Here we go again.
The James Bond franchise – Hollywood’s thinnest excuse to stage elaborate set pieces, photograph scantily-clad women and decimate fleets of sexy cars – returns for its twentieth installment, the fourth with current star Pierce Brosnan.
Surprisingly, the all-too-familiar formula continues to wring out passable intrigue. Die Another Day contains everything we expect from our Bond films, and thankfully improves on Brosnan’s last two outings. Even more surprising, the story concocted by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade trumps director Lee Tamahori’s special effects work, a rarity on her majesty’s secret service.
Die begins and ends in North Korea, where Bond attempts to trade diamonds for weapons with a sinister military general and his guardian, Zao (Rick Yune). The mission backfires and, after a daring hovercraft race across a minefield, Bond is captured and detained in a North Korean prison.
Cue up Madonna’s synthetic theme song, interspersed with scenes of Bond being brutally tortured for what we learn is 14 months. 007 has been abandoned by his agency, but the British government agrees to a prisoner swap after a traitor leaks word that Bond is revealing confidential information to the enemy. Once free, Bond sets out to unmask the traitor and capture Zao, who got him locked up in the first place.
Two schools of Bond are on display in Die Another Day, which should satisfy all generations of fans. For its first half, the movie ditches the gadgets and gizmos for more traditional, old-school, Connery-era macho fare. Globetrotting from Hong Kong to Havana, Bond subdues adversaries with fists and swords. I think the most high-tech device used in the first half of the film is a pair of binoculars used to check out Halle Berry from a distance.
Berry plays Jinx, a secret agent working with Bond to bring down Zao. As a Bond girl, Berry fills all the right curves of her leather outfits and string bikinis. She’s tough enough to hold her own with 007, but she predominantly acts with her well-toned body. Her dialogue contains the expected dosage of double entendre, with some snappy patter and indiscriminate tongue twisters thrown in for good measure.
But there’s no time for that, we’re off to London, where Bond begins to investigate billionaire Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), given the title “King of Diamonds” by the media after he unearths a treasure in Iceland and donates half of his newfound wealth to charity. The other half goes towards building the film’s grandiose set piece, a palace of diamonds and ice on the surface of an enormous frozen lake.
Unlike many of its predecessors, Die understands when to advance the admittedly thin story and when to pause for gratuitous thrills. A swordfight between Graves and Bond reeks of pissing match, and almost soaks the entire theater with obscene amounts of testosterone. Earlier, a ludicrous hospital break has Bond faking cardiac arrest. Subtlety was never this franchise’s specialty.
The arrival of Q (John Cleese) at the one-hour mark ushers in the second-half of Die, a return to the updated, gadget-heavy adventure typical of the Brosnan regime. Flashy and fast-paced, the action shifts into high gear at Graves’ Icelandic estate.
It’s also in Iceland where Die forces its sci-fi storyline, involving Graves plan to overpower the Earth with a satellite device dubbed Icarus. The mechanism channels a ray from the heavens with the strength of the sun, but this subplot is woefully underdeveloped, especially when Bond’s vengeance mission against Zao and his unnamed betrayer works so well. Plus, Icarus is a fatal name. Anyone familiar with mythology knows how this story ends.
Unnecessary plots and wasteful discourses won’t bother most fans of the franchise, as long as the explosions look cool. Here’s where things go awry. Die relies on an enormous amount of blue screen work, which cheapens many of the action scenes. Tamahori, who’s responsible for the laughable car-off-a-bridge scene at the beginning of Along Came a Spider, continues to settle for artificial, inadequate effects. One shot in particular, which has Bond surfing on a tidal wave caused by a melting glacier, will have you howling.
Die holds our interests longer than Bond’s latest adventures, and makes a nice addition to Brosnan’s body of spy games. Yune makes Zao into a formidable foe, and Graves conceals a tasty secret that actually surprised me. Brosnan has his part down pat, and the girls fill pre-established roles. You will get to hear Berry belt out lines like, Yo mama! and Read this, bitch. Spoken like a true Oscar winner. Is it too late to request the return of that statue?
Talk about a swordfight!
Review by Sean O’Connell © 2002 filmcritic.com