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Non-Review Review: The World Is Not Enough

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

The World is Not Enough is a mess of a film, even by the standards of the Bond films. It proposes some interesting ideas and has some neat concepts, but there’s also some really stupid moments thrown in as well. If Tomorrow Never Dies was Pierce Brosnan doing tribute to later Sean Connery films, this him stuck in homage to Roger Moore – a few smart and emotional moments scattered over a large serving of camp, like vanilla pods mixed into the most bland vanilla ice cream you could imagine. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s so wildly inconsistent that it’s far less satisfying than generally weaker instalments.

That's the crushing weight of expectation, right there...

I remember going to see The World is Not Enough in the cinema with my secondary school class. I’d organised for all of us to go to the cinema together, as sort of a group activity before everybody went off and did whatever they wanted to do on a Friday night. For teenagers in Sligo, there really wasn’t much apart from the cinema and knacker drinking. But I digress. Anyway, I remember walking out of the film (my second cinema trip to see a Bond film) disappointed. My young self wasn’t quite sure how to put it into words, but – although certain moments in the film were impressive and the stunts and performances were solid – it was as if the movie didn’t quite add up to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Let’s take the opening sequence. At thirteen minutes, it’s the longest introduction to a Bond film ever made. And it certainly feels like it. Reportedly, the original intro was just to feature the escape in Spain, with the attack on MI6 coming after the credits, but the director felt the Bilbao sequence would have seemed disappointing in isolation. To be honest, he’s correct – watching that bit, the audience gets the sense that it’s just exposition for something, rather than an action sequence of itself. I have no problem with Bond introductions which set up the plot to come, but it feels wrong for one to be dedicated to plot rather than establishing mood, character or action.

The intro really pushes the boat out...

So what we get is a convoluted intro which should be much brisker. I’m not overly impressed with the Thames chase sequence. Speedboat chases have also seemed to me to be Roger Moore stunt, perhaps tying back to the entertaining chase in Live And Let Die. However, there’s something especially campy about Bond’s one-person speedboat which is also submersible (and the fact he takes a moment under water to adjust his tie). It almost feels like a parody of a Bond chase sequence, as the villain takes out a series of ridiculous weapons to get rid of her pursuer (laser-sighted machine gun, minigun, grenade launcher), and it ends in a hot air balloon. The fact that it ends over the Millennium Dome brings another association to Roger Moore: the site of the Millennium Dome also served as the final resting place of Blofeld in For Your Eyes Only.

The theme song to the film is actually fairly okay. Shirley Manson manages to pull off a conventional-sounding Bond theme, complete with the sound of a big band, despite not necessarily having a conventional voice. It works much better than Sheryl Crowe on Tomorrow Never Dies, though I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps the wonderful lyrics, which capture the mood of the film at its best, are the reason. Either way, it’s not a spectacular theme, but it gets the job done.

That's a King-sized bed...

Let’s be honest, there was no shortage of gadgets and gizmos in GoldenEye or Tomorrow Never Dies – from belt buckles with hooks built in to remote-control BMWs. However, inflatable ski jackets and honest-to-god X-ray glasses push things just a little bit too far. I’m waiting for the scene with the Bond-shark repellent. Everything about the movie feels far too comfortable for its own good – almost smug. It’s as if, having produced two solid films, the crew don’t need to try anymore.

There’s a conscious return to formula. In the earlier two films, I appreciated the interaction between bond and Moneypenny as it happened about the office or in M’s car – it felt organic and natural. Here, we return to the standard formula of Bond returning from a mission and heavily flirting with Moneypenny in the outer office, before being interrupted by M on the intercom (who cracks wise about “affairs of state”). The bad guy has no difficulty getting a nuclear submarine, because it’s simply something no villain should be without. Similarly, there’s an incredibly gimmicky attack on a caviar warehouse later on featuring the most ridiculous attack helicopters ever (which are established early on in a manner which screams “will be used to try to kill James later on”) – and there’s no reason or justification for it, other than it might look cool and allows Robbie Coltrane to remark, “The insurance company is never going to believe this.”

