Wednesday, November 30, 2011
If You Can't Feel Alive
One day just a few years ago at the entertainment news program where I was still employed at the time I was walking outside the offices at CBS Radford in conversation with one of the show’s producers about who knows what. I was following along with her but as it turned out she was headed to speak to someone in particular—namely, a well known actress who was there that day to shoot something for the show. Not just any well known actress but one who, in addition to various other credits, had starred in a James Bond film. I stood there quietly while they talked, with no one acknowledging my presence in the slightest and afterwards it occurred to me that if the same thing had occurred with just about any Bond Girl other than this one I would probably have been upset not to get an introduction. I mean, really, why haven’t I ever gotten the chance to meet Famke Janssen or Rosamund Pike? Or even one of the other actresses from the particular Bond movie she was in? Not to mention Diana Rigg, but that of course goes without saying. Life is unfair. This time, however, it didn’t really bother me since the actress in question is somewhat infamous as being one of the worst Bond Girls ever (she was appearing on the show for Dancing With The Stars-related reasons, to make it really obvious who I’m talking about) and, besides, there wasn’t exactly any Ian Fleming-type magic swirling through the air at that moment in Studio City. So the occasion of my sort of brushing elbows with her ended without incident—I think I even mentioned my mixed feelings to that producer, not that she seemed to have much of a clue about what I was getting at. This actress really can’t be blamed for all of the problems of this particular James Bond film but that occasion has always seemed like a reminder to me of how the ultimate fantasy of these films you obsess over just wind up falling short. Even in real life.
The argument could be made that THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH is actually the high point of Pierce Brosnan’s tenure as James Bond but it’s almost impossible to make a definitive statement to that effect. For one thing, I’m sure plenty of people would disagree. For another thing, I’m not even entirely certain that I feel this way myself—some might argue for GOLDENEYE, but it feels a little too prefab to me now and also has one of the very worst scores in the series. TOMORROW NEVER DIES hasn’t dated all that well and is so action heavy that there’s almost nothing to dramatically dig in to once the noise has died down. DIE ANOTHER DAY contains a story which feels like it had potential at one point but it all gets lost in a sound-and-fury swarm of CGI and Halle Berry. As for THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, Brosnan’s third in his run, it’s also tough for me to state flat-out that it’s his best since that crushing feeling of disappointment when I saw the film on opening night way back in November ’99 still remains vivid in my head. My opinion has admittedly mellowed over time and unlike TOMORROW NEVER DIES, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH does at least have a certain amount of dramatic substance to dig into which has allowed it to hold up pretty well on repeat viewings. As far as screenplay structure goes it’s not exactly CHINATOWN but at least the movie feels like it’s trying to do something more this time out. The greatest irony to all this, as well as being one of the film’s biggest drawbacks, is how with one key exception the expected overblown action scenes are also some of its weakest elements. The way the plot is laid out isn’t without a few problems either and ultimately it feels like a film that continually veers wildly back and forth between elements that work well—a few surprisingly well—and others which feel like the result of endless script notes that no one was ever able to reconcile with the story they were telling. It works better for me than it did on opening night…but enough of it still falls short to make it a forever frustrating experience (Or “Close, but no cigar,” as Bond says to Moneypenny early on). Either way, any Brosnan Bond that’s going to be called his best is never quite going to be good enough, which will always be a shame.
After a money retrieval in Spain goes wrong for James Bond 007 (Pierce Brosnan) he returns the cash to London in order to deliver it to oil magnate Charles King. But when it turns out the money is booby-trapped the resulting explosion causes King’s death and an attempt by Bond to chase down the assassin (Maria Grazia Cucinotta) connected to the act results in his shoulder being seriously injured. His personal investigation in the aftermath leads to being assigned against medical advice to protect King’s daughter Elektra (Sophie Marceau) from further reprisals, but he is also aware of the guilt ‘M’ (Judi Dench) still feels over what transpired years ago when the young heiress was kidnapped by terrorists, an event which Bond believes may be connected and leads him to believe the new King pipeline under construction may be in jeopardy. As he begins to get personally involved with Elektra, Bond’s path leads to notorious terrorist Renard (Robert Carlyle), a madman who feels no pain due to a bullet lodge in his brain and may possibly be after a stash of plutonium for his own nefarious purposes. When Bond, chasing his trail, gets mixed up with nuclear physicist Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) he begins to suspect what the truth of Elektra’s allegiance may actually be and what Renard might really have planned for that weapons-grade plutonium.
