The World Is Not Enough, claims episode number 19 in the ever-growing James Bond enterprise. It’s a lovely sentiment, but an entirely misguided one: world be damned, the movie is more than happy to service the oh-so-receptive American marketplace.
This is old hat, of course, to those who have seen Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies, which re-imagined the Bond franchise, shifting its focus from vaguely active stylization to vaguely stylized action. But The World Is Not Enough takes this paradigm shift to new heights (or depths, depending on your perspective).
To wit: Modern-rockers Garbage – despite their Scottish lead singer, as American a band as you could expect not to screw up a Bond tune (a lesson learned from Sheryl Crow) – handle the theme song. Wild Things sex bomb Denise Richards appears as the good Bond girl. Action scenes seem to come out of a spigot. Hell, there’s even a convenient invocation of the good old cold war: all the bad stuff might technically go down in Azerbaijan, but it smells like the Soviet Union to me. The World Is Not Enough? Try For America, With Pursestrings.
The plot? Suffice it to say there isn’t much holding it together. That’s not necessarily a drawback: even the classic early Bond films didn’t resemble linear espionage tales so much as series of well-crafted set pieces. But that feeling is especially strong this time around, as if the film is consciously trying to fulfill quotas. It’s all too easy to imagine the filmmakers huddled around a spreadsheet, graphing ratios of action scenes to comic asides. It’s well nigh impossible to watch the film without being acutely aware of the buildup to every single action scene: there’s a carefully plotted but obvious whoosh leading up to every single drawn gun, explosion and chase scene.
In other words, there’s a British oil tycoon killed in an explosion (in MI6 headquarters, no less!), an unsurprisingly sultry daughter (Sophie Marceau) who fears for her life, a bunch of massive oil pipelines under construction, an unsurprisingly buxom nuclear physicist named – get this – Christmas Jones (Richards) and an evil psychopath who, since taking a bullet in the brain, cannot feel pain. At the center of it all, of course, is Bond (Pierce Brosnan). Besides that, you can connect the dots.
It all sounds cleverly campy on paper, but The World Is Not Enough ends up surprisingly wan because of its insistence on setting wit and style in action, not vice versa. It’s no secret that the great Bond films go light on the action and effects, but it’s a lesson entirely lost on director Michael Apted, who rigidly divides the film into “action bits” and “funny bits.”
The action bits are active, but the funny bits fall flat. The film is disastrously written: Bond’s apropos wit is diffused into obvious gag lines (“If he’s Q,” he says to the inventor’s assistant [the always game John Cleese], “you must be R?” (Oh, delicious!). This wastes an otherwise fine performance from Brosnan, who has settled into the role very nicely. His timing and panache have grown immeasurably stronger since Goldeneye, and he wears expensive suits really well.
Judi Dench as M and Desmond Llewelyn as Q have more to do than usual, which is a blessing: they’re typically great, especially Llewelyn. Marceau does what she’s asked to do – look and act exotically Mediterranean – and Carlyle presumably does his job – to act malevolently Eastern European – in what is frankly a bizarre role. Both are given some pretty dodgy material, though: their love scene is among the more unintentionally absurd moments in recent film.
Richards, on the other hand, proves herself to be the Kathy Ireland of the late ’90s with a stunningly horrid performance. Bond girls, obviously, don’t need to be Academy Award contenders, but they do need to have a certain style and deportment, a je ne sais quoi. Richards is an utter failure in this department: she’s a lightweight whose line-reading is as plastic as her appearance.
For all the film’s flaws – Richards’s wooden performance, a lousy script, a nearly numbing focus on action scenes and a disappointing lack of genuine style – The World Is Not Enough has its share of amusing, if unsustained, thrills. The movie does some genuinely good things: opening with a shot of Gehry’s fabulous Guggenheim in Bilbao, having fun with some creative instruments of death and resurrecting Robbie Coltrane’s Zukovsky (a latter-day Kerim Bey).
For that, it’s the best Bond film to come down the pike in more than a few years, even if it’s got a face only an American could love. It’s just a shame that doesn’t mean what it used to.