The World Is Not Enough (1999) review – BlogalongaBond #19
The 007 movie tries to pull a fast one but cannot match initial surprise with traditional Bond virtues of rewatchability. One review is not enough.
The World Is Not Enough
(Michael Apted, 1999)
One of the joys of BlogalongaBond is the chance to revisit the 007 films with a set critical agenda, namely how each film adds to (or ruins) the ongoing cultural lustre of the series as a whole. Yes, obviously, I’ve seen all of these films before, some of them countless times, but I’d never stopped to write down with any critical rigour exactly what I thought of them and BlogalongaBond has been a roadmap of my thoughts throughout 2011 and 2012. That is: until now.
As long-term readers of this blog will no doubt know, long before I began publishing my thoughts on film – and aeons before I began to be professionally commissioned to do so – I scribbled reviews of every single film I watched. That process began in June 2003, which means that only the Daniel Craig 007 movies were new to me when I saw and reviewed them. For whatever reason, I hadn’t got around to watching any of the earlier Bond movies in (what I’m calling for clarity) the Kinnemaniac period, except one. Yup, you guessed it, the film in question is The World Is Not Enough, which I reviewed after catching it on telly in April 2006.
Fast-forward to 2012, and my first instinct was, “Great, I can just reuse my original review and save myself some work.” Christ knows, a long-suffering Blogalongerer deserves it. Yet that wouldn’t be in keeping with the spirit of the thing, so I did the right thing and watched The World Is Not Enough again.
Inevitably, seeing the film through the prism of the previous 18 films is a different matter from randomly dipping into a bit of Bondage. My original piece doesn’t quite cut it as a BlogalongaBond review, so I’m going to have to do it all again. Damn.
And then I realised: actually, there’s probably something to be gleaned from publishing the old review anyway, and simply annotating how my opinion has changed in the interim. How different is a Bond film when it’s being Blogalonged with, from watching it cold?
Let’s find out. Here, then, are two reviews of The World Is Not Enough. My 2006 original, plus the 2012 annotations.
In retrospect, The World is Not Enough is the point at which the Bond franchise – revitalised in the mid-90s with the arrival of Pierce Brosnan – began to lose its way. Where his first two outings were all insouciant, ironic cool and committed action, this feels a bit perfunctory and unsure of itself.
Hmm… Not a good start, when “perfunctory and unsure of itself” pretty much describes Tomorrow Never Dies. Actually, The World Is Not Enough is the Brosnan era firing on all cylinders, confident enough to try something no previous 007 had bothered attempting: THE BIG TWIST. After 18 films of staunchly linear, join-the-dots plotting, the ambition of this long game narrative is impressive. To paraphrase an old joke about Playboy magazine, it’s one of the few Bond movies you watch for the exposition. The trouble is, therein lies its failure: once you know who the villain is, the sole interest lies in unpacking how they did it.
The story is actually very strong, but in Bondage that’s not necessarily a strength, as the emphasis on narrative momentum sacrifices the appeal of the moment – classic Bond has always been built in part from great set-pieces and memorable characters. A case in point is Renard, who looks like he’ll be a classic villain with his fabulously OTT feels-no-pain modus operandi. Yet the character is instantly co-opted into being a dour heavy, with practically nothing made of his skills.
By 1999, everybody was trying to do THE BIG TWIST, and The World Is Not Enough is a credible effort simply because of the care taken to hide the villain’s identity by means of audacious bluffing. Consider the use of the repeated motto – ‘there’s no point living if you can’t feel alive’ – which initially alerts Bond that something fishy is going on. A weaker Bond film would have used that as the tell (“but that means… No, it can’t be… Oh my God!”) and be done with it. Here, though, the writers are conscious enough to realise how Scooby-Doo that would be, and allows Elektra King to talk her way out of trouble. It’s a great double-bluff, and makes her a much stronger adversary.
Trouble is, that’s the same approach behind the casting of Robert Carlyle. All of the pre-release hype was about his villainy but of course he’s basically the henchman. This is an effective brain-melter the first time, but becomes a handicap on repeat viewings. Renard is the opposite of how the most iconic Bond villains work, lacking the flamboyant camp or quotable threats of yore; instead, he’s a dull, remorseless thug (and because Elektra has to hide her true intentions for two-thirds of the film, there’s a villainous void at the film’s centre). The gimmick that he feels nothing sounds great on paper, but falters the moment he starts punching glass just because he can. He might feel nothing, but what if he gets gangrene, or severs an artery?