Way back when Roger Moore was playing the part it was almost as if Bond was sometimes an observer in his own movie, a stand-in for the audience moving from place to place in a travelogue, sometimes allowing himself to get concerned but if a beautiful woman was killed in front of him more often than not he would exclaim a grave, “Goodbye, Countess,” before moving on to the next plot point and one liner. Somewhere along the way a shift occurred in an attempt to raise the personal stakes for the character, I suppose beginning during the brief Timothy Dalton era, and during the Brosnan run there was always an attempt to shove this sort of thing in there as if to keep the actor happy whether it was really needed in the film or not. In GOLDENEYE it was Bond’s guilt over what he assumed was the death of 006, in TOMORROW NEVER DIES it was his past relationship with Teri Hatcher’s Paris Carver—hey, I didn’t say these were successful attempts, just that this added element seemed to become part of the formula. THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (Screenplay by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, Story by Purvis & Wade and Bruce Feirstein) seemingly attempts to double down on this by not only providing Brosnan with a strong female lead character in Sophie Marceau’s Elektra King but also allowing for more involvement by ‘M’ as played by Judi Dench, then fresh off winning an Oscar for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and very clearly a commodity that the producers wanted to capitalize on. As much of an attempt as there seems to have been at putting together a more emotional plotline this time out, something that would do more than just provide connective tissue between the action scenes, as I was writing out the plot summary above it occurred to me how unwieldy some of it plays. It’s as if while the script was being worked on nobody ever bothered to ask, what is this story really about? Which character is being affected by the events of the narrative the most and who should it really be focusing on?
It may not be an unreasonable comment to make that if the high point of a Bond film (or any film, for that matter) is the pre-credit action sequence then something has to be wrong. But in the case of this particular film even that issue feels compounded in how the pre-credit setpiece is allowed to be made somewhat lumpy by having another full sequence set in Bilbao, Spain come first. It’s a nice place to start the film and even a pretty good scene on its own topped off by a particularly cool stunt but it still makes the beginning a little structurally wonky (plus it makes THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH the rare film where the opening credits don’t come until after the first reel) and it feels indicative of how the film doesn’t always compartmentalize its strongest points in the right way. In fairness the opening once we get to London is pretty awesome, building to a phenomenally rousing, hugely exciting chase down the Thames (is this the first major Bond action scene to actually take place in London?). Watching it now the undeniable level of clarity brought to the scene by all involved is almost astonishing compared with many other action scenes nowadays and it could very well be the single best sequence during the Brosnan era. The absolute rush from it all gets things off to a terrific start but unfortunately none of the attempts to top it that follow come anywhere close. With the respected Michael Apted (a long, varied career ranging from GORKY PARK and GORILLAS IN THE MIST to the UP series) directing this time out I imagine that the added focus on the drama was part of the basic intent behind the film, to attempt a story on the level of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (where the phrase “The World Is Not Enough” originates, not that I need to tell you that) that would, I suppose, shed some new light on the Bond character. Even the occasional one-liners are fairly mild as these things go and the dryness of Brosnan-impersonating-Russian stating, “I don’t know any doctor jokes” is the sort of humor these films don’t go for enough.
But it almost feels like there was a breakdown in communication between the first and second units so whenever the action starts up, somehow playing as lackluster and overblown at once, it seems to always bring any building momentum to a grinding halt, maybe a little bit more each time so when the film hits the third act it just becomes exhausting. Along with this is a ski chase which is not only the dullest of the series (where have you gone, Willy Bogner?) even with the addition of armed paraglider-equipped snowmobiles but also one in which it’s never all that clear why the chase is even occurring. There just never seems to be a decent reason even in terms of action movie logic why the characters are up on this mountaintop even if you want to backtrack after certain plot revelations (Elektra needs to check the survey lines? Huh? Is that really the best she/the movie could come up with?) and for years this would always be the point where I would mentally check out of the film for a long stretch--this time it happened several minutes ahead of time because I was so bummed about what was coming.
