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Skyfall Countdown Day 4: The World is Not Enough

The new face of evil.

SPOILER ALERT:  You might not want to read this review unless you’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises.  The reasons why will become apparent soon enough.

Tomorrow Never Dies had been the usual James Bond box office success, which was of particular note on this occasion given that it opened on the exact same weekend in 1997 as Titanic.  But it seemed clear to all involved that there was something lacking amidst the bluster and explosions.  Pierce Brosnan himself asked for material to challenge him as an actor rather than continue to be a glorified stunt performer.  The focus for the next movie then would be more on character, and to that end, producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, now steering the series together after the passing of her father Albert, enlisted the services of director Michael Apted, who had made the acclaimed “Up Series” of documentaries following up on a group of British schoolchildren every seven years of their lives, and had directed Sissy Spacek to her Best Actress Oscar in Coal Miner’s Daughter.  The screenplay would return to the vein of Goldeneye, with its shifting alliances and a story set amidst the wreckage of the Cold War.  In a first for the Bond series, the primary villain would be a woman.  Recognizing also that Judi Dench was too strong a performer to be confined to the customary briefing scene at the beinning of the movie, M would take a much greater role in the plot, with Bond forced to grapple with the consequences of her past mistakes (an element that seems to be replicated in Skyfall, but I guess we’ll see at the end of the week).  The World is Not Enough would take its title from the motto of the Bond family, first revealed in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service:  “Orbis non sufficit.”

After Bond becomes an unwitting accomplice in the murder of British oil tycoon Sir Robert King, he is assigned by M to protect King’s daughter Elektra (Sophie Marceau) from the terrorist Renard (Robert Carlyle) who once held her for ransom and has seemingly returned for vengeance.  Bond is immediately smitten with the beautiful and damaged Elektra, who intends to continue her father’s work of building a much-needed oil pipeline across treacherous old Soviet territory, in direct competition with three Russian pipelines also under construction to the north.  Following a night in Elektra’s bed, Bond pursues a lead to Kazakhstan where he discovers Renard is attempting to steal weapons-grade plutonium from Soviet nuclear warheads that are being decommissioned under the supervision of Dr. Christmas Jones (Denise Richards).  Renard, a remorseless, relentless man who is unable to feel pain because of an assassin’s bullet working its way through his brain (an assassin sent by M herself, no less) seems to have an insider in Elektra’s organization, and is successful in escaping with the nuclear material.  Bond believes that insider is Elektra herself, who he suggests is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and helping Renard out of twisted devotion to her former kidnapper.  But after Elektra’s pipeline is attacked, and M is taken prisoner, it turns out that things are the other way around – Renard fell in love with Elektra and has been her pawn the entire time; she has engineered her father’s murder to seize control of his company for herself.  With time running out, Bond must rely on the help of his old frenemy Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane) to rescue M and stop Renard from using his stolen plutonium in a suicide attack aboard a nuclear sub that will destroy Istanbul and contaminate the Bosphorus with radiation, rendering the competing Russian pipelines useless and making Elektra’s the sole vehicle for delivering oil to the West.

I observed in my review of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that it was one of Christopher Nolan’s favourite movies, and whether intentionally or not, the plot of The Dark Knight Rises mirrors what happens in The World is Not Enough as well.  Bane, like Renard, is a terrorist villain who appears to be the primary antagonist, only for it to be revealed that he is a mere accomplice, driven by love to carry out a suicidal nuclear attack for the true mastermind who appears at first to be the hero’s romantic partner, Miranda/Talia al Ghul and Elektra, respectively.  Both men are physically stronger than average, because of an unusual tolerance to pain (Renard cannot feel any, while Bane constantly inhales an anaesthetic gas to numb his sensitivity to it.)  Where the films differ is in their treatment of the terrorist.  Renard, with the makeup for his bullet wound giving him a perpetually sad-eyed look, is a villain whom you almost feel sorry for – he nears the verge of tears when confronted with his inability to provide Elektra the kind of physical pleasure she has received from Bond.  He loves Elektra desperately, yet cannot be the man she wants, and so, with all he has left to offer – his life – he tries to give her the world.  Carlyle is excellent and understated, conveying obsession, cruelty and a resigned acceptance of his own fate; a truly complex and intriguing bad guy.  Marceau is elegant as a wounded young woman attempting to round out her life with empty pleasures, although when she unveils her true nature she veers a tad hammy.  Still, equal opportunity villainy (as director Michael Apted put it) gives Brosnan the chance for a brutal and singular Bond moment when he shoots her dead.

