COVER STORY : New Mission for a New Bond : Pierce Brosnan steps into 007's shoes for 'GoldenEye,' the first James Bond film since 1989. Can the film compete with the 'Die Hards,' 'Lethal Weapons' and 'True Lies' of the world?

It's a wondrous three-story movie set, an underground control room of aluminum and glass. A gigantic digital screen showing a world map dominates an entire wall; facing it are banks of computer screens, flanked by gleaming steel staircases that curve gracefully to the floor. Ominously, large gas tanks are stationed at regular intervals around the room.

Opposite the huge map is a wall with an elevator built in. Push a button, and the elevator's steel doors open to reveal a tableau that makes you simultaneously do a double take and burst out laughing.

Inside, squeezed into a space no more than five feet across, two men face each other, perched on director's chairs, playing backgammon from a board on a rickety table.

Your eye is quickly caught by the man on the right, who is dark and handsome with regular, squarish features, a dazzling smile and a sharp stare. He is dressed as if for a military mission, in a thick wool sweater beneath khaki fatigues. Legs crossed and sprawling languidly with insouciant elegance, he extends a hand.

"How terribly nice to see you," he says suavely, with exaggerated courtesy. "Do come into my office, won't you?"

The name's Brosnan. Pierce Brosnan.

And he's the man on whom the new James Bond film, "GoldenEye," largely depends. Strike that--Brosnan's the man who could make or break the entire James Bond franchise, which has been running now for 18 movies spanning 33 years.

Bond films are widely believed to have run out of steam in the last decade, a conviction that seems most strongly held in the United States. It has not helped that Eon, the dynastic company headed by Bond producer Albert (Cubby) Broccoli, was embroiled in litigation with MGM/UA, the studio that funds the films; as a result, there has not been a Bond film since 1989.

Thus the stakes are high for "GoldenEye"--and for Brosnan, 42, who was named the new James Bond last year after Timothy Dalton, who had played Bond in the two previous movies, decided, with Eon's full approval, to step down. In taking up the mantle, Brosnan follows in the footsteps of Sean Connery (the original movie Bond) and Roger Moore, both of whom played the role seven times.

"There's a lot riding on this," Brosnan says. "The [Broccoli] family has gone through a lot, through a very emotional roller-coaster ride trying to keep all this together. There are high expectations."

Indeed. But those on the "GoldenEye" set insist--with real conviction as well as understandable hope--that Brosnan has the right stuff to take the James Bond role into the next century.

This business of commandeering the elevator as an "office" indicates that Brosnan has a certain playful humor--a crucial factor in Bond's character. When he is on the set and working, and thus outside his elevator, a notice goes up on its door, written by his backgammon partner, stills photographer Keith Hamshere: "Please make up my room."

But more than humor will be required. As Brosnan later concedes, relaxing in his trailer, there are certain questions about "GoldenEye" he is inevitably asked: Do people still want to see a James Bond movie? Does anyone still care?

"I believe the answer's yes," Brosnan says. "I think there's something familiar yet still exciting about Bond movies. As long as I get it right, of course."

Cubby Broccoli's stepson, Michael Wilson, who is producing "GoldenEye" with Broccoli's daughter, Barbara, is more philosophical: "Filmmakers make the best of any situation, so with that frame of mind . . . Pierce is the right age for the part. And there's been enough of a gap so there's a whole crop of teen-agers who have never seen [Bond] in a cinema."

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But there is a formidable counter-argument, which runs like this: James Bond is an anachronism, a character who made most sense in the 1960s. His role within British intelligence as 007, an agent with a license to kill, was primarily to combat the forces of Soviet communism; but in the six years since the last Bond movie, the Berlin Wall has been dismantled, the Warsaw Pact has evaporated and communism is no longer the ruling force in Russian society.

Then there's the sex equation. Bond was envisaged by his creator (English author Ian Fleming, who died in 1964) as casually promiscuous; but the advent of AIDS has ushered in an era of safe sex, in which such behavior is unacceptable.

The traditional role of women in Bond films is also outdated. The very phrase "Bond girls" now sounds demeaning. Too many women in these movies were required primarily to wander on screen in minimal clothing; their main function was apparently to laze around swimming pools. Their characters tended to be staggeringly vacuous. Many actresses in these roles seemed to be chosen for an ability to look fetching in a bikini rather than for their dramatic skill.

To cap it all, "GoldenEye" will open at Thanksgiving in what is now a more competitive market. Bond films have always been known for spectacular stunts, special effects and explosions, but the "Lethal Weapon" and "Die Hard" franchises have raised the stakes considerably, and last year's "True Lies," with a budget twice that of the $50 million being spent on "GoldenEye," is now the action film industry standard.

