The James Bond series was on a roll. The character was hugely popular once again, and Pierce Brosnan was comfortably established in the role. But the producers didn’t want to just rest on their laurels, and live off of the previous success the new movies had provided. They wanted to reinvent themselves, and try and improve the formula if they could. Where could the new James Bond movie go from here? How could they still keep the character relevant and fresh in the eyes of modern day audiences, while furthering its pop-culture appeal?. With those questions in mind, the producers set about making a James Bond film that would be more of a study character this time around, without giving away too much of the mystique that surrounded him. For that, the filmmakers decided to draw inspiration from the ever increasing appeal that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969), had in the minds and hearts of die-hard James Bond fans the world over, and come up with a foe that would ultimately be a combination of both villain and victim/love interest, and result in one of the most interesting challenges 007 had ever faced. But how did they come up with this? As usual, it would be a tortuous and twisting road to get there, but with a very happy ending.
On the lookout for fresh ideas and a new direction in which to push the next story, the producers decided to go with two relatively new screenplay writers, Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, who’d made a positively good impression with their previous script, Plunkett and McCleane (Jake Scott, 1999). The story they pitched to both Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli revolved around an heiress, Elektra King, daughter of oil tycoon Sir Robert King, who is kidnapped by terrorist Viktor Zokas aka Renard. Following the counsel of his old friend M, the head of MI6, he delays the payment of the requested ransom for her daughter on the hopes that the British Secret Service can lay a trap for Renard and his minions. MI6 manages to rescue King and catch up with Renard, putting a bullet in his head. The bullet doesn’t kill him, instead traveling through his brain, rendering his senses numb, but increasing his physical strength at the same time. What MI6 doesn’t know is that Elektra, infuriated by her father’s refusal to pay her ransom, has forged an alliance with Renard. Together they hacht a plan to kill Sir Robert and take over his empire. The first stage of this plan has Bond traveling to Bilbao, Spain, to retrieve the money Sir Robert naively paid for a fake report that was supposed to point Sir Robert in the direction of the individuals who had been attacking his newly developed oil pipeline in the Caspian Sea. Turns out to be nothing more than a ruse to use MI6 to deliver a case full of money rigged with explosives that kills King. Digging into Elektra’s past, Bond finds out about the kidnapping and the money being the exact same amount, when the currency is adjusted from pounds to dollars, as the ransom Sir Robert was supposed to deliver for her daughter’s safe return. Suspecting a conspiracy within Elektra’s organization, and the return of a very much alive Renard, Bond, on M’s orders travels to Azerbaijan, where Elektra is supervising the construction of her pipeline, to warn her of the danger. Unaware of Elektra’s secret plans, and moved by her supposed frailty, Bond falls for Elektra, starting a chain reaction that will have the 00 agent contending with an unholy alliance that will put his resolve to the test. The story came from a variety of sources and ideas, the main location in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, being suggested by Barbara Broccoli after she had seen an episode of Ted Koppel’s current affairs series Nightline that focused on Baku, and how this city had become the centre of an oil boom after their break-up with Russia a few years earlier. The writers had also read an article in The Economist that revolved around the same subject. It was actually the screenwriters who suggested a female villain loosely based on heiress Party Hearst, who had been kidnapped and fallen for her captors. With these elements in place, the writing duo started working on the screenplay, delivering a first draft that was not to the entire satisfaction of both the producers and director. After toying at one point with the idea of hiring Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón to helm the movie, the producers got in touch with Michael Apted, mostly known for his work on documentaries and dramas like Gorillas in the Mist (1988). Apted was unsure on whether to take on the job, as it wasn’t something that was precisely in his wheel house, having little experience with big budget productions, and really didn’t know how to direct big action set pieces. Michael Wilson assured Apted that Eon’s experienced second unit would take care of that for him, while he could focus on the more character driven and dramatic beats. One of the first decisions he made once he agreed to do the movie was to bring in his wife Dana Stevens to work on the script, to further develop the female characters. That she did, but at the expense of Bond’s character, who ended up being a secondary character in his own movie, a fact Pierce Brosnan wasn’t at all happy about. Stevens gave more prominence to the characters of M and Elektra, but the script would be worked on even further when Bruce Feirstein, who’d helped develop and polish the scripts for both Goldeneye (Martin Campbell, 1995), and Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode, 1997), was brought in. Even Michael Wilson would end up doing some on-set rewriting while the movie was in production, taking him back to the days when both Richard Maibaum and him would agonize over the script of the latest Bond entry, something the co-producer didn’t miss one bit. Wade and Purvis weren’t at all happy with these decisions as they felt that the story had been taken away from them. Whatever grudges they may have held against the producers were soon forgotten as the writers would be hired for the subsequent Bond movies.
