Die Another Day
review by Gregory Avery, 22 November 2002

One sits back and silently makes up the tally: A pre-credits sequence which actually introduces, rather than postpones, the story. A stunning opening titles sequence (by Danny Kleinman) accompanying the theme song by Madonna (and I still don't know WHAT to make of that thing). Definitely darker, meaner, edgier in tone (no surprise considering that the director is Lee Tamahori, who did the superb, but brutal, Once Were Warriors). Some genuine tours-de-force, including a sword fight and a sequence set in a palace made out of ice (right down to the furnishings and a swan-shaped bed). And Halle Berry, showing poise and presence, instantly winning us over as she wags her eyebrows at Pierce Brosnan's James Bond before leaping, backwards, over a cliff into the sea (and, yes, she wears a belted bikini). So why do I not feel more excitement about Die Another Day?

Maybe it's because, at twenty films and running, the Bond franchise has done just about everything it's going to do. As the mid-Seventies films showed, toy with the formula too much and you end up with some monstrosities, like the mutant offspring in Larry Cohen's It's Alive films. But, as Anthony Lane pointed out in his recent New Yorker essay, the formula itself is curiously unsatisfying to begin with, moving from initial kiss-kiss bang-bang to, as Sean Connery put it in Dr. No, "World domination. Same old story." Here, Bond starts out being tortured and imprisoned in North Korea, then finds out that he's in disgrace with MI6 because they think he talked under pressure. Knowing that he didn't (although it would have been more interesting if he wondered if he did, as is readily apparent in the film), Bond must turn rogue agent in order to clear his name and find out who betrayed him. This leads him through Cuba, where he charges through a private clinic specializing in "D.N.A. replacement" and bumps into a North Korean officer (Rick Yune) scarred by "diamond shrapnel", to a British entrepreneur (Toby Stephens) who never sleeps and mines diamonds out of Iceland. (There's a lot of ice in this movie, along with a witty use of the Clash's "London Calling".)

While Vin Diesel may have struck accord with some in XXX because of his insouciant, cut-the-crap manner, Bond has been and remains appealing (even if it has some inherent snob appeal) because he wears Brioni, knows that you need a sturdy timepiece like Omega in case you're going to have to swim through deep water at a moment's notice, and can order the right vintage champagne to go with lobster. But the Bond films have always been one action hero affairs -- his teaming up with Halle Berry's American agent Jinx works only so far as it does until they get the job done (and because Pierce Brosnan knows how to play opposite Halle Berry), but, in the end, she becomes but one more conquest of his (although you sense it's a conquest on her own terms). And the one-liners and rejoinders ("I'm Mr. Kill." "A name to die for.") seem to be here only because they've always been here. Each new Bond film has to come up with one showstopper that somehow tops anything that has come before -- along with the sword fight, there's a good sequence involving a helicopter that has to be started in mid-air before it dashes the occupants to bits, but some of the others (including a much-publicized car chase across an ice lake) seem tricked or unbelievable.  The stand-out action sequences in previous Bond films stood out because they involved actual people in actual locations.

Pierce Brosnan continues to bring a steely reserve to Bond that makes the character convincing (something I don't think any of the other performers I've heard bandied about for the role could ever do), and, do what they want, but please leave Judi Dench in the role of M. Rosamund Pike does what she can in the de facto role of designated Bond Girl Miranda Frost -- her change of character seems lost in the shuffle that occurs when the movie shifts from a vendetta/revenge story to one where large devices in outer space start blowing up the world. (There's also an invisible car -- an Aston-Martin -- and an electric hand used by the villain.) And there are the in-jokes: Moneypenny finally gets to kiss James (a first); Bond poses as an ornithologist by carrying a copy of "Field Guide to Birds" (Ian Fleming took the name "James Bond" from the author of just such a book); one character's name, Colonel Moon, brings directly to mind the title of Kingsley Amis' Bond pastiche "Colonel Sun"; and, while walking through the workplace of the new Q (John Cleese, extremely well-cast), Brosnan's Bond shakes the ridiculous jet pack used in Thunderball and asks, "Does this old thing work?" (Yes, and it still looks ridiculous, but people really thought they'd be getting around in those things in 1965!) Alas, Shirley Eaton, the gilded Jill Masterson in Goldfinger, does not make her much-rumored cameo appearance, although Madonna does an unbilled (and perfectly fine) one as a fencing instructor named Verity.

Is there any hope? (John Gardner's Bond novels, fourteen of them starting with License Renewed in 1981, seem to have been placed off-limits to Eon Productions.) Anthony Lane suggested the most mind-blowing solution of all -- mind-blowing because it just might work -- doing Fleming's 1953 novel, Casino Royale, as a period piece, directed by Ang Lee. I think I'll have that martini, now, dry, shaken until ice-cold, and served in a deep champagne goblet.

Directed by:
Lee Tamahori

Starring:
Pierce Brosnan
Halle Berry
Toby Stephens
Rosamund Pike
Rick Yune
John Cleese
Judi Dench

Written by:
Neal Purvis
Robert Wade

Rating:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may be
inappropriate for
children under 13
.

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