The World is Not Enough is undoubtedly an uneven entry in the 007 franchise, but it’s hardly the disaster some have labelled it. In fact, aspects of the film are strong enough to make it the second best Brosnan film after GoldenEye. The film’s efforts at thematic depth and characterization make it more interesting than Tomorrow Never Dies, and it boasts a terrific pre-credits sequence. Unfortunately, the rest of the action scenes, while competent (as most action scenes are in Bond films), are unmemorable within the context of the larger franchise. Even if we consider the numerous twists and folds that occur in all Bond films, the plot in this one is overly convoluted. Perhaps above all, though, The World Is Not Enough indicates that while all Bond films pivot between realism and fantasy, more realism doesn’t necessarily make for a better film.
The World Is Not Enough starts off very strongly. The pre-credits action sequence is the longest to date, coming in at roughly 15 minutes, and it’s one of the best. It involves two different country locations; the first, Bilbao, Spain; the second, MI6 headquarters in London and the Thames. In the first scene in Spain, Brosnan, now in his third picture as Bond, exudes confidence. When he quips in the tense exchange that he’ll let the thugs leave with their lives, it’s Brosnan at his most badass. He rarely feels this dangerous; and he does a good job of smashing up the room and shooting the bad guys in old-school Connery fashion, although he lets one woman (Maria Grazia Cucinotta) get away. Bond returns to headquarters with the retrieved money to return to M’s old friend, Sir Robert King (David Calder). Unbeknownst to all, the money is laced with chemicals that the lord’s lapel pin causes to explode, as the original has been switched for a detonator (just one example of the plot’s many convolutions). After the explosion, Bond spots the woman from Spain outside headquarters, and he pursues her down the Thames in a rocket boat. It’s a great waterchase, charged with tension and excitement in a way that most boat chases aren’t (sorry From Russia with Love), the busy Thames creating an exciting setting to navigate. With all these twists and turns, story-wise and boat-wise, it’s hard to believe this is only the pre-credits sequence!
In the aftermath (and after the great oil-themed title sequence and the solid song from Garbage), we discover that M’s been holding back. It turns out King’s daughter, Elektra (Sophie Marceau), was formerly kidnapped by an international anarchist-terrorist, Renard (Robert Carlyle), and that the money Bond retrieved seems to have been the money paid for her release. All this takes place in an atmospheric Lochside castle, MI6’s Scottish headquarters (since the London location has been blasted). The film’s interest in adding some depth to M, and later utilizing her in the plot for more than just exposition, is a worthwhile development, and one that points forward (along with the attack on MI6) to the concerns of Skyfall, the series’ grand statement on the role of Bond and MI6 to England and Empire. While the film never achieves the heights of Skyfall, its focus on character and thematic depth are more than superficial gestures.
The rest of The World Is Not Enough involves Bond investigating Elektra King, who runs her father’s oil empire in the Caucasus. Her company is trying to build a pipeline to rival those of the Russians, bringing petroleum from beneath the Caspian Sea to Europe. International development of the region’s oilfields began in the early 1990s after Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan gained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, so the film’s subject matter is another example of the Bond series’ interest in the shifting geopolitics of the 1990s. Eventually it is revealed in the film that Elektra is in love with and working alongside her one-time kidnapper, Renard. As Bond investigates Elektra’s organization, he meets Dr. Christmas Jones (Denise Richards), an American scientist disarming nuclear weapons in the region, again pointing to far-reaching consequences of the Soviet Union’s collapse. While the difficulty of summarizing the plot is evidence of its increasing convolutions, which are mostly the result of more twists and reveals, the basics are clear enough (kidnap and betrayal), and the subject matter of the politics of oil has lasting interest. In other words, it’s not as dated as previous portrayals of a non-internet media empire or microchips.
The film’s characterizations are the most wildly uneven aspect of the film, a mix of successes and mistakes. First of all, Brosnan is in topform. He’s fully confident in the role, managing some great humorous touches and suggesting Bond’s rougher edges. I particularly enjoy his cocky quip when an enemy snowmobile runs off a cliff: “Meet you back at the lodge,” which the film turns into a joke on Bond, as a parachute pops out and snowmobile comes back for more. But the film also continues GoldenEye’s exploration of Bond’s relations to women.
