Die Another Day

Nobody does it better? Not on the strength of this, James old boy

Nicholas Barber
Sunday 24 November 2002 01:00
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It would have been easier to ignore the Queen's golden jubilee this year than to avoid all reference to 2002's other national gala – the ruby anniversary of the James Bond movie franchise. It's been 40 years since Dr No was released, and if that weren't grounds enough to get out the flags and bunting, Die Another Day is the 20th episode in the series (not counting the unofficial Bond films, Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again), so the producers are promoting it as a double celebration. And why shouldn't they? Like 007, HRH might jet around the world and live in luxury at the taxpayer's expense, but she almost never ski-jumps over cliffs or wrestles men with metal teeth.

If the hype that's heralded Die Another Day has focused on the anniversary, the film itself is obsessed by it. It's littered with verbal and visual quotes from Bond movies past: there's a scene in which John Cleese, who has inherited the role of Q, ushers 007 into a repository of the equipment from his previous adventures. When Cleese furnishes Brosnan with a new laser-beam wristwatch – "Your 20th, I believe" – the film couldn't get more self-conscious if the pair of them winked at each other.

Astoundingly, the anniversary fever penetrates even deeper (as Bond might say) than that. Lee Tamahori, the director, has structured the whole film so that it reminds us of 007 parts one to 19. Whereas Bond's other outings have always tried to adapt him to the fashions of the modern world, Die Another Day looks backward as much as it looks forward.

The pre-credits set-piece belongs firmly in the Pierce Brosnan era. Bond is in Korea on an assassination mission, and the tone is of a gritty espionage thriller with an awareness of global politics. It also showcases Brosnan's graceful, confident bearing. He gets better with every film, and in Die Another Day he is suavely convincing as a military man who gets the job done with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of carnage.

Then comes the title song, the film's only conspicuous break with tradition. It's heinous. A constipated Madonna bleat that does without rhymes, scansion and melody, it's the worst Bond theme of them all – and there have been a few rotten ones. I can't understand why the 40th anniversary wasn't marked by the return of John Barry and Shirley Bassey. Maybe it's because the Madonna track plays over a montage of Bond being tortured, so the producers wanted the viewer to share his pain.

Still, once that ordeal is over, Die Another Day takes an agreeable vacation in the Sean Connery period, allowing Brosnan to stroll around a sunny Caribbean island in his summer casuals, and do some sleuthing aided by no gadget more technological than a cigar lighter. It's the most deliberately old-fashioned half-hour of the series in decades. More than harking back to Connery, it's a glimpse of Bond as he was conceived by Ian Fleming.

It's also enlivened by Halle Berry, whose emergence from the sea in a bikini – an echo of Dr No – immediately rockets her into the ranks of the Top Three Sexiest Bond Girls Ever (Ursula Andress and Barbara Bach, before you ask).

Savour the moment while it lasts, though, because after Berry jiggles onto dry land, she and Brosnan ham their way through some flirty innuendo that couldn't be more excruciating if you were 14 years old and it was performed by your parents. Nor is it the film's only gobbet of indigestible dialogue.

Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who also scripted The World Is Not Enough, have given 007 some absolute clunkers. But while no one could blame Brosnan for seeming embarrassed when he recites them, the script isn't wholly culpable for the cursory seduction scenes. Relaxed as he appears when he's facing down genocidal masterminds, Brosnan is such an awkward lothario that you'd assume bedding beautiful women wasn't a perk of being a secret agent, but a chore even less inviting than the post-mission paperwork.

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After the Connery segment, Bond meets the film's arch villain, Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), a toffee-nosed industrialist with an inordinately curled upper lip borrowed from Rik Mayall's Alan B'stard. (Actually, the producers should have just used that name for his character. His henchman is called Mr Kil – "a name to die for" – which is hardly more subtle.) As the story migrates to Graves's headquarters in Iceland, Die Another Day pays tribute to the incorrigible Roger Moore incarnation: from then on, it's non-stop stunts, explosions, and cars whose missile-launchers come as standard. What this section is short of is the fun and wit that the best of the Moore films had. Tamahori just isn't at home with levity, so when the plot gets sillier and sillier, it doesn't seem like unabashed fantasy. It just seems silly.

The action isn't what it used to be, either. Partly this is a drawback of the frenetic editing – if a car chase is shown from five different angles every second, you don't get any sense of motion. In effect, you're flicking through a stack of still photos. The other let-down is a new reliance on blue screens and computer graphics. Even in that opening bit where Bond walks on screen and then turns and shoots at you, there's now a cartoon bullet whizzing towards the camera. Several other sequences are just as artificial.

Fatally, one of these sequences is the finale, an underwhelming combination of iffy animation and routine fisticuffs. It leaves us with a film that is too disjointed, too self-referential, too loud and too long – arguably the worst of the Brosnan Bonds. I'm sure it'll be entertaining when I watch it on TV in a few Christmas's time. But now, in a year when Austin Powers has scoffed at 007 as a joke and xXx has scoffed at him as an anachronism, Die Another Day is a fluffed opportunity to assert that nobody does it better.

Bond's jubilee, like the Queen's, has been half a reaffirmation of a British institution, and half an annus horribilis.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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