Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Countdown To 007: The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day

Beardy Brosnan Die Another Day

The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day represent Bond as endurance rather than entertainment: the former has some merits but is undermined by messy pacing and tiresome action sequences, while the latter drags the series to its lowest point to date. A shame, because despite the underwhelming quality of both movies, Pierce Brosnan does some of his best work.

These write-ups have been republished from Flixist's ongoing Across The Bond feature, where fellow Bond nerd Matthew Razak and I go through the series one by one. The feature ends tomorrow with a look at Daniel Craig's two movies, before finding out on Friday whether his third time will be a charm for him as it was for Sean Connery and Roger Moore.
  
THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH

Sophie Marceau Elektra Pierce Brosnan James Bond 007 The World Is Not Enough

Like For Your Eyes Only, I respect The World Is Not Enough more than I like it. It tries to tell a story with greater focus on character, but is let down by clunky pacing and arbitrary action sequences. When first released out in 1999, I really liked it, but each subsequent viewing has dampened my enthusiasm. The ingredients are there for something special: the plot twist, itself almost uncharted territory for Bond, enacts out a sly reversal of expectations, making a villain out of one of the Bond girls. Sophie Marceau plays Elektra with a reserve which initially seems down to a natural resilience after being kidnapped as a girl, but is later revealed as the tactic of a devious manipulator out for revenge against the people who left her for dead. The whole situation with her mutilated ear is just weird, though - what, Renard sent Sir Robert King his daughter's... earlobe?

It's not the most shocking twist, with the name alone pointing towards the fractured parental relationships - although technically she should have hated her mother, not her father - but Marceau finds the right balance between fragility and cunning to make both sides of the character work. It fascinates me how few people recognise her as the movie's main villain, perhaps forgetting Bond's realisation that she turned Renard's allegiances whilst in captivity, rather than the other way around. Perhaps it's a further credit to Marceau's performance that so many viewers choose to see her as a victim or manipulated accomplice, just as Elektra would have wanted. Her personal relationship with M rings a little untrue as one writerly convenience too many, but getting Judi Dench more involved with the plot was a welcome step towards her increasing prominence in later movies. The addition of John Cleese as 'R' is altogether less successful, with his cameo recalling the most tediously exaggerated gags from the Roger Moore era.

The movie's schizophrenic nature is demonstrated by that scene being immediately followed by one of the series' most moving: the departure of the great Desmond Llewellyn's Q. While previous scenes between he and Bond found comedy in the antagonism between Q's curmudgeonliness and Bond's reckless playfulness, his farewell speech emphasizes the two men's shared affection. The sight of him being lowered into the depths of his laboratory (perfect last line: 'Always have an escape plan') is both eerie in the knowledge that Llewellyn died shortly after the movie's release - on my birthday, to make it personally that bit worse - and sweet for the delicacy of the humour. (It also deepens the connection between Bond and The Avengers [tv series] by echoing Emma Peel's equally devastating retirement advice for partner John Steed: 'Always keep your bowler on in times of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds'). Sad though it is, I'm glad the actor got to officially bow out on-screen and doubly so that it was alongside Pierce Brosnan, the Bond with whom he shared the most natural chemistry since Connery. It's just a shame the movie couldn't have been retroactively dedicated to him, so this article is instead. In memoriam, Desmond Llewellyn, 1914-1999.

Also terrific is Robert Carlyle as Renard, technically the movie's henchman. As with Marceau, the twist's credibility relies upon the audience being able to believe there's another side to Renard than the cruel exterior, and Carlyle's cavernous eyes and wounded expression give a hint of sadness to a man who knows he is dying and is using his last days to do right by the only love he has perhaps ever known. The revelation of his impotence should seem trite, but is used as a clever shorthand to establish how Elektra manipulates him. It's the only significant scene Marceau and Carlyle share together, and the nuances of their respective performances imbue it with greater resonance than the blunt writing deserves.

