Saturday, 30 June 2012

The World Is Not Enough

Prepare to have your mind blown: The World is Not Enough is GOOD. In fact it is very nearly REALLY good. It's the best Bond of the '90s, and it's Brosnan's best effort too (almost but not quite the same thing). It's not unbearably pleased with itself (like GoldenEye), it's not a bland Bond-less action meh (like TND) and it's not an execrable piece of WTF (like DAD). No, TWINE is an exciting thriller with some good dialogue and - gasp - real characters, including one called - double gasp - James Bond.

Yes, I know I've been rude about Brosnan lately and I probably will be again, so it is important that I start off by saying that he is very good in this. Okay, he's a little too slight, he doesn't have the necessary swagger and some lines come out chewed up, like a wasp escaping from a bulldog's mouth. BUT he does actually present us with a recognisable version of James Bond that is a coherent and multi-dimensional character. And he does this well enough that I really enjoy it. Thanks to a great script (a massive improvement on TND) Brosnan gets to be witty instead of jokey and his Bond is constantly improvising, extemporising and generally being shit hot, which is kind of the bloody point after all. And look, Pierce really is acting! Look at his face when Bond is pretending to be Arkov: there's a tiny twist to the mouth or something - it's very subtle, but effective and nicely done, and the unavoidable (and perhaps disconcerting) conclusion is that Brosnan might actually be acting the rest of the time too.

The Brosnan Project is still rumbling along but gets its most graceful execution here, with Bond picking up a shoulder injury during the PCS which dogs him for the rest of the movie. It's a tiny, simple trick, but it turns Brosnan's Bond back into a mortal man, someone subject to the forces of time, physics and so forth, and it really helps, even if it does provide yet more opportunities for some terrible gurning. I won't bang that drum again - better to praise the way the story gently needles Bond into having emotional reactions that are, for a change, convincing, subdued and relevant to the story. But having said all that, there is still the need, apparently, for someone to have an improbable narrative-propelling backstory. This time it is M, but this works better too: M is peripheral enough that it doesn't matter if we meet all her university friends and turf over her mistakes. And whilst she is dealing with the guilt and flashbacks, Bond can get on with the cool stuff.

And there is plenty of cool stuff. The long PCS is dominated by the stylish boat chase along the Thames and it's rather wonderful to have London used as a location at last. The so-so ski battle seems shoe-horned in but at least evokes memories of OHMSS and FYEO. Then there's a cracker of a sequence inside the missile silo: full of action and character, it is story-boarded within an inch of its life and totally fabulous. It's one of the best set-pieces the franchise has seen for a long time and it sits beautifully in the middle of the film, advancing the story and shaping characters whilst delivering all the requisite thrills. The pipeline bomb chase is nifty and something we haven't seen before and the double copter attack on Zukovsky's place is very slickly done, if a little silly. And then after all that there's a top-notch fight aboard a sinking submarine. It may seem a subdued finale compared with other Bond's but the stakes are as high as ever.

The action isn't even the best thing about TWINE. Threading through it is that rarest of Bond gems, a character-led story. All the principles (well.. except Christmas Jones) have an emotional involvement in the story that shapes their actions. Even smaller parts like Zukovsky, Bullion (Goldie's cameo), Moneypenny and Dr Warmflash (yes, that really is her name) are thought out and well acted. Zukovsky's death, in particular, is brilliant: tense, moving and cathartic - and wordless. An entire relationship is expressed in those few glances between him and Bond; it is beautiful, and certainly the most meaningful death we've seen for a long time.

It may be that Brosnan's improved performance is just him reflecting back some of the great acting in front of him. Robert Carlyle, Sophie Marceau, Dame Judi and Robbie Coltrane are all very good indeed and their scenes with Bond crackle with an intensity that's been missing since LTK. Special praise must be reserved for Carlyle who allows the ruthless terrorist Renard a tragic vulnerability. The bullet in his brain may prevent him from feeling pain or pleasure, but Renard is also psychologically numbed by his condition - forlorn and angry, he is a man trapped in a death-roll with his own mind. It's an excellent performance - well thought out and subtly delivered - that is, one might argue, wasted on a Bond villain.

Except that Renard isn't the real villain of the piece at all. He is himself a victim, fatally captivated by Electra King's manipulation. Marceau doesn't have to do very much other than look beautiful and gaze meaningfully at people, but that's okay because that's all King herself has to do to get what she wants. Wealthy and privileged, yet also bitterly resentful and convinced that she has been betrayed by the powers that be, King's psychological template doesn't stray too far from that of other Bond villains. But throw in her womanly wiles (she seduces both Bond and Renard, and co-opts the latter into dying for her 'cause') and her girlish glee (as her plan seems to come together) and we have something totally new.

The only dim bulb in this high-watt line up is Denise Richards. She tries to brazen it out. She fires off her lines with gutsy attitude and frowns a lot, perhaps hoping that this makes her character appear clever. Unfortunately the more physics she gets to spout, the less convincing she is. Ultimately there are two obvious reasons why she's here: her figure and her nationality, and neither her part nor her acting are complex enough to distract us from her bankability.

