50 Years of James Bond

In so many ways, Pierce Brosnan was born to play James Bond. He brought the poised silhouette, the sophisticated refinement and the good sense to convey both intensity and nonchalance where appropriate. But after the promise of “Tomorrow Never Dies,” things immediately started to go downhill. The series’ next script wasn’t merely bad, it was downright puerile, and the man who could have been the quintessential Bond would ultimately have to look beyond the franchise – with the Graham Greene adaptation “The Tailor of Panama,” for instance – to find a role nuanced enough to properly exploit his talents.

Brosnan’s showy yet hollow third outing, “The World Is Not Enough,” presents a conflicted persona torn between the corny antics of the Roger Moore era and the grim seriousness of where things would eventually go under Daniel Craig’s tenure. It also contains a dose of Timothy Dalton-esque toughness, as when audiences see Bond submitting to a medical examination after injuring his collarbone falling onto the roof of London’s O2 Arena. (And a Sean Connery-like wink, after he seduces the nurse in order to get his clean bill of health.)

But so much of what made Brosnan such a great Bond is thrust into the backseat by lame jokes and a premature attempt to mix up the formula. He’s stuck making sexist puns (to the shapely accountant who asks, “Would you like to check my figures?”: “Oh, I’m sure they’re perfectly rounded.”) and out-of-touch groaners (to a henchman with a gold-plated grill: “I see you put your money where your mouth is.”). The new Q (John Cleese) is similarly introduced as an object of comedy. Even the villain (Robert Carlyle) can’t help dropping pitiful wisecracks (e.g. “Welcome to my nuclear family,” as he dramatically inserts the firing pin into a nuclear device).

As for advances to the plot, for the first time, the evil mastermind is a woman (Sophie Marceau), though the change disappointingly yields only one interesting moment, when Bond must decide to shoot his former conquest in cold blood. (“You wouldn’t kill me. You’d miss me,” Elektra taunts, to which Bond, jaw clenched as he pulls the trigger, replies, “I never miss.”) More intriguing: M, who had seldom been seen outside of his/her office over the course of the series, is now thrust directly into the action, when a bombing at the MI6 headquarters leads to the British Intelligence chief being taken hostage.

But the franchise simply doesn’t seem ready for a radical overhaul at this point (the M-related storyline will be put to far better effect in the latest Bond movie, “Skyfall”). Audiences were still getting used to the idea of a Bond with feelings – a notion first suggested upon the murder of wife Tracy Bond at the end of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” but still incompatible with the outlandish world presented by veteran documentary helmer Michael Apted. Meanwhile, putting M in a prison cell for half the movie adds little, other than making her the first woman Bond has ever rescued whom he didn’t promptly reward himself by ravishing.

For that, there’s Denise Richards as the unfortunately named Christmas Jones, the least plausible nuclear physicist in the history of movies, who makes even the electrochemist Elisabeth Shue played in 1997′s “The Saint” sound like a Nobel laureate. Admittedly easy on the eyes, Richards had steamed up the screen in the deliberately campy “Wild Things” the year prior, becoming fantasy fodder for many an American 13-year-old (and “The World Is Not Enough” is nothing if not a reversion to the franchise’s most adolescent tendencies).

Back in the days of “Dr. No,” the producers would dub over thesps with thick accents or awkward delivery, but here, they seem to believe some combination of Richards’ beauty and Bond’s jokes would distract from the single worst performance in a series that has featured some real doozies. Any gender-equality progress implied by making the villain a woman or involving Dench’s female M in the action is quashed by the way the film treats Jones, driving home its sexism with Bond’s post-coital coup de grace: “I thought Christmas only comes once a year.” Really, 007, is that the best you’ve got?

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