The World is Not Enough is powerful evidence for the idea that the Austin Powers films thoroughly undermined the James Bond concept. Rather than push further into the realms of the unreal, World retracts, attempting a more novelistic approach to Britain's top secret agent. As a pitch World is wonderful, a sour reconfiguring of On Her Majesty's Secret Service that sees Pierce Brosnan's Bond thoroughly duped by his adversary, an heiress who greedily protects her oil fortune.
Under Barbara Broccoli's tenure the female roles in James Bond films have come on leaps and bounds. Sophie Marceau's Elektra King is the best yet, a master manipulator who has disguised herself as a willowy little rich girl. Marceau is excellent throughout, able to communicate several crucially different readings of the same basic character,
To Bond she's a genuine love interest, a beautiful, well-heeled equal who can ski her way out of danger. Elektra gives him exactly what he wants. In his eyes she's another Tracy, his doomed wife come again, demanding protection. An appreciative 007 gobbles her up, greedily. Judi Dench's M gets Daddy's Little Girl, a calculated attempt to exploit the bond between King's father and the MI6 taskmaster. King zeroes in on a maternal pang and ruthlessly applies pressure, causing M to wander into danger with open arms.
Robert Carlyle's disfigured anarchist Renard sees something else entirely. His mind clouded by a (physically at least) reciprocated love. Contrary to his stated beliefs Renard makes Elektra a Queen in his mind, subordinating himself to the role of dutiful serf. He's the gardener to her Lady Chatterley, a vulgar, physical little man who feels himself elevated by an aristocrat's affections.
Perhaps once Renard was working towards the complete destruction of the capitalist machine, now he's just a zombie, shuffling along at the behest of an oil magnate. The bullet 009 blasted into Renard's skull has made him into an unfeeling, broken thing. King exploits this flaw mercilessly, folding him and his private army into her own schemes as penance for his inability to summon up an erection.
Sex is always power in James Bond films, a strength focused around 007's indefatigable desire to fuck. World makes this his weakness. Even when Bond has a sense that King is rotten, he's reluctant to make that final conceptual push and recognise her as evil. He just doesn't want to. He'd rather rescue then mend her, use her to fill the hole that Irma Bunt blew through him on his wedding day.
When Bond finally does accept the reality of King, that she isn't being puppeteered by a KGB bogeyman, something inside 007 turns cold. King recognises this and flees, attempting to transform the preamble of her termination into a game of kiss chase. King's final appeal is that of an infantilized sexpot, an object that wants to be dominated and penetrated by master adventurer James Bond.
Unfortunately Marceau's grandstanding performance is just a cog in a bigger machine. King's death isn't even the finale, Bond has to stagger off and sink a submarine with Denise Richards' nuclear physicist-cum-wet t-shirt contestant in tow. Director Michael Apted might be able to coach an indelible performance out of Marceau but his action chops are non-existent.
Charitably, you could make the case that World's inert, bloodless denouement is a reflection of the head space Bond and Renard share. Their pathetic clashing symptomatic of the psychic damage that Elektra has done to them both. Watching the duo limply exchange kicks over a nuclear reactor may tally with this dramatic throughline but it's zero fun to watch.
World has all the raw ingredients to be one of the very best Bonds but Aped's assembly is slack and slow, full of broken men impotently jabbing at their enemies with guns they don't intend to fire. When Marceau is onscreen we're back in the 1960s, drinking in a fresh, vital young action series. When she's not we're stuck with the kind of punishing, mind-numbing boredom that sank that other missed opportunity, The Man with the Golden Gun.