“The World Is Not Enough,” and neither is this new entry in the James Bond cycle. Although not without its moments, particularly an exciting pre-credits high-speed boat chase and some solid work by the nicely matched Pierce Brosnan and Sophie Marceau, 19th assignment of Bond’s 37-year screen career sees 007 undone by villainous scripting and misguided casting and acting in a couple of key secondary roles. Underachievement will probably only occasion a moderate B.O. dip for the series (first two Brosnan starrers, “GoldenEye” and “Tomorrow Never Dies,” grossed a series-best $353 million and $345 million worldwide, respectively), but it should put producers on notice to do better next time around.
Daft, over-crammed plotting is a shame, because Brosnan grows noticeably more comfortable in the role with each outing, and here reveals a strong urge to make the most of his admittedly scant opportunities to invest Bond with interesting shadings and substance. The secret agent this time has an appealing vulnerable side, not only a physical one in the form of a dislocated collar bone but in a growing susceptibility to Marceau’s character, who is more his match than any woman he’s met in quite a while.
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There is a palpable sense of strain in the script to come up with new set piece ideas, and one of the problems is that there are too many of them. But it’s impossible to take issue with the opening, which, at 15 minutes, must rate as the longest Bond prologue ever. Set in Bilbao, Spain, for the sole and entirely justifiable reason of using Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim Museum as scenery, story launch has Bond come to collect a large stash of money recovered from a killed MI6 agent. After 007 narrowly escapes death there, he returns to London with the loot, only to see its rightful owner blown up, sending Bond into a wild chase aboard a jet speedboat on the Thames that winds up — where else? — on top of the new Millennium Dome at Greenwich. It’s an exhilarating sequence, one that sets up expectations that are unfortunately not matched on the rest of the trip.
The man with the money, it turns out, was a wealthy industrialist whose daughter Elektra (Marceau) will now inherit his vast holdings, which include an unfinished oil pipeline across Western Asia to Istanbul. Elektra also has a history with Bond’s boss M (Judi Dench), who botched a rescue attempt of the young woman when she was held by a terrorist kidnapper, from whom Elektra subsequently escaped.
As Elektra seems a likely target of any number of rivals in the former Soviet Union, Bond heads for the picturesquely ugly oil fields of Azerbaijan to protect her, which he needs to do the moment she takes him skiing and they’re attacked by machine-gunning marauders in airborne parahawks that become speedy snowmobiles once they’ve landed.
A visit to the casino in Baku enables James not only to order a martini, but also to try out some nifty X-ray specs that not only permit him to see that nearly everyone there is packing, but also to check out the ladies’ undergarments. It’s one of the film’s cleverest little inventions, one that could have been judiciously built into a nice running gag.
But just as James and Elektra find one another, her old tormentor, the terrorist Renard (Robert Carlyle), turns up. Not only are his plots now infinitely more dastardly, but he has nothing to lose — a bullet deeply lodged in his brain, which will one day kill him, has severed nerves so that he feels no pain, and it also makes him stronger. Unlike the see-through glasses, this scripting brainstorm seems not so clever, making Renard too much of a freaky sci-fi character and saddling the gifted Carlyle with a silly role that is more annoying than imposing in the best Bond tradition.
Much further beyond the pale, however, is “Starship Troopers” and “Wild Things” bimbette Denise Richards in the role she was born to play — a high-level nuclear weapons expert. Prancing around a rugged work site in regulation nuke scientist shorts and midriff-revealing shirt, Richards tries to look all business but can’t be anything but what she is, the token Yank in the cast cluelessly flailing about and certainly unable to hold her own with her more mature co-stars.
Nonetheless, she’s asked to be convincing at disarming a nuclear warhead while hurtling with Bond through an oil pipeline at express speed. Even within the fantasy context of the Bond world, nearly everything about her character is a joke, including her name, Christmas Jones, which at least provides what’s needed for the film’s groaningly funny sign-off line.
Action grows murky and rather tiresome in the second half, with at least one set piece too many — pic is far too infatuated with a pair of buzz-saw-dragging helicopters — and excessive liberties taken with Bond invisibly transporting himself from one remote location to another in the blink of an eye.
M is intriguingly brought to the site of the suspense climax in Istanbul, only to be cast aside in a cell. A major opportunity is missed in not having her execute the coup de grace to one of the villains (which would have made much more psychological and emotional sense) instead of Bond.
Final combat aboard a submerged nuclear sub merely demonstrates once again that water puts a literal damper on action sequences.
While Bond buffs had widely speculated what a name director like Michael Apted might add to the proceedings, the answer is: very little. Staging of the dramatic sequences is capable but straightforward, although it is possible that Apted might have urged Brosnan in the encouraging direction indicated here. As Rene Russo did in “The Thomas Crown Affair,” Marceau squares off very nicely opposite the star, displaying a confident ease in English-lingo thesping.
Robbie Coltrane reprises the Sidney Greenstreetish role of the rotund criminal businessman Valentin Zukovsky that he originated in “GoldenEye,” while the usual MI6 crowd is back along with the surprising addition of a cheeky John Cleese as R, the assistant and heir apparent of the ancient Desmond Llewelyn’s ever-inventive Q.
“World” has the customary Bond look and sound, which represent cozy satisfactions unto themselves.