WARNING: This review contains some minor spoilers. However,
the term "spoiler" itself implies some unwanted revelation of a plot
detail... but if you're thinking about seeing this James Bond movie for its
plot, you have bigger issues than this reviewer can help you with.
Many years ago, Ringo Starr, one-time drummer and sad-happy clown and mediocre singer for the Beatles, released a solo album. Ringo, who had earlier charted with pleasant but inconsequential pop songs like "It Don't Come Easy" and "Photograph" hadn't hit in a while. A reviewer dubbed his then-current album - get this - "not bad for a Ringo album." Subsequent readers of this review latched onto this phrase, demanding to know if there was now one set of criteria for judging the standard rock-and-roll record, but also a second, less-stringent set for Ringo music. Hmm. An interesting issue, because, as we consider movies, there are so many well-defined franchises or sub-genres of film. Do we have different standards and expectations for different types of movies? Can polished, cliched pablum pass as "not-bad for a romantic comedy for a first date"? Can we accept a film which is, by any objective measure, low-grade unscraped pig tripe, as "pretty good for a Star Trek film"?
Which leads us to James Bond. We all know what we want and expect from a JB film. A hero we can cheer on, chases and gunfire, a megalomaniac villain, lots and lots of explosions, and, perhaps most important of all, assorted beautiful women of varying degrees of easiness. Notice that not among this list are, oh, a well-crafted script, interesting direction, and good acting - things they typically give out Oscars for.
But let's start by dispensing with these unnecessary pleasantries. The script concerns rich heiress Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) attempting to build an oil pipeline in the middle east. Bond (Pierce Brosnan again) is sent in to protect her from her various life-threatening situations - like anonymous bad guys in black who ride gyrocopter-parasail-thingies that turn into snow mobiles and chase Elektra and 007 down a snowy slope. Complicating matters is the question of whether Elektra is or is not in cahoots with madman Renard (played by Robert Carlyle doing a great impersonation of Tim Roth). Renard is actually a fairly interesting villain, mainly because he has a bullet slowly burrowing into his brain (placed there by another secret agent), the bullet removing all sense and sensibility from him. He knows he will die soon, but wants to do one more evil deed first. Since this is after all a James Bond film, the story really makes little or no sense, but nor is it required to. It mainly serves as an excuse to allow Bond to zip around the world, traveling to such exotic locales as Azerbaidjan and Istanbul, with side-trips to Bilbao, Spain (to show off the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum of modern art) and London (to show off the Milennium Dome). The script basically serves as a motor, driving the movie as it lurches and sputters from one glitzy expensive set piece to another, with an excess of bad puns in between. Adequate for a Bond flick, but no Oscar there.
The direction, by Michael Apted, certainly doesn't get one, either. The direction of the action sequences is, since this is the movie's raison d'etre, criminally lackluster in this post-Matrix age. They're not awful like those boring action scenes from Bond films of the 80's, just not as spectacular as they could be. Perhaps the problem is that we know that Bond isn't going to die, and we know that the babe probably isn't going, too, either - since at least one babe has to survive to the end of the film to shack up with Bond. Predictability is, well, boredom. But that's not the only problem. The editing for the action scenes clearly presents the action in a mix of long and medium shots. But it doesn't whip us into a testosterone fury. There are no clever camera angles, and few funny little details are thrown in - unlike, say, the magnificent action scenes in the first Indiana Jones movie. Another problem is that these scenes are based around a gadget (a nuclear submarine, helicopters with sawblades, an atomic bomb, Bond's new BMW Z8, etc.). Based around a gadget and not a character. Only the pre-credits action sequence (which is marvelous) could arguably be about a conflict between two people, as Bond chases a female sniper, played by Maria Grazia Cucinotta (who was "Beatrice" in Il Postino). While she only has a couple lines, she builds more character through her actions and expressions than most of the other "people" in the film. Gadgets become dull after a couple shots, but three-dimensional people we care about.
But Apted's direction doesn't fall flat only on the action scenes, either. While he does get kudos for giving M a big role in the film, he loses points for his man-handling of the goodbye scene with Q. Q's farewell to the series (85-year-old Desmond Llewelyn who plays Q, has been in almost every canonical Bond film) is too short. There's no gravitas or sadness that should be associated with an old man retiring after a lifetime of hard, under-appreciated work. Q's replacement, R, played by John Cleese, only gets a few lines (fewer than, say, C-3PO in Phantom Menace), and the single pratfall he is allowed is distinctly non-funny. But enough of the film's shortcomings. What about the stuff we really came to see. What about the babes?
