Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Die Another Day (2002)


Bond film geeks are worse than the worst fanboys out there. Worse than anime nerds, worse than Star Wars fans or Joss Whedon's "Browncoats". In fact, the only groups they rate above are SCA members, Klingons, and erotic fanfic writers.

Seriously, you talk about people just throwing money at George Lucas for the Star Wars prequels. Guys, he only took you for three movies. Bond fans have been slavishly following the superspy's adventures for TWENTY movies over FORTY YEARS, and the last good one came out a decade ago. The commercialism of the Star Wars series is nowhere near as bad. The Bond films of late have been an advertising celebration. Wanna market your men's fashion, Rolex watches, next year's BMW, Skyy Vodka? The Broccoli family would like to speak to you...

But I bitch too much, because in all fairness, the Bond films are just an anachronism--like Playboy Magazine. Mediocre for decades, but you still (subscribe/buy tickets) in case there's maybe one good (centerfold/action scene.)

Bond movies are the ultimate in interpretive art. The elements always stay fundamentally the same, changing only in the artist's interpretation of them, (which is odd since Bond isn't really a "director's franchise.") Bond films never change. They always have the "shaken not stirred" martinis, the bad ass sports car, the awful double entendres etc. These elements may evolve, like switching to an ASP 9mm from the Walther PPK, or Bond quitting cigarettes. Bond fans at their core are very conservative. A change in any element will certainly attract notice, whether good or bad.

Die Another Day was Pierce Brosnan's last movie in his tenure as Bond. While not the nadir of the whole franchise (I'd give that honor to the leaden Moonraker) it is certainly Brosnan's least in a tenure that always had steadily diminishing returns even as his performance as Bond got better.

So how do the pieces that make a James Bond movie fit together in Die Another Day? Let's examine each one...

TITLE

The series had long used the titles of all of Ian Fleming's novels. After exhausting the titles of even Fleming's short stories by the end of the Timothy Dalton movies, the Brosnan movie titles have always been more obscure. "Goldeneye" was the name of Ian Fleming's estate in Jamaica. "The World is Not Enough" is the English transcription of the latin motto imprinted on the Bond family crest. "Die Another Day" references nothing, except perhaps a few keystrokes into a random Bond Movie Title Generator.

Still, this is only the third time they've had to do it, and it doesn't sound out of place with the other titles. We'll keep it.

GUNBARREL SEQUENCE

The typical James Bond Gunbarrel start with the minor twist of having a CG bullet rush towards the audience. Normally nothing to take note of, but in a Bond film where things are as rigid as Kabuki, this is an important sign. The producers are always bragging about taking Bond in a "bold new direction." That single bullet may be a way to telegraph to the audience that they mean it this time. Quickly we come to the...

PRE-CREDIT ACTION SEQUENCE

...which begins with, Bond surfing into North Korea? Oh shit...

Not only am I pretty sure that surfing is not the optimal way of getting into North Korea, to misquote Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now "JAMES BOND DON'T SURF!"

I am pretty sure that this was added in response to a horrible Vin Diesel movie that came out at the same time called XXX. At the time, their marketers were calling the Bond films out, saying how XXX would replace them by merging the superspy with extreme sports and nu metal to connect with the younger generation. Of course XXX tanked, so it just looks even more pathetic that Bond would even respond to that crap. I'm renouncing my fandom the second I see Bond on a skateboard or BMX.

Of course, things improve after that. How could they not? At least with North Korea, they ripped an enemy straight from the headlines (and the movie received the predictable responses from Pyongyang about how it was vile western propaganda, just in case one of their people happened to see it.) Bond steals some businessman's identity and sneaks into a PRK base to sell some conflict diamonds to the villanous Colonel Moon. Of course, he places a bomb with the diamonds because he really means to assassinate him, plucking the detonator off a screw in his watch of course.

Bond's cover get's blown (every evil government, terrorist organization, or crime lord ought to keep Bond's picture tacked right above the coffee maker) and he chases Col. Moon over a minefield on a hovercraft. Hovercrafts are kind of clunky but the scene is exciting enough, ending with Col. Moon flying his hovercraft right off a cliff and Bond being captured by the Col.'s none-too-happy daddy, General Moon. Queue up the...

TITLE SEQUENCE/SONG

Madonna treats us to the worst Bond opening credits song since Licence to Kill. Catchy in only the worst way, it prefaces her work on the upcoming American Life CD by being completely undancable despite being a "techno" record.

Usually the opening sequence is a four minute break where the viewer can relax and ogle special effects and carefully silhoutted naked women. It's the James Bond fan's equivalent to a short Pink Floyd laser show. This one breaks with tradition by adding some exposition. Not much though, just that Bond being tortured by the North Koreans for 18 months. If this is the radical new direction they claimed they were taking with the movie, they need to try harder.

