The James Bond films have not been `films` since FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. Or, to put it more precisely, they have become `James Bond films,` a sort of genre unto itself with a well-established formula and a level of audience expectation that cannot be ignored without peril. Elements like credibility and drama take a back seat to exotic locations, beautiful women, clever quips, fast-paced action, exciting stunts, lavish sets, and elaborate effects. While movie audiences eat this up with each new entry in the series, the Bond purists, those who remember the character as he appeared in Ian Fleming`s novels, yearn for a return to a more serious Bond. Not that the novels were without their outrageous elements (come on, 007 fought a giant squid in the novel of DR. NO), but Fleming captured a sense of gritty reality amidst all the glamour. In fact, it was this sense of continual danger that was at the core of the books. As Timothy Dalton was fond of pointing out, Bond`s vices (smoking, drinking, women) were an oasis from his everyday reality. This was a man who could die any day, at any moment, so he took his pleasures where he found them.
In the films, these elements, which had been for Bond a mere respite, became instead the true focus of attention. Especially during the Roger Moore era, Bond became a fantasy of what a secret agent would be: an infallible, good-looking superhero who never got his hair mussed, always won the fights, and never seemed in real danger (although Moore did perfect a comic grimace he used whenever faced with a supposedly imposing enemy, such as Richard Kiel`s Jaws).
Of course, Sean Connery had shown that it was possible to play this character as if it were the real thing. Maybe the actor wasn`t exactly what Fleming had in mind, but he did sell the character to the audience. Although he was ever ready with a quip, his sense of humor somehow never attacked the integrity of the film itself: while you were watching, you were in that world, and your suspension of disbelief remained in place.
With Dalton, fans got a return to a hard-edged, serious Bond. Unfortunately, the actor was ill-served by his films, especially LICENCE TO KILL, which was, theoretically, designed as a showcase for his interpretation of the character. What emerged from that debacle, however, was an abject lesson in how resistant the series had become to change. While we were supposed to take the film seriously, the same outrageous stunts and action intruded at regular intervals (in the film`s low point, the incredibility of Bond`s actions actually becomes a plot point, making the villain distrust the henchman relating the events). While we are supposed to be thrilled by the personal vendetta between Bond and Sanchez (an excellent Robert Davi), that element is all but eclipsed by a closing chase scene that replaces the actors with stunt men and abandons drama for action.
Sadly, Dalton never got another chance to make the role his own. Instead, after a six year gap, we got Pierce Brosnan as a new Bond for the `90s. What immediately became apparent in GOLDENEYE was that Brosnan, despite his REMINGTON STEELE background, was not going to play the lethal secret agent like a walking self-parody. Unlike Dalton, he imbued his Bond with humor, but unlike Moore, he wasn`t reluctant to explore the serious side of the character. In effect, he tried to combine the best elements of Moore and Dalton, creating a new version of 007 that in some ways harkened back to Connery.
TOMORROW NEVER DIES was a considerable improvement over GOLDENEYE. Somehow, the Bond elements clicked into place: great villain, great women, great action, great Bond. Yet somehow, in the build up to the release of THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, the previous film has become the whipping boy-dismissed as all action and no story-and WORLD has been presented as the antidote, a film that alters the traditional Bond formula by infusing it with greater drama and characterization.
Well, I`m here to tell you that it just ain`t so. The film tries very hard, and sometimes the effort pays off, but overall this is a compromised effort that recalls LICENCE TO KILL in the wrong way: it`s a film that tries to be different but lapses back into the same old, obligatory set pieces. This is really too bad. After all, both Connery and Moore hit their stride with their third outing as Bond (GOLDFINGER and THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, respectively), and we had every reason to hope that the same would be true of Brosnan. As he has aged with each subsequent appearance, he has grown into the role: he has lost some of that boyish charm that threatened to make his Bond appear lightweight, and replaced it with a more seasoned sense of experience; in short, he`s starting to project the image of a man who`s been around the block a few times and knows where the bodies are buried.