In The World Is Not Enough, Bond is continually handicapped by his presumptions about the women he encounters. His assumption that the busty Spanish woman in a room full of men isn’t important leads to her escape and the subsequent attack on MI6 headquarters. Throughout the film, Bond is blinded by his sympathy for Elektra and his assumption that he needs to protect and save her, and even when he begins to suspect her, he lets her seduce him. It’s as if the film wants to have Brosnan’s Roger Moore-ish charm be exploited, not just be a tool for exploiting. It’s not that the film makes Bond into a dupe, but it does expose his blinkers. The conclusion, with Bond straight-out shooting Elektra at point blank range, suggests that the Bond armour must continually be refortified. It’s also an example, though, of thematic poignancy conflicting with genre satisfaction; it’s an effective moment emotionally, yet at the same time it feels a bit slight for a Bond film.
The film is also something of corrective to the missed opportunity that was Octopussy. If Octopussy makes efforts to establish a mysterious female villain, only to deflate her mystique and reduce her to a mere Bond girl sidekick, The World Is Not Enough uses the conventional expectation of the Bond girl to misdirect both Bond and the viewer. Seen after the films of Connery, Moore, and Dalton, the move of having a Bond girl become the actual villain is quietly revolutionary. It’s a big difference, and one I think that has often gone unnoticed.
This leads, though, to another imbalance in the film: the utter waste of Renard. The film takes pains to set up Renard’s imperviousness to pain, due to a bullet lodged in his brain. As someone explains to Bond, Renard’s dying, but every day he doesn’t die he gets stronger. In another scene, Renard holds flaming rocks while killing off henchmen, suggesting an almost supernatural evil. But in the end, he’s manipulated by Elektra, and his final fight with Bond in the submarine is pretty lackluster. While Renard might be a wasted villain, his reduction to henchman status is actually an interesting subversion of previous Bond conventions. The subversion of expectation is also noticeable in the choice of character names. Elektra, instead of hating her mother, is actually the killer of her father, and Renard is not the wily fox of medieval folklore, but rather the fox being used to lead the hunters about in circles.
In comparison to Sophie Marceau, all I can say is, poor Denise Richards. Her character, Christmas Jones, has been lambasted by fans and critics alike, and there’s reason for the derision. The character is the worst kind of half-hearted attempt at nineties’ “girl power.” The producers took Denise Richards, who was clearly chosen because of the way she excited adolescent boys everywhere in Wild Things, and then, to cover their tracks so to speak, they make her a nuclear physicist. It’s less that Richards shouldn’t play an intelligent scientist, and more that the film shouldn’t try so hard to assert her as one. The entire film is constantly saying, “She’s not just good looking, she’s also smart!” to such an extent that they make her looks and intelligence an issue. Richards is not a great actress, but she’s also given terrible lines to deliver. Like Britt Ekland in The Man with the Golden Gun, Richards has been savaged when the true blame, in my opinion, lies squarely on the producers’, writers’, and director’s shoulders.
Oddly, the film is directed by Michael Apted, who, at the time, was known for the documentary Up series and various serious dramas. Apted is the first example of the Bond producers looking beyond their second units and the ranks of “journeyman” directors for someone with a bit more prestige, a bit more of an established name. Perhaps this points to one of the differences between Barbara Broccoli and her father, Albert Broccoli. The choice of prestige directors has continued with Sam Mendes today.
Overall, The World Is Not Enough is yet another attempt, albeit a less even one, to ground the series through emotional realism, psychological depth, and contemporary geopolitics. Unfortunately, the film isn’t able to fully satisfy both its subversive thematic interests as well as the Bond formula. The exit of Desmond Llewelyn’s Q from the series is handled with a surprisingly delicate emotional touch, but it comes after John Cleese’s buffoonery as the new Q. There are weak parts on either end, and tensions between the aims. There’s something just off about having Bond shoot a woman for the emotional climax, only to end the film with the old joke of Bond’s lovemaking being stubbled upon.
While I personally value a commitment to certain levels of characterization and thematic depth in Bond films, The World Is Not Enough also suggests that the realistic elements are in a way just as conventional as the fantasy. Indeed, in the continuum of 007 films, the more realistic entries rely on the more fantastical for part of their resonance, the effect deriving in part from the contrast. The World Is Not Enough relies on its connections back to GoldenEye, as well as its distinction from the more action-oriented Tomorrow Never Dies. And in turn Die Another Die would be another pivot back to fantasy, albeit an overstep.
7 out of 10
The World Is Not Enough (1999, UK/USA)
Directed by Michael Apted; screenplay by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Bruce Feirstein; starring Pierce Brosnan, Sophie Marceau, Robert Carlyle, Denise Richards, Robbie Coltrane, Judi Dench, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Samantha Bond, David Calder, John Cleese, and Desmond Llewelyn.