Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1999)

19. The World is Not Enough

Pierce Brosnan had two successful runs as Bond under his belt. In 1999, his third go-around as the secret agent rolled onto movie screens. Peter Jackson and Joe Dante, who probably would have made very interesting films, were considered to direct. Michael Apted, director of “Nell” and “Gorillas in the Mist,” eventually got the job. Apted’s choice would start the tradition of directors better known for prestige dramas handling the Bond sequels. Several titles were considered, from the not-bad (“Dangerously Yours”) to the utterly generic. (“Fire and Ice.”) Eventually the much better “The World is Not Enough,” the Bond family motto as revealed in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” was chosen. The reviews weren’t much better then last time but the box office was great, the movie out-grossing any previous entries into the long running series.

A long-time friend of M's, billionaire oil baron Robert King, is killed at MI-6, his body exploding unexpectedly. A radical terrorist named Renard, unable to feel pain because of a bullet lodged in his brain, is connected to the crime. James Bond is sent to protect King’s daughter Elektra, a former target of Renard and assumed to be a future target too. Bond’s investigation leads him to an oil pipe in Turkey, Elektra’s bed, and a plutonium mine in Kazakhstan. An encounter with Renard leaves his trust in Elektra shaken, the spy uncovering a sinister plot. 

“GoldenEye’s” opening credits worked fairly well but occasionally bumped into camp. The opening for “Tomorrow Never Dies” leaped in full-force. “The World is Not Enough” probably features the best opening of the Brosnan era, even if I still have some reservations about it. The quasi-nude women dancers are present. This time, they are bathed in oil, an impressive image. When not doing that, the dancers form themselves into a rough globe shape, which is less impressive. Still, it’s a pretty good opening. Garbage, a band I like, provides the theme song. Shirley Manson’s vocals are a rough fit for the usual Bond style. However, she adapts nicely, her huskier voice bringing a sensual quality to the lyrics. The music is fairly forgettable though, the song feeling a bit like a B-side.

Over his previous two films, I’ve had a lot of problems with Pierce Brosnan’s take on Bond. His one-liners were lame and his delivery of them were too winking. The romances were one-sided and limp. Though excellent during action scenes, his Bond seemed to lack an inner life. “The World is Not Enough,” for all its flaws, is the first time I’ve really liked Brosnan’s Bond. His physicality remains a high-light, Bond nursing a battered shoulder throughout the entire film. The character is more involved in the plot, figuring out the double-crosses and parsing out the villains’ plan. Most importantly, Brosnan’s Bond seems really pissed off this time. He seems to take the betrayal personally. This brings a visceral quality to his performance, which makes his moments of cold-blooded murder even more impressive. For the first time, Brosnan seems to take the character’s status as a blunt instrument seriously, allowing him to finally rise above the glib action hero he played in the last two films. (The one-liners are still pretty shitty though.)

In the sixties, the James Bond series was the innovator. In the seventies, the franchise desperately chased popular trends. In the eighties, Bond mostly coasted on two decades of good will. In the nineties, each film is seemingly inspired by a hot-button political issue of the day. “GoldenEye” was about the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. “Tomorrow Never Dies” was about unethical manipulation of the news. “The World is Not Enough” is about, drum please, oil! A few years more and that issue would have been even more relevant. Oil barons are quite a bit scarier then media moguls. However, the topic is just set-dressing for a usual bad guy scheme. Once again, the film’s villain intends to engineer a disaster that will benefit their business and make them filthy rich, at the cost of thousands of lives. This is, by my count, the fourth time the series has used that plot. It’s really making me miss the genocidal super-maniacs of the seventies.

The role of the film’s traditional Bond villain is filled by Renard. The character has a potentially fascinating gimmick. He’s an anarchist terrorist who, during a previous run-in with MI-6, got a bullet in the head. The bullet will kill him eventually but, for the time being, it has made him unable to feel pain. That’s right, “The World is Not Enough” could have been James Bond vs. Darkman. However, the movie mostly squanders Renard’s excellent quirk. His inability to feel pain rarely comes up. He even winces during the fight scenes, suggesting he can still feel a lot. The movie doesn’t even make much of his status as a man with nothing to loose. In the end, he’s just another brawny henchman for Bond to punch. Robert Carlyle had already played terrifying psychopaths in “Trainspotting” and “Ravenous.” So he’s well cast, even if the script doesn’t give him as much to do as those movies did.