Well, well, well, we get the bewitching Sophie Marceau... Wow. Say no more. Wow.
But Denise Richards. Hmm. I've never been really attracted to her. (Her nose
is a little weird and upturned and her eyes seem too round and doll-like and she
has a guy's eyebrows.) But if she's your type, and you really liked her in Wild
Things or Starship Troopers, well, this is the movie for you. First
of all, though, I should say that her acting is possibly the worst I've
seen all year. No, definitely the worst. The beautiful Venus de Milo could have
done better, and she doesn't even have arms or moving lips. Not that
acting ability has ever mattered for Bond babes. Denise plays a nuclear
scientist and at the beginning of the film when she says she doesn't care for
guys at all, you don't believe her - especially as she wears her Lara Croft
outfit of a teensy tight tee-shirt and the shortest shorts you can imagine -
under, get this, her protective radiation gear. Yeah, right. I was in grad school for years
and not once did any woman show up wearing a bathing suit under her lab coat.
Sheesh. Oh, and I should note that in the submarine scenes, whole
compartments are flooded just so we can see Denise in a wet t-shirt. Well, I
thought it was contrived and silly, but many of the other male members of the
audience didn't seem to mind at all.
Let's return to the first issue. Should James Bond film, or action movies in general, be judged differently than any other sort of film? I think the answer is a sad but true, yes. Filmmaking is driven by marketing. It seems like the corporate shirts have more say these days in the final makeup of a movie than the scriptwriters or directors. An action movie is billed as an action movie, and having real characters doesn't matter. One reviewer once said, the remarkable thing about Jurassic Park wasn't that they could make the dinosaurs look so real, but that they could make the people look so fake. That didn't seem to hurt the box office any. And, yet, there should be good action movies with lots of thrills AND quality dialogs and characters. And there have been, like... like... Um... I guess I'm drawing a blank. If anybody out there can think of any, let me know. But it should be theoretically possible. Just consider that this year's Sixth Sense showed that it was possible to have interesting, realistic characters in the context of a scary movie (an idea which didn't cross the minds of, say, the makers of The Haunting). Why can't the same be true for action movies or science fiction movies or... even James Bond movies? (All you filmmakers out there, this is a direct plea to you, in case you didn't notice.)
Rating: Overall, I'd say that it's not a good movie by any objective mark, but (mainly because of Sophie Marceau) it's still pretty good for a James Bond flick.
Overall rating as a film film: 6/10
Overall rating as a James Bond film: 7.5/10
Other random notes: The title is the English translation of "Orbis non
sufficit," the motto of the Bond family as noted in both the novel and the
film On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969).
Agree or disagree? Please email me.
From: Kevin P. O'Connell 12/1/99
Saw it recently. I thought it was certainly better than the late Roger Moore films (Moonraker, Octopussy, et al.) which as you pointed out were simply dreadful. And I rather like Judy Dench as M. They should have given her a bit more spy tech stuff to do; one would like to think that one gets to be 'M' by being smarter than the average bear.
You failed to comment on the terribly cheezy way they worked the title of the film into the script. I can't recall the lines verbatim, but the effect was obviously forced.
I liked your comment about grad school! Another review I read also mentioned the fact that Denise Richards looks way too young to have a doctorate in physics. As you and I are both multi-year veterans of PhD programs, we know the truth! I liked Richards more than Marceau, I think. Marceau looked more like a model, inaccessible. Richards looked more like The Girl Next Door, that Playboy icon that links Hef and Bond...
Gizmos: the boat was very nice. However, I'm tired of seeing Bond's cars fire one missile and then get trashed. They got more air time in older movies, overall, and I think that should continue. The recent exception was the big beemer-in-the-parking-garage scene in the last Brosnan effort. Not bad. I like the bigger gizmos more, I think, than the small ones. We are becoming used to things like zillion function digital watches, Walkmans, cell phones and Palm V's, and so the little gadgets seem less interesting than little armored boats or missile-firing BMWs.
Overall, I thought I agreed with your assessment. Not bad by Bond standards.
Fom Jonathan Harvey 12/9/99:
Just some movie notes.
