Today is the birthday of Pierce Brosnan, he is 58. Happy Birthday, Mr Brosnan.
This article is a revision of a piece I wrote about Mr Brosnan’s movies some two years ago. The first part, covering his emergence as Bond and is growth as a star actor is here
Masterpieces and changes
For me Brosnan really hit his stride with The World is Not Enough and I think this emboldened him to become even more creative. His next movie was a risky undertaking and turned out to be a masterpiece.
The Thomas Crown Affair
A re-make of the original Thomas Crown Affair by Pierce Brosnan’s own Irish Dreamtime productions, this is a superb movie that knocks the original into a cocked hat. This version plays out an art-heist that is colourful, exciting and fun. Brosnan plays the head of a Mergers and Acquisitions boutique bank, whose rogue alpha male superiority leads him into pulling heists.
One of the problems with the original was that Steve McQueen did not understand who he was playing. In the romantic and action scenes he was fine, in the scenes where he plays Crown as a businessman he was embarrassingly bad. The truth is actors rarely understand how to play businessmen. They play them well when they play them as greedy, as stupid, as unable to relate to other people. They do know how to play them positively, as gamblers, risk-takers, fighters and winners.
Having worked in Mergers and Acquisitions myself, my assessment is that Brosnan’s Thomas Crown is pitch-perfect. Early on there is a wonderful scene, where Brosnan strides confidently across the floor of his boutique bank, left hand in his pocket. He slips from one conversation to the next and as he nears his office he stretches out his right hand and says to the guy sitting at the next-to-last desk “Give me good numbers Jimmy”. Gesture, timing, tone of voice, posture are all perfect, the complete high-risk banker. Brosnan is just as good in all his other scenes. He clearly understands who this man is and he shows us, the audience, all the little facets of character that make this man the successful Alpha male he is.
Brosnan really inhabits this role. He has often been considered the successor to Cary Grant and here he shows the qualities that got him nominated. He is funny, suave, sophisticated and charming. Playing a rich banker gives him the chance to play wealthy and cultured and he does it with silky ease. He is a classic body-shape and the clothes in the movie (bespoke tailored by Campagna of New York) are perfect on him, he has the sensitivity and sensibility to understand the importance of those tailored suits.
And this movie is a feel-good movie, there is no violence, the real world is somewhere outside, along with Mergers and Acquisitions. Brosnan dominates the movie, yet the scenes are with Rene Russo as his love interest/adversary are balanced, intimate and beautifully paced. Brosnan is a generous co-star as he shares the screen with Russo. And Brosnan plays off Russo, perfectly in character. There is a pivotal moment where the masterful, successful Thomas Crown has to admit to Russo that she is the first woman to visit his secret Caribbean home. By doing so, he loses a skirmish in their battle of wits and admits, by implication, that their relationship is more than just sex. He plays it with just the right amount of confusion and embarrassment.
And Brosnan plays Crown as a manly man, successful, a solitary risk-taker having the adventure of a lifetime, who is suddenly confused by the appearance of love. This movie was Brosnan acting as a classic Hollywood movie star and he did it to perfection. Audiences loved it. For me it is a favourite film.
Deliberately messing it up….
The Tailor of Panama
This was the movie that told us that Brosnan was never going to be content to be an action hero. It starts with Andrew Osnard MI6 (Brosnan), being exiled to Panama in disgrace. So I thought it was going to be a kinda Bond spy movie….
Well, everybody gets it wrong sometimes, including me. The Tailor of Panama is a truly black comedy about British and American interference in other countries. And Andrew Osnard is a truly evil man, even by spy standards. Amoral and self-obsessed, he invents a wholly imaginary conspiracy against the Panama Canal, with the intention of rehabilitating himself with his boss and getting back to a plum posting.
To do this he finds vulnerable and foolish people and uses them without mercy. He intimidates, blackmails and threatens these people in order to make them do his bidding. Brosnan holds nothing back in the role, is truly frightening, completely evil. Osnard watches these people like a cat watching a mouse, takes pleasure in their pain and then you can see him calculating how to inflict more. He is intelligent, articulate and with a quickness and a savagery that scares the life out of his victims. Brosnan finds a cruel, sadistic part of himself and has no compunction about unleashing it onscreen. His face does the work here, the smile becomes a sneer, the twinkle in the eye becomes a glare. There is no concession to his earlier hero persona at all, he takes a hammer to it in this movie and clearly has a great time doing it.
