Robbie Coltrane Makes Zukovsky One of the Best James Bond Characters

Robbie Coltrane Makes Zukovsky One of the Best James Bond Characters

Prior to the Daniel Craig era of the franchise, the James Bond films rarely featured supporting characters that appeared in multiple installments. While staples of the series like M, Q, and Moneypenny would usually show up, they generally did not fulfill any role beyond delivering Bond expositional dialogue. The Craig films were unique in their consideration of a larger world of assassins, spies, and villains. As a result, the Bond universe felt more expansive.

However, the Pierce Brosnan era of the series did seek to have some connective tissue between the films, largely due to the new version of M played by Judi Dench. 1995’s GoldenEye introduced the late great Robbie Coltrane as Valentin Dmitrovich Zukovsky, a former KGB agent that joins the Russian mafia. When Bond approaches Zukovsky for help, the morally dubious gangster notes that he’s still upset about their previous encounter. Zukovsky reveals that when they last crossed paths, Bond shot him in the leg and “stole his girl.”

This seems like nothing more than a passing bit of exposition, but it helps imply a more robust history to the Bond franchise that exists beyond the events of the films. Zukovsky is a fascinating character who puts Bond in a moral dilemma. Is he willing to trust someone of disreputable means if it could help save the world? Coltrane adds a great deal of humor to the film, and returned to the character for 1999’s The World Is Not Enough. Coltrane’s humorous presence created one of the best supporting characters in the entire Bond franchise.

Brosnan’s version of Bond is more of a charmer than anything; he’s hardly as ruthless as the version that Craig or Timothy Dalton portrayed. In some instances, it did not seem like Brosnan was able to take the character in a dark enough direction, and the stakes felt less convincing. Zukovsky shows that Bond has a moral complexity to him. There are demons from his past that are resurfacing, and the incident with Zukovsky is just one of them.

However, Zukovsky also shows Bond’s willingness to see the good in people. He reveals to Zukovsky that while he walked away from their previous battle with only a wounded leg, Bond easily could have killed him. Coltrane passes this off as a joke, but he shows that he realizes that he owes 007 a debt. As he gradually agrees to accept Bond’s bribe, Zukovsky shows some of the jovial spirit that had made Coltrane so endearing in the Harry Potter franchise. This is the sort of scene that could have been nothing more than a quick line explaining how Bond arranged a meeting with the Janus crime syndicate. Thanks to Coltrane, it’s a fun, memorable moment.

Coltrane reprised his role in the third Brosnan film, The World Is Not Enough. The 1999 Bond sequel is caught between two conflicting tones: it shows a darker side to Bond as he learns secrets about M’s past, but there’s a plethora of campy dialogue that comes from the subplot involving Dr. Christmas Jones (Denise Richards). Coltrane helps weave these two elements together. While seeing Zukovsky pop up again results in a humorous exchange, the implication is that Bond is desperate and cannot seek M’s assistance, because she has been captured by Elektra King (Sophia Marceau).

Zukovsky’s appearance helps flesh out Elektra’s operation. He informs Bond about the far-reaching nature of Elektra’s influence, and her impact on the gangster underworld. She is the rare female Bond villain who isn’t simply a love interest that betrays 007. Although Zukovsky had allied himself in order to provide his nephew Nikolai with a submarine, he realizes that she is hell-bent on world destruction. Seeing someone as well-versed in the criminal world as Zukovsky get genuinely frightened signified the danger that Elektra presented. Coltrane was able to take the character in a more serious direction.

The relationship between Bond and Zukovsky ends on a tragic note. After turning on Elektra by intimidating her, Zukovsky is fatally shot in the head. It’s a shocking moment of violence that’s grounded in reality, even though the action is taking place in an over-the-top command center plucked right out of Austin Powers. Before he dies, Zukovsky is able to use a cane gun to free Bond. It’s a great callback to their first exchange in GoldenEye; Zukovsky is finally returning the favor by saving Bond. The final nod from Coltrane results in a look of rage from Brosnan, and it’s a great piece of subtle acting.

Coltrane had a larger-than-life presence that allowed him to play eccentric, memorable characters. Although the Harry Potter series and shows like Cracker are often cited among his best work, Zukovsky is basically a nothing character on paper. The personability that Coltrane brought to the role added a subtext to Goldeneye and The World Is Not Enough that wouldn’t be there otherwise.