Friday, December 25, 2015

There Are Sentences I Should Just Keep Away From (The World Is Not Enough)

fig. 1: Look, the name wouldn't even be a problem if you didn't have the overwhelming sense it was kept in some writer's back pocket just so's he can one day make an off-color Pussy Galore-level joke.
What makes a good Bond Girl?

Much hay was made last year when Monica Bellucci was cast as one of two Bond Girls in the then-upcoming film Spectre. Morning talk shows were abuzz. They talked as though this were some progressive milestone, as though casting one of the most beautiful women in the world was somehow not obvious, simply because she was fifty years old. At four years older than lead Daniel Craig, Bellucci has the distinction of being the only Bond Girl--and, beyond that, a positive rarity in mainstream cinema--to actually be older than the male lead. Of course, those morning news programs didn't focus nearly as much on the casting of Lea Seydoux, a French actress and the second part of this double bill. Clocking in at seventeen years younger than Craig, she is what the James Bond franchise, and Hollywood cinema in general, is more used to. For those of us who have seen the James Bond films (and I've seen them all), the pattern is obvious. You know which of that pair the film is going to focus on.

fig. 2: Just the idea of the press roll-out of "Here are the people he's going to fuck in this movie" is pretty strange.
True to form, Bellucci plays what I like to call the Act Two Girl, the girl that James Bond interacts with and beds before the close of the second act. Frequently, this lady is murdered, sometimes quite theatrically, by the lead bad guy or one of his lackeys. See also: Strawberry Fields, Tilly Masterton, Plenty O'Toole, etc. Seydoux, on the other hand, plays the Act Three Girl, the lady who might show up earlier, but her romance with James Bond is a sort of simmering thing eventually consummated at the close of the film's final act. So it is with Seydoux, with Eva Green's Vesper Lynd, and with every Act Three Girl of the Brosnan era like clock work. Sometimes this formula is played with. In the Brosnan films, however, it's pretty rote. It happens with Isabella Scorupco's Natalya in GoldenEye, with Michelle Yeoh's Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies, and with Halle Berry's Jinx in Die Another Day.

And boy oh boy does it happen here, in 1999's The World is Not Enough.

fig. 3: Ugh.

The World Is Not Enough is infamous for its casting of Denise Richards as nuclear physicist Christmas Jones, the Act Three Girl. This is the era of Peak Denise Richards. After starring in 1997's Starship Troopers and 1998's Wild Things, she was a hot commodity, guaranteed to put asses in seats. She is not, however, ever going to be considered among the bright lights of the modern thespian tradition. She delivers the scientific technobabble with which Jones is burdened with such vapid lack of conviction it's though she's learning English for the first time. But enough about Richards. Picking on her lack of technical expertise, or on the franchise for hopping on a hot property when they had the chance, is like shooting particularly dead-eyed fish in a barrel. Instead, for the moment, let's focus on Act Two's Girl, and curiously the only Bond Girl to also be a level antagonist: Elektra King.

There have been others, sure. Lady assassins, mainly, variations on that other Bond Film Trope, the Bad Guy's Girlfriend. The Bond franchise is in the position of having to negotiate between its fifty-year history and the audience expectations as a result of that history, and the changing landscape of culture surrounding it. This is probably no more better exemplified in these films than in The World Is Not Enough. Elektra King, played by French actress Sophie Marceau (herself a hot ticket after 1995's Braveheart) is a much more fully realized character than Richards' Jones, capable of standing toe-to-toe with Bond and of hatching her own ludicrously violent scheme to grab hold of a precious resource and make just tons of money in the process.

fig. 4: Remind you of anyone?
The closest the franchise gets to this sort of lady supervillainy elsewhere is Octopussy's eponymous Act Three Girl, though Bond soon sets her to rights and we find that the bad guy all along was Louis Jordan's Kamal Khan. The agency and mystique with which she begins the film is repeatedly undercut until she shares that closing love scene with our title hero. A few things changed between 1983 and 1999.

King has no such scruples, or constraints. She manipulates her captors when rescue seems impossible, hops in to bed with Bond at the earliest opportunity, and masterminds a scheme to control the distribution of oil to Eastern Europe. She also, of course, uses sex as a weapon. (See above.) The franchise can't help being a bit retrograde even when it is being progressive.

Although, it's not as though Bond himself is above using sex to get what he wants (though, typically, that's, well, sex). He handily seduces this film's Act One Girl, the preposterously-named Dr Molly Warmflash, in order to secure his position (ahem) on the active duty roster once again. He's positively reluctant to sleep with King at first (as reluctant as someone, particularly someone as Tex Avery-ish as the Brosnan Bond can be about hopping in to bed with Sophie Marceau), and the romantic tension (such as it is) between Bond and Jones is an artifact of how these action-adventure films are constructed. There's always a guy, there's always a girl, they usually kiss by the end. Indeed, the idea of the "Bond Girl" partly exists simply because he's been at this such a long time that what to other films would simply be trappings of the genre become this accretion disc of lipstick and high heels, whirling about through the franchise's fifty-year gravity.

The World Is Not Enough gets well-deserved flak for the bland casting of and sub-par acting by Denise Richards, which is a shame because that eclipses a great performance by someone who manages to be one of the best Bond Girls of the series as well as its only true female mastermind.

fig. 5: Plus she swans about the place in all these amazing caftans

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