But ignore her, if you can, and focus on the plot because this is a Bond film which manages to home in on some of the issues of the time. TWINE explores the fall out from the Cold War by visiting former Soviet states and by showing us that even obsolete nuclear weapons can be dangerous. For the first time since TMWTGG, energy and natural resources are on the agenda: here King's oil pipeline snakes around the Middle East just four years before the Iraq War. And then there's Renard - terrorism has changed an awful lot since the days of SPECTRE and this is finally reflected in a Bond film here. Yes, there were some throwaway lines in TND, but Renard's character is much more prominent than anything we've seen before and much more like the real kinds of terrorists that were about to unleash their own super-villainy upon the United States.

It is flippant to examine the terrorist attacks of the 11th of September 2001 through a Bond prism, but there is much there to be mulled over. Again and again Bond audiences had been presented with dastardly conspiracies to murder thousands, millions, even billions of people. In Goldfinger, Thunderball, OHMSS, TSWLM and Moonraker we saw 007 intervene to save us from the mad men. Here, in TWINE, the last Bond film before 9/11, he prevents a suicidal terrorist from executing a devastating surprise attack on a major city. But in the real world, there was no-one, no way, to stop the obscene calamity from unfolding. Everything was changed, everyone was affected. People looked for answers wherever they could and I'm sure I wasn't the only one wondering how the Bond series would deal with the new global terror threat, just as it had shown the changing tides of the Cold War in the past. The time was right for a new tone, something more sober, darker, harder. A new Bond for a suddenly brutalised and more complicated world.

Instead we got Die Another Day and, for this new world, it was not enough.

*   *   *

Pre-Credits Sequence: To be picky, we get two PCSs this time. The first, a stunning vignette set in the offices of a Swiss banker in Bilbao, was deemed too insubstantial to kick-off proceedings by itself and so the next bit, where Bond chases Cigar Girl down the Thames in the Q boat, was brought forward as well. The result is the longest PCS to date but it barely lags, even if it is a little off-balance.

Theme: Sorry, this one does nothing for me whatsoever. Pairing David Arnold up with grunge rockers Garbage should have produced something better than this surely? Once again Kleinman does well to produce some inventive and stylish visuals for the credits, but the petroleum hues, all green and purple, are too gaudy for me. 

Deaths: 92. Well above average. I've arbitrarily assumed a skeleton crew for the Russian sub of 20. 

Memorable Deaths: Robert King detonates his own money. Cigar woman blows up her hot air balloon. Zukovsky takes one last shot at Bond. Renard gets shafted. And Q, the mighty Desmond Llewellyn, macabrely descends into Earth, never to be seen again.

Licence to Kill: 22. In his first three outings Brosnan has dispatched more baddies than Connery, Lazenby and Dalton put together.  

Exploding Helicopters: 2. Another glorious two helicopters get taken out. And a balloon. And four parahawks, whatever they are.  

Shags: It's a cast iron three, the first since Moonraker. In addition to getting into both Electra's and Christmas's pants, he also - rather cynically - beds MI6 doctor, Molly Warmflash. 

Crimes Against Women: On the one hand, things are good. Electra King runs her global business empire and competently plots to nuke Istanbul; Christmas Jones is a nuclear physicist. M, Moneypenny and Warmflash seem to run MI6 and even one of the Double-Ohs is a woman. But, on the other hand, despite all that there is still plenty of sexism. Warmflash is needy and vengeful. Moneypenny is catty and jealous, and gets a suggestive cigar from Bond as a present. M is emotionally compromised by King and gets kidnapped. Electra herself is manipulative and conniving, corrupting men with her sexual power. Jones is dismissed as frigid because she hasn't succumbed to the Russian commander's charm. And let's not forget, there is a reason that we have the gratuitous shots of Warmflash in her french knickers, that we have the pneumatic Denise Richards playing a physicist in a strappy top (not to mention demonstrating her buoyancy in a flooding submarine - the first Bond wet t-shirt competition), and why Bond gets x-ray glasses that magically only show guns and women's underwear.   

Casual Racism: Was there any? We are nearly in Modern Times here, so it might be hoped that the racism is drying up - but the Russians on show are all various shades of corrupt, venal and incompetent.   

Out of Time: Davidov takes his picture with a Polaroid camera. Kids, ask your grandparents. Unforgivably, R references the 'Millennium Bug', meaning that this film became irrevocably dated within seconds of being released. Similarly, the traffic wardens who are soaked during the boat chase were actual traffic wardens from a reality TV show called Clampers. Remember that? No, of course not.

Fashion Disasters: Better from Bond, sticking mainly to sharp grey suits and black tie. Electra's high-slit skirts seem quite impractical for running, let alone nuking Istanbul. Nuclear physicist Dr Jones gets to dress up as a prostitute. Is it churlish to mention the red hats sported by the Spanish police? 

