Bond films are often timely but seldom topical, so Broccoli and Wilson are to be commended for what may be a series first in "Die Another Day's" surface newsworthiness (although the weapon of choice here is of course nothing so mundane--or conceivable--as a nuclear bomb). There are other unique elements in this film as well, including an opener that sees Bond captured and imprisoned for over a year, and what is to this reviewer's knowledge the only example in the history of the franchise of a typically surreal and id-fueled title montage that actually advances the plot.
Alas, that spirit of inventiveness dies out after awhile, and while "Die Another Day" is vastly superior to the truly awful "The World is Not Enough" and a cut above the mediocre "Tomorrow Never Dies," it comes nowhere near the excellence of "GoldenEye," the franchise's giddy but unacknowledged rip-off of Carol Reed's "The Third Man." "GoldenEye" was not only Pierce Brosnan's debut as Agent 007, it also seems destined to be his apogee.
That's not his fault, by the way--Brosnan remains a sturdy and likable secret agent man. If Sean Connery is the forever fan favorite, it's quite likely that Brosnan is the producers' Bondian ideal: a competent actor without much of an outside career to deflect him from their purposes, and one minus the surly independence of Connery, the rash "take this job and shove it" approach of series one-shot George Lazenby, or the tendency to run to flab of mid-period Roger Moore. Timothy Dalton--a similar actor to Brosnan, with perhaps a bit more of a serrated edge--is the least memorable of all Bonds, simply because the series was on autopilot during his tenancy; he didn't fail the films, the films failed him.
Broccoli and Wilson are very determined to avoid any similar doldrums during Brosnan's run, and the solution they've come up with to freshen the atmosphere in the attic must've looked great on paper. They're populating the films with real actors these days (Judi Dench's M and John Cleese's Q remain witty delights, and Halle Berry is the only Bond girl to ever include an Academy Award for Best Actress alongside the requisite hourglass measurements on her resume). With "Die Another Day," the producers have also broken their unofficial "English only" director policy and enlisted the services of a well-regarded name off the A-list: New Zealander Lee Tamahori, still perhaps best known for the art-house hit "Once Were Warriors," but a director with little aptitude, as it turns out, for the gargantuan action scenes that punctuate Bond's world.
Gargantuan the action scenes are, as well as elephantine and also ludicrous, often in the wrong sense. No one in his right mind comes to a Bond film expecting gritty realism--just wit and comic book style. There's a bit of that on offer here--a swordfight between Bond and his principle villain has echoes of Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone to it, thanks to Britisher Toby Stephens, a fine stage actor making what is essentially his screen debut as evil industrialist Gustav Graves.
The entire opening sequence, which begins with surfing secret agents materializing ominously out of a storm-driven Korean sea, has a nice feel of menace to it, until it degenerates near the end into a by-the-numbers traveling shoot 'em up (this time on hovercraft, a shall we say homage to Jackie Chan's "Rumble in the Bronx"). But soon enough, Agent 007 is trafficking heavily in his own clichés, many of them brazenly lifted from series standout "Goldfinger," only torqued up (as everything in the Brosnan Bond films is torqued up) to a level where they're almost (but not quite) beyond recognition.
In place of "Goldfinger's" memorable creeping laser torture scene, we've got a whole room full of wildly careening lasers, aimed this time primarily at Halle Berry as American operative Jinx rather than at 007's privates. When a gun goes off in a plane, it isn't just Goldfinger and a henchman or two who flies out the window during the resulting pressurized air maelstrom, it's an entire squadron of "renegade" Korean military personnel.
The skies over totalitarian nations (i.e., Korea) are still always overcast (one of the few series clichés developed during Roger Moore's tenure in the tuxedo). This rule is bent for Cuba, but only because English tourists like to holiday there. Castro's island is shot in a way very similar to the Jamaica of "Dr. No," as an erotic vacation paradise, and when Halle Berry rises like Venus from the surf, she's even wearing a knock-off of Ursula Andress' bikini from that first cinematic Bond adventure.
Halle looks wrong in Ursula's outfit, actually, and wrong for the Bond world. The Bond aesthetic of feminine beauty is determinedly pre-feminist, epitomized by amazonian impossibilities like Andress and Jill St. John, and by British agent Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike) here. Berry's beauty is a bit too delicate, a bit too Vogue and not Playboy enough, to make a satisfactory Bond girl, and Tamahoori's flat and conventional directing style does little to mask the fact that this supposed superwoman runs, well, like a girl, and shoots a gun like she's worried she may break a nail. If the Bond producers are serious about spinning this character off, it probably has more to do with the success of knock-offs like "Scorpion King" (which launched the Rock, like bright-eyed Athena from the brow of Zeus, out of the Brendan Fraser "Mummy" films) than it does Berry's inherent rightness in the part.
There are embarrassing things in this film, including a first meeting between Bond and Jinx so unimaginative and workmanlike they seem like two dogs of the same breed bumping into each other in a kennel. We know he's sexually irresistible but it might be nice if Jinx had to find that out--these two are so instantaneously sure they're perfectly matched that it's almost surprising they don't simply sniff each others genitals and cut to the bedroom scene. Madonna is also an embarrassment but then that's a given, and she's certainly onscreen far less than she was in "Swept Away." In the plus column, the middle-aged Material Girl's vocal on the film's title song is distorted by studio trickery into an unrecognizable electronic hum that could be anybody, and that's a much appreciated and very pleasant surprise.
The sci-fi gadgets that crop up are simultaneously among the most ludicrous and the most unimaginative in series' history: a "heat ray," an "invisible car." The sexual banter seems awfully quaint in the era of internet pornography (Miranda: "I assume Mr. Bond told you his theory of the Big Bang?" Jinx: "I got the thrust of it.") Perhaps most upsettingly, the Clash's immortal "London Calling" is defaced yet again to promote travel sponsor British Airways, which makes anyone who loved the heyday of punk feel older and more forgotten than Blofeld himself. Oh Bondage, up yours.
But for all of that, the twentieth Bond in the official franchise and the twenty-second if you count "Never Say Never Again" and "Casino Royale" is just good enough that it can be expected to satisfy the rabid global fan base, which should assure Broccoli, Wilson and MGM of a big international box-office gross. There's no real reason to see it, and no real reason not to, and given the lowered bar of expectations for any 40-year-old, that will spell dollar signs, as well as euro signs, pound signs and signs representing any other western or Asiatic currency one might care to name.
"You lived to die another day," Bond tells the villain he thought he'd killed just before the second-to-last big action climax. Bond will too. Starring Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry and Toby Stephens. Directed by Lee Tamahori. Written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade. Produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli. An MGM release. Action/Thriller. Rated PG-13 for action violence and sexuality. Running time: 130 min