Film: Review - Why Pierce is not enough

The World is Not Enough (12) Michael Apted; 128 mins Scrooge (U) Brian Desmon Hurst; 86 mins The Astronaut's Wife (18) Rand Ravich; 109 mins Dreaming of Joseph Lees (12) Eric Styles; 91 mins The Children of the Marshland (PG) Jean Becker; 115 mins The Secret Laughter of Women (12) Peter Schwabach; 120 mins Taxi (15) Luc Besson; 85 mins

The new James Bond film stars Pierce Brosnan as 007, Sophie Marceau as troubled heiress Elektra King, Robert Carlyle as the international terrorist Renard, and Denise Richards as Christmas Jones, a boob-thrusting nuclear physicist. It takes us from London to the Caspian Sea in an oil- supply struggle.

King, kidnapped by Renard as a teenager and completely furious with her father for not bailing her out before she turned into a bitch, is the baddie of the piece. Carlyle looks like an astonished little dolly next to her. Poor chap just needs an early night. You feel he's been up late reading The Last Tycoon, miserable that everything that feels impossible is all he ever wanted. Bond romances the two women, and winds up having Christmas in Turkey. Much is made of this gag.

The film is certainly less definitively feeble than other recent offerings, with an at least two- dimensional female character in the bold and oval Marceau. But my reaction is much the same as to a new Rolling Stones album: I'm just grateful that it's not embarrassing.

But let's not get too excited. As an action film, The World is Not Enough is mundanely choreographed, and as a continuation of the myth it is the usual biannual disappointment. The Bond myth comprised a set of very particular elements. The films were frightening, they were genuinely sexy, they had a very idiosyncratic kind of claustrophobia, and they were exotic in a time when that word still meant something - before we all went on package holidays to Magaluf.

Bond's cruelty was the incarnation of the loneliness of the sophisticated world traveller, and it was secretly terribly sad. Death and despair were the hidden meanings behind the cocktails and first-class air travel. It was all there in one bar of John Barry's theme-tune, all there in Sean Connery's face.

But for a long time now, Bond hasn't been scary, hasn't been sexy, hasn't been cruel. All that remains is action, and pretty much everybody does it better these days. These are the same oil rigs and submarines that Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford now clamber around (films like The Matrix are driving the Aston Martin while Bond is in the Lada). Long gone are the memorable, spidery landscapes. Films like You Only Live Twice and Moonraker moved into space in search of a landscape as frictionless, graceful and frigidly sexual as the hero. Now we open in Bilbao, take a trip down the Thames, and centre on the minarets of Istanbul - all the paranoia about what might be if the computer turned into God that characterised Fleming's books forgotten. They're determined to warm Bond up.

Take a look at Brosnan. Now, I do like him. It's obvious that he is smart, obvious that he understands the character; but he cannot personify him. It's not his fault. Nobody since Connery has been "right for the part" because Connery was the part. All that bitter muscle under the tux, a man isolated by his own charisma, a determined smoker. Bond's interest in civilised things was not a cultivation but a death wish, like the man who's been given a year to live and is just wretchedly bingeing.

Brosnan's Bond looks like a man who actually has a wife and kids back home. He looks like he owns a juicer. But worse, we're now getting into Bond's mind, which is a dreadful cul-de-sac. They even bring MI5 in more, as a kind of family, baby-sitting. And Judi Dench's M is maternal and fretful in her taupe Hobbs jacket. But this man is a contract killer! Let's not get into his head! Else you'll force us to imagine him 20 years down the line, in a Westminster mansion flat, worrying about Stain Devils and the price of cherries.

There is one brilliantly correct moment in this film. Sophie Marceau rounds on Bond: "You'll never kill me, you'd miss me." He shoots her dead and says with burnt-out blankness, "I never miss." It is terrifyingly succinct - coming from a mask-stiff mouth and a mind hanging in emptiness and strife. Warming Bond up desexualises him to such a degree that you feel that Brosnan actually suffers the seductions. When he grapples with a fully-waxed doctor, you suspect he'd really rather not.

I know what you're thinking: for God's sake, Quirke, lighten up. Not on your nelly. Not when it suits the Broccolis for us to honour their tranced repetitiveness as the respecting of "hallowed conventions". When the pleasures of surprise are replaced by the lesser pleasures of recognition, it flatters us - our complicity becomes vital to the actual spectacle. It's called playing to the gallery - also known as camp. Camp's virtue is that it is impervious to criticism. It validates the lowering of expectations (it's only escapist fun) and protects against dissension (only killjoys could carp at escapist fun). The Bond cultists at my screening, with their cheery applause at "classic" moments, unconsciously patronise Bond. Worldwide, the giggles and hoots smack of guilty mass denial about the diminishing returns of an exhausted form.

And for two decades the Broccolis have utilised our camp response to legitimise their incredible slovenliness and timidity and hubris. They are too scared (after 19 films!) to play variations on their franchise's staples - on the Q scene, on the countdown scene, on the closing sexual joke - and too unblushingly lazy to tart up their long-outmoded chases. Under aerial attack, Bond is still flanked on either side by those two neat parallel lines of bullets. And those same gobsmacked passers-by still punctuate the pursuit, spilling their Chablis on their tablecloths. And still we go back for more. I'm afraid my favourite Fleming adaptation will remain Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Now, that was a car with gadgets.

Scrooge, the 1951 adaptation of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, is re-released this week. Alastair Sim in the title role is just dying to be nice- Scrooge, itching to dance about in his thermals - the character's sweet revolution utterly captured. And the rest of the week's releases are a tawdry mix. In The Astronaut's Wife Charlize Theron is pregnant with twins, and fears it may have something to do with an inter-space encounter of her astronaut husband (Johnny Depp). Dreaming of Joseph Lees, a love triangle set in Fifties rural England, benefits from starring Samantha Morton, who brings a huddled yearning to what is essentially a gloomy Mills and Boon story. The Children of the Marshland concerns the doings of a group of peasants in the Loire Valley in the 1930s. The Secret Laughter of Women looks at a small Nigerian community in the south of France, and features the gruff but curly Colin Firth. Luc Besson's Taxi has a talented driver helping the Marseilles police. It's unambitious, though winningly uncool.

Gilbert Adair returns next week

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