This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This one is a real curate’s egg (and not the Faberge’ type). A daring twist on the formula or a tired limp into the new millennium? The case for the prosecution: mostly dull action sequences, a Bond girl memorable for the wrong reasons, an underpowered climax, and a plot thinner than a dieting ghost. The case for the defense: a unique duo of villains, a welcome abundance of M, some really interesting ideas, and perhaps the most affecting of all James Bond’s kills.
The Villains: A couple to give a relationship counselor nightmares. He’s a slowly dying terrorist who can’t feel pain, she’s a seductive oil heiress with an overwhelming urge to nuke Istanbul. How did they meet? He held her hostage. Elektra King and Renard form a fascinating alliance, one quite different to any we’ve seen before. This isn’t your usual baddie – femme fatale deal but a relationship of sexual power plays and unrequited love, in which she uses him for her own ends. Certainly something different and different is always good.
The Girl: A bit of a turkey, although great for Bond girl bingo. Attractive? Yes. Implausible job? Nuclear physicist. Stupid name? And how. All our Christmases come at once with the lovely, and utterly improbable, Dr. Jones. Wheeled into the film to replace Elektra as the love interest, the writers don’t even bother to present Christmas with a backstory, or a personality, or many clothes. Her shorts are short and her T-shirts tight and white. As a character she’s about as real as Santa but in terms of beauty, Christmas is a cracker. And I promise I got them all out early.
The pre-title sequence is so long we’d better discuss it right away. Essentially there are two: the Bilbao banker, a brief interlude, and then the boat chase. It lasts nearly 15 minutes; indeed when the title song finally starts it’s something of a shock as you’ve forgotten all about it. The Bilbao scene would have made a fine, if unremarkable, pre-titles. And the baddies break Rule 1: never, ever save Bond’s life.
The need for a massive action sequence is a Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan phenomenon. Sean Connery’s pre-titles were normally low-key, and in Roger Moore’s best two (Live And Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun) he doesn’t even appear. The boat chase, while spectacular, seems to be trying a little hard. Although it is the first major action sequence to be set in London (unless someone tells me otherwise). In the decade of Cool Britannia, even James Bond finally came home.
Checked your watches? I make it 20 minutes in. It’s ladytime. At least this love scene vaguely has a point, as Bond seduces Doctor Molly (the successor to Professor Ingrid: Brosnan sure liked his authority figures) to pass him fit for action despite his damaged shoulder. Take a wild guess how much the shoulder affects Bond over the course of the film… You can almost hear the scrape of the pencil as it crosses “early shag” off the checklist.
And then exit Desmond Llewelyn. All bow. Although he made 17 appearances in total, I doubt Llewelyn clocked up the screentime of Judi Dench in seven. That, really, was the point. He was a wonderfully reassuring presence, a hot buttered crumpet of an actor, grumbling his way around the laboratory with five different Bonds in tow. No matter how lousy the film, Llewelyn’s Q delivered two minutes of joy.
Octopussy and License To Kill were his finest hours, although he played brilliantly off all the Bonds: the obvious pleasure Brosnan took in sharing a scene with him is particularly touching. His final appearance is beautifully pitched. Some gadgets demonstrated, a rare laugh shared with Bond at the expense of the new assistant, two final nuggets of advice and he’s off, descending through the floor and into cinematic folklore. Irreplaceable.
To distract from Q, Bond plays out a wonderfully fraught confrontation with M over her role in Sir Robert King’s murder. Advising your old schoolmate not to pay his daughter’s ransom: even for M that’s pretty cold. M’s embarrassed defiance as she admits to using Elektra King as bait is Dame Judi Dench at her finest. Easily as heartless as anything in Craig’s films; but those developed an irritating tendency to jump up and down yelling, “Look! Look how mean M’s being! Isn’t she a hardass!” In all four Brosnan films M is a complete hardass but we don’t have it shoved down our throats so.