Along with a wonderful cast he makes a movie so blackly funny, you have to laugh or you would cry. An unexpected departure for an actor who clearly had something to say.
Die Another Day
Next came Die Another Day, Bond is betrayed, to the North Koreans. Brosnan gives us a Bond who is not only vengeful but paranoid, slightly world-weary and short of patience. There is a new ruthlessness about Bond and Brosnan plays him as a man who wants satisfaction, whose impatience shows in his abruptness and his short fuse. And it’s time for Bond the hedonist, who meets his like in CIA agent Jinx (Halle Berry). As Bond, Brosnan throws himself into sex with Jinx and their sex scene is passionate, athletic and feels very real. This was Brosnan’s darkest Bond, his thinly veiled anger being acted out the set of his shoulders, the light in his eye and the tone of his voice. In many ways this was Brosnan’s Bond at his most real.
When Daniel Craig made Casino Royale, a lot of nonsense was talked about James Bond, by newspaper journalists who had no understanding of Bond or his story. Like many men I have long been a James Bond fan. I loved Casino Royal and thought Daniel Craig was a tough hero. But the real Commander Bond? The archetypal Bond of Fleming’s books?
Brosnan was the better Bond. Sean Connery defined Bond and consequently cannot be beat, but Brosnan comes a close second.
I have to be honest; I did not want to see Evelyn. I had heard that it was sentimental, set in fifties Ireland (a period in English history defined by poverty and parochialism) and about a trial, none of which interested me. But my wife, that gorgeous girl, told me it great and she was surprised, given my appreciation of Brosnan, that I was not interested in it. At the time I was absorbed by Brosnan the action hero, worried that he had descended into soap opera.
I was an idiot. Evelyn is a wonderful movie and I am happy to tell you why.
Evelyn is the true story of Desmond Doyle, an Irish painter and decorator, who, in fifties Ireland, has the misfortune that his wife leaves him. His three young children are taken into care by the Catholic Church, acting at the behest of the Irish government. Desmond loves his children and this working-class man pits himself against the state to reclaim them.
Brosnan is marvellous as Desmond Doyle, he gives a breathtaking performance. His Doyle is a loving father, irresponsible and charming. Brosnan already had that part down pat, the cheeky grin, the quip, the smooth charm. But he goes much deeper into the character, playing Doyle as a frightened, desperate man. Brosnan gives us a man who simply cannot be still, whose courage comes in sudden bursts. He switches emotions so quickly, so that we can see Doyle go from a courageous speech to shrinking with fear, looking around furtively for an escape from the consequences of his own courage. Brosnan hoods his eyes, bites his lip and draws furiously on a cigarette, eloquent in fear and frustration. But when Doyle talks of his love for his children, his voice is calm and clear, full of love and conviction. Brosnan gives Doyle a voice from the heart, a conviction that will move the planet on its axis.
But above all of this, it is the painstaking care and respect that Brosnan shows for Desmond Doyle’s life that makes this such a marvellous performance. If Doyle acts like a fool, Brosnan shows that it is lack of knowledge that makes act that way, that he has a quick mind and an honest heart. He never coarsens Desmond Doyle or insinuates he is less of a man for growing up in poverty. Rather his Doyle is very honest about his life, has an innate pride in himself (for all his fear) and knows that his children are his life.
And Brosnan makes Doyle grow through the movie. His speech becomes calmer, his actions more considered and we thrill to his new-found self-esteem and urge him on in his fight to get his children back. Yet even in the final climactic scene when Desmond Doyle fits with everything he has got, the fear is still there. And I had to ask myself how do I know that? Watching that scene again, I realise that Brosnan had kept Doyle’s frightened quick breathing whilst adding in all the other physical changes that showed Doyle’s growth. Though it is almost imperceptible, you can hear Doyle’s fear as he fights for the breath to reclaim his children. The scene and the acting is simply magnificent.