Alas, this was not to be. THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH begins with an excellent pre-credits sequence that works because it undermines our comfortable expectations. After an initial adventure and narrow escape, the film doesn`t cut to the credits but goes to the headquarters of MI6, which are violated with a deadly explosion that precipitates an exciting boat chase down the Thames. The assault on a setting we are used to seeing used only as a means for exposition (to set up the plot) creates a genuine surprise, and the boat chase works with only a few gimmicks, instead opting for visceral impact. The whole sequence is over-the-top in the best Bond manner: thrilling in a fun kind of way but not so absurd as to render its hero in cartoon superhero terms.
Things proceed well with the opening credits and theme song–a fine tune composed by David Arnold and performed by Garbage that recalls the classic Bond themes like `Goldfinger.` But then the movie proper starts, and the plot kicks in. The big mistake that follows is that the filmmakers obviously want to render a film with more dramatic impact, but they are afraid to sacrifice the traditional elements in order to achieve this. The result alternates between slow dialogue scenes and intrusive action scenes; worse, the two elements are often not well integrated. The worst example of this is the helicopter attack on the caviar factory. At a time when the films should be barreling headlong toward the rescue of M (Judi Dench), instead it stops for a set piece that in no way advances the story. Far more damning, it`s not such a great scene that it justifies its own existence. There are lots of shots of damage being inflicted, lots of shots of people running, but no sense of danger or suspense, no sense of narrative–of people gaining or losing the upper hand, or turning the tide against their attackers. The sequence might have been just tolerable if it had ended when Bond`s car launches a rocket that explodes the copter, but no–there is a second helicopter, allowing the sequence to drag on even further, to no real advantage.
The problem, clearly, is that Michael Apted is no action director, so he apparently lavished his attention on the character scenes and left the second-unit people to do what they wanted, whether or not it meshed with his work. What was really needed was an approach like that of James Cameron or John Woo, who know that action is character-how a character behaves under duress or in danger is as much a part of storytelling as what he says when alone with another person.
With the attempt at drama thus undercut, the film`s pace drags woefully in the middle. The attempt to play Electra King (Sophie Marceau) as a believable love interest (rather than just a sex object) is partially successful, but it never generates as much heat at Teri Hatcher`s role in TOMORROW NEVER DIES-and she had much less screen time, to boot. The film`s twist, that Electra is the real villain of the story, does work fairly well (at least it`s not obviously telegraphed), but we never understand her conviction that Bond won`t have the nerve to kill her. Certainly, we in the audience never believe he will hesitate, and when the big moment finally comes, Apted throws it away with a reaction shot to M, instead of focusing his camera in on the faces we want to see in this critical moment of life and death: Bond and Electra.
At least, Marceau is more than just beautiful; her accent and European looks are appropriately exotic for a Bond movie. The same cannot be said for Denise Richards. Sure, she is gorgeous enough to be a Bond woman, but in the middle of a film striving for greater characterization, her Dr. Christmas Jones is an underwritten tag-along character with little to distinguish her. Worse, she is saddled with unspeakable techno-babbble dialogue that recalls a bad episode of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. The result, sadly, provokes laughter in all the wrong places. Again, using TOMORROW NEVER DIES as a point of comparison, Michelle Yeoh managed to present herself as a worthy colleague to Bond, and her martial arts skills gave an added punch to the film. With Dr. Jones, we wonder why Bond is even dragging her along. (Yeah, I know, she`s supposed to diffuse the atomic bomb, but Bond knows how to do that himself-or at least, he had learned by the time of OCTOPUSSY.)
Robert Carlyle pulls a few worthwhile moments of unexpected vulnerability out of the villainous Renard, but the character does not rank among Bond`s most memorable foes. Carlyle projects far more danger as the volatile barroom brawler in TRAINSPOTTING. Here, is almost subdued. This supposedly more realistic opponent simply lacks the larger-than-life flare that Jonathan Pryce brought to TOMORROW NEVER DIES.
