CUT TO THE CHASE: Bond tries to be relevant to the post-9/11 world. Fails. This is not a bad thing.
BOND, JAMES BOND: In conception, this seems to have been a further attempt to deconstruct Bond by making him appear vulnerable (while still maintaining his essential invincibility). TND gave us an emotionally vulnerable Bond, TWINE gave us a physically vulnerable Bond, and DAD gives us a strategically vulnerable Bond. He’s captured in the opening sequence, and then tortured. He’s discredited in the eyes of MI6 and as a result basically fired. Bold moves on the producers’ part, but they pull it off. It is very disconcerting to see a dirty, bearded, scraggly Bond crawl up onto the shore in Hong Kong - but it’s all worth it to see the hotel manager immediately recognize him and give him his usual suite. A priceless Bond moment.
Aside from this, I think they’re trying to do two things in this Bond that don’t quite work. First, with the use of slow-motion in action sequences, it’s clear that this is a post-Matrix film. They don’t quite overdo it, but it’s never a good thing when you start to notice 007 aping other action films.
Second, it’s trying, half-heartedly, to fit into the post-9/11 world. The last third of the movie does this especially, putting Bond and Jinx in commando gear and in general preparing to call in the cavalry. And as a result, the last third of the movie is rather lame. Luckily, as I say, they’re not prepared (yet) to go all the way in reinventing the series, and as a result most of the movie is not just classic Brosnan-era Bond, but actually groovy in a way the series hasn’t been since the late ‘60s.
Nobody knew it at the time, but this was Brosnan’s last Bond. Damn if he doesn’t look as good here as he did seven years earlier.
What Makes Bond Bond: He threw away his cyanide capsule years ago. Whether that means he planned never to get caught, or intended never to give up trying to find a way to escape, it’s the right choice.
What Makes Pierce Brosnan Pierce Brosnan: Even in ragged PJs, dripping wet, barefoot, with long hair and a Jesus beard, Brosnan still convinces us he’s Bond.
BAD GUYS: This is a Bond for the War on Terrorism. Colonel Moon/Gustave Graves doesn’t want to take over the world, he just wants to further the cause of his Fatherland.
It is, I grant, a neat trick to see a North Korean psycho transformed into a British psycho, and it’s a great idea to make Graves a young, snotty Cool Brittania type. The kicker is when he says he modeled himself after Bond: it confirms what we’ve always felt about how the villain needs to be in some important way parallel to Bond, a Worthy Enemy.
The problem is, it’s incredibly difficult to believe Graves and Moon are the same person. Partly this might be because Will Yun Lee and Toby Stephens, as actors, don’t do much to convince us that they’re playing the same character. Their personalities don’t mesh, and the writers haven’t given the character/s any real distinctive tics or traits for the actors to exploit. Meanwhile, Stephens is so persuasive as a playboy that it’s impossible to believe his real motive isn’t world domination.
Case in point: his Ice Palace in Iceland. The whole place and all the furniture made out of ice, balanced on top of a frozen lake. Now: this is groovy with a capital Zowie. I mean, it’s worthy of Blofeld. We get to see Bond sidling up to a bar made of ice and ordering a martini. How can you not love it? And Stephens’ Graves skates through his scenes there with aplomb: when he christens his killer satellite he looks for all the world like he’s kicking off a rave. This guy ought to be trying to take over the world, not just South Korea.
Henchmen. Zao is visually striking, but kind of boring. Once Miranda Frost shows her true colors, she’s a much more memorable henchman. Especially with the backstory the script gives her and Moon; like in TWINE, but unlike most of the rest of the series, we understand why the villain and henchman are together.
GRATUITOUS SEX: GS2 here, as Peaceful Fountains of Desire didn’t quite work out. Which leaves us Halle Berry as Jinx and Rosamunde Pike as Miranda Frost.
There was a lot of hype surrounding Halle Berry’s role in this film. The first Oscar-winner Bond girl, etc. etc. I was really looking forward to it: in 2002, she was one of the two or three sexiest women in Hollywood. She was mouthwatering in Swordfish, which is what I think the producers wanted from her here. Unfortunately, she’s a near-miss. Her hairdo is awful, so bad it takes away a lot of her charm. And the writers try, clumsily, too hard to make her street. They actually have her say “yo mama.” In 2002. Sure, she looks great in the Ursula Andress entrance, and the Catwoman suit, but in all she’s not quite the intoxicating presence the movie wants her to be.
Rosamund Pike’s Miranda Frost, however, is fantastic, utterly delectable. Convincing right up until the moment we realize she’s a double-agent, and beyond. Looks great as a mousy British spy, and great as a fencer at the end.