As I mentioned earlier, Judi Dench’s role has been greatly expanded this time and we learn some history about the nameless woman who runs MI6, as she begins to show the motherly side of M that would fully manifest during Daniel Craig’s tenure.  She also has a chance for an action beat of her own when performing some MacGyver-like modifications to a nuclear locator card while in captivity to allow Bond to find her.  It’s also wonderful to see Robbie Coltrane back as the roguish Zukovsky, who after having his own loyalties tested becomes a full-blown if short-lived ally to 007.  And the legendary John Cleese is on hand as Q’s assistant R with some witty one-liners and his talent for pratfalls.  But then there is poor Denise Richards.  More than enough has been written about her performance in this movie to satisfy the snarkiest Internet commenter.  This seems to have been another case where she was shoved in at the behest of a studio uncomfortable with too many European names in the cast, but in Richards’ defense, I doubt Meryl Streep would have been able to do very much with the part, scripted almost as an afterthought with unsayable lines about tritium and radiation levels.  Richards looks great though, which is really the only reason she’s there.  Scratch that – she’s there because otherwise, with Elektra taking a bullet through her chest, Bond finishes the movie alone, and the filmmakers weren’t brave enough to try that departure from formula quite yet (especially when there are bad puns to be made from Jones’ first name).

Where The World is Not Enough is strongest, ironically, is when it does break away from the routine and venture into new territory.  Bond has an emotional journey this time, his defenses peeled back as he tries to achieve justice for Sir Robert King’s death, clean up M’s old mess and grapple with his own betrayal by a young woman he was coming to care for deeply.  Apart from the opening leap from an office window and the thrilling boat chase down the Thames, the rest of the rather low-key action (including a ski chase, a confrontation with razor blade-wielding helicopters and a disappointingly unengaging climax set aboard a submarine tilted on its end) suffers from being juxtaposed against character development scenes that are much more dramatically interesting – you find yourself waiting for the shooting to stop and the music to dial back so the movie can get back to its (mostly) terrific roster of actors exchanging nuanced dialogue.  That’s where the real movie lies.  The World is Not Enough is built on secrets and emotional revelations, not a technical mystery to be unravelled one explosion at a time.  Despite critical indifference, centered largely on Denise Richards’ acting and the scaled-back nature of the story, I have a feeling that it’s one that Ian Fleming himself would have appreciated.

On a sadder note, this would be the final film for Desmond Llewelyn as Q, whose farewell as he sinks slowly out of frame after imparting some fatherly advice to 007 is deeply touching.  Llewelyn, who joked that he would continue appearing in Bond movies “so long as the producers want me and the Almighty doesn’t,” passed away shortly after the film’s release in a car accident while returning from a signing event.  While Llewelyn, somewhat regrettably, never earned very much from his long-running role as the irascible quartermaster, he was beloved by fans and the Eon crew alike and worked tirelessly to promote each new movie as it came out.  I had the fortune of seeing him in person in Los Angeles in 1997 when he and Pierce Brosnan appeared on The Tonight Show to hype up Tomorrow Never Dies, although we didn’t get the chance to meet.  The applause when he walked out onstage was louder than that which greeted anyone else that night.  The spirit of dear old Desmond Llewelyn, I suspect, was indeed returned to his Almighty “in pristine condition.”

Tomorrow:  Leave Die Another Day alone!!!

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Skyfall Countdown Day 6: Goldeneye

Desmond Llewelyn, checking out the new guy.

