Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The World Is Not Enough: The Brosnan Era encapsulated

A couple years back, I reviewed The World Is Not Enough. The review was not that good, so here's hoping this one is more interesting.

When MI6 is attacked -- and one of M's (Judi Dench) friends is killed, James Bond leaps into action to protect the dead man's daughter from a nihilistic terrorist with a bullet in his brain and a death wish. But as Bond is drawn deeper into a vast conspiracy, he begins to question exactly who the enemy is...

The key theme of this review is to try and nail down not so much the flaws of this movie, but the ways in which it represents the era in which it was made: for better, and worse.

Now with hindsight, and four Daniel Craig movies, we can begin to appreciate the Brosnan era (1995-2002) in context with the rest of the series. At the time, Brosnan was seen as one of the best Bonds -- so many articles would refer to him as 'the best Bond since Connery'. This was probably due to the fact that his predecessor Timothy Dalton had been such a strong break from tradition and -- since he only made two movies -- he was seen as  a failure. Brosnan's movies were always seen as more classical and faithful to the franchise formula and its tropes. Their popular success cemented his status as a return to the glories of 'classic' Bond.

Now, the Brosnan movies feel like a bridge between the 'classic' run (1962-1989) and the Craig era's revisionism. Especially in this movie, the darkness and psychological complexity that Dalton's movies tried to bring in is still present in Brosnan's era. However, it is softened and balanced by a strict adherence to the Bond formula. I still have a making-of magazine from this movie's release which followed the then-company line that Brosnan was bringing a new layer of 'humanity' to Bond.
There is certainly something to this -- this movie definitely features Brosnan's best acting -- but these attempts to flesh out the character are often juxtaposed against elements which undermine these attempts at greater complexity. As I've stated in previous reviews, the problem with Brosnan's run is the lack of a consistent identity and tone. To watch a Brosnan movie is to bear witness to a never-ending battle between the series' two impulses -- 'realism' versus escapism. Scene to scene, the Brosnan movies are constantly oscillating between the Bond formula and attempts at new ideas. It's a debate that his series never settled.
The World Is Not Enough is the prime example of the identity crisis at the heart of Brosnan's Bond. The story is interesting, the characters are complex, and both components present potential sites for delving into Bond's character. But somewhere along the line in the movie's development, someone got scared.
Every time it feels like the movie is going to do something new, the movie immediately compensates with something familiar that completely undercuts it. Take our leading ladies. The Brosnan Bonds always kept the trope of duelling love interests -- early films tended to play with this trope, but in the Brosnan era it became a rule. And not for the better.

Sophie Marceau's Elektra, the woman Bond has to protect, is an interesting character who makes for a more engaging partner to Bond. But the introduction of Christmas Jones, above and beyond the deficiencies of the character, completely deflates her impact. The introduction of another woman, who is more of a clear-cut heroine undermines the revelation that Elektra is the real villain.

Having two women just reminds viewers of past movies, where one woman (who is bad) will die, and Bond will escape with another woman (who is good). Christmas serves no narrative function beyond giving the movie a happy ending.

By being a complex character with motivations and backstory that violate the Bond formula's strict good-evil dichotomy, Elektra is too problematic to exist by herself. The series producers were clearly too scared to end the movie on a downer, with Bond alone, and so you end up with a character like Christmas. She is purely there to tick a box.

The film is filled with half-assed moves like this. The attempts at focusing on character interaction, and presenting Bond as a detective, are balanced by unnecessary gadgets and action scenes that seem to exist purely to fill a quota. The ski chase and the helicopter assault on the caviar factory could be cut out entirely, and you would not notice -- that's how little they affect the plot's trajectory.

The World Is Not Enough stands as one of the great 'what ifs?' of the Bond franchise. It features the most intriguing premise of Brosnan's movies, one of the series' most under-sung (and only female) villains, and Brosnan's most complex and human performance as Bond. Had the filmmakers stuck to their guns, TWINE could have been a contender. While GoldenEye will always be his best showcase, this movie is the one Brosnan movie that hints at something genuinely great that could have pushed the series in a more interesting direction.
While TWINE has mostly faded from the popular consciousness (save for the albatross of Dr. Christmas Jones), its legacy is nothing to sniff about. It was only two movies later that its writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade wrote Casino Royale, which delivered the more complex characters and relationships that TWINE had hinted at.

And in 2012, TWINE had the supreme compliment of two remakes: the film's switchero villains plot was cribbed by The Dark Knight Rises (which also cribbed its opening plane stunt from Licence to Kill). If you replace Elektra and Renard with Talia and Bane, it's the same exact relationship.

The second was within the Bond franchise itself. In Skyfall (also written by Wade and Purvis), the story mimics TWINE in several ways, from Bond sustaining an injury that endures through the story, to the attack on MI6, to a villain with personal connection to M (Judi Dench), and  a third act based around Bond protecting his boss from being killed.

So while TWINE is not a great movie, its promise, and the promise of the Brosnan era, has continued to have an on-going effect on the Bond franchise and the pop culture space around it.

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