Film discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Twenty-One: The World Is Not Enough (1999)

Four years on from his debut in the well-regarded GoldenEye, the success level of the Pierce Brosnan era was reflected in the fast rise in budgets for the films.  From a $60 million debut, The World Is Not Enough (TWINE) arrived in 1999 backed by a generous $125 million.  For all the extra money thrown at it, however, TWINE would end up a frustrating project.  Despite the love shown to GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan had one shot at greatness, and this was it.

TWINE opens with the longest pre-title of the series.  James Bond is in Bilbao, at the offices of a Swiss bank, where he is to retrieve $5 million for oil tycoon Sir Robert King (David Calder).  When the banker is killed before Bond can get from him the name of the killer of another MI6 agent, Bond escapes with the money and returns to London.  When King comes to retrieve the money, it turns out it is booby-trapped, killing King, and sending Bond off after the killer – the mysterious cigar girl (Maria Grazia Cucinotta) he met in Bilbao.  Catching up with her, Bond offers a deal, but she commits suicide before more can be learned.

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Despite injuring his shoulder, Bond is cleared for duty.  Tracing the money to Renard (Robert Carlyle) – a man previously shot by MI6, and unable to feel any sensory responses, such as pain, due to the resulting brain damage – Bond is sent to protect King’s daughter Electra (Sophie Marceau) – Electra having been kidnapped in the past by Renard.  Protecting the vulnerable lady, Bond slowly begins to fall for her, as he prevents a number of attempts on her life.  With her oil pipeline equally susceptible to attack, Bond goes to see Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane, returning after his short turn in GoldenEye) to learn more about her attackers.  Deducing her head of security, Davidov (Ulrich Thomsen) to be a mole, James follows, then replaces him, on a plane to Kazakhstan, where he poses as a nuclear scientist and meets nuclear physicist Dr Christmas Jones (Denise Richards… no, really!).  Encountering Renard, who is stealing weapons-grade plutonium, Bond deduces that Electra may be the real brains behind Renard’s operation.

After angrily confronting Electra – with some back and forth on the truth, or otherwise, of her guilt – Bond and Jones are able to fake their own deaths in an abortive attempt to protect the pipeline from attack.  Now knowing that Electra is both guilty and in possession of plutonium (as well as having been revealed as the killer of her father, Sir Robert), James and.. sigh.. Christmas head to Istanbul where they will attempt to prevent a nuclear attack at the very heart of the three pipelines with which the King pipeline competes.  Can they stop Electra before she and Renard cause a disaster, all in the name of gaining a monopoly over the oil market in the region?

If we were to ask the producers of the James Bond series in what films James Bond has genuinely fallen in love, they would certainly name On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale.  They would also very likely name Spectre; though this could be retconned by No Time To Die – time will tell (plus that relationship was far from convincing – more on that, down the line).  Were they to give an accurate answer, they would have to name The World Is Not Enough.  This entry was Brosnan’s one shot at that humanist 007 film, in the vein of the Lazenby effort.  Where GoldenEye was the reminder to the audience of the classic era of Bond adventures, TWINE was an effort at that deeper, more emotional, character-driven work that is – and should be – rare in Bond canon.

For around 55 minutes, the film succeeds.  Bond is vulnerable, in a way that virtually never happened before the Daniel Craig era.  It is almost unbelievable now to think that the character having an injured shoulder was genuinely a big deal in 1999, particularly when we consider the faultless, best-at-everything persona of the Brosnan incarnation of the character.  The film opens with a sprawling 14 minutes-plus of decent action, with a set-up seeding real intrigue for what is to come.

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Pierce Brosnan is at his peak in the role, giving (with one major exception we’ll come to) his best performance in the role.  He is as relaxed as he will ever be, and in better shape that he would be for his final effort.  He has palpable chemistry with Marceau – something very rare in this era, as Brosnan had chemistry with extremely few of his co-stars – in fact he probably had more connection with Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) than any of his other leading ladies.  We believe these two have growing feelings, and Marceau plays the grey areas of her character well enough that the is-she-isn’t-she-evil dynamic is very real (apart from the name ‘Electra’ being a stonking great big clue, of course – subtlety was never a strength of these writers).

But then…

The James Bond series – pre-2006 – had a formula.  Sometimes, however, that formula became self-defeating.  Take You Only Live Twice: Bond’s lover, Aki – with whom he has decent chemistry – dies.  Formula dictates he needs to end the film in the arms of the woman, so Kissy Suzuki – a character with whom he has no connection at all – is rushed into the film, so that the ending-the-film-with-a-woman trope can be satisfied.  TWINE has this problem, in stereo.  Denise Richards was far too young for this role; bizarrely fashioned to look like Lara Croft (1990s edition), and utterly unbelievable as the holder of a doctorate.  Her line delivery is flat, and she has – surprise – zero chemistry with Brosnan.  Having given us one of the stronger connections in the series in Bond and King, the film then insults this by pairing him with the Playmate of the Year – one named simply in service of finishing the film on a piss-weak pun.

The villain (or henchman, it turns out), Renard, is one of the wasted chances of the series.  A villain who can feel no pain; a dying man who gets stronger as he weakens.  That presents a world of opportunity.  So what did the filmmakers do with this awesome opportunity?  Have him hold a hot rock, and put his hand through a table.  It feels like they gave up just before the halfway point.  As did Brosnan for that matter.  Having played early scenes with Electra in a soulful, caring, engaged manner; as soon as Electra is exposed, Brosnan becomes hilariously petulant (“There’s no point LIVING if you can’t feel alive… isn’t that your MOTTO?”).  Having begged, behind the scenes, for meatier character work, Brosnan was finally offered material that allowed his character both to feel something, then to experience the pain of betrayal – and he fluffed it.  It is no surprise EON went 100% in the direction of flashy nonsense after this.  On balance, though, this is his best performance in the role – and it is certainly more good than bad – but when it is bad, he presents us with some of the poorest work from a leading man in the whole series.

It is like the producers lost their nerve.  Having James Bond in the uncharted territory of being injured, they spend much of the film ignoring this.  Having set up a Moneypenny that fulfilled franchise expectations, but sparred with Bond in a fun way, they revert her to a simpering, love-starved secretary.  In fact, that’s an insult to Lois Maxwell: Maxwell’s Moneypenny may have been a little hung-up on Bond, but she always demonstrated more spirit and self-respect than this parody effort (complete with tasteless Monica Lewinsky-inspired cigar joke).  Samantha Bond deserved better.  All in all, this should have been Brosnan’s best entry.  In the event, it became the biggest wasted opportunity, and the 90s ended with somthing of a whimper.

Three entries into his run as Bond, however, Pierce Brosnan had captured the imagination of the public.  Lauded in many quarters as the best Bond since Connery (how times change, eh?), there were even magazine articles predicting the series would die once he left: implying he was now irreplaceable.  EON was delighted to take up the option of a fourth outing for their leading man.  With an extra year’s gap, the 20th entry would be released in the year of the 40th anniversary of the cinematic series.  With the franchise in outstanding health, and a leading man popular with the general public, the next outing looked set to be a memorable celebration for cinema’s favourite spy.  What could possibly go wrong?

The Road to Bond 25 will return with Die Another Day (2002).

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