PLOT

Judi Dench (as the matriarchal M) has Bond traded for another prisoner, Col. Moon's henchman Zao who has become a terrorist in the meantime, because she's afraid he is leaking information to the North Koreans. Having his commission taken away from him (or "double-O status, rescinded" as it goes in the world of MI-6) Bond escapes from a hospital boat in Hong Kong and goes rogue to hunt down Zao, a situation the Bond series last used in Licence to Kill. Afterwards, he is sent to Cuba courtesy of Chinese intelligence.

BOND GIRL #1

Most people could give a shit how the plot of a Bond film plays out. The more important question is how are the chicks?

For a series that used to get smacked by feminists as being "degrading and misogynist" the quality of a Bond film is very much tied to the quality of it's female pro and antagonists, and not necessarily in terms of looks.

While slurping down mojitos in Cuba, Bond meets Girl One: Halle Berry, whose character has the uncharacteristically unsmutty name of Jinx. After emerging from the ocean with a bikini and knife that are exactly the same as the one's Ursula Andress wore in Dr. No (remember folks, this is an *anniversary*, and not the last time the film will clumsily reference the series' past) Bond and Jinx trade double entendres in the least convincing seduction scene I've ever seen, then quickly get their bone on. Since this is a PG-13 movie, the sex is forgettable.

See, Jinx is a Bond girl of the new school, a response to the feminists cries of sexism. Bond girls aren't just the damsel in distress, but now have to be ass-kicking secret agents or villains in their own right. Much ado was made of Halle Berry playing a Bond girl, since she would be the first Academy Award winner to do so. There was even talk of doing a Jinx spin-off series starring Ms. Berry. There was no talk of it after, since Halle Berry actually ends up being a pretty ineffectual Bond girl. In her sex scene with Bond, I was nearly tempted to yell "Make me feel good!"

Anyway, if Catwoman is any indication, Ms. Berry should give up completely on the action flicks.

Ms. Berry is not just there to provide yet another example of Bond's sexual prowess. As it turns out, she's there to infiltrate the exact same genetic alteration clinic that Bond wants to break into to find Zao, who is there trying to get his appearance changed to that of a white man. Zao's alteration gets interrupted around the half-way point, giving him the appearance of a blue eyed, Korean albino with diamonds imbedded in his face. Creepy looking villian...check. Jinx assassinates the director of the clinic, steals some files, blows up a bunch of shit, shoots a bunch of guards, and inevitably gets cornered on a cliff by guards who don't just perforate her with bullets, which brings us to...

BAD CGI SHOT #1

...where a digitally composited Halle Berry strips down to a bikini and does a backwards swan dive off said cliff with a stupid smile on her face, landing perfectly in the water and then swimming to her conveniently placed speed boat to make her getaway. Looks fake as fuck, and makes you pine for the days when even the worst Bond movie would at least have some kick-ass, jaw-dropping stunts in them.

THE VILLIAN

Abandoning chasing Zao for the time being, Bond instead investigates some of the African conflict diamonds he found in his possession that have the imprint of one Gustav Graves, who is a billionaire and thus must be the main bad guy of the movie. Skydiving to the tune of "London Calling" in an appointment to meet the Queen, Graves is played as British Richard Branson who likes to abuse the help. While certainly not living up to classic Bond villians such as Goldfinger or Blofeld, Toby Stephens, who plays Graves, does a good job (if you define "good job" as making the character someone you want to kick in the balls every moment he's on screen.)

Apparently Graves never needs to sleep either, having to just tuck his head into some contraption with ridiculous neon lights that will give him his necessary REM sleep in the space of an hour. Why this detail was added is a head-scratcher, since it never has any bearing on the plot whatsoever. Perhaps it did in a previous draft of the script. Regardless, it seems indicative of the written by committee feeling of the story at this point.

We come to the inevitable scene where Bond confronts the villian in some social setting, waving around their contraband while using his dry British wit to get them to lose their cool. Usually, this scene takes place in a casino, but in this film it takes place in a fencing club (Bond and Graves to place a wager on their sword fight, so there is still a gambling element.) In case you were hoping that the shitty theme song would be the last you'd have to deal with Madonna during the course of the movie...whoops, she pops up in a cameo as a fencing instructor. You would think for a celebrity so often described as having the ultimate in "career savvy", Madonna would know to stay the hell away from acting. Wearing some goofy leather corset, she joylessly trades double-entendres with Bond in a way that is even less sexy than during Bond's initial exchange with Halle Berry. At least she does it without the British accent she's been trying to cultivate ever since she moved over there.

THE GADGETS

Despite escaping from a prison barge and being a rogue agent for the first half of the film, M let's 007 rejoin MI-6 without so much as a reprimand or tongue-lashing (which Judy Dench does fairly well I might add.) It only seems ridiculous in retrospect, and I don't much care at this point since they really weren't doing much with rogue agent plot anyway. Besides, on his own he wouldn't get access to all the wares of Q Branch and their nifty gadgets.

