In his third outing as James Bond, Pierce Brosnan delivers something pretty close to a flawless performance. He opts to underplay the character's fits of icy rage and cheerful irreverence, tucking both elements away under a veneer of calm professionalism. His Bond likes to have fun, but he somehow seems more damaged than his predecessors; a feeling that reveals itself most strongly during intimate conversations with enemies and lovers (especially when his enemy and his lover are the same person). It's arguably Brosnan's best performance as Bond, but it's trapped in a film that never quite manages to become as compelling or entertaining as it ought to.
Our story begins with the assassination of Sir Robert King (David Calder, Rush), a British oil tycoon and longtime friend of M (Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). When the chaos of the moment dies down, M assigns Bond to protect King's daughter Elektra (Sophie Marceau, Braveheart). It quickly becomes clear that King's assassin was Renard (Robert Carlyle, Trainspotting), a former KGB agent who is now an ambitious, well-funded terrorist. Years ago, Renard kidnapped Elektra and held her for ransom, and MI6 has reason to believe he's planning to do so again. Naturally, the relationship between Bond and Elektra quickly turns intimate, but he worries that she may be suffering from the effects of Stockholm Syndrome. Does she secretly want to be captured?
This is a more serious-minded film than Tomorrow Never Dies, easing back on the more outlandish elements of the series in favor of delivering something closer in tone to Timothy Dalton's Bond flicks. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for the plot to become a near-incomprehensible muddle of complicated motivations and conflicted allegiances. I'm all in favor of knotty spy yarns (John le Carre is one of my favorite novelists), but the story being told here isn't rich enough to justify making a serious effort to untangle the confusing narrative. In other words, the plot is not enough.
While you're trying to figure out what's going on, exactly, the film serves up the usual quota of explosive action sequences. The high point is an atypically lengthy pre-credits sequence (it's a whopping fifteen minutes before Garbage's serviceable title song kicks in) involving a motorboat chase on the Thames, but there's also a fun skiing sequence (Bond has been involving in so many shooting and skiing incidents that he ought to consider competing in a biathlon during the Winter Olympics), a wild ride down an oil pipeline and a bombastic setpiece involving helicopters with giant spinning buzzsaws dangling beneath them. Director Michael Apted (a legendary documentary filmmaker and not-so-legendary helmer of other movies) brings a good deal of clarity to these sequences, but only during the opening stretch does he manage to create much sustained momentum (perhaps because it was edited down from a much lengthier version of the sequence).
Most movies in this series offer two Bond girls: a good one and a bad one. That's true in more than one sense this time around. The lovely Sophie Marceau does excellent work as Elektra, turning in the film's most complicated character (other than Bond, anyway) and playing a number of emotionally complex scenes with nuance and feeling. On the flip side, we have Denise Richards (Wild Things) as nuclear physicist Christmas Jones, whose expertise comes in handy for a variety of plot-related reasons and whose name leads to one of the worst jokes in the franchise's history. Every bit of Richards' performance feels stilted, and the fact that the filmmakers seem intent on dressing her up like Lara Croft (seemingly a deliberate homage to the Bond-influenced video game series) makes her even less convincing.
Carlyle's moody terrorist is a bore (the most interesting thing about the performance is the fact that Carlyle's wobbly accent suggests that he's from Moscow by way of Glasgow), but it's nice to have Robbie Coltrane (Goldeneye) back as the affable Russian mobster Valentin Zukovsky. Dench's M also gets a much more significant role in the proceedings this time around, which is particularly refreshing after Tomorrow Never Dies nudged her to the sidelines. Sadly, this film marks the final appearance of Desmond Llewelyn's Q (the actor was killed in a car accident shortly after filming was completed), who appeared in a whopping seventeen Bond films over the years. He was a pro to the end, bringing just the right measure of gentle frustration to his lightly comic interactions with the various incarnations of 007. The film also provides the introduction of Q's replacement R (John Cleese, Fawlty Towers). My love for Cleese knows no bounds, but his brief, silly appearance here feels out of sync with the rest of the movie.
The movie's final stretch is curious. There's a dark, fairly intense scene involving an old torture device, and a grim showdown aboard a submarine that once again sees Bond indulging the cruel, vengeful side that popped up in Goldeneye. There are two problems with this. The first is that the film's story isn't quite compelling enough to support the surprising level of weight Apted attempts to bring to it. The second is that the film isn't really willing to commit to making a genuinely dark Bond movie, backing off the serious tone of the climax with one of those corny “Bond's superiors discover that 007 is getting busy with a lady” codas. There are individual things to admire here, but The World is Not Enough never quite gels the way it ought to.
The World is Not Enough
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Year: 1999