My Russian Valentine...

Granted, when the gimmicks work, it’s not so noticeable. The aerial attack on Bond while he’s skiing (featuring what are best described as “flying jetskis”) is an exciting and effective sequence despite the fact that those para-gliding devices look absolutely nuts. The sequence even features Bond using his ski to damage one of his attackers’ parachutes, perhaps referencing the shot in The Spy Who Loved Me, where you can see the stuntman’s ski come undone and hit the chute. These moments, however, are few and far between. The closing battle on a sinking submarine is effective (if not exceptional), but a lot of the movie’s action beats fall flat.

This is the first time that CGI is noticeable in the franchise. While it would lead to quite a few disappointing moments in Die Another Day (tidal wave, anyone?), it’s also very apparent here, particularly during the aforementioned attack on the caviar warehouse. It sticks out like a sore thumb, especially given how reliant the franchise has been on physical stunts. In the documentaries included on the Inception blu ray, Christopher Nolan noted that the Bond franchise inspired the final snow level of the dreamscape – but he also lamented the series’ move away from practical effects to noticeable CGI. I think it’s safe to say that he was talking about this movie and the one which followed.

At this point, the franchise was a well-oiled machine...

On the other hand – ignoring the opening sequence’s issues – the movie’s first hour works quite well, before the movie falls to pieces under its own weight. The key to this segment of the movie is the relationship between Bond and Elektra King. King was taken hostage at a young age and managed to escape. Her father was recently murdered during an elaborate set-up, and Bond suspects that her kidnappers have returned. Barring the snow-based action sequence mentioned above, the first hour is relatively quiet. It works precisely because of this.

As Bond moves in close to Elektra, he begins to sense that she is a remarkable person, but a badly damaged one. The movie hints that herself and Bond are attracted precisely because they are both wounded. Elektra has been hurt deeply, but has not allowed the experience to define her – she won’t be afraid, even taking ridiculous risks. “There’s no point in living if you can’t feel alive,” she explains to Bond at one point, a sentiment he’s no stranger to himself. M was a friend of Elektra’s father, and warns Bond not to involve himself with the young woman in an inappropriate fashion – at its best moments, the film shows us Bond caught between his duty to protect the hieress and his own growing attraction.

Elektra-fying...

Sophie Marceau is great in the role, and has a wonderful chemistry with Brosnan. The hour that we spend with them could be awkward agony, distracting from the set pieces and big Bond moments – instead it is sweet relief. Being honest, I would much rather have had the second half of the film play out without the stereotypical bombast, and just deal with Bond, King and the terrorists. Unfortunately, the film remembers that it is an action movie and the delightful character moments are brushed aside in favour of the movie’s quota of special effects and stuntwork.

In this way, the movie seems to reference On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. George Lazenby’s sole turn in the role provided the Bond family motto which gives this film its title, but there’s more of that outing present here than one might expect. They each feature a spectacular snow-bound action sequence. The World is Not Enough even opens on Bond in a Swiss banker’s office, perhaps referencing a similar scene in Lazenby’s film. Both films devote a significant portion of the first hour to building up a romantic entanglement for Bond, one which feels more genuine than usual.

Bond just jumps on in...

Which brings us to another of the movie’s flaws – one which is located more in the second half than the first: Denise Richards as Dr. Christmas Jones. She’s frequently cited as one of the weakest Bond girls in the franchise’s history, and – though I find that a bit harsh – she’s not great, by any stretch of the imagination. It’s hard enough to accept a nuclear physicist who wanders around with her tattoos showing in a tank top and hotpants, but Richards doesn’t do anything except the bare minimum expected of a Bond girl. Sure, she’s never placed in direct peril or used as leverage over Bond, but she’s not displayed as the most competent sidekick in the world. Furthermore, she serves a pretty redundant plot function – there’s absolutely no reason for any Bond girl except Elektra in this film, and the presence of such obvious totty as Denise Richards distracts away from the dynamic between Bond and Elektra.