The most interesting thing about “The World is Not Enough” is that its main Bond Girl and its main Bond Villain are actually the same character. Elektra King is first introduced as the traumatized victim of a vicious kidnapping. When Bond meets her, she is a strong businesswoman, determined to keep the social peace while pushing the company ahead. Though sent to protect her, Bond naturally sleeps with her. The two share real romantic chemistry, with King’s traumatic history making her a more complex character. However, turns out, she’s the bad guy, the mastermind behind the evil plot. In a surprising turn of events, she has been manipulating Bond all along. Sophie Marceau is equally adapt at playing a innocent victim, a purring sex kitten, and a sociopathic villainess. And she looks great while doing it.

As Elektra slides into the villain role, the movie has a more traditional Bond girl waiting in the wings. And that’s another major problem with “The World is Not Enough.” Denise Richards’ casting as Christmas Jones the nuclear scientist has been widely, rightly mocked. Richards has the body of a porn star which wouldn’t necessary be a problem if she didn’t have the delivery of a porn star too. Her line-readings are flat and disinterested. She doesn’t come off as a knowledgeable scientist. Instead, she acts like a petulant teenage girl. This is most obvious during her initial interaction with Bond. Her contribution to the plot is limited. The character is mostly a minor thought in the second half of the film. Compared to the electrifying Marceau, Richards sinks like a stone.

If nothing else, the Brosnan era of Bond is still full of great action scenes. The opening is devoted to a long boat chase over the river Thames. Bond, driving an experimental, rocket-powered jet-ski, dives under bridges and leaps over streets. The conclusion to that opening, with Bond dangling from a hot air balloon, is great as well. Because every 007 deserves one, there’s a snow-bound skiing scene. The villain pursue our hero in parachuting snow-mobiles, a neat idea. Renard locks Bond in a mine shaft about to explode. This forces a rushed escape, which builds some decent suspense and has a nicely exciting conclusion. Early on, Bond sees a helicopter equipped with a giant saw blade. As you’d expect, this same device is used against him later. The copters chase the spy around a dock, leading into some dynamic leaping, running, and igniting gas veins. It’s not exceptional stuff but it’s all decently entertaining stuff.

“The World is Not Enough” essentially features two climaxes, one far more compelling then the other. Bond is captured, as he is in every movie. For the first time in a while, he’s tortured too. King ties the spy into an execution-style garrotte. As she turns the crank, Bond seems in genuine pain, the character’s life in actual danger. All the while, Elektra mocks him. Once he escapes, he gives the femme fatale an especially brutal send-off. This is the true climax of “The World is Not Enough,” the film’s best aspects coming to a head. However, the master plan still has to be decimated. So Bond battles Renard inside a sinking submarine, the second time in a row the final fight has taken place over water. Having the sub sink, forcing both the hero and the villain to climb up the walls, is a nice touch and makes for a mildly creative fight scene. However, Renard is not as interesting a threat as King. The plot of nuclear detonation is not as directly concerning as Bond’s neck in a vice.

The use of gadgets is less prominent here then in “Tomorrow Never Dies.” In the first scene, Bond detonates a bomb via a switch in a pair of glasses. His watch shoots a grappling hook, that isn’t much help. An inflatable globe protects the agent from an avalanche, probably the silliest device in the film. The most visible gadget is, yet again, the cool car. Once more, it’s a BMW. This time it features a fold-out missile launcher, an admittedly cool touch. “The World is Not Enough” would be the final Bond film for Desmond Llewelyn, who sadly died in a car wreck not long after the movie was released. Fortuitously, the film includes a farewell to Llewelyn. He trades some barbs with Bond for the last time before disappearing down a secret passageway. It’s a fitting tribute to an actor who has been with the series since nearly the beginning, outlasting four Bonds, and always being a joy to watch.

The movie also introduces Q’s replacement. You’d think John Cleese’s introduction to the series would be a positive, considering the actor is usually charming in most anything. Disappointingly, Cleese is in clown mode, prat-falling around the lab and not setting himself up as a promising replacement for Llewelyn. It’s not the only ridiculous scene in the film. Brosnan and Richards slide down a oil pipe, connecting with a bomb also in the pipe. There’s no sense of speed in this scene. It’s apparent the actors are on a green screen, the scene filling fake and weightless. Robbie Coltrane returning as Valentin Zukovsky is actually a plus. He helps Bond out in a key scene and it’s nice to see the actor again. However, Coltrane running from CGI saw blades or swimming in a pool of caviar are not welcome sights.

So “The World is Not Enough” is an uneven affair. In its favor, Brosnan has finally started to grow on me as Bond. The action remains strong. The main villain is fascinating. Against it is a routine plot. The secondary villain wastes his potential. The main love interest is a total wash. Most of the attempts at comic relief are embarrassing. It’s an improvement over “Tomorrow Never Dies” but just barely. Both films feature many of the same problems. When compared, both are also fairly forgettable. [Grade: C+]


[] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

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