Most Shameless Advertising: The usual suspects: Smirnoff and BMW are here again, and Bollinger gets a nice shot of their label too. I've also written down Hewlett Packard in my notes, but for the life of me I can't remember what this was for. Anyone notice? Bond's BMW here is a big improvement on TND's 750i: he drives a Z8 and it almost manages to evoke the feel of an Aston Martin as 007 drives through the Azerbaijani oil fields. Best of all, the Z8 only plays a bit part in the helicopter attack before being sawn in half, leaving Bond to rely on his wits.

Eh?: Why is Cigar Girl sent to kill the Swiss Banker if Renard can pick off people in the room with impunity with his sniper rifle? Why not just shoot him? >> MI6 is all over the place. Do they really need a bank vault? Why is it next to an exterior wall, rather than deep inside? Why is King there to collect the money? Can't MI6 deliver it? Q Branch seems to be a corridor, half way between M's office and the vault, all of which are on the same floor. Inconveniently for boat launching, it is rather a high-up floor, but it doesn't seem to matter. Perhaps it is the bizarre proximity of these departments to each other that means so much of MI6 has to relocate to Scotland after the explosion, but surely King would have set off the bomb on his way to M's office if the vault was that nearby? >> Speaking of the Q Boat, Q shouts at Bond that it is not yet finished, but despite this it is both fuelled and armed. Q later claims that it is for his retirement (misuse of Government property surely?), so much of the functionality is questionable, particularly the submerging. >> Why do Bond, Tanner, Moneypenny and Robinson get invited to King's funeral? >> Why move MI6 to Scotland? Why not elsewhere in London for goodness sake? And why is the INSIDE of the castle disguised? Does Q need to hide the car under the pool table? Who is he hiding it from? >> Q's last lines are entirely incomprehensible. "I've always tried to teach you two things. One, never let them see you bleed." What? Where does that come from? Has he been providing 007 with absorbent suits all this time? "Two, always have an escape route." More rubbish, unless he means guns disguised as cigarettes? >> The plot becomes a little scrambled here, but presumably Electra King lures Bond to the pipeline in order to facilitate the parahawk attack. Right, whatever, but how does she persuade Bond that this is a normal or necessary thing for her to do? She claims she is off to "check" the pipeline, but she's just the owner - she doesn't take any engineers or technicians, let alone security, so what is she supposed to be doing other than gawping at it?  >> What was Arkov supposed to be doing for Renard when he steals the warhead? The plan is not damaged by his absence so it can't be that his nuclear expertise was required. It seems as if his job was to allow the team to gain access to the site, but this is obviously rubbish because a) Bond (or Davidov) is able to pretend to be Arkov and b) Renard is already in place when the team arrives. >> This begs other questions. If Arkov is such a bigwig at the IAEA, why isn't he known at the missile silo? And why does Renard travel separately? He certainly escapes on the same plane that Bond arrived on. >> It is very fortuitous that Maiden's Tower, Electra's hideout, is bigger on the inside - so much so that it has space for an underwater submarine berth. >> The Chair of Death has been dug up nearby according to Electra (what, from the sea bed?) but it is in suspiciously good condition. 

Worst Line: Plenty. The physics poisons everything. Bond describes his relationship with Jones as "strictly plutonic"; Renard announces "welcome to my nuclear family!" for no obvious reason. "And for those of us who don't speak spy?" Jones snarks to 007. "I'm sure they are perfectly rounded," phwoars Bond, unable to ignore Cigar Girl's tits as she hands him some numbers to inspect. 

Best Line: Lots for a change. Dr Christmas Jones introduces herself and tells 007 she has heard all the jokes. "I don't know any Doctor jokes," Bond deadpans. >> Renard taunts Bond's motivation: "What do you believe in? The preservation of Capital?" >> Following a small explosion, Jones whinges that someone is going to "have her ass". "First things first," Bond replies. >> Zukovsky bumps into 007 and wonders aloud "Why do I think I am suddenly not carrying enough insurance?" >> During the countdown to a nuclear explosion, Bond demands Electra tell him where M is. "Soon," laughs Electra, "she'll be everywhere!" But then she taunts 007 that he will be unable to kill her: he would miss her. Bond shoots her dead and then glowers regretfully, "I never miss."

Worst Bond Moment: Resorting to sexual skulduggery with Molly Warmflash in order to be passed fit for duty. Shackled up in Electra's Chair of Death.  

Best Bond Moment: Bond is locked in a room full of murdered people, with the police banging on the door. His escape is improvised, ingenious, (almost literally) incredible, and thrillingly scored by Arnold. It's a tiny moment, but it is pure Bond: funny, exciting and cool. It is blink-and-you'll-miss-it brilliant. >> In the past, 007 has often pulled the old trick of introducing himself to a woman after having done something super-cool. This time, in the missile silo, he cleverly manages to wedge the something cool in to the middle of saying his own name, accompanied by a massive flaring fanfare from Arnold.   

Overall: Wit, style and compelling characters all return to the franchise and make this the best of the Brosnans. Throw in Arnold's music, a good story and some actual acting and TWINE, perhaps, deserves to be considered alongside the great Bond films.    

James Bond Will Return: in Die Another Day. Don't worry, I'll watch it and then you won't have to.

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