An extended list could almost be made about the pros and cons of any given scene, sometimes what happens within the space of a minute’s screen time. Pairing Brosnan up with the elegant Marceau is an excellent idea and their chemistry has a gravity missing from the other actresses he was paired with up to this point but the relationship never carries the emotional impact the film seems to be going for. I enjoy the cool pulp vibe of the casino setting but the ‘high card draw’ that Elektra walks in there quickly to do feels like a case of dumbing things down, as if an actual card game would be too difficult for people to follow. The return of Robbie Coltrane as Valentin Zukovsky in an expanded Karim Bey-type role is a big plus, and it’s nice to see that they’ve figured out what to do with the character this time, but the overblown pre-climactic action sequence at his caviar factory featuring helicopters equipped with massive chainsaws doesn’t add much aside from noise and makes me wish they could have gone with a tense confrontation that could have been more fitting for the movie. Moving MI6 headquarters to Scotland after the terrorist attack allows for an evocative setting but the wishy-washy way of how ‘M’ and her guilt are written weakens the character as well as the credibility of what she has Bond do. There are some well-chosen locations used throughout ranging from Spain to Turkey but when it’s time for the climax things just move to what feels like yet another dull, boring submarine setting. Maybe due to Apted’s approach to the material, too much of the film just feels shot in a listless manner as if unsure which precise tone to take, how serious or fanciful. People are always complaining about how ludicrous Denise Richards is as nuclear physicist Christmas Jones and they’re right but the character doesn’t seem to belong in this movie anyway, just as Pussy Galore or Tiffany Case would have been out of place in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. You get the feeling that it’s a film being directed by somebody who is engaged with working with some of his actors—particularly Brosnan and Marceau—but not particularly interested in the film that’s happening around them. Apted never seems excited by any of the exotic locales and it’s as if he doesn’t wish to be bothered by the gargantuan scale of it all.
There clearly was a goal to give Brosnan much more to do with the character this time out which is a good thing but while it feels like there was an attempt to play against some of the expectations of the formula they hesitated to mess with things too much so the movie tries to have it both ways, combined with plot gaps where things just get confused--when ‘M’ is kidnapped the logistics are so odd it’s as if the movie is trying to cover it up (Fun with script structure: screenwriters Purvis & Wade seem to have taken one bit of plot business here involving wordplay and used it again in the 2003 remake of THE ITALIAN JOB). Frankly, and I’ll try to avoid spoilers, some of what occurs near the end doesn’t really have all that much of an impact, whatever sort of Mickey Spillane frisson they’re trying to bring to it. Placing Bond into a garroting torture device works well but the relationship in question hasn’t meant as much as the movie seems to think it has, one of several areas where the film hasn’t lived up to its potential. The gimmick of Renard not being able to feel pain because of a bullet in his brain never really matters much at all (I once asked my brain surgeon brother-in-law what sort of basis in reality this has. Apparently not very much) and if they were trying to set up a parallel between his lack of pain and Bond’s injured shoulder, that doesn’t really matter either. When Renard is finally introduced it’s as if the movie decided it may as well get that taken care of before the hour mark but as those who’ve seen the film know, he isn’t exactly the major villain he’s been set up as anyway--as the submarine climax plays out (not as long as the stealth boat showdown in TOMORROW NEVER DIES but I still spaced out for a few minutes during this climax anyway—maybe it’s setting all this stuff in water) it still behaves as if he is. When Bond does a swan dive towards the submarine at the hour fifty mark the real drama of the movie is pretty much over anyway, even if there is the matter of saving Christmas Jones and disposing of the plutonium. By that point, the bombast is all pretty much clinical. It’s not that I don’t want lots of action going on, but it just helps when a James Bond film knows how to correctly mix the two. The final scene does have a nice echo of the past as M exclaims “007!” upon realizing what he’s up to which is one of a number of signs that THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH has good intentions that it doesn’t quite pull that off. There is something to be said for a film that has an opening that’s as good as it is here, as well as at least the potential chemistry that can be found in Brosnan and Marceau’s best scenes together but it needs more. Maybe it really is Brosnan’s best in the series but, of course, it’s a pretty weak curve.