"I don't think we can compete with 'True Lies,' and I can't compete with Arnold Schwarzenegger," Brosnan says. "But there's room onstage for Bond. I didn't see much of a human element [in "True Lies"]. With Bond films you get magnificent stunts but also a sense that a man's in danger. There's no computer graphics with us. You sense a human presence, you see that it's a real guy who fell out of the plane."

"We don't have the same kind of money as 'True Lies,' " agrees Derek Meddings, miniature-effects supervisor on "GoldenEye." "So what we have to do is to make this as good, or even better, with our story."

The screenplay, by Michael France ("Cliffhanger") and Jeffrey Caine (who has written primarily for British television), takes Bond on adventures in Monte Carlo, Cuba, the South Atlantic and St. Petersburg, Russia. He is pitted first against arms dealers and the Russian Mafia, then against big-business masterminds who fight their battles electronically.

GoldenEye, which was named after Fleming's home in Jamaica, is a smart-card mechanism that when activated can trigger rogue satellites to destroy specific electronic data. The aim of the bad guys is to bring down money markets in key financial centers such as London, Tokyo and Hong Kong and grab money in the process of being electronically transferred; there will subsequently be no record of its source.

Bond's character has been modified for more politically correct times. Gone is his 60-a-day smoking habit, though he still drinks his martinis shaken, not stirred. His rampant promiscuity has been toned down, though he still enjoys female company. His Aston Martin DB5 has been replaced by a BMW roadster--albeit one equipped with a rocket launcher.

However the $50-million "GoldenEye" budget is being spent, it is not on big stars. Apart from Brosnan, the cast includes Sean Bean, Robbie Coltrane, Dame Judi Dench, Samantha Bond and Alan Cumming--first-class British actors, every one, but hardly names to induce feverish activity at box offices.

Two leading female roles have gone to unknowns. Natalya Simonova, a systems analyst who teams up with Bond, is played by Izabella Scorupco, born in Poland and known in Sweden as a pop singer, actress and model. Female villain Xenia Onatopp ("luscious but lethal," as the production notes for "GoldenEye" call her) is played by Famke Janssen, a Netherlands-born actress and former model who has lived in the United States for a decade and played guest roles on TV series such as "Melrose Place."

People on the set are protective toward the two actresses. As Scorupco strides across the set, a visitor suggests to "GoldenEye" director Martin Campbell that she resembles Isabella Rossellini.

"Yes, she's extremely attractive," agrees Campbell, adding hurriedly, as if anticipating a negative question: "But she can act too!"

Campbell, a New Zealander, is himself an intriguing break from tradition; John Glen directed the five previous Bond movies. Campbell is best known in the United States for last year's "No Escape," a futuristic jailbreak thriller starring Ray Liotta, though he also directed "Edge of Darkness," a BBC TV drama series that won international acclaim.

"I think after a six-year break they thought maybe they should change the director as well," Campbell says of the producers. "Why did they pick me? Well, 'Edge of Darkness' had a thriller-ish quality. Directing has a lot to do with your personality. I tend to be a little frenetic, and most of my films don't lack pace or energy. Nor will this one."

He is full of praise for Brosnan: "He really seems to have slipped into the role. He looks terrific and he really comes across. He's a good actor who also conveys the humor in the character. He's extremely adept at action, which when it happens is very hard and very fast. It's a surprise to me to see how good he is at it."

All roads, then, seem to lead back to Brosnan, who says of the Bond role: "It's not one of those pieces you analyze or pick away at too much. But I'd be foolish to come to it lightly, because it can trip you up.

"I think the style of this one's a lot different from its predecessors. It has a totally different look and feel, and of course my being in it adds to that."

Brosnan says he has studied only the Bond films starring Sean Connery in looking for clues about the character. This was no hardship: He remembers seeing his first-ever film in 1964--"Goldfinger" with Connery.

"There are certain characteristics about Bond you can't get away from," Brosnan says. "The man's an agent, a highly trained professional killer. He's sent on these missions which are everything to him. He's a loner, outside society. You need wit and character, and we have a script which has those ingredients. After that, it's yourself."

Brosnan allows that the films with Roger Moore "worked, but you missed that sense of danger. Bond is a man who's able to take care of himself, but he's also lethal."

He did not see the Bond films starring Timothy Dalton, for personal reasons. In 1986, Brosnan was chosen by the Broccolis to succeed Moore as James Bond. At the same time he was starring in the NBC-TV series "Remington Steele," which by then appeared to be on its last legs.