The script has some good points. The dialogue is often witty, but for every clever line, there is at least one howler (like the film`s closing pun about Christmas coming more than once a year). At least Desmond Llewelyn and John Cleese make the most of the traditional gadget scene. Llewelyn is in fine form, finally with someone else to play off of rather than just Bond; in fact, it`s fun to see Q and 007 have a third party as the target for jibes so that at last they can stop sparring with each other. The hints of surrogate father-son loyalty actually fill the screen with some genuine warmth. And Cleese, of course, is a scream as Q`s apprentice. He gets more laughs in a few minutes than are to be had in the rest of the film.
Okay, so THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH aims to achieve something more than its predecessor and trips up on its own ambition. Does that make it a bad Bond movie? No, despite the lags in pacing, the film does deliver the goods. There are delightful moments, some good set pieces, occasionally surprising plot twists; Maria Grazia Cucinotta is so good as the lethal lady in the opening sequence that we miss her presence throughout the rest of the film, and Brosnan giving a more mature performance as Bond. There is even an effective torture sequence that recalls the grueling sense of pain and fear that Fleming put into his books. But in every way, the film is inferior to its immediate predecessor. It may be good p.r. to present the new Bond film as a dramatic antidote to the all-action formula of previous Bonds, but the truth is that some of those action packed movies (including TOMORROW NEVER DIES) did generate genuine emotional responses, often much more effectively than the current film. More than anything, a Bond film should be fun, movie-going entertainment. This film indeed delivers the goods; it`s just bogged down in an attempt to do more that ultimately delivers less.
The special edition DVD presents the film with a beautiful picture and great sound, complimented by excellent computer graphics animation for the menus, but the audio commentaries and supplemental material represent a big too much self-congratulatory back-patting for those of us who found the film unbalanced and occasionally frustrating, despite its many fine sequences.
Besides the film itself, you get the film’s trailer, a music video featuring Garbage performing the title tune, and a souvenir booklet featuring some interesting facts, such as the tidbit that the title (the Bond family motto) originated in Ian Fleming’s novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. There are also two audio commentaries, several behind-the scenes clips, and a “making of” documentary that is a fairly typical promo piece, featuring brief interviews with Pierce Brosnan and Desmond Llewelyn.
The audio commentaries and the behind-the-scenes clips, called the “Secrets of 007,” can be accessed through “special features” in the menu. The DVD offers the option of having the “Secrets” interrupt the film. During key sequences, a 007 logo flashes on the screen; pressing “Enter” on your remote control takes you to the extra footage, which is presented without narration or explanation. Sequences covered include the boat chase, the opening titles, the hologram, the missile silo, and the submarine finale. Basically, what you get is images from the film intercut with shots of cameras filming the action, plus occasional storyboards and even, in the helicopter sequence, earl CGI renderings superimposed onto the live action plates. Perhaps the most interesting vignette shows how Bond’s X-Ray glasses were achieved: actors were filmed first with regular costumes, then again with special costumes revealing the shapes of guns beneath translucent clothing; then the two were matted together.
If you’ve already seen the movie and don’t mind having it interrupted, these sequences are fairly entertaining if not all the informative; certainly, no secrets are revealed, unless you’re someone who knows nothing about how films are made. If you don’t want to interrupt the film, you can access these clips by clicking on them in special features. This is especially useful if you’ve already watched the film twice (once for each audio commentary) and don’t want to sit through it again just for the behind the scenes footage. Actually, I had both the second audio commentary and the behind-the-scenes function running simultaneously on my second viewing, which worked out fine, as often the commentary provided helpful behind the scenes information that was then illustrated by the extra film clips. The only real downside of this approach is that the last “Secret” is followed by credits for the behind-the-scenes footage—the one time that sitting through the extra scenes really impede the flow of watching the film.
