photo by Keith Hamshere

For the evergreen, ever-dependable biennial Bond movie experience, the song remains very much the same; it’s just that everything else has changed out of all recognition. As per the recipe, we get a slam-bang pre-credit action sequence — in this case a splendid office-trashing four-handed fist- and gunfight — followed by the best speedboat chase since Face/Off (which was only the best speedboat chase since Live and Let Die). Fade to black, bring on the usual mudbath-in-a-titty-bar credits and the sound of Garbage’s Shirley Manson belting out a theme song that belongs firmly at the Sheena Easton–Duran Duran end of the Bond-song quality spectrum. And then that eye-catching final credit: “Directed by Michael Apted.” Perhaps this will be different.

But no. Thenceforth the formula bends everything and everyone — bargain-basement Blofeld redux Robert Carlyle (coasting), Judi Dench’s “M” and, of course, Apted himself — to its own ruthless purposes. Bond, the “sexist dinosaur,” is paraded before his womenfolk, Miss Moneypenny and M, for his ritual chastisement. His mission: protect a construction magnate (Sophie Marceau) whose international oil pipeline is threatened by Russian terrorists. Chief among these is Carlyle’s foxy Renard (“His only aim is chaos!”). A bullet lodged in his brain will kill him one day, but for now he remains immune to all physical pain, a formidable adversary indeed. Et cetera. I miss Dr. No’s titanium hands and Odd Job’s bowler hat. Don’t bother me with poignantly drawn, dime-store existentialist supervillains. All they need to say is, “I look forward to exterminating you later, Commander Bond. But for now, please observe my World Domination console. Note the red ‘Off’ button and the black ‘Meltdown’ switch. Excellent! Fancy a martini?” Renard doesn’t even have a piranha pool, let alone a cool compound or a “Meltdown” switch. Just a hole in his head.

Elsewhere, the cartoonishly pneumatic Denise Richards does duty as ripe, chesty arm-furniture for 007, playing a nuclear scientist named Dr. Christmas Jones (you’ve gotta love these movies) with all the 90210 gravitas she can muster in the face of Apted’s randy camera, which fetishizes her breasts without respite or remorse. Bond is back in his Austin Powers shagathon mode, by the way, here totaling a healthy four notches on the bedpost. One would like to think that Bond has changed with the times, given a few perfunctory nods to modernity like Timothy Dalton’s now-retired P.C.-ness and the female M. But looking back at From Russia With Love or Goldfinger, it’s readily apparent how much is still set in stone: the carnival of deeply cleavaged hotties, the baroque baddies, the touristy locations, the product placement, the fancy motors, Q’s gadgets and Bond’s always unfunny kiss-off lines.

But who goes to a Bond film for anything new? A protean movie franchise wouldn’t last 40 minutes, never mind 40 years. The formula, with its comforting arrangement of familiar elements, is what we’re after, and The World Is Not Enough certainly comes through on that front. The problem is that once upon a time you only saw a brainlessly exciting actioner whenever 007 hit theaters. These days, however, the Bond story architecture has been co-opted by every other action-movie director. Call it theme-park narrative: 10 rides linked by nice short waits, with North by Northwest as the prototype. Now Bond has been swamped by his myriad progeny — Air Force One, Independence Day, Mission: Impossible — and many directors now do the Bond formula better than Bond. And Apted. By now the debate about who played the best Bond seems rather pointless (though it’s Connery by a mile, of course), since the star too is merely an insertable element in the overall design, just like Apted (and his second-unit director, who does all the heavy lifting). The role requires a mannequin, and the well-maintained Pierce Brosnan — who takes the role seriously and whose actorly talents just about fill in the chalk outline that is 007 — is a man’s mannequin, by anyone’s standard.

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