With the names of Sharon Stone and the then unknown Vera Farmiga tossed around to play the part of Elektra King, the role finally went to Sophie Marceu. Being only her second English-speaking role, the actress was hot Hollywood property at the time having participated in Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning epic Braveheart. The studio wasn’t sure about giving the role of the main villain to the French actress, but the producers were adamant on having as varied an international cast as possible. Javier Bardem’s name also came up during the casting process for the role of Renard, which ultimately fell on Scottish actor Robert Carlyle, popular for his roles in Trainsporting (Danny Boyle, 1996), and The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997). Bardem would years later land the role of Sylva, Daniel Craig’s antagonist on Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012). Michael Wilson got interested on Carlyle after seeing him portray a psychopath in British TV drama, Cracker (1993-96). The star of that show, Robbie Coltrane, came back to reprise his role of Valentin Zukowski, who’s set up shop in Baku, and is enlisted for his help by Bond once again. The role of nuclear physicist Christmas Jones, which was a French-Polynesian insurance investigator in earlier drafts, went to American actress Denise Richards, popular at the time for her participation in Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997), and Wild Things (John McNaughton, 1998). Michael Kitchen and Colin Salmon came back to reprise their roles as Bill Tanner and Charles Robinson, while Samantha Bond stepped into the shoes of Miss Moneypenny once again. Judi Dench would be given much more protagonism in the story this time around, and after having had a difficult time with Roger Spottiswoode on the previous movie, she felt in much more capable hands with Michael Apted, who was more of an actor’s director. This movie would mark the last time ever that Desmond Llewellyn would play the role of Q. In between being too old for the role, and finding it increasingly difficult to memorize his dialogue, Llewellyn felt it was as good a time to retire from the role as any. Not without handing over the reins to his assistant, played with impeccable comedic timing by John Cleese. Cleese was supposed to take over the role for subsequent movies, but only got as far as the next one, Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002), when the decision was taken to reboot the franchise and scrap his character. Soon after the movie’s world premiere, Llewellyn was killed in a car crash. British musician Goldie as Mr Bullion, Danish actor Ullrich Thomsen as Elektra’s Chief of Security Davidov, Serena Scott Thomas as Dr Molly Warmflash, David Calder as Sir Robert King, Fiji-born John Seru as Elektra’s personal bodyguard Gabor, and Italian actress Maria Grazia Cucinotta as the Cigar Girl, completed the cast.
The movie was filmed in a wide variety of locations like Spain, France, Turkey, Baku, and Scotland, with the bulk of the stage work taking place in Pinewood Studios in the UK. Bilbao and the Guggenheim Museum (the shooting of the scene was quite disruptive due to the massive turnout of Spanish fans wanting to get a glimpse of Brosnan), served as the setting for the beginning of the pre-title sequence, while the mountainous region around Cuenca doubled as the setting of a Turkish mosque, and Elektra King’s pipeline construction site. Both Turkey and Azerbaijan were recced as possible locations, but were ultimately used only for some establishing shots as it was deemed too volatile a region to risk having the principals actors there. The production team sent in a skeleton crew to grab what shots they could to be used later on as plates in the sound stages. Most of the interiors like MI6 HQ, Elektra’s villa, the pipe control station, Zukowski’s casino and caviar factory were recreated brilliantly by a returning Peter Lamont, after having taking a break on the previous movie, Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode, 1997). There’s one instance during the shooting of the attack on Zukowski’s caviar factory that the crew had to do some additional shooting in Aldershot, a British Army training facility in South East England. The facility was chosen due to it being secluded and the amount of pyrotechnics the crew had to use in the scene. Chris Corbould and John Richardson, two James Bond stalwarts, returned to the fold to take care of special effects and miniature work, with the aforementioned Chris Corbould returning to an idea he had worked on as far back as Goldeneye. The idea of Elektra’s minions using helicopters with saw blades attached to their undercarriage to cut through Zukowski’s caviar factory was something that Corbould had wanted to use for Goldeneye, but ended up scrapping due to time and budget constraints. Bond’s new BMW Z8 falls victim of said blades when trying to escape his pursuers, the sports cars is cut in half by the blades, cutting short the car’s screen time, and robbing us fans of a planned chase sequence that never got off the staging state.
