Bonding session

Film - Jonathan Romney on 007's evolving appeal

One of the great axioms of cinema is that there's no point in parodying the James Bond films because they already parody themselves. In fact, that's not quite true: it's more as if the films parodied themselves only in order to counter the weight of parody from elsewhere. The spoofs have been coming thick and fast at least since Kenneth Williams wore a fez with his tux in Carry On Spying (1965); the most recent is Mike Myers's toothy Lothario in the Austin Powers films. But Myers's jovially priapic swinger is really a third-generation Bond, a parody less of 007 than of his semi-parodic imitators of the 1960s - smirking Lotharios like Dean Martin's Matt Helm and James Coburn's Flint.

Such parody has now moved so far away from its original target that Bond is almost immune from barbs. The series may, in its imperturbable fashion, carry on making the same dry jokes about itself, but if Bond still flirts with Moneypenny, still arches an eyebrow while ordering his Martini, these old habits are rituals to ensure the smooth functioning of the status quo - like Masonic handshakes or barristers invoking "my learned friend". The series in the 1990s has acquired a new sleek dignity and re-established itself as a classic. I use that word in the way you'd call a car a classic - one you'd never think of driving but that looks sublime in a showroom window. In the same way, the classiness of 1990s Bond seems designed to reassure more than to entertain.

The World Is Not Enough - directed by Michael Apted, a more prestigious journeyman than most - is the 19th Bond film and pretty much offers business as usual. Yet Bond business is never quite as usual. Each film's structure may be unfailingly regular, barely changed since Dr No - from initial tentative skirmishes to showdown at the villain's over-designed HQ - and yet little things change from year to year. The series is a self-repairing organism, constantly modifying its parts but retaining the same shape and meaning. There's a wonderfully explicit moment of such system-regeneration in The World Is Not Enough, when venerable boffin Q (the ever-dependable Desmond Llewellyn) introduces his new assistant (none other than John Cleese - codename R, naturally). Cleese's irascible pratfalls serve no other purpose than to imply that he's been booked in for the next ten films. Meanwhile Q announces his retirement by gently sinking into the floor - the single most graceful moment in the entire series.

The organism mutates in other ways. The music still has the urgent fanfares of the old John Barry scores, but it's now composed by David Arnold, with a discreet bass 'n' drum rattle. And the film discreetly asserts its up-to-scratch cosmopolitanism by recruiting faces from recent European art films - Ulrich Thomsen, the doleful hero of Festen, and Maria Grazia Cucinotta from Il Postino. Most cosmopolitan of all is Sophie Marceau, whose heiress Elektra is the classiest thing here - a true sophisticate who, you imagine, is no stranger to Ferrero Rocher.

What never changes is the peculiar political bubble that the series inhabits. The films may look superficially like the most ideologically over-loaded cinema ever made, yet their codes became fixed so long ago that they now appear to have no political meaning whatsoever. In effect, the films' politics were always really of a 19th-century Napoleonic variety, imagining history as made not by political forces but by two duelling individuals, Bond and the villain of the moment. This film is slightly less Manichaean than the rest - Marceau's character is intriguingly ambivalent, and MI6 ethical duplicity is implied. But the Bonds offer a reassuring antidote to conspiracy theory: in their world, real power belongs to any person who can afford a private fleet of killer 'copters.

For all this vagueness, the film works hard to persuade us that it has some purchase on reality, which figures mainly as architecture: a gleaming flash of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, and the Millennium Dome as scene of an air-balloon struggle. It's a fair exchange: the Dome gets its certificate of mythic status, while Bond gets a grounding in the here and now. And the film's use of old-fashioned special effects, rather than digitals, seems almost a matter of moral probity. The credits read like a roll of Renaissance artisanship: parachute pilots, boat engineers, ski rig specialists.

What does strike an odd note is that, for all his supposed sophistication, Pierce Brosnan's rather tight-arsed, tetchy Bond seems to have been implanted with the sexual matur-ity of a Viz character. His innuendo addiction always gets the better of him: Denise Richards' nuclear expert Christmas Jones, apparently Lara Croft's callow kid sister, is there purely for the sake of an excruciating closing gag about her name. And when Bond dons his X-ray glasses in a casino, he can barely suppress a Benny Hill smirk on realising that they reveal both guns and lingerie. As straight as the film plays itself, there's one respect in which the self-parody has looped round on itself so that, at times, Bond could almost be parodying Austin Powers. But then, it's a safe bet that the series will still be going on in another 30 years, when Austin Powers is long forgotten. Bond is film's equivalent to the Queen Mother, really - expensive to maintain, and doesn't necessarily afford anyone much pleasure, but terribly reassuring in a plus ca change way.

"The World Is Not Enough" (12) is on general release

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery