Thick, slick, black oil is a key prop in The World Is Not Enough, the third James Bond outing to star Pierce Brosnan and the first in which viscous fluid exhibits more personality than the people who are killing each other over it. Not that it matters, but Bond's ostensible assignment this time, on special orders from M (long-lived English lioness Judi Dench), is to protect oil heiress Elektra King (long-lived French kitten Sophie Marceau) from Renardjust Renard (Robert Carlyle)an international terrorist with a bullet in his brain that renders him impervious to pain. Of course, no one is who he or she appears to be, as Bond learns the hard way, stunt-doubling through the usual flashy feats involving speedboats, skis, submarines, and, at one point, an underground oil pipeline itself.
At some outpost in his travels avec dinner jacket, though, Bond crosses paths once again with Valentin Zukovsky, the charismatically corpulent casino operator and arms merchant who first raised the stakes in 007's world in Goldeneye. Once again, Robbie Coltrane plays with unstinting Sydney Greenstreet dash. And every moment of Coltrane on screen is a moment more alive with pleasure than any involving Bond and his gizmos or Bond and his girls; Brosnan's repertoire of eyebrow arching while ogling and jaw clenching while escaping is by now entirely without flavor.
Which confirms a 007 theory of mine, that the hero himself has been denatured for a young, late 1990s audience with little appreciation for real suavity or sex play (the visual charms of Denise Richards, as a nuclear-weapons expert who works best in tank tops, dim every time she speaks in petulant, Party of Five cadences). And that, as a result, the future of the Bond marketarrested as it is in The World Is Not Enough somewhere between the blockish durability of Baywatch's David Hasselhoff and the satiric commotion of Austin Powers' Mike Myerslies in giving more screen time to everyone but the spy and his gal pals.
Director Michael Apted, in his first swing at the franchise, plays his strong backbench of British character actors for all they're worth; they're the pungent streak of blue cutting through the film's cheese. Apted gets more explosive power, for instance, out of illustrious John Cleese in a brief, hilarious scene as Q's successor-in-training than he does out of a hundred shots of stuff blowing up. ''And you might be...?'' ''R'' asks tartly when meeting the poker-faced stiff with the fancy shirt cuffs. The question is an important existential one, but it's sloshed over in a cascade of crude. C