Then we meet Renard: or rather his giant floating head. Which, of course, houses a bullet that stops him experiencing pain. And will one day kill but not yet – because it’s travelling very, very slowly. Clearly this is a bullet that likes to take its time, check out a place out. Just don’t go pogoing, Renard.
The bullet is funny: it seems to exist only because the filmmakers thought the villain needed a cool deformity because that’s what Bond villains have. The whole “can’t feel pain” deal never really surfaces: at no point does Renard do something dastardly only the pain-free man could accomplish. Okay, he picks up a really hot rock – but I’m not counting that. You’d have thought, having established this ridiculous idea, the film would at least make use of it. But no – aside from Elektra teasing Renard’s impotency, the bullet never really surfaces.
Shall we do Elektra and Renard now? It’s premature but why not. Their relationship is easily one of the most complex between two characters in a Bond film. The lovelorn terrorist and his manipulative captive turned girlfriend turned commander. The obvious (emotional) pain Renard feels from merely being in her presence is a dark and wonderful thing. Robert Carlyle doesn’t play one of the great villains but perhaps the most unique. He’s the only villain to truly know love. He’s the only villain for whom death is part of the plan. The bullet is a largely unnecessary distraction from a deeply interesting character. A recurring theme of The World Is Not Enough: fresh ideas are smothered by the smell of the same old.
The action is a major culprit. What’s remarkable about the action is its perfunctoriness. A good action sequence, regardless of its execution, should somehow drive forward the plot. Or shunt it forward, at the very least. The motorbike chase in Tomorrow Never Dies, while overlong, adds credible difficulty to the escape from Carver’s headquarters. Bond and Wai Lin really have to work for their safety; it also shows their growing partnership and Wai Lin’s impressive skillset. Meanwhile the tank melee in Goldeneye, apart from being enjoyably ludicrous, fulfils the dual function of rubber stamping Bond’s jailbreak while bringing him to Trevelyan. Now don’t get me wrong, neither chase is particularly revolutionary. But at least you can see the point of them.
Not so the action in The World Is Not Enough. Take the paragliding snowmobiles that attempt to assassinate Bond and Elektra. A not particularly thrilling chase ensues, Bond skiing through tree and over slope, evading grenades and continuous gunfire, picking his opponents off one by one. Four snowmobiles seem a very clumsy way to assassinate two lone skiers but then this is the nature of the Bond. But then you think – why is this even here?
What does the sequence bring to the film? It’s sandwiched between two interesting scenes: Bond meeting Elektra, and Bond visiting the great Valentin Zukovsky at his casino. You could easily travel from A to C without the detour via B. Yes, Bond sort of gets a lead by cutting some parachute of a snowmobile (in midair with his ski pole, not remotely implausibly) but he already knew Renard was the threat. No, the snowmobiles only exist because someone realised there hadn’t been an action sequence for 20 minutes and the audience might lose interest. Filmmaking by the quota: “lookout chaps, we’re five minutes short of the required dose of bang!”
Even worse is the helicopter attack on Zukovsky’s factory. Firstly, why buzzsaw-wielding helicopters? Having just discovered Bond lives, Elektra has the element of surprise. He doesn’t know you’re coming! Send in a five man hit squad who know their stuff. Or bomb the place. But buzzsaw-wielding helicopters? You gonna slice him in two from midair?
But the film must go loud because it hasn’t gone loud for X many minutes and the kids are growing restless. Plus this will make a great level on the computer game! That last sentence is only part a joke. Brosnan was the console Bond. Goldeneye is remembered as one of the great Nintendo 64 games. From 1997-2002 seven separate James Bond titles were released, the majority using the likeness of Brosnan. Indeed 2004’s Everything Or Nothing, featuring both the likeness and voice of Brosnan, could technically be considered his swansong in the role.
The genres blend into each other. Which is great for a game, bad for a film. Never is this more apparent than the caviar factory, the helicopters appearing as though Brosnan just activated a checkpoint. During a shootout, various enemies poke their heads over some cover as Bond shoots from side to side. It looks just like somebody playing on the arcade. Exactly like it! Although I’m sure the resemblance is unintentional, it’s still pretty damn telling.