What was to be to date the longest pre-title sequence in a Bond movie, the boat chase around the Thames, ending at the Millenium Dome, proved to be somewhat of a logistical nightmare. Vic Armstrong, returning as second unit director after his stint in Tomorrow Never Dies, was to plan out and supervise it. Stuntman Coordinator Gary Powell was to double Brosnan in the most difficult tricky stunts. The tricked-out speedboat from Q branch was very difficult to maneuver at the best of times, and at one point during the sequence, Bond had to perform a 360° barrel roll thar was very reminiscent of a similar stunt that had been performed in The Man with the Golden Gun (Guy Hamilton, 1974). Powell practiced the stunt for weeks in a nearby lake, nearly getting killed on one occasion when the speedboat failed to turn all the way over and ended up on top of Powell, who struggled to get from under it. The stunt had to be repeated several times, with the crew getting the perfect shot after many tries. The same went for the very tricky scene in which Bond jumps from the speedboat onto a rope hanging from under the hot air balloon in which Cigar Girl is trying to escape, before the boat crashing on the shore in front of the Millenium Dome. Once again, a huge amount of rehearsal went into trying to get the scene just right, sometimes going over, or falling short. One of the things that impressed Apted the most when shooting started was the amazing accessibility the James Bond brand provided everywhere they went. Save from a few complaints from some politicians from the Houses of Parliament, on account of the racket the crew was causing up and down the river Thames, the crew was given a free reign when it came to using locations and famous landmarks in and around London as backdrop for Bond’s latest adventure.
Next up was the scene in which Bond and Elektra are chased down the ski slopes of the Caucasus mountains by Renard’s goons using Parahawks (motorized paragliders that can turn into snowmobiles). The sequence was the brainchild of Stunt coordinator Simon Crane, who had seen these vehicles in action while on holiday. Vic Armstrong and his crew traveled to Mont Blanc, Chamonix, to shoot the sequence, that was to end with an avalanche, caused by an exploding Parahawk, covering Bond and Elektra with a landslide of snow. Unfortunately, right around the same time a real avalanche killed several people, and the crew had to stop shooting, and graciously gave up their helicopters and personnel to the rescue team to help with the rescuing effort. The ensuing avalanche sequence was recreated in the studios in Pinewood. The bunker sequence in which Renard is caught red-handed by Bond trying to steal a nuclear bomb was a masterpiece of design by Peter Lamont, with Brosnan surprisingly performing most of his own stunts during this pivotal action sequence, with the actor hanging from a chain with an enormous explosion going on behind him. The exteriors of the nuclear banker were shot in the plains outside of Navarra, another striking Spanish location. Maiden’s Tower, a light house structure in the middle of the Bosphorous was used as the location of Elektra’s hideout at the end of the movie. With the actors unable to shoot on location due to political unrest in the area, the crew had shot plates of all the major locations in Istanbul to be adde later on in post-production, with Peter Lamont faithfully recreating the interior of these locations in Pinewood Studios. For the last confrontation between Bond and Renard inside a sinking nuclear submarine, they used an uncanny mixture of miniature work and on-set shooting, with the interior of the submarine being built inside a soundstage within a watertank into which it could be submerged at any time. The actors had to work in freezing conditions, being soaked in freezing water for weeks on end.
