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Nobody Does It Better

  Die Another Day

 

Lee Tamahori, UK/USA, 2002

Rating: 2.9

    James Bond Franchise

 

Various Directors, UK/USA, 1962-2002

Rating: 4.0

Posted: November 26, 2002

By Steve Wallace, Contributing Writer

A lot has changed in the 40 years they've been making James Bond films. Actually, the character goes back even further, beginning with the publication of Ian Fleming's first Bond book, Casino Royale, in 1953. In all, Fleming penned 12 007 novels and two collections of short stories; One by one, all of his tales were adapted to the big screen, finally exhausted with 1987's The Living Daylights. But the lack of new Fleming material was no impediment to Hollywood, which has since churned out five more Bond films. The latest of these, Die Another Day, arrives on our shores just in time to mark the 40th anniversary of Bond's cinematic run. And it's obvious that the film's producers (Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, heirs to legendary Bond producer Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli) took pains to commemorate their secret agent's substantial legacy.

There are certain components that are key to every Bond film, and Die Another Day is careful to stick to the formula, beginning with the pre-credits teaser, the action-packed "wow" prologue before Bond walks into our sights and fires his pistol at the audience, and silhouetted naked chicks begin swimming across the screen. Who can forget Bond plummeting to his apparent death off the snow-covered peaks of Switzerland before opening a parachute emblazoned with a British flag in 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me? Or his apparent strangulation at the hands of a hulking Aryan thug, before it's revealed that the victim is a Bond look-alike in a brutal training exercise (1963's From Russian With Love)? The trick here is to show the audience something it presumably doesn't expect, and Die Another Day doesn't disappoint on this score. The film starts with Bond (Pierce Brosnan) attempting the assassination of a North Korean official. Things go wrong, as a secret figure electronically clues the Koreans in on Bond's true identity. There's plenty of property damage, an over-the-top chase sequence with giant hovercraft skimming across an active mine field, and then the kicker: The invincible James Bond is captured, tortured mercilessly for fourteen months (an experience with which we the audience, forced to endure an appallingly tuneless theme courtesy of Madonna, can relate). Finally, he's set free, exchanged for another prisoner: Zao, the menacing henchman of the man Bond was sent to kill (and who seems to have fallen to his watery grave), looking all the more sinister for a handful of small diamonds embedded in his face (thanks to a Bond-induced explosion). So far, so good; the teaser sets up an intriguing premise, as Bond -- suspected of having cracked, supplying the North Koreans with secret information -- escapes his former employers' imprisonment to exact revenge on his mysterious betrayer.

Next on the Bond checklist are the quirky villain and his henchmen. In the past, we've been treated to such classic villains as the globe-spanning organization SPECTRE (multiple appearances) to greedy billionaire Auric Goldfinger (1964's Goldfinger). D.A.D.'s baddie is no corrupt genius like Dr. No (1962), but he is every bit as psychotic as Ernst Stavros Blofeld, the sadistic leader of SPECTRE. The villain of this piece is wealthy tycoon Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), who comes complete with a full set of accessories to rival Blofeld: an endless supply of illegal diamonds, a secluded ice fortress resembling the Sydney Opera House and, oh yes, a secret weapon orbiting the earth. But the irksome thing about Graves is that he's too over-the-top even for a Bond villain. The secret island compound of Scaramanga (1974's The Man With the Golden Gun), the undersea base from The Spy Who Loved Me, the space station from 1979's Moonraker -- these were the life works and passions of their diabolical masterminds. Graves, by contrast, seems to have put together his empire (including a decidedly slim army of goons) in the 14 months of Bond's captivity. To make matters worse, for at least part of that time, he's supposed to have been recuperating from radical gene therapy in a secluded clinic off the coast of Cuba. And while Zao makes a suitably chilling henchman, he's no Jaws or Oddjob, and neither is the superfluous Mr. Kil (Lawrence Makoare), basically a glorified extra.

Day also includes the obligatory scenes with Bond's MI-6 administrators, although the interview with M (adversarially and ably played these days by Dame Judy Dench) takes place in a sterile hospital room/prison. John Cleese reprises his role as the new Q, and while he's quirky and humorously adversarial enough on his own, his scene of gadgetry introduction lacks the usual background mayhem we're used to. And the hopelessly smitted Miss Moneypenny (Samantha Bond -- yes, that's the actress's real name) makes only a blink-and-you'll-miss-her appearance, until a cute, if tacked-on, scene at the end of the film.