Yet, to return to the initial point, why do we need the helicopter attack? The film is in exactly the same place after it as before. I’ll tell you why. Because it’s been ages since Bond and Christmas went after the bomb, and we’ve had a lot of Renard mooching over Elektra. Something needs to go bang, godammit! Plus it lets the car show off its missiles. In all good toy shops now.
I’ll stop beating this drum now but here’s my final thought. Next time you watch The World Is Not Enough, imagine both the snowmobiles and the helicopters were taken out. Then decide if these omissions would harm or enhance your viewing experience. And would you even notice if they weren’t there.
The one genuinely successful slice of action occurs at the underground bunker in Kazakhstan. Why? Because stuff actually happens. Bond finally encounters Renard and picks up a crucial tell with the “can’t feel alive” line (two tells if you count the shoulder: fine leaping off mountains, but can’t take one little squeeze…). Renard steals the nuclear bomb. Christmas learns Bond’s true identity and fully enters the plot. Pop out for a cup of tea during that and you wouldn’t have a clue on your return.
You’d also have missed a wonderfully played faceoff between Bond and Renard. Unusually, Bond doesn’t conceal his detestation of his enemy (he’s more composed facing treacherous best mate Alec, and Eliot the murderer of his ex-girlfriend). He jams the gun against Renard’s temple like a man who truly wants to pull the trigger. The dialogue is slightly gnomic – “A man tires of being executed,” quips Renard – but the best Bond dialogue is often thus.
One of my favorite lines is Bond’s snarled “Cold blooded murder is a filthy business.” Tell that to Davidov, shot unarmed from the boot of the car. Still, it offers an intriguing insight into the Brosnan Bond’s psyche. He executes plenty but normally for revenge: Trevelyan, Kaufman, Carver. Does the line deliberately foreshadow the death of Elektra? And do we take Bond at face value? Up to a point. Brosnan kills not in cold-blood but with a hot-head; I could well believe he broods over the death of Elektra, and perhaps even Alec, on lonely nights at the bar. While you know Connery forgot Professor Dent the second he left the room.
Incidentally, Renard and his escaping henchmen fulfil a recent villainous obligation by machine-gunning civilians from a jeep. Both Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies have villains machine-gunning people; The World Is Not Enough‘s equivalent is far more fleeting but much less integral to the plot. Welcome to the 90s.
Making the Bond girl the villainess is an inspired idea – and Elektra King an inspired character. Possessive, narcissistic, ruthless, and quite a few Daddy issues in the old closet – the lady really leaps off the screen. Sophie Marceau is alluring and deadly, a true Black Widow, fatal to all those who love her. The quadrumvirate (sorry) of Elektra, Renard, Bond and M runs as deep as anything in the series. Renard’s conversation with the jailed M – in which they blame each other for corrupting Elektra – couldn’t occur in any other film. Ditto Elektra’s teasing torture of Bond: all the more compelling for the history between the pair, and the fact, deep down, each feels the other could be won over. Brilliant ideas flow throughout The World Is Not Enough and occasionally break the surface. That’s why the tired, textbook stuff is so frustrating.
At least M gets to strut her stuff. For the first time in her tenure M goes into the field and is promptly kidnapped. Her incarceration leads to that wonderful exchange with Renard and M proving her credentials by sending Bond a signal through an alarm clock. (Still no idea how.) Post-Skyfall, M’s role no longer looks as substantial but she drives the plot in a manner far more nuanced than her last bow – where “kill M!” becomes the whole film. She’s indirectly responsible for both her monsters: she ordered Renard’s death and prevented Elektra’s ransom. To its credit, The World Is Not Enough doesn’t overplay this theme. But shame on the writers for omitting a Bond-M debrief after their shared ordeal; instead it’s back to the panto as Bond and Christmas are spied a’loving.