The final touch
David Arnold was asked to come back to write the soundrack for the new movie, which resulted in the composer delivering what is quite possibly one of his best scores for the Bond series, only topped off by his music for Casino Royale. In a movement that was reminiscent of what John Barry had done in The Living Daylights (John Glen, 1987), Arnold, along with lyricist Don Black wrote not one, but two title songs for the movie, The World is not Enough and Only Myself to Blame, the latter of which can be heard on the soundtrack album, but was never used as intended for the end credits. An instrumentation version of the song can be heard throughout the movie in the casino scene, and as Elektra’s love theme. Shirley Manson, lead singer of Gargabe was a massive fan of Bond, and basically got the gig on account of Arnold thinking that Manson was someone you could easily imagine fitting right into a Bond movie. Daniel Kleinmann returned once again to do the title sequence, this time revolving around the theme of oil with models being covered in thick coats of oil, and nodding donkeys in the background.
Financial and critical reception
The movie opened to good reviews, and a very strong showing at the box office, grossing a worldwide total of $ 361.8 million by the end of its theatrical run. Overtime though, the movie has been generally dismissed as another bland attempt to capture the magic Bond formula. But, is there any truth to these assertions? And how does it fare when compared to the rest of the Brosnan/Bond movies?
There has never been any discussion that during the Brosnan era, script mishaps aside, the Bond formula was a very well oiled machine. It had reached, and even surpassed on some occasions, the technical heights the series had achieved over the years. But what about the character, the stories and the world surrounding him? Well, that depends on the eye of the beholder. On my part, I never really had much to complain about when it came to the way Brosnan approached the character. He’s flawless. He was born to play him. The plots, stories, and characters he was seldom saddled with, those are another thing altogether. And something that completely escaped his jurisdiction. That being said, and probably for the last time, Brosnan has some meaty material to sink his teeth into. Not only is his character given a new lease of life, but he’s also confronted with possibly two of the most interesting foes he’s ever had to face. Interesting in that they’re tragic characters in and of themselves. These are characters who are victim of circumstance, unable to escape a past that still haunts them. Renard is doomed to die slowly, with his physical strength growing everyday, while his senses are dulled. Able to love in his own way, but unable to physically feel, or show it. Elektra, on the other hand, is a very conflicting character. Trapped in a whirlwind of hatred, and determined to restitute her mother’s legacy, is possibly the real villain of the story. She has an agenda, and will do whatever is neccesary to achieve her goal, using Renard as a tool to do it. Both characters are brilliantly played by both actors, with Carlyle displaying an undercurrent of rage beneath the surface, while Marceu shows a slyness and malice that is every bit deserving of the confidence bestowed on her by the producers. As for Brosnan, he gets to expand upon the character the way he started to do in both Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies, only this time giving it a whole new dimension. His rage, and ultimate vengeance upon Elektra stems from the fact that, after all these years he had finally found an equal, the same way Tracy Draco was. Someone to protect, to care about, and to love. That’s why her betrayal hurts the most. Not to say that he doesn’t put up his usual emotial barriers all the same, something that had to be pressed upon by the producers when Apted started to play around with the character’s iconography. No, Bond isn’t like that. He wouldn’t just open up. And Elektra King is the person who gets the closest to doing just that. The story is not without its pitfalls though, and it can come across as a bit generic in places, but as expected, the production team delivers the usual thrills in the form of perfectly executed action set pieces. Top notch. Nothing to complain about there. Performances are generally good with one exception; Denise Richards is not believable at all as a nuclear physicist, and her brash and sassy manner doesn’t help matter either. It is just a pity that the story and characters don’t get the chance to breathe more. Some of the points I’ve made about how good the characters are, and how underrated the story is, can be better appreciated when reading the novelization the official James Bond writer at the time, Raymond Benson, wrote. The characters of both Elektra and Renard are better fleshed out, and given very interesting and compelling back stories. There’s a motivation behind all of their actions. Something that doesn’t come across as readily when watching the movie, especially the first time. This, in my opinion, is the second best Brosnan/Bond movie of all the ones he did after Goldeneye. Next time we’ll take a look at Die Another Day, and all the silliness that happened there, but you’ll perhaps be surprised to find that I’m not completely dismissive of that movie either, like most people are. Until next time.
Thanks for reading.