Jiggled, Not Stirred
Where most action movies strive not to seem "political," the globetrotting James Bond series has never shied from casting entire governments as supporting players, and depicting colorful villains in the literal sense. How could it be otherwise? Based on the investigative exploits of the swinging British spy created by naval intelligence officer-turned-author Ian Fleming, the first 007 epic, Dr. No (1962), went into production during the Cuban missile crisis. The film hit theaters in its native country around the time that U.S.-held Soviet operative Rudolf Abel was returned home in trade for U-2 pilot Frances Gary Powers; and it came out stateside in May 1963, just as Kennedy and Khrushchev had agreed on wiring a telephone hotline between the White House and the Kremlin in case of emergency. The ultrasuave Sean Connery lent his unflappable agent a distinctly presidential air, while the premier "Bond girl," Honey Rider (Ursula Andress), couldn't have failed to catch our commander-in-chief's roving eye. Is it any wonder that JFK singled out Fleming's oeuvre as one of his favorite bedtime diversions?
Firmly establishing the Bond formula (including that venerable pivot-and-shoot intro), Dr. No begins with a trio of black men gunning down a white Secret Service agent outside a Jamaican country club--this during the year that Kennedy called the National Guard to Birmingham in the wake of peaceful demonstrations and police brutality. Indeed, there's a sense in which the early Bond adventures--Dr. No, From Russia With Love (1963), and Goldfinger (1964) in particular--are themselves doing duty on the Cold War-era battlefield. In these movies, the invincible Bond has clearly been fated to survive history--but could history survive Bond? Could feminism endure beyond Goldfinger's Pussy Galore? How might the burgeoning Vietnam War be affected by the portrayal of Korean henchman Oddjob as a "wicked Oriental"? And what would the Red Menace make of Russia's Rosa Klebb, the butch sadist whose boot packs a poison-tipped stiletto? As screenwriter Bruce Feirstein recently told the New York Times, apropos of his script for the latest 007 opus, The World Is Not Enough: "The Bond films can have so much more impact than editorials."
Accordingly, most of the ink spilled on the new film has detailed Bond's not-so-secret mission to feed the starving lion that is MGM. Befitting a World more concerned with business than politics, Newsweek recently devoted 700 words to the studio's "astonishingly successful campaign" to acquaint 007 with the MTV generation. (Shirley Manson of Garbage, meet Shirley Bassey of Goldfinger.) As for the film itself, it's a by-the-numbers Bond movie whose chief assignment is to keep Bond girl Denise Richards's T-shirt wet while maintaining close diplomatic ties to Bollinger and BMW. Oddly, it was directed by Michael Apted, whose varied oeuvre includes a pair of socially conscious docs about Leonard Peltier (Incident at Oglala) and Tiananmen Square (Moving the Mountain). But as those films themselves might have argued, one man's politics account for nothing in the context of a global enterprise that has grossed $2.8 billion and counting. Or, as Apted told Newsweek: "I would have been s--t on from a great height if I had not delivered jiggle-vision."
Be that as it may, the most successful franchise in film history still has some bearing on world events. Last Saturday the Times' international section credited the ongoing oil imbroglio in the Caspian Sea with inspiring World's plot, in which megalomaniacal oil heiress Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) yearns to complete a petrol pipeline that will avoid passing through Russia and Iran on its way to the West. Funny that this scheme, though fervidly advocated by the Clinton administration, should now be blamed on Marceau's petulant, broken-English-speaking bitch from Azerbaijan. But unlike those editorials whose impact pales by comparison, the Bond films aren't obliged to be correct--factually or in any other way. What matters is fidelity to the 40-year-old formula: an outrageously elaborate pre-credit action scene; the main title printed across the chests of silhouetted babes packing heat; the home office's M, Q, and Moneypenny giving our hero his assignment, his gadgets, and his hard-on; the villain giving word of his or her nefarious plans; Bond giving two or three ladies a roll in the sack; and the hired-gun director giving the core audience its climax.
Said formula is so well-known by now that, among the many men of Sean Connery's age who plunked down for the Megamall's first matinee last Friday, one was up from his seat and headed for concessions even before the first silhouetted babe appeared on screen. Part of this routine, of course, is the constant awareness that Bond may pick up a bruise or two en route to the safe preservation of Western capital (indeed, 007's dislocated collarbone here occasions an encounter with one Dr. Molly Warmflash)--but he'll certainly not fail to get his nemesis, and he'll never, never die. (No wonder current 007 Pierce Brosnan has felt compelled to test his own authority by requesting permission to breathe Bond's last breath--which could only happen over the MGM lion's dead body, and probably not even then.) So what's the appeal of an action series predicated on the total lack of suspense? Well, more than anything, the Bond movies are precisely premised on the escape from fear: They're guiltless fantasies of omnipotence (tomorrow never dies...) whose privileges include the tits, the toys, the cash, the shaken martini, and the license to kill.
On a certain level, this overgrown boy doesn't begrudge such regressive pleasures, but it must be said that, even for 007 devotees, The World Is Not Enough is not nearly enough: The action is slack and sporadic, the villains are utterly devoid of kinks, and Richards's Dr. Christmas Jones (who doesn't come but once a year, natch) isn't nearly as alluring as Holly Goodhead, Kissy Suzuki, or Xenia Onatopp (you know I'm not making these up). Even the technofetishism of this World is oddly passé. (Of course James Bond has Internet access!) And while every 007 installment since Live and Let Die has naturally mourned the loss of Sean Connery, Brosnan's Bond here musters all the intrigue of an actor computing his box-office percentage points en route to the hotel.
Still, as the politics of the Bond market clearly extend beyond the screen, the only review that matters may be Bill Clinton's. After all, tomorrow never dies, and neither will 007. But more important, now that his final term is almost up, can Slick Willie lay a pipeline that stretches from here to Azerbaijan?
The World Is Not Enough is playing at area theaters.
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