21 October 2012

ABONDON ALL HOPE

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.

THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH
Directed by Michael Apted
Written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Bruce Feirstein,
from a story by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade

Premiered 8 November, 1999

As one of the few Bond movies with a significant enough twist that it can actually be spoiled, I think it's only fair to say that there is a major SPOILER WARNING in effect. Though nothing I could do would spoil the movie any worse than the people who made it.

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
Perhaps realising that they had inadvertently made one of the worst James Bond movies ever, the filmmakers compensated with an unbelievably awesome opener - and even that's something of an accident, for it was initially much shorter and worse before it was decided that nothing exciting had happened and the first big action scene needed to be brought forward, resulting in what, with a running time over 14 minutes, is the longest pre-title sequence in the franchise as of this writing.

Agent 007, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) has been sent to Bilbao, Spain to retrieve money from a Swiss banker, who happens to be an extremely good friend of the head of British intelligence, M (Judi Dench). This isn't nearly as shady as I just made it sound, because there are actual strategic things involved that aren't worth bothering with, but the fact that M is willing to make possibly dubious choices on behalf of her old school buddy will be important.

Bond is able to retrieve the money, leaving several dead bodyguards in his wake, and returns to London, where he hands the money to its rightful owner, Sir Robert King (David Calder), only realising just too late that the money has been contaminated with some kind of inflammable substance, and just before King leaves the MI6 headquarters, his briefcase goes up in an explosion big enough to knock a hole in the side of the building. Infuriated at this attack on his very home, Bond gives chase to the assassin (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), with whom he already tangled back in Bilbao, and what follows, with the aid of a super fancy boat snatched from a petulant Q (Desmond Llewelyn) is a chase down the Thames of the most exciting choreography, scored by David Arnold with the most rousing iterations of Monty Norman's 007 theme, involving several terrific stunts, and being all around fucking amazing. If I am not mistaken, it's the first full-on action sequence in a Bond film to take place on English soil, and it's a real motherfucker.

The writing that gets us to the point the chase begins is a tad rickety, all right, but not anything film-breaking; and the chase itself is, arguably, the action highlight of the Brosnan era of Bond. Treasure it. It does not presage anything to follow.

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Rating: 4.5 Union Jack Parachutes


TITLE SONG
Now, see this, Sheryl Crow's flimsy and unlikable title track for Tomorrow Never Dies? This is how you do a '90s style James Bond theme song: not that "The World Is Not Enough", written by Arnold and Bond theme lyric specialist Don Black is one of the catchiest or best songs in the Bond canon, but at least it's aware of what makes the best ones work: the slinkiness, the suggestive teasing quality, the light wordplay. And it's brought to life rather well by Garbage, an alt-rock group whose work prior to 1999 does not suggest anything like this - I have no particularly strong dislike of "I Think I'm Paranoid" or "Only Happy When It Rains", but the last word I'd use describe either of them is "slinky". And yet, lead singer Shirley Manson finds exactly the right spin on coy lines like "The world is not enough / But it's such a perfect place to start, my love", making the whole song flirty and a little smokey without giving up the instrumentation that clearly positions the song in its era. Certainly above average, if not quite memorable enough to be top-tier.

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Rating: 3.5 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
And thus did Daniel Kleinman continue his march to become ever more like Maurice Binder, his august forebear: the titles for The World Is Not Enough, in contrast to the more conceptual, even narrative titles for GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies, consist of pretty much nothing but naked women dancing in silhouette. Which is hardly a bad thing, except that the plot-inspired hook for the images this time around is that the woman are formed out of oil, and if there's one thing that can make a naked dancing woman less sexy, it's to form her out of a viscous, oozing substance.

That said, the computer animation is better here than in either of the two preceding movies, as only makes sense; the oily content of the sequence pairs incredibly well with the song, and there's a fun visual gag where a field of oil derricks pump rhythmically up and down, which obviously is what derricks do in nature, but in a Bond film, surrounded by naked women, and all told, it's enjoyably naughty, let's say. In toto: a letdown after the last two, but still solid work.

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Rating: 3.5 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
I'll say this much right off: the one thing you can't accuse returning writer Bruce Feirstein or newbies Robert Wade & Neal Purvis, who'd be involved with the writing of every subsequent Bond film through at least 2012, is that they rested on formula, like the last two films had (Bond + World Dominating Megalomaniac = Explosions). In fact, the film is almost as thorough in its exploration of alternate narrative possibilities for Bond as Licence to Kill, still the reigning champion as Least Typical Bond Movie Ever. The difference is that Licence to Kill is, generally speaking, effective. The World Is Not Enough is, generally speaking. not.