The first audio track features director Michael Apted; the second one includes production designer Peter Lamont, action unit director Vic Armstrong, and composer David Arnold. Both tracks are filled with information that should be of interest to Bond fans, but they are not as lively and entertaining as they could have been, perhaps because everyone is too busy praising the film’s virtues. Sure, there’s a lot to be proud of on view, but would it hurt here and there to admit that maybe—just maybe—things could have turned out a little better? (The closest we get is Arnold’s admission that he felt dubious about the script attempts to generate sympathy for Renard, who—after all—is planning to blow up 8 million people.)
Michael Apted, in particular, is guilty of still talking about Denise Richards as if her casting were a real coup, and no one is willing to acknowledge that killing off Maria Grazia Cucinotta before the opening credits leaves the film with a gaping hole that neither Richards nor Sophie Marceau is able to fill. Apted also re-roasts the old chestnut about wanting the Bond girls to be more than merely decorative; apparently, he is unaware that this is said by almost every director and actress who has worked on the franchise, almost from its inception. Overall, this is definitely an instance when an interviewer might have improved things considerably by asking a few pertinent questions; as it is, David Arnold never even gets around to explaining why there’s a song on the soundtrack album that’s not in the film itself (“Only Myself to Blame”).
Okay, not to be too harsh, here’s a quick sampler of some of the good tidbits you’ll discover (and this only a sampler; there are many more to be gleaned from the disc itself): Maria Grazia originally auditioned for the role of Electra King, but when Michael Apted didn’t think her English was up to the demands of the role, she accepted the smaller role of the Cigar Girl assassin just for a chance to work in a Bond movie. During Bond’s fall down the dome after dropping off the balloon, in several takes the stunt man missed the rope he was supposed to grab; the film’s editor suggested leaving in one of the misses before cutting to a shot of the successful grab. Producer Michael G. Wilson makes his obligatory cameo during the casino scene. Arnold took advantage of the same sequence to compose what he calls “John Barry” type music, thinking that the location lent itself to the loungy jazz approach. Pierce Brosnan’s twitching head, just before he kills Renard, visually echoes Robert Carlyle’s own mannerism as the villain, who tends to shake just before perpetrating each new atrocity.
And most interesting of all, the boat chase down the Thames that gets the film off to such a great start was originally not intended to be part of the pre-credits sequence. After preview audiences found the original opening (Bond’s descent down a rope to escape an office) unspectacular in the action department, the credits were pushed back until after the attack on MI6 headquarters (including the explosion that kills Electra’s father); with so much material pushed up front, the chase had to be shorted to prevent the sequence from running too long.
In short if you loved this movie, then this disc is the way to own it; or, if you’re a hard-core Bond fan who must have every film in his personal collection, you won’t be disappointed. But if you’re a casual viewer or one who was disappointed in the film itself, a rental of the disc will prove rewarding, but you won’t be disappointed when you have to return the DVD to the store.
One last complaint: Apparently, the audio commentaries were recorded before the death of the actor who has played Q since almost the beginning of the series, which goes almost totally unmentioned. Only at the very end, after the final credits have run, is there a suitable acknowledgment of his passing: “In Loving Memory of Desmond Llewelyn.” Certainly after such a long contribution to the films, his passing warranted more of a tribute than that.
NOTE: The original special edition DVD is now out of print. The title was re-issued, with new cover art, as part of one of the many James Bond box sets that have been released (usually to cash in on interest created by the release of a new film). At this time, the film was also released on DVD in a Two-Disc Ultimate Edition. You can find other DVD releases of the title in the Cinefantastique Online Store.
THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999). Directed by Michael Apted. Written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Bruce Feirstein, story by Purvis & Wade, based on the character created by Ian Fleming. Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Sophie Marceau, Robert Carlyle, Denise RIchards, Robie Coltrane, Judi Dench, Desmond Llewelyn, John CLeese, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Samantha Bond.
Copyright 1999 Steve Biodrowski