Bond is now an institution, and those charged with its upkeep seem torn between looking forward and harking back. Ever since Sean Connery donned that immaculate tux back in 1962 the series has been shaken, occasionally stirred but more often in danger of fossilising altogether. Yet it staggered on, and survived even the mid-Eighties wretchedness of Octopussy and A View To A Kill. Its fans know how close it has come to collapse; indeed, that might be part of the reason they're still fans. No matter how poor the last Bond movie, they can't wait for the next one. "James Bond Will Return" reads the familiar end title, but it's a promise that reflects more accurately on his publicity than his vitality.
The World Is Not Enough, the 19th in the series, begins in familiar fashion, its pre-credit sequence getting the picture off to a flyer. Gasp as Bond exits a bank, Halliburton suitcase in hand, from a 25th-floor balcony. Thrill as he leaps on a dinky black speedboat and gives chase to a fleeing assassin along the Thames. Cheer as he almost singlehandedly destroys the Millennium Dome in his efforts to find the boat a parking space. The breakneck pace of these first 15 minutes is pretty exciting, actually, and you can feel the audience willing it along.
Yet, once the sequence is over there's a strange feeling that the movie itself is over too. From this point you could write the producers' brief on the back of an envelope: one, dream up a villain whose evil and genius are in suitable proportion; two, stage a whole load of stunts that are more sensational than the ones in the previous Bond movie. That's it.
This time round 007 has to save the West's oil supply from an international terrorist named Renard (Robert Carlyle, who will never play anyone scarier than his Begbie in Trainspotting). Renard's distinguishing feature is a bullet lodged in his cerebral cortex, which makes it impossible for him to feel pain - just as well given the lines the scriptwriters have put in his mouth. How's this for starters: "Behold the wonder of the miracle of the fires that never die." That's worthy of a Spinal Tap lyric.
In order to snare his man James requires the help of oil heiress Elektra (Sophie Marceau) and, later, the technical expertise of nuclear weapons whizz Dr Christmas Jones (Denise Richards), who's dressed, like any serious scientist, in sports vest and hot pants. "Don't bother making any jokes about the name, I've heard them all," she tells Bond, who looks slightly chastened - but of course he can't resist, and eventually gets in a couple of swift Christmas gags before the credits roll. The audience whoops at them, dutifully.
This pull between the predictable - the girls, the gizmos, the wait-for- it punchlines - and the need to modernise, has induced a kind of schizophrenia in the film-makers, nowhere more apparent than in Bond himself.
Pierce Brosnan is athletic, decisive and preposterously debonair, and enjoys one great moment here when, having plunged under water, he briefly but unmistakably straightens his tie. Yet why does he seem to inhabit a different era from the rest of the movie?
In GoldenEye, Brosnan's first outing as 007, M (Judi Dench) accused Bond of being "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur", a museum piece from the Cold War. She's more or less right. The film-makers are terrified of Bond seeming dated, but they allow him to do the usual gentleman-spy things like bed beautiful women, visit a casino, trash a lot of scenery and - a real hangover from the Sixties, this - save the planet from a nuclear catastrophe. Is there anything more wearisome in a Bond movie than the endgame spectacle of men in hard hats and orange boiler suits dashing in panic from the megalomaniac's underground HQ, prior to a humongous explosion?
The World Is Not Enough lulled me into a half-trance, as most Bond movies do, from which I emerged with eyes dazzled, ears ringing and heart untroubled. Doubtless I'll watch it all over again some Boxing Day in the not-too- distant. Is there anywhere for Bond to go but deeper into self-parody?
A friend of mine suggested that the best course now would be to set him in period, the Cold War, when Ian Fleming was writing the original novels. One might then recover their forgotten thrill of danger and sexiness, of skinny ties and properly blocked hats, when one could believe that a man with a Walther PPK and a taste for dry Martinis might actually save the world.
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