M is so distressed at the death of the man with whom she read law at Oxford, that she assigns Bond to protect the murdered King's daughter Elektra (Sophie Marceau), because there's nothing that says "top notch spy thriller" like a tortured literary reference that doesn't even make sense given where the plot goes, the heir to his Azerbaijani oil empire. This is only after Bond manages to sex the pretty physician Dr. Molly Warmflash (Serena Scott Thomas), who I am heartbroken to report is never named such onscreen, into giving him a clean bill of health despite a busted-up shoulder. All that is known at this point is that the culprit is almost certainly ex-KGB killer Viktor Zokas, better known as Renard (Robert Carlyle), who at one point kidnapped Elektra and was foiled, after a bungled MI6 attempt, when she managed to kill two of her guards. Flying to Azerbaijan to protect her, Bond stops one attempt on her life, and starts hunting for Renard.

With help from Russian mafioso Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane), last seen in GoldenEye, Bond fallows the trail to Kazakhstan, where Renard is busy stealing a nuclear warhead from a missile silo where a team under the leadership of Dr. Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) are working to contain toxic radiation. Renard blows up the silo with the spy and the physicist inside, but they escape - sadly, Dr. Christmas Jones will be with us for a long time yet - and in the process Bond starts to piece together the truth: Elektra King fell in love with Renard during her time in his captivity, arranged to have her father murdered, and is presently working to secure the only pipeline between East and West, and thus become the world's greatest oil baron. He does not demonstrate any of this to M in time to prevent her from being taken prisoner by Elektra - who, on top of everything else, has a huge chip on her shoulder about the way MI6 dealt with with imprisonment by Renard, before she fell for him - but he's able to fake his and Dr. Christmas Jones's death, thereby getting in close enough to Elektra's base in Istanbul to save the day.

There's nothing obviously wrong with this, and like I said, the fact that it's a bit twistier than your typical Bond scenario has to be counted in its favor. The devil, as he so often turns out to be, is in the details: the closer you get to the script at a beat-by-beat level, the more arbitrary and ad hoc the entire affair is, with far too many scenes that don't hold up to even rudimentary scrutiny for their internal logic, and while the script tries to obviate the very worst of it - M's stupefyingly out-of-character behavior and consistently wrong choices - by making it clear just how broken up she is & thus how cluttered her thinking has become, it feels like exactly one thing: a tortured attempt to give newly-minted Oscar winner Judi Dench more to do. Dench herself puts over a lot of this, but she of course cannot do anything about the plonking fetch-quest feeling of the middle third, when Bond is tracking Renard, and a film that was already sort of flimsly-conceived flowers into outright tediousness.

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Rating: 2 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAIN
The reveal that Elektra King is the big bad throws everything else into disarray: is she, the apparent Other Bond Girl, actually the Supervillain, making Renard the Henchman? Or is he the Villain, she the Other Girl, and there is no Henchman in the muddle of bad guys who are featured in just one or two scenes before dying?

I've elected to go the former route, because it's sort of thrilling to see the series with its first-ever female Big Bad, and it's clearly more defensible by a strict reading of the script. So, having isolated our villain, what do we think of her?

A big ol' "eh" is what. She's not sharply-etched enough to rank among the greats, owing in no small part to the amount of time the film has to spend hiding her identity; she's also got too many individual bits and pieces that work - strangling Bond to death to give him an erection, so she can fuck him in his death spasms, is certainly the exact kind of kinky detail I wanted from the first female supervillain in the franchise - to write her off completely. Complicating matters is that, while she's a decent villain, she's a completely unforgivable romantic interest, which has more to do with Marceau's noncommittal performance than anything else, so by the time she becomes interesting halfway through we - I, at least - have already long since given up on her, and it takes a lot of extra time to redeem her. Still, she's a relatively high point for a movie that spend most of its time below sea level.

