Thursday, December 1, 2011

Review – Die Another Day

December 1, 2011

Die Another Day – UK, 2002

In my mind, one scene in Lee Tamahori's Die Another Day perfectly summarizes the film’s problems. In the scene, Bond makes his regular pilgrimage to pick up the latest gadgets from the character known as the Quartermaster (played by John Cleese). What stands out in the scene is the nostalgia that it inspires. We see relics of earlier Bond films, and I found myself trying to match the older gadgets in the room with a particular movie and a particular Bond. Q even gives Bond a new high-tech watch and with a wink and a nod to the audience remarks that it’s the twentieth watch he’s been given. Unfortunately, the scene also includes an ill-advised version of the X-Men’s Danger Room, which comes in the form of a pair of virtual reality glasses that allow someone to simulate dangerous or interesting situations. The glasses are used twice in the film, and neither time are they necessary to the plot. In fact, the second time they are used is just downright embarrassing for a fairly respectable character. And herein lies the problem with Die Another Day. It’s relying too heavily on what has come before it, and it presumes that viewers that have grown up with Bond will simply flock to it, while offering little that is innovative or insightful to reward such loyalty.

The film has what may be the most uncomfortable opening credits of any Bond film so far. While Bond films have always had rather silly opening credits, ones often replete with silhouettes of dancing girls, slow-moving bullets, and whatever items or symbols feature prominently in a given film, the ones in Die Another Day are unusual in that they include snippets of what actually happens to Bond in the period of time between the film’s prologue and the scene that follows the opening credits. In the credits, we see images of Bond being tortured in North Korea, as well as silhouettes of scorpions, burning bodies, and what looks to be people made of ice. All of this is set to a theme song by Madonna that has a beat that seems wholly inappropriate for the images we’re seeing, and this creates a conflict in viewers between how they should feel as they see images of torture and how people normal react when they hear dance music.

There are also déjà vu moments a plenty in the film. In one scene, one of the villain’s henchmen suggests using a laser to eliminate a key character, a la Goldfinger. The key villain uses a special glove to pump characters full of high-powered electricity, similar to the way the Emperor attacks Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. The villain also wears an odd-looking suit that made me recall the uniform of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, as well as Nintendo’s Power Glove, which figured prominently in Fred Savage’s 1989 film The Wizard. In addition, the film gives us the kind of villain we saw in the early Bond films, the kind that had rather lofty ambitions of world domination. I was under the assumption that later Bond villains didn’t aspire to this simply because it was no longer believable to an audience. In fact, it was such a ridiculous notion that it was used as comic fodder in 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. However, Die Another Day unwisely asks viewers to take it seriously again.

There are also a number of those idiotic Bond moments during which the film’s evil characters either have an unusual way for the protagonists to die or simply choose not to kill them in order to preserve a later surprise. So instead of a trying to kill Bond when he is vulnerable and completely alone, we get a ridiculous love scene. In addition, another character is captured twice, and each time a special method of death is chosen over the obvious one. And there are some cringe-inducing moments of dialogue. The most egregious example of this is Bond’s first conversation with a U.S. secret agent nicknamed Jinx (Halle Berry). Their flirtation is expressed in a silly dialogue about owls, predators, and feasting that is slightly discomforting to hear. It leads to a love scene in which Jinx takes out a knife, slices some fruit, and feeds it to Bond. At least one of the screenwriters should have asked himself just where she would get a knife at a time like that.

In the film, Bond displays some new talents. Apparently, he can surf and fence like a pro, swim like an Olympic athlete, and use a sword like a jedi. Jedis are often so skilled that their duels go on for what can seem like an eternity, and the same can be said for Bond’s sword duel with British tycoon Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens). After a while, it stops being fun and begin to be ludicrous. The film also has its fair show of “How convenient!” moments. The most ridiculous involves Graves’ secret weapon shutting off just at the right time. If the machine had kept working, it would have destroyed the ice palace that Bond was driving in (yes, he was driving inside, but luckily there weren’t any stairs). However, since the weapon was designed to destroy things and Graves wants to kill Bond, it makes no sense that he would actually turn it off before the job is complete.

So, is there anything to like in Die Another Day? Yes, but not much. The film has a terrific opening scene, during which a scenario is established that would have enormous repercussions for the international community. This should have been the scenario that Bond tries to prevent. I also liked the way Bond is essentially out to restore his reputation, which has been tarnished during his fourteen-month imprisonment in North Korea, for a vengeful, angry Bond is often rather compelling to watch. I also like the way Bond’s gadgets are used in the film, especially the ring that Bond wears, but in truth, when was the last time one of Q’s gadgets wasn’t completely appropriate for the current assignment? However, once Bond goes rogue and begins scouring the globe for the man he thinks is involved in the plot to discredit him, the films begins to fall apart. We’re told that both the British and the Americans governments are looking for him, yet they seem completely inept, especially given the fact that Bond is traveling under his own name. How hard would it have been to find him?

Die Another Day ranks down there with Moonraker as one of my least favorite Bond films. The film is surprisingly uninvolving, bordering on being completely boring. The villains are not frightening at all, despite the best efforts of the actors playing them and a make-up job that makes one of them look like a cross between the lead characters in Powder and The Last Airbender. There is also little chemistry between Berry and Brosnan. It’s not their fault really. The script doesn’t give them a fighting chance to establish it. This is s little surprising given that the film was directed by Lee Tamahori, who made the excellent film Once Were Warriors. Rumor has it that Jinx was supposed to be spun off into her own series. However, nothing in Die Another Day makes me think a Jinx movie would have been warranted or a box office success. I read that Pierce Brosnan was a bit relieved when he learned he had been replaced as Bond by Daniel Craig. Initially, I though Brosnan was just putting on a brave face during a tough time. However, having seen his final Bond film, I can understand why he would feel that way. This one cannot have been much fun to make. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 stars

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