In intent, Elektra is Keyser Soze, or the chick with a dick from The Crying Game. On-screen, though, the effect is inverted – instead of Elektra being someone you walk out of the cinema talking about, Renard becomes a character you walk out of the cinema not talking about. Carlyle is a masterstroke of sleight-of-hand casting, but now it looks like a waste of a good actor – and hindsight suggests it actually harmed Carlyle’s career. Who wants to be remembered for being a boring Bond villain? [Incidentally, I can't help but notice that one of 2012's tentpole releases borrows the same henchman/secret villainess dynamic, but does it in a way that doesn't detract from the former's characterisation. Which only goes to prove how much The World Is Not Enough fluffed it.]
Similarly, after the delirious opening sequence – one of the best in Bond, and certainly the longest – the action scenes are rather uninspired. In fact, the whole sequence in which Bond tries to prevent the theft of a nuclear bomb from an underground chamber appears to have been lifted wholesale from Broken Arrow. That said, compared to the dire CGI visions of Die Another Day, this is the last bastion of classic second unit Bond, right down to the shameless cutting from stuntman to actor and the inevitability that all crashed vehicles will explode on impact.
Sad to say I still agree with this. The pre-credit sequence is an amazing juggling act between plot and spectacle – how refreshing for the action to drive the plot forwards! – but whose example the rest of the film studiously avoids following. It’s the textbook example of a blockbuster being over-plotted to the point where the action feels superfluous. What exactly are the villains trying to achieve by sending winged ski-ninjas after Bond and Elektra? They’re not really trying to kill her, and had they eliminated Bond but left her unscathed, it would only draw suspicion. The only reasonable explanation is that somebody’s mapped out the plot on the 007-ometer and realised there needs to be an action sequence at the 30 minute mark. That stop-start structure never did Bond any favours, and the gap between half-hearted set-pieces and chess-game plotting makes for a sluggish pace, as the film kills time before the big reveal.
In fact, the whole film is stuck in a weird limbo between serious drama and populist cartoon, an indecisiveness that is constantly pulling apart the film’s cohesion. Wade and Purvis’ script is one cocked eyebrow, ever ready with a tired quip and at least three outings for the “Bond. James Bond” line, and the casting of Denise Richards as a sort of Barbie nuclear physicist appears to be an elaborate joke at the expense of Bond critics everywhere.
Ah, Denise Richards. To be honest, the Kazhakstan sequence is only enlivened by the miscasting of Denise Richards, whose presence gives you something to think about during the dull middle third. Questions like, if Christmas was the same age as Richards when she filmed this (28), how did she find the time to work out between taking exams in nuclear physics? The performance is so wrong, so mid-70s Bond, that it feels like a calculated attempt to stop you noticing Sophie Marceau. Part of the bluff, in other words. But at least Richards’ Bond-by-numbers performance is a bluff with some rewatchability. There isn’t a single facial expression or line of dialogue that isn’t loaded with nearly forty years’ worth of meta-textual irony.
Yet Michael Apted – a decent, earnest director – appears to be trying to play down the inherent ludicrousness of Bond. Everything is calculated to respectability, from the casting of too-intense Robert Carlyle and Sophie Marceau (a fine choice in principle, but as lost at sea with the crap dialogue as Emmanuelle Beart was in Mission:Impossible), to the relentlessly dull exposition.
Mea culpa. Viewing The World Is Not Enough as a stand-alone, I underrated Marceau – but after seeing 18 films of variable Bond girls come and go and come again – she is obviously fabulous, and easily 007’s sleekest, sexiest femme fatale to date.
It’s only Brosnan’s instinctive ability to bridge the gap between gravity and frivolity that keeps the film together. His effortlessly charismatic performance has matured nicely into a blend of two-thirds deadpan to one-third wryness, the missing link between Connery and Moore.
There’s an unspoken rule, bandied about a lot lately because of Skyfall, that those actors who make it this far are defined by their third mission. That makes this Brosnan’s Goldfinger, his The Spy Who Loved Me. It isn’t in that league, but judged purely on Brosnan this is his best performance, the Connery-meets-Moore schtick blending into an actual personality. His raised eyebrow where Christmas worries about somebody having her ass is sublime; the killing of Elektra is ice-cold.
And yet, twice in one film Bond buggers things up by allowing a bomb in a briefcase to be smuggled somewhere it could do major damage. At what point does this go from making the villains look good, to making him look stupid? By the end, Bond is trying to stop a nuclear meltdown by crashing a submarine into the seabed, which doesn’t feel like an approach that’s going to be lauded by Health & Safety. No matter how good Brosnan is in this, the demands of THE BIG TWIST render him a passive, even (ahem) impotent 007, made to look foolish because the narrative wouldn’t work with Bond firing on all cylinders. How dumb can Bond get? We’re well on our way to finding out: see you next month for Die Another Day.