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Rating: 2.5 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
Oh my royal screaming fuck, Dr. Christmas Jones. It's not a coincidence that at the moment she appears, a movie that has been sort of bland and stiff plunges into wretchedness from which it does not ever recover. It's easy to put most of the blame on Denise Richards, and frankly, perfectly fair as well: an actress who was, two years prior, cast in in the satiric Starship Troopers as an ace pilot specifically because she was so visibly not smart enough to be an ace anything, has no business being cast as a nuclear fucking scientist, who gets to blithely say "Yeah, but he's no atomic scientist" of Bond, without setting the entire movie on fire because of the rampaging hypocrisy of that one moment. As written, the character is already a blank who seems to have complicated the writing process just by her presence ("Let's make her a nuclear scientist!" "But then we need to have a scene set at a nuclear facility." "Hmm, well, shove it in, we'll do something with it"), and her name is self-evidently the result of a joke that nobody could stand to let go despite it being the worst thing ever said by any person in the history of sound cinema, and that was all there before Richards joined in the fun; but in Richards's anti-capable hands, this character reached her worst possible expression. I hope Dr. Christmas Jones is grateful for Miss Goodnight from The Man with the Golden Gun; only that character's Keystone Kops level of incompetence keeps our present subject from easily holding the title of All-Time Worst Bond Girl.

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Rating: 1 White Bikini


THE HENCHMAN
Robert Carlyle! As a Bond villain! With a hell of a gimmick, to boot: shot by Agent 009, he has a bullet slowly penetrating his brain, shutting down his pain receptors, and when it gets in far enough, he will die, but till that point, as Dr. Molly Warmflash tells us, he'll get stronger every day. How can you possibly screw up something as awesome as a pain-resistant terrorist played by Robert Carlyle?

Surprisingly easily, it turns out. The first step is to make him a Russian, thereby saddling Carlyle with an accent that he is alarmingly uncomfortable with. Seriously, how hard is it to do a bad guy Russian accent? Just listen to Robbie Coltrane hamming away like there's no tomorrow, and do what he's doing. But the point being, Carlyle sinks so much effort into the straightforward act of talking that there's just not that much energy leftover for the bothersome matter of "acting".

The other problem is in the writing, and it's baked into the script: we hear so much about how dangerous and world-threatening Renard is, that we have certain expectations; but we've only seen him a couple of times before he is revealed to be Elektra's pawn, and bad guys who are puppy dogs in the hands of a femme fatale aren't interesting bad guys. Interesting noir anti-heroes, maybe but that's not what Renard is whatsoever. And he's just puling and ineffective, as a result, regardless of how terrifically like the Jaws of The Spy Who Loved Me he seems on paper.

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Rating: 1.5 Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
This is stretching a point, but in addition to adoring Dr. Molly Warmflash's name, I actually like her as a character: her pre-sex banter with Bond, though saturated with puns, is surprisingly non-painful, and the impression I get is that she's not just sleeping with the spy because she is powerless to resist, but because in her considered opinion, it's likely to be really good sex; but once the plot calls on her to do something, she does it without any mopey "Oh, James!" moments. And she is not only witty in herself, but the cause that wit is in others: Samantha Bond's best moment in her small appearance as Moneypenny comes in the form of a bitchy reaction shot upon realising that Dr. Warmflash got to ride the Bond Express that Moneypenny herself is so consistently late for.

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Rating: 3.5 Golden Corpses


ACTION SEQUENCES
Well, that Thames boat chase answers for a lot of sins, but it has to: without anything being specifically incompetent or embarrassing like in the lesser Roger Moore films, The World Is Not Enough has some of the worst-handled action in the series. Not poorly filmed: the editing is clear and the shots well-composed. But Michael Apted, a director of some decent character dramas and the phenomenal Up series of documentaries, does not have the soul of an action filmmaker, and there is not a trace of urgency anywhere in the rest of the film, which features action scenes staged with the same leisuely pace of a Victorian comedy of manners; the film doesn't even perk up for a sequence involving a helicopter swinging a 15-foot arm made up of sawblades through a canning facility, the sort of notion that should be literally impossible to fuck up.

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Rating: 2 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
Besides a car with rocket launchers - oh, and six beverage cup holders, titter, titter, comic relief - this is a ghastly array: x-ray glasses that Bond uses only to find guns on men who are obviously wearing guns, and to stare at women in their underwear - glasses that he's wearing in a casino, and he doesn't even cheat at cards - and a watch with a grappling hook that is used in an absurdly ill-staged stunt that looks like one of those cheap grappling-hook action figures that you could never get to work properly. And a vest that blows up into a big inflatable ball, so ridiculously specific in its application ("Wear this, 007, in case you happen to be caught in an avalanche cause by an explosion you created") that it rings the biggest bullshit screenwriting alarm that I have.

