I always thought this was one of my favourite Bond films. It had a good plot, good characters and was directed by a ‘serious’ director in Michael Apted. However on my recent re-watching I found the gloss had come off it somewhat.
The opening credits show a series of dancing women in pools of oil, and a series of oil derricks. For the first time in a while these credits actually give an accurate clue to the plot – yes, this is going to be an oily film. And the theme tune is great – and why wouldn’t it be, with Shirley’s mournful vocals. No, not Shirley Bassey, it’s Shirley Manson. The band, Garbage, were a bit of a strange choice for the theme tune but they came up with a song that is sultry and dark, with a big rising chorus. Very Bond.
The plot of this film centres around a pipeline being built from oil rich Baku, in Azerbaijan, to Southern Turkey, to feed the world’s insatiable desire for fuel. And in the post-Soviet world, when there is no East vs West fight, what would people fight about except access oil and gas? What I liked about this plot, was that the pipeline is a real thing, although there are no beautiful heiresses or anarchist terrorists involved (that I know of).
Sophie Marceau is excellent as the British-Azeri oil heiress, Elektra King. She’s the survivor of a kidnapping, and is now taking over the King oil company after her father is killed by exploding money (yes, you read that right). I like the way her character is given some depth early on in the scene where she agrees to re-route the pipeline to preserve an Orthodox chapel, citing that her country has been plundered for so long, it’s worth preserving what little of the culture remains. Bond is sent out to Baku to look after her as after her father’s death it’s suspected that her kidnappers are coming back for her.
An interesting bit of spycraft in this film too. Bond shoots someone from Elekta’s staff just before he is due to meet a contact. Not knowing who this contact is or where he is being taken by the contact, Bond has to just go along with it and improvise, finding out eventually he is going to a nuclear weapons facility where old nuclear warheads are being deactivated, and this is where he meets Dr Jones.
Denise Richards was panned for her performance as the nuclear scientist Doctor Christmas Jones (and she has to go in my top five of offensive Bond Woman names because she has this name only so Bond can make the joke “I thought Christmas comes only once a year.” Eye roll.) However on reflection she was no more difficult to believe than Tanya Roberts as a geologist in View to a Kill. She certainly does a lot less screaming.
The film takes us to some exotic locations: a speed boat tour of the Thames and London; the snowy mountains and to the oil fields of Azerbaijan (the oil fields are actually Azerbaijan; the mountains are in France; Elektra’s Baku mansion is actually the Küçüksu pavilion in Istanbul); Bilbao, for the opening scene where Bond retrieves the fatal cash; and Istanbul, where the climax of the film takes place.
(*Spoilers*) The villain is Renard, the anarchist terrorist, who kidnapped Elektra some years ago. Bond should have remembered the lesson from Never Say Never Again, that kidnap victims can develop Stockholm Syndrome, because Elektra is working with Renard, first to get back her father who was advised (by M) not to pay her ransom; and then to trigger a nuclear incident in Istanbul so the Russian pipelines will not be able to export their oil via the Bosphorus, giving the King pipeline a monopoly on oil and gas.
Renard as a villain is interesting. He has a bullet in his head that is gradually killing his brain, destroying all his sensations. Being impervious to pain is one thing, but holding a burning hot rock in your hand is still going to cause the skin on your hand to blister, whether you feel it or not, no? You see his frustration only when he and Elektra share an intimate moment, that he is with this desirable woman but he can’t feel anything.
This was the last film to feature Desmond Llewellyn as Q as the actor died in a car accident shortly after the film’s premiere. It was a poignant moment to see his last words to Bond were, “Always have an escape plan.”
Film epilogue: Dr Jones completes her work in Azerbaijan and continues to work in nuclear decommissioning across Central Asia, before eventually moving to Switzerland to work in research at CERN. She meets a fellow American there, Dr Greg Carroll, and they eventually marry but she doesn’t change her name. (“Are you kidding me?”)