Robert Carlyle pops up as the Bond baddie in this particular film. He seems to meet just about every requirement for the position. A bullet wound has provided him with sufficient facial scarring to measure himself against Largo, Blofeld or Travelyn, and he also has his own little gimmick as well – Renard feels no pain. Now, you’d think that was a rather clever idea – one which juxtaposes the anarchist against both Bond and Elektra, who have numbed their own feelings in response to a cruel world. However, the movie doesn’t really do anything with that idea other than state it in a particularly heavy-handed manner. It ends up feeling like the type of gimmick one would expect from a Roger Moore villain, rather than a more classy and understated Sean Connery foe.

Hmmm... it's a disfigured, bald-y villain with a strange gimmick and vaguely foreign accent... that's original...

By the way, it’s great to see Judi Dench used here. I do like Dench as M, in that she grants the films a sense of class and refined taste. Here, M is more personally tied to the plot than in any Bond movie that I can think of off-hand – she’s a friend to the King family, and actually gets involved with the plot. Perhaps her involvement is one of the elements that feels like clutter, but it’s still good to give Dench something more to do than outlining mission briefings and such.

The film says goodbye to Desmond Llewelyn as the genius Q. Q gets a lot of the blame for those moments the film series has gone off the rails, but I think that’s a little unfair. That said, Llewelyn always reminded me of my grandfather, so I’ll admit I am not entirely objective – there was just something incredibly sweet about the character (and the actor, who once stated that he would be happy to play the role “as long as the producers want me and the Almighty doesn’t”). His gadgets and gizmos were only ever as good as the scripts that featured them, but Q was a wonderful feature of the films. At least the film afforded us the opportunity to hear him say “now pay attention, 007!” one last time.

Note: I’m about to discuss the film’s villains and motivations and such. While I’m normally fairly indifferent about spoiling a Bond film (as, you know, they’re ridiculously formulaic), I’ll make an exception in this case. I know there are mixed feelings about this particular twist, but I quite like it – and I’d hate to ruin one of the better aspects of this mess of a film. So, if you haven’t seen it, consider yourself warned.

And I think that's my Q...

The movie’s big reveal actually works for me. I think Elektra makes for a decent Bond villain. I love the idea, but the execution is disappointing – so I guess it averages out. I understand that Elektra is quite a controversial figure in Jame Bond fandom – there’s a bit of a dispute as to whether she counts as the unambiguous “big bad” or whether that title should go to Robert Carlyle as Renard. I tend to favour Elektra because she is very clearly the brains behind the evil plan, but also because she’s the more developed character and the one who gets important things like motivations. Furthermore, Renard is doing what he’s doing out of devotion for her, rather than vice versa – and his whole “feel no pain” bit feels more like a Bond henchman gimmick to me (and a Roger Moore henchman gimmick at that).

However, that’s a tangent. Elektra works well as a concept for the same reason that Sean Bean as Alec Travelyn worked well – she’s an evil version of Bond. It’s appropriate enough that M instructed Bond to “shadow” her, after all. The impact is reduced because she’s tied into the ridiculously convoluted mess of a final act with its crazy set pieces – and the fact that once she’s confirmed as evil, the movie stops paying attention to her.

The turning of the screw...

She also works well because she’s the very concept of a Bond girl twisted and distorted. Objectified and abused, treated as a pawn in a game played between Renard and her father, she wasn’t ever treated as a person in her own right. Although obviously not taken to the same extremes, Elektra endured the most cynical version of the treatment regularly afforded Bond girls – as if she was nothing more than leverage or a body to warm a bed. Bond was never brutal to his conquests, but he used them all the same. Elektra has had enough of being played, and seeks to be a player in her own right.

This is why the presence of Denise Richards in the movie is so damn infuriating. The character of Christmas Jones exists for the sole purpose of making sure Bond doesn’t climb into bed alone at the end of film, after he has dispatched Elektra. A braver movie would have acknowledged that Bond uses and abuses sexuality in the same way that Elektra does, and dared to question whether her anger was justified.

