Watching a James Bond movie is the cinematic equivalent of eating at McDonald's. From the fast-and-furious prologue to the sexy main-title sequence to the acts of derring-do performed by the suave agent 007, we always know exactly what we'll get.
And as with McDonald's, the unmatched success of the franchise defangs any critique of its stultifying predictability. The Bond formula, first brought to the big screen 37 years ago in "Dr. No," has been surprisingly resilient: The last two outings, "GoldenEye" (1995) and "Tomorrow Never Dies" (1997) -- both starring the smirking, self-satisfied Pierce Brosnan -- easily trumped the box-office takes of their predecessors.
Hot off the summer smash The Thomas Crown Affair, Brosnan slips comfortably back into Bond's skin in "The World is Not Enough," the operative's last affair of the century. But if you're expecting this pre-millennial outing to taste any different than the adventures we've swallowed in the past, you're simply in the wrong restaurant.
Assembled in a workmanlike manner by director Michael Apted ("Nell," "Coal Miner's Daughter"), "World" blasts open with one of the most energetic and dazzling extended chase sequences ever to grace a 007 outing. Having retrieved a huge cache of ill-gotten cash in Bilbao, Spain, Bond returns with the loot to M16 headquarters in London. When the money's owner is promptly killed in a fiery blast, our hero embarks on a wild-and-wooly speedboat chase on the Thames. The agent's vessel leaps into the air, submerges itself into the river when necessary, morphs into a car for a trip through the city streets and finally returns to the water. Several explosions and a short ride on a hot-air balloon later, 007 finds himself tumbling down the top of the billowing Millennium Dome. Perfect.
For his valiant efforts, Bond is rewarded with a readjusted collarbone, a trip to see the sexy staff physician and orders to take medical leave. But the mystery of the shocking murder -- and a clean bill of health from one charmed doctor -- draw him back onto the job. He promptly takes on the task of protecting the dead multimillionaire's gorgeous daughter, Elektra ("Braveheart's" Sophie Marceau), from business rivals in the former Soviet Union, men who may well resort to mayhem to thwart her ambitious efforts to construct an oil pipeline.
As usual, the action takes Bond, his friends and his enemies on a trip around the world. This time, it's a short hop from the oil fields of Azerbaijan to a casino in Baku to a pipeline work site somewhere in Western Asia to a terrorist's lair in Istanbul.
Elektra is a Bond girl with a secret, and it's refreshing to see the guy spar with a woman who comes off as an equal, both in bed and on other playing fields. Nuclear-weapons expert Christmas Jones (sultry Denise Richards of Wild Things and "Starship Troopers"), on the other hand, does little more than run and shimmy on cue while clad in a variety of short-shorts and miniskirts. Maybe that will be enough to pull in the teen-agers.
Robert Carlyle ("Trainspotting") similarly fails to give much of a lift to the role of Renard, a bad guy who's fated to a slow but certain death thanks to a bullet that's buried in his brain. Break out the Excedrin: He' s more annoying than frightening. Apted and his screeenwriters also fail to provide the dramatic and comedic material that might have allowed such gifted actors as Judi Dench (who returns as Bond's boss, M) and John Cleese (who joins the regular cast as R, an assistant to the weapons expert Q) to push "The World is Not Enough" out of the routine. The movie minds its Ps and Qs (and its Ms and Rs), but the result is less alphabet soup, and more a super-size order of fries that's in sore need of reheating.