Friday, April 6, 2012

A look back at THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH

As well as continuing the Retrograde series of old reviews, this entry is also a teaser for a future Bond-themed post. Till then, enjoy...

Original Release Date: 14-8-2010


“One tires of being executed” 




THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH holds a special place for me since it was the first Bond movie I saw on the big screen. Having spent the year leading up to it watching all of the Bond movies (when you’re stuck on an island where it rains all the time and nightfall is 3 pm you do a lot of strange things), to say I was looking forward to BOND 19 would be an understatement.

After watching the film, I didn’t feel nearly so well disposed toward it. It was frankly too adult for me at the time. After all the flashy pyrotechnics of TOMORROW NEVER DIES, I guess I had been expecting too much. Grim, nihilistic, and boasting one of the most disturbed villains in the series, TWINE was not exactly what you could call fun. With a decade’s distance, however, I think the film is overdue for a re-review.

First things first, this film is not, by any stretch of the imagination, one of the best Bond movies.

Not that I think there is anything inherently wrong with the story itself. Personally, I like it. It's a brave attempt to bring Bond back to reality, as the series periodically does every couple of entries (and as we have seen in Daniel Craig's interpretation of the character).

The problem is simple: the filmmakers try to have their cake and eat it, trying to combine a more realistic dramatic narrative with the series’ typical elements of action, babes, gadgets and one-liners. Not to say that this balance can’t be struck, as the examples of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS and GOLDENEYE attest. Even compared to the ‘back-to-basics’ films made with Daniel Craig, Bond 19’s problem is an inability to avoid the worst excesses of the formula. More simply put, it is the attempt to create a character study of Bond while retaining the inherent wish-fulfillment fantasy of the series which is its downfall.

I underline these problems as follows:

a) Casting. When you want to be taken seriously (as a film, as an artist, or as the despotic ruler of one of the less friendly former Soviet republics) you do not hire Denise Richards to headline the show. Especially as a nuclear physicist. And especially when she spends the film dressed like this...

2) Humour. If there is one big problem I have with TWINE, it is the constant stream of crap double entendres. Some of them are good, but why do they have to be in every single, frickin' scene? What makes it worse is that even Brosnan seems to be embarrassed by them. John Cleese is a genius, but, like Richards, is completely inappropriate to the more sombre mood the filmmakers are attempting to create. Which brings me to the film's final problem, this man.

As the film's director, Michael Apted is the man most responsible for what I like and dislike about this film.

The main problem is miscasting. Apted is known for more introspective, performance-based dramas such as COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER (1980), GORILLAS IN THE MIST (1988) and AMAZING GRACE (2006), not the sturm-und-drang of an action adventure film. This results in a film stuck between being a serious, complex thriller and an escapist action film The schism between these twin urges has the unfortunate effect of dissipating the impact of the film as a whole. As neither a thriller or an action spectacle does TWINE feel secure. 

As a filmmaker, Apted simply lacks the panache and style that a Bond film requires. This is a problem which has plagued the series since the Eighties, with only Martin Campbell (GOLDENEYE and CASINO ROYALE) managing the difficult task of combining spectacle with a more dramatic subtext.

However, while Apted is responsible for TWINE's mixed tone, he is also responsible for many of its chief pleasures.

a) The villains

Apted's films are well known for their strong female characters, and he broke new ground by providing the Bond series with its first female Big Bad.

Electra King is one nasty piece of work, seducing an international terrorist, blowing up her dad and attempting to secure a monopoly on Central Asia's oil deposits by nuking Istanbul. And then there's that weird thing she has with ice. Sophie Marceau's performance is excellent, making Electra both a mature, sensual woman and a damaged adolescent with serious Daddy issues. The only (minor) problem with the revelation of her true nature is the way in which it pushes aside Robert Carlyle's grinning nihilist Renard.

Together they are an interesting Macbeth-style double act, with both of them unable to really trust or care for each other. Frankly, Renard and King are the series' last truly great villains, both more complex and interesting than the recent trend of anonymous power brokers which have plagued Britain's Finest.

b) Plot twists

Bond films are not known for their subtlety, and it's not exactly required (though FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE makes a strong argument) and one of the nice things about watching TWINE (I am not typing that title again!) for the first time is some interesting story developments (MI6 is under attack! M is kidnapped! Renard isn't the baddie? Or is he?). 

The filmmakers obviously tried to do something different, and generally speaking, the plot is TWINE's saving grace.

c) The past

This may be lost to most movie goers, but the film's title comes from the book/film of ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. Producer Barbara Broccoli also highlighted the parallel between the two films: "With Elektra, Bond thinks he has found Tracy [his wife] but he's really found Blofeld."

The use of such a reference only adds to TWINE's sense of melancholy and hidden wounds. While it is never clear whether Brosnan's Bond is the same character who lost his wife at the close that picture, the sense of a painful past that TWINE hints at is a theme common to the Brosnan era (check out the confrontation with 006 in GOLDENEYE), and one which the film doggedly pursues to the bitter end (the scene where Bond has to decide whether to kill Electra).

d) Bond himself

While his interpretation has lost some of its lustre in light of the series' recent direction, Pierce Brosnan remains one of the series best Bonds, and his third film remains, arguably, his best performance as the iconic spy.

I always saw Brosnan as the natural evolution of Dalton's Bond, and in TWINE he excels. Not as dour as the Welshman, nor as flippant as Moore, Brosnan had the right combination of suave sophistication and acting chops to give the character a unique spin. 

While he may never have reached Dalton's intensity, and he didn't have the brutish machismo of Connery or Craig, Brosnan remained his own man as Bond, delivering a more humane version of the character which gelled with audiences in the late Nineties. While the material he worked with was not as strong as it could have been (a fact highlighted in his final turn), Brosnan never hit a false note.

TWINE is probably Brosnan's best performance as Bond. More reflective and less teflon coated than his performances in GOLDENEYE and TOMORROW NEVER DIES, BOND 19 sees Brosnan reveal more vulnerability, tenderness (check out the work he does with Marceau and Judi Dench) and rage (the opening sequence where he wipes the smirk off an arrogant Swiss banker) than had been seen since Dalton's woefully brief term in the role. 

While I'm sure others can come up with other reasons to like/bash BOND 19, it remains an interesting anomaly within the canon (yes, I used that word), sharing the same middle ground between disaster and originality as previous attempts to push Bond and his milieu into a more interesting direction. That being said, previous "noble failures" such as OHMSS (1969) and LICENCE TO KILL (1989) have undergone a critical re-evaluation in the years since their release, and hopefully the same fate awaits THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. As the saying goes, while it may fail more than most, its failings are greater than most (Bond) films' successes (invisible car! Space marines! Q's pineapple-print t shirt!)

SPECIAL NOTE: Thank you to Rowan French for reminding me that David Arnold's score is another good reason to listen to, as well as watch, BOND 19.

Combining Nineties dance beats with classical orchestration and synthesizers, Arnold manages an effective balance between the timelessness of the original theme with more contemporary textures. Fantastic stuff.




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