The script and direction may be uncertain but Pierce Brosnan exudes more confidence as Bond in this film than ever before. It might very well be his best work in the part as he glides through scenes owning whichever set he’s in and knowing exactly how to take command. Sophie Marceau exudes the right sort of 60s glamour as Elektra King that these films don’t always provide anymore and she knows just how to play off Brosnan in their scenes together. She may not be the revelation that Eva Green later was in CASINO ROYALE, but it is an honorable attempt and she’s the best female lead that the series had in a long time at this point. Denise Richards, as I mentioned already, isn’t very good at all but I don’t really know what to say to add to all the ‘Worst Bond Girl’ lists that she’s been put on—it’s just a case of the wrong actress in the wrong movie. Of course, she seems to have such little idea of how to play this part that I’m not sure what the right movie would be. A few of her most relaxed moments almost feel like Apted just let the camera run until she wasn’t even trying to act and he used those takes. Hey, she clearly had to get really wet under treacherous conditions while shooting the climax so I’ll leave her alone.
Robert Carlyle, now doing excellent work on ABC's ONCE UPON A TIME, seems engaged and willing to be imposing as Renard, the script just doesn’t provide him with many opportunities to live up to that intensity. Robbie Coltrane is terrifically enjoyable as Zukovsky but I honestly wonder if this is Judi Dench’s weakest performance as ‘M’ to date, as if they didn’t know how to add extra shadings to the character involving her guilt over Elektra and she was uncertain how to play this material. The ridiculously gorgeous Maria Grazia Cucinotta smolders through her few lines as the deadly ‘Cigar Girl’ and her intensity is yet another plus to that opening chase. Desmond Llewlyn, who killed in a car crash several weeks after the film opened, makes his final appearance as ‘Q’ in what was clearly meant to be a swan song introducing his protégé played by John Cleese. The impressively tall Serena Scott Thomas is Dr. Molly Warmflash (oy) while the likes of Samantha Bond as Miss Moneypenny, Colin Salmon as Charles Robinson and Michael Kitchen as Bill Tanner make return appearances (“Well, at least Bill Tanner was in the movie,” went the message one longtime Fleming fan I know left on my answering machine the night it opened). The feel of a growing ensemble backing up Brosnan each time out makes it seem kind of too bad that the powers that be decided to toss all this camaraderie after just one more movie, as much of a fan as I am of Daniel Craig and particularly CASINO ROYALE but I guess that’s the way it goes. The score by David Arnold, with title song by Garbage, is terrific and builds on his TOMORROW NEVER DIES work adding techno overlays to the expected Bondian clusters of trumpets. The Thames Chase, “Come in 007, Your Time Is Up” on the album, may be Arnold’s best work in the series to date as well and he provides a similar level excitement for much of what follows, although I wonder if a more uptempo approach to that damn ski chase would have helped. But in his score he gets the action, the intrigue, the elegance, he knows when to include a wink and he knows when is the right time for the music to blare “THIS IS JAMES BOND”. It may not be John Barry but it still feels right for what a Bond film needs.
Even if the directors of James Bond films are strictly for hire, respected British filmmakers at a point in their careers where they might be open to making some money on such a potential box-office hit, the final results often reveal something of what really interests them in the character. Lewis Gilbert, based on THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and MOONRAKER, seemed to be attracted to making jokey, larger-than-life epics focusing on the spectacle. John Glen, the director-of record during the 80s, was clearly attracted to continuing the traditions of the character’s origins laid down decades before and I think Martin Campbell responded to those elements in his own way particularly considering how strongly CASINO ROYALE turned out. Roger Spotiswoode clearly saw it as a chance to make an action movie, which is what TOMORROW NEVER DIES really is. Michael Apted…well, I’m really not sure what to say about his overall approach so the film sort of stays stranded in some middle world between a thriller on the order of his own GORKY PARK and what maybe he thinks is the sort of film he’s supposed to be making. If it had a filmmaker with a stronger opinion about it all, somebody who was excited they were actually making a James Bond movie, maybe that would only have made the film stronger as well. And maybe I would have felt passionate enough about it to say something to that actress that day at CBS Radford. Even if she still wasn’t all that good in it. But hey, I love James Bond movies and regardless of all that I’ve said this is still one of those so when I think about Pierce Brosnan chasing Maria Grazia Cucinotta in that rigged up speedboat down the Thames, adjusting his tie as he briefly goes underwater, it reminds me that the film does have the occasional rush that’s going to make me want to see it again. Still, as is said in both the film’s dialogue and title song, there’s no point in living if you can’t feel alive. It’s an appropriate Bondian sentiment. I guess I just wish that THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH itself believed that as well.