“Vodka martini, plenty of ice… if you can spare it.” The James Bond blogs: ‘Die Another Day’ (2002)

13 Jun

During the pre-credits sequence of Die Another Day, I realised just how pleased I was to be seeing Pierce Brosnan in the role for a fourth time. He had proved himself a worthy addition to the ranks of Bond actors before him, and there had been none of the perceived failure (from certain quarters) associated with some earlier Bonds (Lazenby especially). Bond can be a fairly ridiculous character in some of the films, but Brosnan had never been anything but convincing, even if  his version of the character was far more removed from Fleming’s original creation than say Dalton or Connery’s interpretations. Perhaps his popularity lies in the ability to combine a bit of that grittiness with some of the light hearted quality of Roger Moore. Die Another Day is the 20th outing in the official series. Although Bond now transcends time and place (as you are not expected to consider this to be a spy who has been on Her Majesty’s secret service since the 1950s and ’60s), Die Another Day goes to some great lengths to celebrate the series’ past, as evidenced by a scene in Q’s workshop where various gadgets from earlier films are in evidence, including the jet pack from Thunderball. The female lead, Halle Berry, also emerges from the sea in homage to Ursula Andress in Dr. No, which is subtle enough to be welcome. All these nods to the past threaten to interfere with the rest of the film but never do, I’m glad to say. The problem with Die Another Day IS the rest of the film.

Although lavish and fairly epic in scale, Die Another Day is also overly reliant on spectacle, pyrotechnics and other special effects, which often seem to be substituted for a well told story. The Bond series had gone down this route before, but had arguably not done it at the expense of decent entertainment. Die Another Day can be seen as a return to the fantastical excess of Moonraker, but it lacks any of that film’s charms. Producer Michael Wilson said EON productions, “keep trying to make another From Russia with Love, but end up making another Thunderball”. If that can be taken as true, then Die Another Day is undoubtedly based on the Thunderball template. The problem with that is we get the worst of what made up the likes of Thunderball and very little of that film’s good attributes. In other words, this makes for a bloated and empty epic. There are good points to this film, and on my first viewing there were sequences that genuinely thrilled me. The opening of the film is quite novel, with Bond being captured and held hostage in North Korea. His subsequent torture is included as the theme of the innovative title sequence (although this is let down by a very mediocre electronic pop tune sung by Madonna, a woman I can’t really imagine having much exposure to Bond films, although I could be wrong). Sadly, the actual title song is a fairly dismal effort and one of Madonna’s weaker recordings. It sounds modern, but it sounds nothing like a Bond tune. This could actually be a good move; keeping the franchise fresh. But it’s such a poor tune in comparison to most from the series it devalues the innovative opening. It also seems at odds with David Arnold’s score, which is generally quite good. Madonna also appears later in a cameo role; acting isn’t her forte, and it shows.

The cast vary in quality. Judi Dench is serviceable as ‘M’ (but her performance is more dour than usual) and Toby Stevens is a rascally cad of a villain (and highly watchable). The fencing tournament scene is especially well done, and the adversaries descent into all out violence is a genuine, testosterone fuelled thrill. This is one of the moments where the film picks up and does something well. John Cleese is amusing as the new Q, and Samantha Bond adds more humour than usual as Moneypenny (culminating in her hottest Bond encounter yet). Yet what this film needs isn’t more humour in the roles, it’s more spark and believability, and it’s not always there. Halle Berry may be an Oscar winner, but her turn as a Bond girl is cocky and unlikable. The villainess of the piece, played by Rosamund Pike, is far more interesting to watch. Brosnan, who should be holding the whole show together, often looks either bored or smug. Neither is appealing.

The story is actually quite novel. Bond is betrayed on a mission in Korea and is imprisoned for 14 months. On his release he sets out on a quest for revenge, which is initially not sanctioned by M (Judi Dench), and arrives in Havana, where he meets an American secret agent named Jinx (Halle Berry). It appears that both of them are after the same people, albeit (possibly) for different reasons. Bond is pursuing a sadist named Zao (Rick Yune), and the trail leads to Iceland and the ice palace liar of billionaire Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens). To get closer to Graves, Bond tries romancing his assistant, Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), but learns that this may not be the most fruitful route.
Yet, despite having a good tale to tell, the film somehow doesn’t keep up a consistent level of quality. As we reach the end of the film, it’s as if the writers ran out of inspiration and decided to just add more bangs and dazzle in favour of imagination. Everyone seems to have a Bond style gadget all of a sudden (as if one invisible car wasn’t enough), Bond escapes death through another bout at windsurfing (with some of the lamest CGI effects seen in an action film of this calibre) and the tedious, over egged finale in North Korea just doesn’t know when to stop.

Somewhere in all the distracting editing and anachronistic usage of old Clash tunes, there is a good Bond film. However the final result is a bloated mess. Whether the fault lies with director Lee Tamahori is not clear, but he often doesn’t have the greatest material to work with, regardless of the presentation. Robert Wade and Neal Purvis’ script runs out of steam well before the end, and the dialogue becomes ever blander. The action becomes ever more grander, yet uninspired.

The kinetic, slick cinematography and slightly untypical script take risks with 007’s image, but this innovation is squandered in the latter half of the film for ludicrous over the top spectacle, which while one of the hallmarks of the Bond series, can fail to impress when there is no imagination behind the next big bang. Like a bull in a china shop, Die Another Day is loud and eye-catching, but also a bit of a mess.

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One Response to ““Vodka martini, plenty of ice… if you can spare it.” The James Bond blogs: ‘Die Another Day’ (2002)”

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  1. Top 10 Movie Actors (female) « Radu presents: The Movie-Photo Blog - July 25, 2012

    […] Halle Berry [Jungle Fever; X-Men; Die Another Day] Image source: […]

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