I finally saw "Being John Malkovich" last night, and it is a marvel, certainly in my list of Top 10 movies I saw this year, if not quite #1. (I haven't seen "American Beauty" yet, so I have to withhold judgment. I also have not seen "Dogma" or "Mansfield Park". Sigh!)
I know I'm going to *adore* "Sleepy Hollow", because I like Tim Burton so very much all the time, even when he isn't that good ("Mars Attacks").
Your review of the Bond flick is interesting. The producers for the first time in eons chose a director not known for action films but for dramas, because they wanted to go back to the more serious dramatic flavor of the early Connery films with a slightly more developed character for James Bond. They did this because of a strong sense of the shadow of Austin Powers. In the past, when they tried this, those films were less successful ("On Her Majesty's Secret Service", "For Your Eyes Only", "License to Kill"). The reviewers/critics seem to like this film a lot more than the previous ones.
As for the title, it is established in "Majesty's Secret Service" that the slogan of the Bond family in the Middle Ages was "The World is Not Enough".
As for Denise Richards, I sort of liked her in "Starship Troopers" and "Wild Things" and that beauty contest comedy, but I will never believe her as a nuclear engineer!!
I recently saw part of "Trek: Insurrection" again and I would still rate it on the same level as "Generations" and "Search for Spock", nowhere near as bad as "The Still Picture" or "The Shatner Frontier".
From Aaron Gleason [mailto:AGleason@techteam.com]
Your movie review sites are excellent, especially the Austin Powers 2 page. I loved the parallels that were drawn by the movie to other well-known movies, but you pointed out many that I had no clue about whatsoever.
With the unfortunate passing of Desmond Llewelyn recently, it's with amazing Bond-like luck they wrote him out of the script and replaced him with John Cleese. Now, they have to make John a little less of a bumbling idiot and more of the witty scientist like Q was.
Oh yes: My vote for TWINE babe? Definitely Sophie Marceau. I agree with your description of Denise Richards, but the wet T-shirt shots were nice...
Thanks for the great work!
NOTE from Frank:
Speaking of Sophie Marceau: If you look at the two Bond posters at the top of this page, you might notice the difference in boob size between the two pictures of Ms. Marceau. I hadn't noticed that until just now. Man, the things that artists are asked to "fix". I thought she was just fine the way she was.
More Fom Jonathan Harvey 12/31/99:
I agree with you there is an egregious tendency to judge Bond & Trek films by a lower standard than other films. 50 years ago, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and Frankenstein films had the same problem.
I think the new one has both one of the best Bond girls and one of the worst. Denise Richards is the worst acting I have seen from any Bond girl, including Tanya Roberts. In the past, when the Bond girls were supposed to be intelligent, they seemed intelligent. Britt Ekland in "Man With the Golden Gun" seemed dumb, but her character was supposed to be dumb. I hasten to add, I liked Richards in the other 3 films I have seen her in, in all of which she played high school students. On the other hand, Sophie Marceau is mmmm. Therefore, I can say the one and only sentence in your review that I almost 100% disagree with is "But if she's your type, and you really liked her in Wild Things or Starship Troopers, well, this is the movie for you." She's not my #1 ideal type, but I *did* like in those other movies, and I'm afraid she loses me in this one.
I think they have a good story-line, but the exposition is unnecessarily confusing, as was also the case with "The Living Daylights".
I always like the rare occasions when Bond actually gets a physical injury, so I liked the wounded shoulder. I think the last 2 films in which Bond got injured were "For Your Eyes Only" (Moore) and "License to Kill" (Dalton).
Judi Dench is the best M ever, and keeps getting better.
You were right that Q's farewell was a tad perfunctory.
I'm not sure that the action sequences need to live up the "The Matrix", but if they're going to make the violence more explicit, they might as well try. I like the fact that in the 70s & 80s they were still doing Bond films in the style of the '60s. I think the Bond action sequences of the 80s were boring because they had *recycled material* NOT because of lack of interesting camera angles. The action sequences in this are not stunning visually, but they are amoung the more original and creative I've seen in a Bond flick in a while, particularly the guys on snowmobiles with parachutes, and the balloon business at the beginning.
It's true we don't look to Bond flicks for the stuff people win Oscars for, but the early Connerys had very 'well-crafted scripts' (your phrase), and there is no reason why it can't be done again. The best script ever was "Majesty's Secret Service" a film which suffered only from the performance of George Lazenby as Bond.
Back to Kitsch Tour U.S.A.
Back to Official Frank Wu Homepage