The best, most erotic moment in the movie, though, comes with Miss Moneypenny’s fantasy about Bond. It’s wonderful and fitting that, in this fortieth anniversary movie, Moneypenny finally gets it on with Bond - and then entirely appropriate that it turn out to be only a fantasy.
I suppose we should mention Madonna’s cameo here. I think a lot of Bond fans would say she’s all wrong for 007, but I don’t think she was fated to be a disaster. Xenia Onatopp showed that there’s a way to present aggressive, combative female sexuality in a Bond film, even to allow it to challenge James. I find the thought of Madonna squaring off with James Bond – two very different icons of sexuality going head to head, or head to something – intriguing. Unfortunately Madonna wasn’t doing sexy in the early ‘00s. Instead she was doing British, badly. There’s a brief frisson when she and Brosnan first address each other, but her delivery is so stiff that their scene really doesn’t work up any sexual tension.
AND VIOLENCE: Hovercrafts. Ice-mobiles. Bombers. Hoo boy. Lots of big bangs here, and it’s all pretty cool, even though the CG isn’t quite where it needs to be to make it all work.
But every other action sequence in the movie pales next to the swordfight. It’s one of the best fights in the series. The setting is perfect – a fencing club, with lots of old weapons and armor and expensive wooden panelling and patrician people sitting at elegant tables, i.e. lots of stuff to break. And the choreography is brilliant - escalating steadily from slightly tense sport with foils through angered bashing with dueling blades to desperate whacking away with broadswords to a knock-down drag-out brawl. All of it with Brosnan and Stephens in those white fencing outfits, very visually effective. Kudos, lads.
BOYS WITH TOYS: The most gadget-happy Bond in ages, fitting for Cleese’s first (and, incomprehensibly, last) outing as head of Q Division. And there are some nice gadgets indeed, such as the glass-shattering ring. And some rather lame ones, like the holodeck training room (Bond imitates Star Trek?).
And then there's the car. This is one of the very few Bond films in which we get a good long look at his car and what it can do. After three films in which his BMW was underutilized, the Aston-Martin gets a thorough workout here, and it’s a lot of fun to see it and Zao’s Jag trading missiles and skids. Plus – dude, the car is invisible. Which, to be fair, is mostly fun because it gives us one of John Cleese’s patented Silly Walks.
JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: North Korea. Iceland. They’re either getting really adventurous or really desperate. But: Cuba. Excellent. We needed to see Bond chomping on a big Havana, and driving along in a vintage Ford Fairlane with the top down. And, above all, London: most of the films have 007 spend a little time in London, but this time it’s as part of the mission. And when “London Calling” comes on as he’s touching down in England – well it shouldn’t work, because last we checked Bond didn’t even like the Beatles, and “London Calling” never seemed to me particularly sanguine about the city – but it does.
ETC.: Madonna’s title song is the worst Bond title song since “The Living Daylights.” Listen to “Take A Bow” to hear an erotic, dramatic Madonna ballad that could have worked in a Bond context. But instead, she turns in a tuneless glob of techno that misses the point musically, and lyrically seems to be trying to undermine the whole project. Which is fine – but do it on your own time, Madge. …But the title sequence has a much more serious problem. The visuals are alright, the ice and fire girls. But the producers break the cardinal rule of Bond title sequences, which is that they are not allowed to advance the plot. They’re to be for pure visual gratification. Here the ice maidens are interspersed and intermeshed with scenes of Bond being tortured in the North Korean prison, poisoned with scorpions and whatnot. So not only are we distracted from the sensual visuals by trying to follow the plot, but when we do follow the plot we end up having this incredibly jarring combination of the sexual tease of the non-narrative visuals and the torture of the narrative visuals. Not what was called for. It’s as if whoever was in charge of the title sequence really didn’t approve of James Bond. …As the 40th anniversary Bond, this one works in lots of in-jokes and references to Bonds past. Halle Berry in her Ursula Andress costume is only the most obvious; there’s also the ornithologist cover Bond uses in Cuba, the Connery-era gadgets on display in Q’s workshop, Graves’ Union Jack parachute, etc. etc. All very clever and amusing, and if you want a complete list you can look elsewhere. …In the end Die Another Day is an inconsistent film. Parts of it are as fun as anything they did in the Brosnan era, and other parts are the worst thing they ever did in the Brosnan era. The second of those observations makes it not a very fitting end to the Brosnan era, while the first makes you wonder why the Brosnan era had to end at all…
Note: with this, my series of James Bond reviews is complete. Click on the "James Bond 007" tag for all of them, plus an explanation of the project. Check in again when Bond 23 is released, which looks to be 2011.