released in 2001, it was shot between the two worst Brosnan Bond films; it’s a shame that Wilson and Broccoli did not take note and adjust for Brosnan’s, now apparent, strengths. Brosnan was never going to be the “Cool Bond” (Connery), the “Funny Bond” (Moore), the “Violent Bond” (Dalton) or the “Three-Dimensional Bond” (Craig), but he could have been the “Real Bond”, the gross one.
Frank Anderson is the head movie writer at The Renaissance Fan.
The Tailor of Panama (2001)
Merlin Films (John Boorman, Kevan Barker)
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Director: John Boorman
Writer: John le Carré, Andrew Davies, John Boorman
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush, Jamie Lee Curtis, Brendan Gleeson, Catherine McCormack, Harold Pinter
English, Rated R, 109 min.