He always works best when his back's against the wall...

Her story should be, as her very name implies, a tragedy. Her death should be a powerful moment. Somebody should mourn her. Not necessarily the monster she became, but the woman she never got to be. Instead, she’s vanquished like some sort of dragon in a tall tower (Bond chasing her to the bed chamber at the top) before Bond moves on to a bigger action set piece. Bond is justifiably upset at how she used him (in fact, he kills her pretty much in cold blood), but the movie doesn’t dare to ask if it’s any different to how he has used countless other women over the years.

Brosnan is solid this time around, although the movie probably features his weakest leading performance. In the last two films, the Irish actor was able to sell us the cold-as-ice killer secret agent – one who could be as ruthless as he was charming. However, Brosnan struggles with the camp elements of the script – he seems almost as uncomfortable hamming it up as the audience is watching it. Although he’s great with Marceau, his version of Bond is much better when his vulnerabilities are implicit rather than expressly stated. He simply doesn’t do petty very well, as evident in the scenes where he begins to suspect Elektra is involved with Renard. “He knew about us,” he whines like a lovelorn teenager, “he knew about my shoulder, he knew exactly where to hurt me.

Is Bond still sharp after all these years?

However, he’s effective as a stone-cold killer. The movie itself, however, seems to have some difficulty with the idea, which is why Renard doesn’t work especially well as a contrast here. “I usually hate killing an unarmed man,” Bond warns Renard at one point – which seemingly glosses over the fact that the last two Bond baddies were killed by Brosnan while unarmed“Cold-blooded murder is a filthy business.” However, in order for us to accept that Renard is a counterpoint for Bond, we need to believe that Bond is easily capable of killing without remorse, rather than treating it as an “exception” to a general principle. That’s why his confrontation with Elektra is so effective. “You wouldn’t kill me,” Elektra goads him as she stands before him unarmed, “you’d miss me.” In response, Bond executes her with a single bullet at point-blank, observing, “I never miss.”

In many ways, the problem with the movie is that it’s so wildly inconsistent that the good moments easily get lost among the bad ones. That final moment between Bond and Elektra is a stunning one, but the film isn’t really too bothered with it. It should be the most important moment of the film, but it seems the movie is distracted by all the loud sounds and bright explosions going off either side of it. The world might not always be enough, but sometimes it’s too much.

We’ve got full reviews of all of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond films, if you want to check ‘em out:

The following bloggers have reviews of the film as part of James Bond January:

7 Responses

  1. yeah its all over the place in parts. boat chase is great though, as is Sophie Marceau. i disagree with you on M – she/he should be the person Bond gets his mission off, nothing else. Judi locked up in a jail just looked stupid.

    • It’s just half a good movie and half a terrible movie, melded together. I don’t mind M getting a field pass “just once”. I don’t want her to team up with Daniel Craig as a buddy cop (although… now I’ve said it out loud… I kinda do…), but it’s nice to give her a meatier role every once in a while.

  2. “My young self wasn’t quite sure how to put it into words..”

    And then, at that moment, a Stetson hat rolled across the plaza and landed at my feet, and I knew that I had been Chosen.

  3. I like TWINE. I do. I think the reason its bad qualities don’t bother me is because I’m not a Bond fan; plot is irrelevant in a series about a well-dressed guy hopping, ducking, and riding vehicles over obstacles. All I ask is that it moves at a fast clip (something Moore, for all his smugness, failed to do), and provides some crisp action.

    Brosnan trimmed the fat, and he got the goofiest chase scenes, so he’s my Bond.

    I also appreciate how TWINE develops its characters, in particular Dench, Merceau and Coltrane. (Interesting how Brosnan kept falling for the wrong woman in every movie.)

    • I have a friend who makes similar arguments. Giving Judi Dench something to do counters a lot of the script problems for him. I just think there’s a fundamental cowardice in the movie setting up all these big ideas and backing away from them. How much better would it be with Christmas Jones, for example, with Bond left alone following the death of Elektra King?

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