Sunday, August 9, 2009

James Bond review: The World Is Not Enough (1999)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Neither is Denise Richards.

BOND, JAMES BOND: Brosnan continues his run of stellar performances. He owns the character at this point. The one innovation here is that Bond is nursing a dislocated shoulder through the whole film - the Chinatown touch, and a welcome one, adding intimations of physical vincibility to the emotional vulnerability Brosnan has already established in the character. But Brosnan’s 007 is as intense and grim as ever - the producers were resisting the temptation to lighten Bond’s demeanor – even as he handles the one-liners with panache.

That being said, the movie feels like rather a departure from the last two, with less ironic distance. This film sports a very involved plot that expects itself to be taken entirely seriously. The best Bonds walk a fine line, balancing a subtle sense of self-parody with a brash confidence in their own utter coolness. In this one, the irony was so downplayed that for a while I feared it was crossing into overkill (MI6’s Scottish headquarters? really?). It’s closest to Thunderball in that respect. And in the end, just like Thunderball, this movie ends up succeeding because of the ambitions of its plot. It works. It drags you along pell-mell.

What Makes Bond Bond: “How far is that rig from the terminal? And how fast is it traveling?” Bond can solve word problems – in his head.

What Makes Pierce Brosnan Pierce Brosnan: The X-ray Spex. The best Bond gadget, bar none, but watch how Pierce handles it: he knows he’s embodying the fantasy of every boy who ever perused the back pages of a comic book in the ‘70s, when they still had ads for such things (right next to the Sea Monkeys), and he makes the most of it, leering at the girls. But he still has class.

BAD GUYS: For the first time in Brosnan’s reign, the producers really play with the formula here. And in real time, when I saw this in 1999, I was confused by it. Robert Carlyle’s Renard was billed as the villain, probably so as not to give away Elektra’s surprise. But if you see the movie expecting Renard to be the main villain and Bond’s opposite, you’ll be disappointed: these are expectations the character can’t support. Renard’s kind of tough, but not very charismatic.

But eventually you realize that he’s not the overarching villain of the piece - Elektra is. And she’s a great villain - a touch of sadism, a touch of madness, to complement her grandiose schemes. Her schemes, meanwhile, given their personal and local nature, are a refreshing variation on the typical rule-the-world Bond plot.

Once Elektra’s given pride of place in the pantheon of nasties, Renard makes more sense - he’s really the henchman. And he’s a good one, menacing but not overpowering. And, like his mistress, he’s a complex character: by the end, we’ve seen him tortured by the suspicion that, deep down, Elektra prefers Bond. Not to mention the implication that his lack of tactile sensation equals impotence. By the time he dies, we feel sorry for him.

GRATUITOUS SEX: GS3 again, three for three. In addition to Elektra and Dr. Jones, we get, of course, the MI6 doctor (Serena Scott Thomas) who clears him for duty. In the Close But No Cigar department, there’s also Maria Grazia Cucinotta.

Elektra King, as we’ve seen, is the main villain in TWINE, but she’s also the main Bond Girl. She’s a damsel in distress for the first half of the movie and a dangerous megalomaniac for the second. The very definition of a femme fatale. Sophie Marceau is marvelous: she’s a world-class beauty, and a great actress: she does an excellent job of conveying the complex feelings of this character. She’s bent on destruction, but right up to the end there are hints that she wants to be saved (?) - the smile she flashes when Bond escapes at the end and begins to truly foil her plans suggests that maybe she still hopes he’ll take her away from all this, or at least come back and make love to her again.

In contrast we have Denise Richards, surely the poorest choice for a Bond Girl in recent memory, and possibly overall. She’s undeniably sexy, but in a plastic bimbo sort of way that’s utterly inappropriate for the Bond movies. And she can’t act worth a damn. She’s utterly unconvincing as a “nuclear physicist,” but she doesn’t compensate (like, say, Lois Chiles in Moonraker) with any particular style or flair. She’s not even very good at the sort of lame plot-advancing dialogue she has to handle. The character’s name (Christmas Jones) did allow for a couple of good double entendres at the end, though.

AND VIOLENCE: The precredit sequence pretty much takes that part of the formula as far as it can go. Not one but two great action sequences in not one but two glamorous locations. When the opening credits finally start you sit up in surprise, forgetting that the movie proper hadn’t already started.

But my favorite action sequence this time around is the shootout at the caviar factory. Lots of meaningless destruction in an unusual locale, and it takes 007’s obsession with fine dining to a logical extreme.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Those X-ray Spex. Did I say how brilliant they are? And Brosnan looks fantastic in them, to boot.

Other than that, the gadgets kind of recede into the background in this film. A fancy new car, which is used once and then destroyed spectacularly. There is big news here, though: a farewell to Q. Odd how they planned it into the script, not only introducing a potential replacement but giving Desmond Llewellyn that eerie exit. Q will be missed, but they couldn’t have made a better choice for a successor than John Cleese. He does frosty disapproval perfectly, and his gift for physical comedy held great promise for future Q sequences. Too bad he only appeared once more.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Bilbao, London, Scotland, Azerbaijan, Turkey. One of the more peripatetic Bonds.

ETC.: Another masterpiece of a title sequence, exploiting the psychedelic and sensual qualities of light and oil… Garbage’s theme song is a worthy successor to Sheryl Crow’s, all old-school seduction despite the techno flourishes evident elsewhere on the soundtrack. No song over the end credits, however, which is disappointing… The title, of course, is a nice nod to the fanboys, as you have to have seen OHMSS to really get it… The regulars are in fine fettle, and it’s nice to see Tanner and Robertson back again; M gets to do some fieldwork, even, which is a nice touch. And Zukovsky makes a welcome return; it’s a pity they killed him off, though. Don’t know why they did that. In my alternate universe, where Brosnan made three more Bonds, Zukovsky comes back at least twice, to great effect each time… The only real weak spot is Denise Richards, but she’s enough to dock the film a point…

RATING: 006.

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