While Elektra's backstory and motivations provide the movie's real dramatic meat, the main plot feels excessively convoluted and struggles to establish any kind of storytelling rhythm. The movie's structure deploys a big action sequence for each element of Elektra's plan as Bond discovers it. To alleviate suspicions of guilt, she twice has Renard's men attack her pipeline: the first time, this causes a ski chase - just don't ask how she knew Bond would be there - and the second has Bond diffusing a bomb inside an oil pipeline. Renard collecting the bomb from Kazhakstan is another action sequence, as is Elektra's helicopters trying to eliminate Zukovsky to stop Bond discovering the pair's business agreement.

This approach segments the movie and makes it seem as though story elements have been reverse engineered to justify the action sequences, leading to over-saturation. That they're shot with such a lack of flair only makes their perfunctory nature all the more acute. The only set-pieces which work are in the excellent pre-titles sequence, where Bond first escapes a Spanish bank - one of my favourite scenes in any Brosnan movie - and later chases an assassin down the river Thames in the slick, gadget-heavy Q boat. These feature the movie's best stuntwork and some striking visuals - Bond jumping out of a top floor window at the bank, then his boat tearing through London and emerging in the shadow of the then-Millennium Dome - and set a far higher standard for action than the rest of the movie is able to meet. The climactic fight with Renard aboard the sinking submarine feels particularly uninspired in comparison.

Bond's only real purpose is to catch up with Elektra's intentions and then stop her at the last minute. Once again, the writers try to force some emotional resonance by having him get emotionally involved and betrayed by her - much as how such feelings were supposedly reignited with Paris Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies, only for her to be killed because of his investigations - and while it's too obvious to work much better this time around, at least Elektra's established powers of sexual manipulation give it greater credibility and Brosnan does some of his best work in their final scene as he tries to get Elekra to abort her plan, even though it would have made more dramatic sense for M to take his place. He certainly does better work than in the j'accuse scene where he pins her father's murder on her, with his line delivery seemingly oddly over-emphasized. In general, he gives a stronger performance than in Tomorrow Never Dies (including a well-handled allusion to Tracy), but remains a little too slick for his own good. He's given more to work with, and hints of vulnerability peek through at the right times, though still comes across as if acting Bond rather than becoming him.

Such minor shortcomings are nothing once Denise Richards appears on the scene playing a nuclear physicist. The idea is faintly amusing at first in the audacity of its ridiculousness, but as with Tanya Roberts' Stacey Sutton in A View To A Kill, gets old pretty quickly once she refuses to go away. Like Zukovsky, returning from GoldenEye with the sole purpose of making annoying in-jokes and moaning about insurance, she's a product of part of the plot which feels like it should have been covered quickly and without fuss (is it really so vital we see how Renard got the bomb, and Elektra the submarine?) rather than lingered upon for the sake of cramming in a bit more action. To be fair to Richards, she does the best she can, but it's hard to imagine anyone excelling in such a one-note role and she's not much of an actress at the best of times. On the plus side, her ridiculous name was blatantly only contrived for the sake of the movie's hilariously inappropriate final line, which is so stupid it circles around to being fun again.

While somehow working that one time, the movie's baser impulses undermine its commendable efforts creating a pair of psychologically complex villains in Elektra and Renard, who seem to exist in a different, more intelligent movie than the one where Bond, Zukovsky and Christmas Jones spend most of their time dodging bullets and explosions for the sake of minor plot revelations. Unfortunately, when choosing the direction of the next movie, the producers expanded upon this movie's spectacle rather than story, a miscalculation so grave it would lead to the series' entire continuity being abandoned for a fresh start.

DIE ANOTHER DAY

Halle Berry bikini sexy hot die another day

Lee Tamahori is the worst human being to ever be involved with the Bond series. Kevin McClory has a strong case for the title, since his persistent legal action was the last nail in Ian Fleming's coffin, but he got a producer credit on Thunderball without actually working on the movie, ruling him out in my mind. Tamahori, though, was involved with every terrible decision that went into the Die Another Day debacle.