The years following Licence to Kill were depressing for James Bond fans.  Legal wrangling surrounding the ownership of parent studio MGM/UA, rumours that the rights were being sold to insert-hack-Hollywood-producer’s-name-here, and a general ebbing of talk of James Bond from the zeitgeist seemed to indicate that 007 was finished, finally gone the way of Derek Flint, Matt Helm and all the second-rate imitators he’d managed to spawn in his nearly 30-year screen career.  But then, as the tide of the recession of the early 1990’s receded, promising hints began to spring up like the fabled green shoots from the blanket of winter snow.  The lawsuits were settled, and Albert R. Broccoli’s Eon Productions remained firmly in charge.  A screenwriter, Michael France, had been hired to write a new Bond movie.  Questions then naturally arose about Timothy Dalton.  It had been five years since Licence to Kill – would audiences still want to see him as Bond?  Dalton ended the discussion by announcing in April of 1994 that he would not be coming back, and informal polls suggested there was one actor at the top of every fan’s list to take his place.  On June 7, 1994, eight years after his first brush with 007, the world’s press was introduced to the new James Bond:  Pierce Brosnan.

With their new star locked, the biggest challenge for the filmmakers was how to re-introduce James Bond to a world that had seen tumultuous changes since his last outing.  The Soviet Union, the Iron Curtain and the Cold War that had birthed Bond in the first place were all gone, and some critics were suggesting that 007 should disappear with them.  But rather than making a period piece, or wallowing in anachronistic nostalgia, it was decided to embrace this new climate with the following mantra:  “The world has changed; James Bond has not.”  Bond would always be Bond, but now this “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” would find himself confronting the new world with its new threats.  To that end a complete creative shakeup was required, both in front of and behind the camera – director John Glen, who had handled the previous five films, was not asked to return, and the reins were instead handed to Martin Campbell, the first real “outsider” Bond director who hadn’t come up through the Eon system.  And the story would see Bond’s world turned completely on its head, thrust into a realm of shadows as old adversaries became awkward allies and trusted friends, bitter enemies.

In the prologue, set during the height of the Cold War, Bond and Alec Trevelyan, 006 (Sean Bean) are assigned to infiltrate and destroy a Soviet chemical weapons facility.  The mission goes awry, 006 is killed and Bond makes a spectacular if implausible escape by diving after a falling plane, climbing on board and pulling it out of its dive.  Following the stylish opening credits in which silhouetted beauties smash apart Communist iconography (a sequence which apparently greatly upset several still-active Communist parties throughout the world) the story picks up nine years later where Russia is a shambles struggling to adopt capitalism and Bond is considered a relic by the new, female M (Judi Dench).  But he’s thrust back into the fray when an experimental helicopter that can withstand electromagnetic pulse damage is stolen and used to facilitate the theft of an old Soviet space-based weapon called Goldeneye, which, when detonated, will destroy everything that contains an electronic circuit.  Bond travels to Russia, where retired KGB agent Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane) points him in the direction of the mysterious arms dealer known as Janus, who turns out to be none other than Bond’s old friend Trevelyan, who faked his death in order to abscond to the other side and carry out a long-simmering scheme of revenge against the United Kingdom for its betrayal of his family.  With the help of Goldeneye computer programmer Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco) and CIA agent Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker), and while dodging the lethal advances of femme fatale Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), Bond must chase down his former ally and stop him from unleashing the Goldeneye against London and igniting a worldwide financial collapse.

The filmmakers knew they were down to their last chance, that failure would mean the end of James Bond as a viable cinematic property.  With the screenplay they smartly chose to add depth to the basic machinations of the plot, pulling apart Bond’s character and using the movie itself to ask if Bond was still relevant in the modern world, as well as confronting some of the more absurd elements of Bond’s character directly.  Bond is belittled, first by his immediate superior, and ultimately by Trevelyan, who chastises him with the screenplay’s finest lines:  “One might as well ask if all the vodka martinis silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed, or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women, for all the dead ones you failed to protect.”  Is being James Bond good for the soul?  Alec Trevelyan by contrast, is James Bond pushed over the narrow divide, and the inspired casting of Sean Bean, who at one point was rumoured as a potential Bond himself, gives us an example of how destructive Bond’s lifestyle can be to a man’s moral center.  The rich cinematography by Phil Meheux provides a striking palette of shadows and darkness, in contrast to the brightly and somewhat flat-lit adventures of Bond’s past, to emphasize this murky uncertainty lingering over every action that Bond takes.