Worse still: this was Desmond Llewelyn's final performance as Q; the 85-year-old actor died in a car accident a month after the film's premiere. His last scene was eerily well-written to work as a goodbye to the character, totally by accident (Llewelyn had every intention of returning for at least another film), and it is a moment of dignity and grace that is incomparably better than Bernard Lee's or Lois Maxwell's final scenes as M and Moneypenny. But we are also introduced to Q's replacement, joshingly called "R" by 007, and played by John Cleese: surely the most obvious choice, but the writers were so anxious to play to Cleese's comic skills that they give him a truly odious amount of bumbling to do, and it does not bode well for the future.

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Rating: 1 Easily-Riled Welshman


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
You work with the script you get, and we know from other evidence that Peter Lamont was capable of production designing a Bond movie; but this falls utterly short by every measure that counts. Firstly, there isn't even a villainous lair to infiltrate, just a nice hotel room in Istanbul; otherwise, the sets are all basic and uninteresting, including the inside of a silo, a submarine's nuclear reactor, and a Scottish castle with M's office inside - functional, but hardly imaginative. If there is a single overriding theme to all of the sets, it is "cramped"; and what, I ask of you, is the single word that we most of all do not want to hear in reference to a Bond picture?

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Rating: 1 Volcano Fortress


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
When you're cracking awful puns about the name of a nuclear physicist played by Denise Richards, there is a clear ceiling to how desirable your lifestyle can be; but there are flashes of style and elegance, enough to push the film over the median point. One of these is the delightful touch of Bond, having dived underwater during the boat chase, self-consciously adjusting his die as he tries not to drown - one must look one's best - and an even better one comes at the Azerbaijani casino L'Or Noir ("Black Gold"), where he flips a man on his back against the bar, steals his gun, and discards it, all while holding a vodka martini in one hand; among the coolest things ever done in the name of Bond's alcoholism. Suave, if not necessarily eye-poppingly glamorous.

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Rating: 3.5 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
Meeting Elektra at her construction site, she prods him, "Mr..."
Forced or Badass? Too casual to be forced, too plain to be badass. Let's call it a draw.

But then it happens a second time: after finding Dr. Christmas Jones in the midst of explosions in the missile silo, the spy introduces himself: "The name's Bond". Big explosion, Monty Norman's theme screams out as they zip upwards on a chain. "James Bond."
Forced or Badass? Punctuated by an explosion. Badass as all hell.


BEST QUIP
SWISS BANKER LACHAISE: "I'm giving you the opportunity to walk out with the money, Mr. Bond."
BOND: "I'm giving you the opportunity to walk out with your life."


MOST OMINOUS FORESHADOWING IN A QUIP
DR. CHRISTMAS JONES: "Doctor Jones. Christmas Jones, and don't tell me any jokes, I've heard them all."
BOND: "I don't know any doctor jokes."

...which sets up:
THE WORST QUIP IN THIS FRANCHISE, AND POSSIBLY IN THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF PUNS
BOND [in the middle of sex]: "I thought Christmas only comes once a year."


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
Ah, James Bond's final adventure in the 20th Century, a century to which he so quintessentially belongs. What a delirious piece of shit. I will confess that, in my head, I have underrated it for many years (it was the Bond film I had seen least recently prior to starting this retrospective): I have always had it as the second-worst film in the franchise, ahead of only A View to a Kill, but re-watching it has convinced me that it's merely the third-worst, also ahead of Moonraker. And at the moment of writing this, I haven't seen Die Another Day since 2003, so The World Is Not Enough still has a chance to jump to the lofty heights of "19th-best out of 22".

It's hard to say what, exactly, makes the film so awful. I mean, not really: it's Denise Richards, who is so incomprehensibly bad that she contaminates everything around her. That, and Michael Apted's aggravatingly laconic, consequence-free directing: this is plainly, even objectively the worst-directed Bond movie up to its point in the franchise, for previously, none of them were truly bad: a certain level of unexceptionable competence was always something you could take for granted. But Apted, bless him, found a way to make a Bond movie actively dull when it didn't have to be.

But still, the film feels like it's so much less than the sum of its parts. The script is weak, but not objectionable: a lot of logic gaps but no real honest-to-God plot holes; places where characters feel like they're acting at the whim of the writer, not because of anything that makes sense for their personality, but that's true of every single Bond movie, to some degree or another.

