Pierce Brosnan hasn’t played James Bond in 12 years, since the release of Die Another Day in 2002. That both feels too long and surprisingly recent—Daniel Craig’s term as Bond, only three films long, has re-defined the character so massively that Brosnan’s more textbook outings feel like ancient history. But still, has it been that long since Brosnan headlined a box-office hit? Put simply, yes—apart from his supporting role in 2008’s Mamma Mia, Brosnan hasn’t featured in a really successful movie since dropping the role of 007. This Friday sees him embracing a full-on action movie for the first time in years with The November Man, but is that the right move or simply a desperate one? Brosnan’s long career has seen him endure fallow periods before, but he’s still looking for his niche since hanging up the tuxedo.
Brosnan had a solid body of work before finally nabbing the James Bond role in 1995’s GoldenEye. He was first tipped for the job post-Roger Moore after the cancelation of his cult odd-couple detective dramedy Remington Steele, but the hype of his potential casting helped turn NBC’s decision around, boxing him out of a role in The Living Daylights, which went to Timothy Dalton instead. Strangely enough, it was probably the best move for Brosnan, who had a little more age and steeliness when he finally got the role seven years later. After Steele wrapped up in 1987, Brosnan bounced around in film supporting roles like The Fourth Protocol, The Lawnmower Man and most famously Mrs. Doubtfire, but he was always on Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli’s shortlist for the iconic role, and when Dalton declined to make a third film, Brosnan was brought in.
Brosnan’s work as James Bond across four movies—GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day—is extremely solid, although he never made a film as good as the first, with excessive product placement, substandard villains and (in Die Another Day) an over-reliance on campy CGI hampering each of his subsequent entries. But they all made plenty of money, each more than the last, and helped firm up Bond’s position as a consistent, premier action franchise after a shaky run in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. And Brosnan’s work in other films over the same period is pretty strong, although directors almost always played with his image as the British secret agent. Dante’s Peak (1997), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) and The Tailor of Panama (2001) are the high water-marks, although only Crown (a brilliant, underrated remake that improves on the original) earned a healthy profit at the box office.
Failed Prestige Projects
As Bond began to wind down (Brosnan expressed an interest in continuing in the role, but the public’s and producers’ appetite was winding down post-Die Another Day), Brosnan started pursuing weightier material. Richard Attenborough (RIP) cast him in the lead of his penultimate film Grey Owl (1999), a biopic about turn-of-the-century Canadian environmentalist Archibald Belaney, but it was dismissed as dull and plodding. He was shooting for an Oscar in 2002 true-story weepy Evelyn, about an Irish dad fighting for custody of his kids in the ‘50s, but while Brosnan tries hard, it’s treacly and manipulative. He did get a Golden Globe nomination and a murmur of further awards buzz for hitman comedy The Matador, which is among his liveliest work post-Bond, but the Richard Shepherd film was too shaggy and clichéd to pick up much of a following.
Brosnan has been slotted into a lot of mid-budget Hollywood claptrap over the last ten years, almost exclusively to ill effect. Lawyer rom-com Laws of Attraction paired him with Julianne Moore, but for both, their greatest flaw is a lack of comic timing, so the result was pretty unwatchable. Brett Ratner’s sweaty thief vs. Fed action-comedy After the Sunset came and went to shrugs from critics and audiences. Just a few years after Die Another Day, Brosnan was turning in thrillers like Seraphim Falls and Shattered which didn’t even get wide releases. His one truly memorable performance came in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, where he was a Tony Blair analogue who had no concept of the extent of the conspiracy that surrounded him; Brosnan was required to be charming, but in the end clueless, and did a solid job (although, by necessity, Olivia Williams ran rings around him as his conniving wife).
With Mamma Mia!, where he gave one of the most transfixingly bad singing performances in movie musical history, Brosnan has been relegated to supporting status in every major Hollywood film he appears in. He was the centaur teacher in the first Percy Jackson movie, replaced by Anthony Head for the sequel. The less said about I Don’t Know How She Does It, the better, but it might indicate how remarkably bad Brosnan is at picking projects. Or it could just be a sign that he’s not getting a chance at the good scripts, or even the mediocre scripts. Brosnan has more than enough presence to do solid supporting work in big Hollywood projects; is he ignoring that work because he doesn’t want it, or is Hollywood now ignoring him?
The November Man is not getting good notices and will probably earn very light box office returns, but it also represents a shift in tactics for Brosnan, who has largely shied away from out-and-out action post-Bond. The November Man sees him playing an ex-CIA operative who is brought back in on a personal vendetta; it’s basically a carbon copy of the movies Liam Neeson has been churning out for the last few years. With a solid international take, it could mark a new phase for Brosnan as a grey-haired action star, back in the game…or it could be an anomaly, quickly forgotten, as he continues to fight for crappy supporting roles in largely reviled films (look out for A Long Way Down this year). At the very least, there’ll likely always be wink-wink, self-mocking roles like Edgar Wright’s The World’s End out there for him, pitched at people like me who grew up with Brosnan as 007. As every man who’s taken the role has proven, it’s a difficult legacy to shake.