What he must have done to convince the Broccolis to hire him beggars belief, and not just because he was arrested four years later for offering oral sex to an undercover policeman while dressed in drag. The man clearly had zero knowledge of the series or respect for what made it work. For one thing, the intensely idiotic 'codename theory', postulating that every Bond until that point had been playing a different character under an assumed 'Bond' name, originates from him. Never mind that it was debunked by the interviewer in THE SAME CONVERSATION as Tamahori proposed it, the idea has lingered like a bad smell around the series ever since, tediously repeated over and over by people who might have seen one or two Bonds and want to feel clever and controversial. No. Bond continuity is messy, but it's patently obvious that everyone until Daniel Craig's reboot was playing the same man, often made clear through references to previous adventures or, most commonly, the loss of Tracy Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Even the most cursory observer can only arrive at the conclusion that Tamahori's theory is guff. Even this movie's recall of gadgets from the classic movies and Brosnan's immediate familiarity with them, suggests it doesn't even make sense within the director's own work.

Tamahori's love of CGI and push for its inclusion in a series acclaimed for the authenticity of its stunts further demonstrates his tragic misunderstanding of what has made Bond tick over the preceding forty years. In promotional interviews, the director boasted about a CG-created scene so realistic no-one would be able to tell it apart from the live action. This boast was similar to one made by the Wachowskis a year later for The Matrix Reloaded, and even with a much bigger budget and more advanced technology, they couldn't pull it off. Needless to say, the scene Tamahori was referring to has gone down in Bond lore as one of the series worst - and yes, that includes the double-taking pigeon inMoonraker - not only for the sub-video game standard of the CGI work in question, but the staggering idiocy of expecting audiences to buy into Bondkite kite-surfing a tsunami. In the outstanding recent documentary Everything Or Nothing, even Pierce Brosnan cracks up at the stupidity of what he was asked to do. The addition of a bullet to the gunbarrel sequence isn't quite as bad - better than not having one at all, EH SKYFALL - but is a needless, meaningless addition which doesn't make the slightest bit of sense in any context.

It's not entirely fair to put all the blame on Tamahori, despite his being culpable for most of the worst crimes - urgh, all that slow-motion! Writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, inexplicably still on EON staff, deserve to take a significant chunk of the blame for a screenplay overflowing with painful dialogue, loathsome characters, 'virtual reality' (oh, Moneypenny...), and a superweapon imported wholesale from Diamonds Are Forever. What's worse is that the story can be loosely interpreted as a bastardisation of Fleming's Moonraker novel, in which a foreign villain poses as a British national hero and intends to use a space-based weapon to redraw the political landscape.

Despite the title, the novel is one of Fleming's most grounded, at times verging on a work of detective fiction as Bond and undercover Special Branch agent Gala Brand (the original name for Miranda Frost, until the producers, probably correctly, thought it sounded too much like a luxury sausage) gradually discover the truth behind a project secretly intended to destroy London in an act of retaliation by a vindictive enemy hiding in plain sight. In contrast, Die Another Day is an almost non-stop assault by misguided flights of wild fantasy, featuring invisible cars, a Robocop-esque control suit for the villain, an assistant with a Transylvanian accent named Igor and Jinx, a contender for worst ever Bond girl thanks to a series of pathetic wisecracks ('Yo mama!') and Halle Berry's inability to even hold a gun convincingly. Yes, she looks great in a bikini, but so did Britt Eckland.

In fairness,  there are a handful of positives, although the fact they're so badly wasted becomes a further reason to dislike the movie. The idea of Bond being captured and tortured for over a year by enemy forces is a potent one, and the pre-titles sequence is sort of okay but for the shoddy backscreen work and laborious 'saved by the bell' pun, though it all goes to pot the moment Madonna's dreadful theme tune kicks in. Until Alicia Keys and Jack White came along with their incoherent ramblings for the Quantum Of Solace track, Madonna's was the first Bond song I genuinely disliked - yes, I'll even listen to Lulu - and only sounds increasingly dated over the passing years. That she was even allowed to cameo in the movie, a grievous little scene where the dialogue solely consists of double-entendres (or maybe single-entendres, they're so bad), shows the depths of the movie's creative failure. But anyway, further pluses include Rosamund Pike as Miranda Frost, who somehow manages to be a fairly enjoyable presence despite struggling with some of the movie's most aggressively awful lines ('That's pretty good tailoring...'), and Toby Stevens piling on the hammy smarm as Gustav Graves.

