I've tentatively planned to do a superlative list when I'm done with this marathon, with some obvious categories and some not so obvious categories. Without giving too much away, I'd say that the movie that was the least pleasant surprise so far was The Man With The Golden Gun, which is not really an objectively terrible Bond movie (it's mostly just static and low-stakes and boring) but which has one of the all time "fuck you" Bond girls, a character so dumb and unpleasant that she brought the entire film down around her.
Anyone who's seen this movie has already figured out where I'm heading with this, but let me vamp for a little bit longer and say this - I had assumed that the Brosnan era was a continuous downhill slide, starting with the very good GoldenEye and plummeting to the indefensibly campy Die Another Day (I have not watched that movie yet, but I know its reputation perfectly well). And I think that the major lesson I took out of The World Is Not Enough is that not only is it a significant improvement over Tomorrow Never Dies, but it's actually an above-average Bond flick. It's not great, but it does enough things well that I'd watch it a million times over again before I suffered through Tomorrow Never Dies again.
But there is that one thing, probably the most memorable thing (for all the wrong reasons) about the film, and that is the former Mrs. Charlie Sheen as Dr. (ha!) Christmas Jones. And let me be clear, I am not going to say anything nice about her, not her character or her performance. Well, one thing - she is, at least in her pre-Sheen days, an unquestionably attractive woman, one who looks really great in a wet white T-shirt. Denise Richards' blank-faced prettiness had been utilized very well in Starship Troopers, where the point is supposed to be how hollow both she and Casper van Dien were as people. And I could take or leave Wild Things, but she's certainly well-cast in that movie, where all she really had to be was a sexpot willing to suck face (and take her top off) with Neve Campbell. So she has her extremely limited uses.
Bond movies aren't exactly fonts of capital-A acting, and Richards isn't a significantly worse actress than some of the other bottom-shelf Bond girls, but what she does represent is a degree of contempt for the audience that is really unbecoming. It's one thing to suggest that a pretty girl can also have a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, but it's quite another to suggest that a pretty girl who can't register anything more than a vacant expression as she rattles off science-y speak and who is, let's be honest, pretty clearly a dumb person in real life, could have a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. Casting Richards as this character was contemptuous, a signal from the filmmakers that they believe their audience are simpletons who will accept their idea of an "updated" Bond girl, where the film simply tells us she is smart without needing to do any of the work of showing us because she is pretty and we are stupid.
Christmas Jones, whose name exists solely for Bond to make an awful pun at the end of the film, is by far the worst part of this movie, and fortunately most of the other parts are decent, and some of the parts are great. The plot, in its simplest form, revolves around the villain sabotaging a key oil pipeline, increasing the value of their own pipeline dramatically. Nuclear weapons are involved and it all gets very convoluted, as these movies usually do, but that's the basic outline. Bond saves the day, makes a pun at Dr. Jones, and the movie ends. As usual, I will bullet point the rest.
The opening stunt is exactly as loud and flamboyant as the opening stunt in GoldenEye is (mostly) quiet and simple. But it works really well on its own terms, and is a major improvement over Tomorrow Never Dies' lackluster opener. It's divided into two parts, and there's a fakeout where after the first part, Bond goes back to MI6 HQ without the opening theme kicking in, so you know something is up. That something is one of M's friends (who, naturally, we have never seen nor heard of before) getting blown up and Bond chasing the assassin down the Thames in, admittedly, a pretty goofy-looking boat. Regardless, it is one of the all-time great openers.
The theme is also a significant improvement on Tomorrow Never Dies (this is kind of a running theme), with Shirley Manson doing a pretty good update of the classic slinky, sexy Bond theme singer.
Sophie Marceau plays the daughter of the aforementioned blowed-up-real-good friend of M's, Elektra King, a woman whose previous kidnapping at the hands of Robert Carlyle's Renard is the kernel around which the entire plot of the film is built. I admit that I generally find Sophie Marceau pretty sexy, so I am probably overrating her here, but I think she's a solid presence.
She and Bond engage in a ski chase with a bunch of dudes in these strange paraglider/snowmobile combo things, and it is another piece of evidence in favor of the idea that any time you can put Bond on skis you will probably end up with a quality action scene.
Carlyle's performance is turned down a bit low, especially given the elaborately weird backstory of Renard (he has a bullet in his brain that means he can't feel pain). And his character is completely neutered by a mid-film twist.
I may be mistaken, but I think this movie has the first genuine twist in the entire series, when it's revealed that Elektra is the shadowy power behind all the film's mayhem (including blowing her own father up) since she and Renard had become lovers during her kidnapping ordeal. She holds a particular grudge against M, since M was the person encouraging her father not to simply give in to Renard's ransom demands, and although this is an excuse to get Judi Dench a few more scenes (Elektra kidnaps her and puts her in a makeshift Bond Trap), it is mostly a massive dud that she is dragged into the plot. M also, for the first time in Dench's run, has to do the old "seeing Bond screwing the final girl after the plot has been resolved" scene and it is a lot less fun for someone of her acting pedigree to have to feign bemusement at Bond's fairly tiresome cocksmanship than it was when Bernard Lee was doing it.
Goldie is in this movie, entirely for comic relief. That is very strange.
The quality of the action in the movie kind of evaporates after the two scenes I mentioned (the opening bit and the ski scene) and by the time we get to the final boss battle on a submerged submarine, there is virtually nothing particularly interesting happening on screen. Now that I think it about it, it may be due to just how much Christmas Jones is involved in the action in the second half of the movie. Richards sucks the life out of the film when she is on screen.
I'm not really sure if I have anything to say about Brosnan's performance. He's a steady hand at the wheel who doesn't really bring anything extra to the table. Workmanlike, I guess, is how I'd describe him. I guess I might have to admit that I sense him getting sick of the part here, as most actors do eventually. Brosnan in some ways always felt a little too perfectly cast in the role, a man who is so effortlessly suave that it's almost hard for him to really bring anything extra along with.
John Cleese gets introduced as the guy who is obviously meant to replace Desmond Llewellyn's aging Q. I don't really have anything positive to say about this decision - Q is obviously the goofiest of the main characters in the Bond universe, but he is also supposed to be something of an engineering and science savant, and you have to believe that he is both easily exasperated and incredibly smart in order for a lot of his very arch scenes to work. Cleese can do goofy and he can do exasperated but the savant part has now been tossed aside and that kind of ruins the whole idea of Q.
While it's really cool that we finally get our first female Big Bad, Bond dispatches her well before the final conflict without any fanfare (she's offed by a gunshot), and then has a long drawn out battle with Renard (which is incredibly boring in part because of how the reveal of Marceau as the top dog of Eviltown turned Carlyle's character into nothing more than a lackey.)
Given what a contemptuous character Christmas Jones is, I'm willing to bring back the sexist/racist index for a one-night-only engagement. Extremely sexist, certainly the most sexist Bond movie since the depths of the Moore era. And while it's nice that Elektra King drives the plot, the film treats her with a degree of casual indifference that is incongruous with her place in the broader story.
Bond sleeps with both King and Jones, and I don't think anyone else.
(I'm reading through this review and thinking, boy, this is really negative given that I've expressed that I actually liked the movie. On balance, the good outweighs the bad, but a lot of the good happens in the first half of the movie and a lot of the bad happens in the second half, so what I most clearly remember is the bad.)