As a segue into Bond's trip around Q Branch, we get treated to an unneccesary scene of Bond using VR sunglasses to simulate a terrorist take-over of MI-6. It is extraneous and adds nothing to the plot, but doesn't detract terribly from an already detracted film. Scattered around Q's laboratories are relics from Bond films past, such as the jet pack from Thunderball or the mini-jet from Octopussy. Visual references to other Bond films are littered throughout Die Another Day.

Desmond Llewlyn, the original Q, died soon after the shooting of The World Is Not Enough, where they effectively passed the torch onto John Cleese. He makes for an amusing Q, even if he's more goofy than exasperated. Unfortunately, the only gadget he gives to old Bond is a ring that gives off a sonic pulse that shatters glass. After gas exploding briefcases, cigarettes with explosive darts, and cellphones that read people's fingerprints and open safes, a mere glass shattering ring does nothing for me except foreshadow that Bond will be in a situation where shattering glass will save him. It does.

The tricked out Bond car is a staple of the series, but the current version of the Aston Martin is just too much. Guns and ejector seats are one thing, but invisibility? While the Bond series accommodates much improbability, this is going over the edge.

However, this is the only Bond film where the bad guys get as hardcore of a car as Bond does. The scene where Bond and Zao battle in their gadgeted up sports cars on an ice field is one of the better action sequences in the film.

BOND GIRL #2

Bond babes come in pairs. In Die Another Day, the counterpart to Halle Berry's Jinx is Rosamund Pike's Miranda Frost, the prim and proper MI-6 agent apparently undercover with Grave's company. Of course she claims to her superiors that she will be immune to Bond's charms (why hasn't M just resigned herself to the fact that 007 will be sleeping with all their female employees except Moneypenny?)

Of course, she ends up fucking Bond anyway. Since Halle Berry is the marquee star, it will be her that ends up being the villanous babe. Perhaps since she gets to be the bitch, Frost is actually comes off as the superior Bond girl in this movie. In her final duel on the plane with Jinx, you kinda wish that she will win, even though it's a foregone conclusion that she will not.

THE QUEST FOR WORLD DOMINATION

It is the third act of Die Another Day where the movie really flies off the rails.

In an act of retardedness that is endemic to the villians in Bond movies, Graves invites Bond to the unveiling of his new project--a satellite code-named Icarus that can reflect light back onto Earth to make permenant daylight. While obstensively a way to grow crops day and night to cure world hunger (I am not completely clear on the science regarding this, but I suspect it is highly faulty) Icarus can also concentrate it's solar light into a laser beam that can burn any city into cinders.

This plan is to be shown to the usual group of socialites and philantropists in an ice palace that looks like it was ripped straight from the Superman movies, and certainly doesn't look like it would be comfortable to sleep in. It is here that Bond reconnects with Jinx, and they once again trade innuendoes, but don't end up fucking this time.

Zao is also here, and we also learn that Gustav Graves is actually Colonel Moon, who was apparently killed and is now white due to genetic alteration. And having gone through all the trouble of creating a killer satellite that can be used for all sorts of extortion schemes, he wants to use it to merely clear mines out of the Korean demilitarized zone and win the respect of his father.

Oh, and the satellite is controlled by an exo-skeleton body armor that can electrocute anyone who touches it. When it is shown at last in the final scene aboard the transport plane, I again groaned audibly.

At this point, it is plainly obvious that the plot keeps turning in on itself, spiraling into increasing levels of improbability and paradox. Bond movies are by nature implausible, but are usually reigned in by tight plotting that at least has the semblance of logic. The plot of Die Another Day starts out promising enough, but quickly pisses it all away in favor of a comic book plot that other movies have done in a superior fashion.

Oh and let's not forget to mention...

BAD CGI SHOT #2

...where Bond parasails/surfs off of a rapidly melting glacier. The concept is sketchy enough (like I said, Bond don't surf) and the crummy special effects with which it is executed only compound this being one of the worst scenes in the movie. This is especially inexcusable due to the fact that the film's budget was around 142 million dollars.

IN CONCLUSION

Die Another Day just shows how desperately the Bond series is in need of a "reboot". The producers seem to know this as well, since purportedly the upcoming Casino Royale will be a much more grounded thriller, just as For Your Eyes Only recovered the series from the moronic Moonraker.

In fact, excepting some huge injection of creativity into the series, the Bond series should probably die. However, that is not likely to happen. While Die Another Day was a critical failure, it did bring in over 400 million in box office receipts worldwide, making it one of the most successful movies of the franchise.

That is the kind of fanbase that isn't going anywhere anytime soon. If they will stay with the series after this dreck, then they will probably stay with it if it took some risks. The Bond films should emphasize suspense over explosions, and just because Bond is an icon doesn't mean that characterization should be left to the wayside.

2 Comments:

Blogger t-mix said...

If I have spend time thinking about this movie, these would have been my thoughts. I'm glad I saw this movie on TV and did not pay for it...

I really like your movie reviews! Just read the one one Leon, very good!

12:22 PM  
Blogger Søren said...

You just made me feel glad it was this Bond movie I bought on the street in Thailand.

10:35 AM  

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