So then, Christmas Jones. The nuclear scientist played by Denise Richards. I don’t think she quite deserves the opprobrium heaped on her, although I certainly understand why it’s heaped. Having Kelly from Wild Things spout off about weapons-grade uranium or whatever doesn’t exactly add credibility to anything. It isn’t (exactly) that Richards is a bad actress; more that she’s badly miscast. Although certain lines do cause me to wince a little: the pouting “Are you just hoping for a glimmer?” introduction and the oh-so-serious “James, no! It’s too dangerous!” within the flooded submarine. What else is the man meant to do? Stay there and drown? Wait for Renard to blow you up? Options are hardly numerous.
My biggest problem with Christmas is she dilutes the impact of Elektra. As soon as Bond expresses misgivings about Miss King the shock is gone. Why? Because a replacement girl was wheeled on stage five minutes previously. It’s as if Bond knew the logic of his own film: hold on, two women, they can’t both be the girl – the first one must be bad.
Once again, imagine something. That Christmas didn’t exist. Aside from the lack of heartwarming John Lewis adverts, the whole Elektra betrayal would be ten times more shocking. Even once she turned bad, without the safety net of Doctor Jones the audience would presume her eventual repentance. Surely Bond wins her over before she breaks his neck? And then she kills Valentin and suddenly the film falls from under you. If only The World Is Not Enough was willing to break a few rules.
We do get a welcome return for Robbie Coltrane as Valentin Zukovsky. He’s a more genial presence this time out, a slight shame: I loved the unease true between the two old rivals in Goldeneye. But the old rogue still steals most scenes. I’m glad Valentin was killed off – the character deserved a proper end. Too many recurring allies just vanish. Valentin goes out on his shield.
Fortunate the mortally wounded Russian is so accurate with his shooting stick. An inch either way and no escape for Bond. Although my favorite “what if” moment occurs just after Bond’s killed Elektra, when he dives onto the submarine. He gains access by kicking down a sailor in the act of closing the hatch. Literally one second later and the hatch is locked, no entry for Bond. Goodbye Istanbul.
Elektra’s death is one of the highpoints of the Brosnan era. After Goldeneye, we’re reduced to tantalising glimpses of what might have been. Bond’s impotent fury with Elektra – not just for what she’s done, but what she’s about to make him do – smoulders out from the screen. I love the steely “I won’t ask again: call him off,” desperate to exert control, and the bellowed “Call him off!” as Bond realizes how little he has. Elektra’s “you wouldn’t kill me, you’d miss me” feels slightly clunky but does set up one of the great lines of the series: “I never miss.” Uttered not smugly, or coldly, but almost sadly: just this once he might have wanted to. And the beautiful moment Bond brushes the hair from her forehead, and we wonder what this death might cost him in the lonely nights ahead. As I said already, Brosnan kills hot, not cold.
The submarine climax is a little weak. However, kudos for trying something different. Christmas Jones and her wet white T-shirt hardly fit the gravity of the situation (why on Earth did Renard bring her anyway?). But Bond swimming along the side of the submarine, racing against his own lungs, feels far more brave and spy-esque than any number of stunts or gunfights. But there’s a lot of pushing that gold tube into the reactor, and Bond thwarts the plan and kills the villain by attaching a nozzle then pushing a button, never the most satisfying of solutions. Plus I have no idea what either nozzle or button did.
We’ll brush over the Christmas jokes, of which “isn’t it time you unwrapped your present” is easily the most wince-inducing. And, I guess, Christmas only coming once a year is pretty bad; but I have a soft spot because I never got it when young and now it makes me feel grown up.
Right. No space for a conclusion: and no need. The points have been made. Close, in places, but ultimately no cigar. Onto the next millennium. I hear they have invisible cars there…
Best Bit: A surprisingly tough call. Q’s exit? Renard and M? It’s got to be Bond shooting Elektra, and “I never miss”, and the stroke of her forehead.
Worst Bit: Another tough call. The final Bond Christmas scene, and M watching in the office, gets it all wrong.
Final Thought: Never let them see you bleed.
Bonus Final Thought: Always have an escape route.