As well as Bean’s compelling “anti-Bond,” the cast boasts a solid bench of supporting performers who round out this new world with a wealth of memorable characters – the singular Dench, although underused here with only two brief scenes, establishes a new kind of relationship between Bond and his hitherto remote boss that hints at a deeper exploration to come.  Robbie Coltrane is an energetic delight, Boris Badenov accent and all, channelling Sydney Greenstreet as Valentin Zukovsky.  Joe Don Baker gets to have much more fun here as the nickname-happy Jack Wade than he did as his previous character Whitaker in The Living Daylights.  Izabella Scorupco is a perfect companion for Bond – she is spirited, competent, brave and unafraid to challenge Bond on his failings.  Famke Janssen has her over-the-top moments as the assassin who kills men by crushing them with her thighs, but she is clearly enjoying the hell out of her part.  Even Alan Cumming makes an impression as hapless wannabe supervillain computer nerd Boris.  Filling the roles with strong actors, rather than the cheaper bit players one would have seen in previous films, forces the lead to up his game.

Pierce Brosnan has since admitted that he thought he probably would have been too young in 1987 to play James Bond convincingly.  The years between then and this movie have filled in his face with more character, that slight world-weariness that 007 should always possess, even in his lighter moments.  His Bond is less outwardly morose than Dalton’s, but one gets the sense that the veneer of playfulness radiating from him is just that, and it is only skin deep.  But no one really wants to follow a sad sack around for two hours, and Brosnan gives Bond more than enough charm to endear him to us again, even with subtle, very Bond-ian touches like patting his face with a towel after tossing a thug down a set of stairs.  If there is a single reservation about his Bond it’s that in this movie he seems a bit physically slight, which was noted by more than a few critics and seemed to inspire him to bulk up significantly for his next go-around.

How fares Goldeneye where action is concerned?  Exceptionally well given the benchmark set by movies like James Cameron’s Bond pastiche True Lies, which came out the previous year.  The movie opens with a visually stunning bungee-jump leap from a dam and only gets better.  Apart from a couple of inoffensive gags in the tank chase in the middle of the film, mercifully abandoned is the tendency of the 80’s Bonds to stage action as slapstick, replaced with true suspense and the need for Bond to be inventive in how he extricates himself from danger, rather than just relying on whatever Q has given him (a missile-equipped car presented to Bond at the beginning of the movie goes almost entirely unused).  The final fight scene atop the Arecibo telescope, doubling for Trevelyan’s Cuban satellite base, is brutal, raw and the most even-handed matchup Bond has ever had to face, made all the more emotionally consequential since this isn’t just some random evil billionaire he’s tangling with, but a man he once called friend – and Bond must decide if it’s truly “for England, James.”

Peter Lamont, the series’ regular production designer since Ken Adam’s departure, does a remarkable job here with a bigger budget – until now his sets had always looked somewhat artificial, as though the paint had just dried seconds before the director called action.  Goldeneye is a “used universe” where even the walls have earned their history.  And creative use of London locations and outdoor soundstages makes for a believable St. Petersburg, Russia setting despite the actors and first unit never setting foot there during filming.  Daniel Kleinman, taking over for the late Maurice Binder as main titles designer, pays homage to Binder’s traditions while incorporating the themes of the story into his canvas of beautiful naked women swirling through a surreal landscape, accompanied by Tina Turner as a worthy successor to Shirley Bassey singing the theme song penned by U2’s Bono and The Edge.  One area where Goldeneye receives a lot of criticism, however, is in its musical score.  French composer Eric Serra, who works largely with synthesizers, was hired to bring a 90’s take on the usual John Barry bombast.  It was certainly different, although not, it seems, in a positive way.  After a test audience bemoaned the lack of the Bond theme, a different composer was brought in to re-score the tank chase, and this would be Serra’s only kick at Bond’s can.  The electronic sound is somewhat jarring, particularly if you’re watching Goldeneye as part of a Bond marathon, but it works in context, particularly when conveying the coldness of the Russian setting.  At least, it was better than Michel Legrand.

Goldeneye was a huge international smash, bringing James Bond back to the forefront of the public consciousness and proving that there would always be an appetite for more, so long as it was done right.  In addition, it showed that 007 could compete against the Die Hards and the Speeds of the world that had attempted to fill the gap he’d left open for six long years.  As Goldeneye’s end credits rolled and “JAMES BOND WILL RETURN” drifted by, fans could catch their breath and be assured this time that he would, in increasingly spectacular style.

Tomorrow:  James Bond vs. Rupert Murdoch.