The more I see Evelyn, the more I see what a wonderful movie it is. It is a Frank Capra movie for our time. Full of struggle, but respectful of ordinary people’s lives, it manages to be fun, uplifting and joyous at the same time. Simply wonderful.
After the Sunset
After the Sunset continued the rounding out of Pierce Brsosnan’s movie persona. Set on a Caribbean holiday island, After the Sunset is a lightweight romp that advertises itself as a heist movie but quickly turns into a comedy. The joke is that Brosnan is a master jewel-thief who is smoking hot at heists, but it soon becomes apparent that he is a bit of loss at anything else. So it was a disappointment for us Thomas Crown fans, but the more I see the movie I realise that it has a lot going for it.
The first of these is that Brosnan plays jewel thief Max Burdett without ego. He happily plays sloppy and stupid and lets Salma Hayek’s fiery Lola play off him for laughs. There is a laugh-out loud scene where Brosnan’s Burdett meets the Island’s crime kingpin, Henri Moore (Don Cheadle) who tells Burdett that he has developed a life philosophy based on the songs of the Mammas and Poppas. The scene cuts to Brosnan driving his car, listening to “Go where you wanna go”, nodding his head like an idiot, with that earnest puzzled look on his face. Perfect.
It also gave Brosnan the opportunity to play out his dry sense of humour to great effect. This works so well in a scene with his nemesis, Agent Lloyd of the FBI (Woody Harrelson);
Lloyd: Just because you’re British you don’t have to hide your feelings.
Burdett: I’m Irish, we tell people how we feel. Now Fuck Off.
Timing and delivery were dry, delivered with relish. Watch it and see. The battle of wits between Burdett and Agent Lloyd is truly great fun.
Like Grey Owl, After the Sunset is less than the sum of its parts. But Brosnan gives us a character we can care for. Once again he is the movie.
Brosnan made Matador after the Eon productions told him that they did not want him for a fifth Bond. If Matador was not Brosnan’s revenge movie for being denied a fifth Bond, I will eat my hat.
Julian Noble is a hit-man with delusions, a “facilitator of fatalities” as he puts it. Sleazy, unwashed, with a vile little moustache and nasty clothes, he has a taste for booze and young girls. Unwholesome does not even begin to cover it. Brosnan revels in the role, deliberately making Noble as offensive as possible. And it is non-stop, just when you think it cannot get any worse, he gets that little bit more provocative, Julian’s tone gets just that bit more self-justificatory and whiny. And Brosnan so obviously loves doing it, he revels in playing a human Gollum.
Julian is burnt-out and starts to suffer panic attacks at the precise moment when he is meant to be killing someone. One night Julian meets Greg Kinnear’s businessman in a bar in Mexico. Brosnan is hypnotic as he befriends the businessman with all the sleazy charm he can muster. Julian is obviously soul-deep lonely and Brosnan plays this as a switchback of bluster and blubbing. He starts by being macho and loud, switching in a second to being plaintive, weak and whiny, then back to bluster. Brosnan has always had the ability to hold two opposites in a character and here he uses that gift to its fullest extent. If there was an ambiguity in some of his previous roles its ambiguity squared here. And Brosnan inhabits this unflattering role to its fullest extent. Matador is quite simply one of his finest performances.
Brosnan acts out Julian’s loneliness. There is an outrageous scene where he walks through the lobby of a plush hotel clad only in a tiny pair of speedos and black ankle boots. The clientele are appalled but any reaction is better than no reaction as far as Julian is concerned. Thomas Crown it is not. And the other side of the coin is the Brosnan charm, which he deploys to the full as he tries to wheedle Greg Kinnear into being his only friend.
This is a car-crash movie, you are fascinated and horrified at the same time, you cannot look away. The worst thing is the Brosnan charm. You can actually see yourself becoming buddies with the monster that is Julian, and then shudder at the thought. And it is not the plot, or the action, it is simply this incredible monster that Brosnan has built. A performance built of courage, insight and great acting talent.
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