Action stunts are another Bond staple, and there are some decent ones here, including a car chase across a frozen sheet of ice littered with icebergs -- although it doesn't compare to the spiraling river jump in Man With the Golden Gun. Most of the classic Bond locales are visited in D.A.D. as well: There's a night in a ritzy hotel, an underwater dive sequence, and lots of snow. Instead of skis this time around, though, Bond hitches a ride on a snowmobile. And then there's the invisible Aston Martin (don't ask).

And then there are the beautiful women. Bond girls have quite a reputation to live up to: there've been killer angels (For Your Eyes Only, 1981) and female agents (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997) but there's never been a Bond Girl like Halle Berry's Jinx. This feisty NSA operative out-Bonds Bond, frequently beating him to the punch. And her sexual appetites may even exceed the legendary womanizer's; she more than holds her own in the franchise's roughest sex scene yet. In fact, in almost every way, Jinx is a female Bond with her own agenda who just happens to have wandered into a Bond adventure. It's an interesting twist, and one that works well, certainly far better than Rosamund Pike's unexciting Miranda Frost, a virginal MI-6 operative who's more than she seems.

Finally, of course, there's Bond himself. So how does this one measure up with the ghosts of Secret Agents past? Quite simply, Brosnan might be the best Bond ever. Fleming reportedly wasn't pleased when Broccoli chose Sean Connery for the role he would come to define (and which would, to a large degree, define him). The Scotsman was smooth, yes, but he brought a bit more crude brutality to the role than Fleming wanted. Roger Moore, conversely, was all grace and light-hearted camp, like a rich boy who didn't much like getting his hands dirty. (The short tenures of George Lazenby (one film) and Timothy Dalton (two films) were each marked more by square-jawed workmanship, and didn't last long enough for the actors to fully bring their incarnations to life.) Brosnan, however, combines the best elements of Connery and Moore into one successful package. He's debonair, smooth, handsome and slim like Moore. At the same time, a certain viciousness seems to lurk behind those eyes, hinting at a danger similar to Connery's. It's a potent combination.

For longtime fans, and in tribute to the franchise's anniversary, Day packs plenty of self-referential nostalgia. From Goldfinger, we get a restrained secret agent threatened by slicing laser beams and decompression in an airplane cockpit. Halle Berry rises Venus-like from the water in a bikini, a la Ursala Andress in Dr. No. There are even overt references, such as when Bond reminisces with the jet pack from Thunderball ("This thing still work?") and the briefcase and dagger shoes from From Russia With Love.

The challenge of a post-Fleming Bond movie however, is to maintain the classic flavor of its predecessors while updating the series for modern sensibilities; MGM/UA wants to appeal to the teenage audiences who supposedly spend the vast majority of all movie dollars, while keeping the older longtime fans. To this end, Day does a lot of things right, but an awful lot of things wrong, too. The Bond franchise has never exactly been haut couture, but it usually manages to provide quality adventure entertainment that doesn't take itself too seriously while managing an air of sophistication. Die Another Day, on the other hand, unashamedly targets the Lowest Common Denominator, particularly with its thick, and too frequent, sexual innuendo. This has never been a subtle aspect of the series (Pussy Galore? Come on!), but here it's just embarrassing, as when Brosnan introduces himself as an ornithologist (a nice nod to the fact that Fleming nicked Bond's name from the author of a bird-watching tome). Jinx's gaze lingers on his crotch as she replies "that's quite a mouthful." There are far too many blunt and just plain tacky exchanges, from a lame fencing quip about keeping one's tip up to some eye-rolling "leave it in" banter at the end involving all those diamonds.

Technically, Die Another Day cancels itself out; while many of the high-tech set pieces in this unusually coherent script are dazzling, they're undercut by some just-plain-sloppy editing, particularly in the aforementioned car-chase sequence, and a couple of botched attempts at Matrix-style slow-motion camera pans. Say this for the directors of the franchise's earlier, pre-SFX days; they couldn't compete with the scope of today's effects, but they knew how to work within their limitations.

Ultimately, Die Another Day places too much emphasis on the wrong parts of the Bond legacy, choosing grandiose locales, high-tech thrills and Porky's-level humor over intrigue and believability. The film tosses aside the gains made in recent entries (specifically Brosnan's debut in the solid Goldeneye), often seeming more like a parody of the excesses of the Moore years than a true film in its own right. In this respect, Die Another Day ultimately undermines the Bond legacy its winking nostalgia attempts to honor.

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 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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