Maybe it's just that all of these problems are exacerbated by the lack of anything truly right going on; maybe the dreadfulness of the really bad parts makes it easier to hate the things they come into contact with. Whatever does it, The World Is Not Enough makes me feel awfully peevish at worst, and merely bored at best.

The pity is that it wastes a solid recovery from Pierce Brosnan, who manages to actually put some gusto back in his Bond after splatting so badly in Tomorrow Never Dies. This comes mainly by playing the character as considerably meaner than he's written, and it's tremendously obvious how much Brosnan does not like the dreadful puns he's required to voice at every turn (Moore might have the reputation for being the jokiest Bond, but this version of the character seems to almost have a compulsion to say flippant, deeply unfunny things), so to a certain extent, Brosnan's improvement as an actor comes at the expense of the role: he's fighting the movie, not helping it out, and The World Is Not Enough desperately needs all the help it can find. On the other hand, nothing was going to out-and-out save it, so maybe the fact that Brosnan gets to have a couple moments of unexpectedly potent thuggishness is all we could really hope for.

If Tomorrow Never Dies wasted the promise of GoldenEye, The World Is Not Enough was somehow even more disappointing, not only because it is worse in nearly every way, but because it promised that the waste was going to be permanent. It tells a story that's not garish enough to work as fantasy, nor restrained enough to feel like a genuine real-life scenario with actual stakes; it drops the ball on every moment that should build it up as a thriller so completely that you can actually feel the fun being stripped from your soul as you sit there watching Bond run around, waving his gun, and not being exciting. It's a damn slog, arbitrary in its charactersations, its plotting, its very existence: as the film that had to make the case for Bond's persistence into a new century - visually stressed by the culmination of that one great action scene on the very face of the futurist Millennium Dome - all it really did was clarify what had already become increasingly apparent: the 1990s had no use for James Bond whatsoever.


OVERALL SCORE
29.5/30, for which it owes a huge debt to that opening sequence

5 comments:

Neil Fulwood said...

Agreed and then some! 'TWiNE' commits the unforgivable sin of being dull, a sin compounded by one of the all-time opening sequences. No other Bond movie promises so much only to deliver so little. Even 'Die Another Day' has a reasonably interesting first half before things go seriously off the rails.

Speaking of which, I can't wait for your 'Die Another Day' review. In terms of critical appraisal, will it be the elegant knife in the back, or will you simply ask it outside and give it a kicking?

Douglas Evasick said...

Unlike Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies, I have not really seen this one since it was in theaters. That said, everything you said seems to be right. Denise Richards is so god awful it really does drag down the entire film. I think this was the film that made me hate her so much as an actress!

I do remember liking that pre credits scene which was thrilling in theaters and by far the best part of the film. I've also been a huge Garbage fan since the late '90s (love their new album as well) so I was happy to see you give them a passing grade for their theme song!

hayley said...

I remember reading and agreeing with Anthony Lane that year, who said that the opening sequence was the best 14 minutes of film all year, and that had the film ended there everybody would have gone home well-fed and happy, feeling they had got their money's worth.

You nailed it though, the film had two of the best ideas ever for a Bond film (the Stockholm syndrome and the "Feel no pain" villain) and still managed to suck.

I still think it is the second best of the Brosnan films. The next one is almost unspeakably atrocious...

I also think you should add the skiing sequence as something in the Lifestyle Porn's favor. There's a rich tradition of glamorous ski sequences in Bond films, and this one more than held up its own.

Brian said...

There are so many things about this movie that seems so good on paper (an attack on MI6 itself! M being emotionally involved! A twisty, atypical for Bond plot! A female lead villain! A guy who can feel no pain, played by an excellent actor, as the henchman!) and just NONE of it comes together to work.

Plus, Denise Richards.

javi75 said...

Yes, this movie is boring. I thought Biddle's lighting looked pretty.

I guess I feel forced to write something about this one because it's the only Bond movie (the only major film production probably) that includes at least one brief scene shot right next to my hometown. I can tell you people roared with laughter on movie theaters when local police burst through a door in the opening. Not sure if the scene plays funny to the whole world (I think they look quite incompetent) or if it was the embarrasment of watching a familiar element inserted in an exotic, idealized environment (a big Hollywood movie).