Pierce Brosnan is also comfortable enough in the role to throw in some nice little character grace notes - swiping a villain's sunglasses, showing a fondness for grapes recalling Thunderball and some uber-swagger walking through a posh hotel lobby sporting soggy pyjamas and a bushy beard - despite playing a character both considerably stupider than usual (yeah, you see how far you get hiding behind that invisible car, James) and too often Commando Bond than Commander Bond. He does some of his best work in the scenes evoking Bond's emotional damage, making it even more of a travesty it's trapped in far and away his worst movie.

Unfortunately, any hint of enjoyment is quickly submerged beneath a CGI tidal wave of awfulness. Countless further paragraphs could be written on the movie's other crimes, but we all have lives to lead and, frankly, I suspect most of us would rather leave this mess behind. Needless to say, it edges out Diamonds Are Forever for me as the lowest of the Bond low - although at least doesn't feature a villain wearing drag (just a director, boom boom) - and was so dreadful it inspired a full reboot of the series. In one way of looking at it, Die Another Day killed off the James Bond who had gone strong for forty years previous. While Daniel Craig brought the character back to his roots with a vengeance in the following movie, hopefully it will serve as a warning next time anyone at EON so much as dreams about another space laser.
 
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8 comments:

Silent Hunter said...

Interesting takes on this. I may well change my opinion on a rewatch, but the first film here is one of my favourites and I found the second not bad at the time.

Xander Markham said...

And we're normally in such close agreement! Glad you're enjoying the articles, although I'd definitely warn against watching Die Another Day again... if you somehow enjoyed it first time around, leave those memories as they are!

Gurning Chimp said...

What are you on about? SkyFall has a gunbarrel sequence.

Xander Markham said...

@Gurning Chimp: This piece was written prior to Skyfall's release, when rumours abound that it wouldn't feature a gunbarrel sequence. Fortunately that turned out not to be the case, even if it was (once again) relegated to the end of the movie.

Gurning Chimp said...

I see now, terribly sorry.

However I will say that the codename theory actually started with Casino Royale '67. Lee Tamahori was just a believer.

Silent Hunter said...

The Skyfall gunbarrel was going to go at the start, but Mendes couldn't make the shot work in the edit, IIRC.

Xander Markham said...

@Gurning Chimp: No need to be sorry, it wasn't very clear in the article. As for CR '67, I seem to remember David Niven playing a retired version of Bond, then allowing his name to live on with other agents for whatever reason (I last saw the movie a long, long time ago). So if we give this CR the somewhat questionable credit of being canonical - inviting Woody Allen into the franchise canon takes some cohones - technically that form of codename theory only begins after 'our' James Bond (presumably the Connery-Brosnan continuity) has retired, thus making Tamahori and his theory every bit as wrong, wrong, wrong as the 'movie' he ended up making.

(P.S.: Love the username!)

@Silent Hunter: I was relieved to read the gunbarrel was at least considered for its proper place, and Mendes' reasoning makes sense - Skyfall's opening shot has Bond doing the same stuff he does in the gunbarrel - but there's still nothing like that combination of iconic music and imagery to kick off a brand new movie. Once again, fingers crossed for Bond 24...

Gurning Chimp said...

But that's the thing. Those that consider James Bond a codename often consider CR '67 canonical because they don't know any better (in my experience at least) and that's what annoys me. Even those that have never seen CR '67 and latched onto the theory are mostly either 12 year olds that like the shock value or comic book fans who can't handle the fact that Bond doesn't reboot every now and then.

Thanks by the way. I do like this username. :)