"I had a 60-day clause to do 22 more episodes with [production company] MTM, but we all pushed ahead. I did wardrobe fittings for Bond, they took photos of me at Pinewood [the British studio where most Bond films have been shot]. Cubby said they would have me for six more episodes.

"But at 5:30 p.m. on the 60th day of the option, I took a call at my house in Malibu Colony, and I heard they wanted me for 22 more episodes. . . . It was very stressful. Cassie [his wife] and I were relocating our lives; we thought we'd come back to live in Europe, put the kids in boarding school. But the whole thing just unraveled. Cubby Broccoli said no, I want my own man."

As it turned out Brosnan shot only six more "Remington Steele" episodes before the show was canceled. And the week after the deal fell through, Dalton accepted the offer to play James Bond.

"Because of the circumstances, I didn't look to see what Tim did with the role," Brosnan acknowledges.

In the intervening years Brosnan has played the lead in Nicholas Meyer's "The Deceivers" and Bruce Beresford's "Mister Johnson," second lead in John Mackenzie's "The Fourth Protocol" and supporting roles in "Mrs. Doubtfire" and Warren Beatty's "Love Affair." But his work was curtailed by the terminal illness of his wife, Cassandra Harris; she died of ovarian cancer in 1991.

"Looking back, I'm not sure I was equipped to play Bond in 1986," he says. "It's not a role you transform, it's dealing with yourself, filling those shoes. Bond's an experienced man. And a widower, as I'm now a widower--something that intrigues me coming around to the role this time."

Shortly before shooting started, Brosnan severed a tendon in his little finger after an accident in his bathroom. This delayed shooting by a week. (At first, he gave this reporter a more glamorous account of the accident, saying it had occurred while he was hang-gliding.) "Every time this character Bond comes into my life, it comes with a lot of drama."

To work around the accident, he shot all his dialogue scenes first: "That was very good for me. It gave me a sense of the character." On the whole he seems content with the film's progress. "I love this studio here, and I don't have the ghosts of Sean and Roger lurking in the corridors."

Indeed. Leavesden, 20 miles north of London, is making its debut as a studio. It's a former Rolls-Royce factory where aircraft engines were manufactured until its work force of 1,700 was eliminated two years ago. The empty factory has 1.25 million square feet of interior stage space. Three separate units can shoot simultaneously, it boasts one of the biggest back lots in the world, and it has a 1,000-yard runway on-site.

"It cost around 400,000, [$640,000] to convert," says Peter Lamont, production designer on "GoldenEye." Pinewood Studios, the usual site for Bond movies, where the biggest sound stage is even known as "the 007 stage," was unavailable; "Mission: Impossible," starring Tom Cruise, is being shot there.

"All this may have played into our hands," Lamont says. "When Pierce had this accident, if we'd have been at Pinewood we might have had to take down a set. Here they can sit there even if they won't be used for a couple of weeks."

In all, 25 sets are being built at Leavesden, ranging from the radar tracking control room to a St. Petersburg street, which will be severely damaged by real Russian tanks charging along at 55 m.p.h.

Miniature remote-controlled helicopters will fly over a craggy Siberian landscape made from polystyrene, self-raising flour and cat litter, out on the Leavesden runway. And a miniature Russian MiG 29 fighter plane, nine feet long, has been crashed through the side of a bunker for one of the film's most spectacular scenes. Miniature-effects supervisor Meddings, who won an Oscar in 1979 for his work on "Superman," reports: "The amount of work I have to do on 'GoldenEye' is more than I've ever done on any film. So naturally I'm excited."

But will the public be equally excited? Director Campbell thinks so:

"I often get asked, how am I going to bring Bond into the '90s? As though they were something unique rather than a time of economic depression. The truth is there's a lot of things about Bond that did work.

"One was Bond himself. He's a hero, a romantic antihero, and today there really are no others. Everyone now seems to be blue-collar. There are no sophisticated, much less English, heroes anymore. So he's unique."

And for all the awed comparisons with "True Lies" on the "GoldenEye" set, producer Wilson thinks Bond films stand apart from most action fare.

"Movies like 'Lethal Weapon,' 'Speed,' 'Die Hard,' they don't take you on an adventure with an exotic trip," he says.

"I also think the action-adventure experience makes for a family movie that everyone can feel comfortable taking their children to see. I don't expect an R rating. We don't see a lot of blood and guts, and there won't be embarrassingly bad language."

For his part, Brosnan says: "You have to take it seriously but not play it too seriously. In the shorthand that Martin [Campbell] and I have developed, Bond has a sense of edge. That's what the audience wants. They want a cool character--one who wins at the end of the movie."

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