Die Another Day (12A)

Beyond salvation

Anthony Quinn
Friday 22 November 2002 01:00
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The same old story. There is no movie I awaited this year with such a childish sense of excitement as the new James Bond – and no movie I left under such a cloud of disappointment. It's been this way since, ooh, A View to a Kill in 1985, so you'd think I might have learnt by now. "The triumph of hope over experience", said Dr Johnson of second marriages, but the phrase, if he'd only known, is just as pertinent to Bond movies. Every time, the PR machine whips us into a frenzy of anticipation over the new Bond girl, or a dastardly new villain, or talk of James being "a little bit different", and every time, we get a few more chippings off the same old rock.

There are changes in Die Another Day, the 20th Bond, but they aren't very enterprising or agreeable ones. The credit sequence, for example, is intercut with scenes of 007 being brutally tortured in a Korean dungeon. Now, silhouetted dancing girls languidly somersaulting off gun-barrels or sliding down the inside of a martini glass is the daft but harmless kitsch we expect of the genre; James being half-drowned in freezing water, however, while the Madonna theme tune bleeps and hiccups over the top, feels like a grotesque mismatch of silliness and savagery. For explanation look to New Zealand-born director Lee Tamahori, whose 1994 film Once Were Warriors was a genuinely alarming look into domestic violence; in his subsequent Hollywood career (The Edge, Along Came A Spider) the violence has escalated in inverse proportion to the subtlety. No wonder they hired him.

Bond, played with suave command by Pierce Brosnan, has been under the Korean cosh after being sold out by one of his own. Possibly the most surprising sight of the whole film is of Brosnan emerging from his prison with a year's growth of hair, looking less 007 than 1,000,000BC. Returned to the flinty bosom of M (Judi Dench), Bond has his knuckles rapped and his licence revoked – not that this is going to stop him, and as soon as his tailor and barber have done the necessary he's off to Cuba in search of the mole, or the rat, or whatever creature it was that betrayed him. First up, though, is a fox, rising from the waves in an orange bikini, a sight to gladden even the jaded eyes of a serial lothario: say hello to Halle Berry, here playing a special agent named Jinx but very much a good luck charm for Bond. Berry won't win another Oscar for the role, but she handles it none the less with a grace and insouciance that the film could use more of. She's good with Brosnan, too; they look relaxed with each other.

Not so the rest of the cast. Toby Stephens, sneering along as millionaire megalomaniac Gustav Graves, looks as if he's doing a bad impersonation of Rik Mayall's Alan B'Stard, while Rick Yune as his sidekick does an Oriental version of Marilyn Manson, only not as funny. Neither of them has much presence, and the script gives them very little help in the one-liner department. Madonna, in a cameo as a fencing instructor, tries flirting with James ("I've been known to keep my tip up," he smirks) and makes it about as expressive as an I-Speak-Your-Weight machine. Rosamund Pike, playing MI6 agent Miranda Frost, initially promises a streak of feminine feistiness in her resistance to Bond's seductive wiles: "I know your type, 007," she says. "It's sex for dinner and death for breakfast," but it doesn't take long before Frost too is thawing between the sheets of his bed.

Tamahori maintains a brisk pace as the set-pieces swing from Cuba to London to Iceland, though the flurry may not prevent you from glancing at your watch: after all, when you've seen one masterplan for global domination, you've seen the lot. This time the danger lies in an enormous laser called Icarus, which can replicate the power of the sun. If the device should fall into the wrong hands – well, you can imagine the mayhem, perhaps more convincingly than the film-makers can. Some of the computerised stunts look very tinny indeed: the spectacle of 007 racing across an ice field with a laser beam in atomically hot pursuit would be unnerving if only it looked like human beings were in some way involved. As for the breakneck chase around Gustav's ice palace, the suspension of my disbelief had already gone twang once James climbed into his "invisible car". Yes, that's right – a gadget that blows the picture's entire plausibility budget at a stroke. An invisible car! Honestly, the things some people will do to avoid a parking ticket.

Strange, is it not, how the regular bombardment of thrills can have quite the opposite effect of the one intended. To put it another way, there is nothing more boring than somebody trying to excite you the whole time. Tamahori delivers pretty much what most of the recent Bonds have delivered, a highly competent, thoroughly impersonal "action spectacular" that hardly allows the audience to pause for breath before charging on to the next big splash.

I say "hardly": there is one scene in Havana, about 40-minutes in, when James, needing a car at short notice, bursts into the hotel room of a South African thug, punches his lights out and swipes his keys. Lounging on the bed, calmly taking in this transaction, is the thug's girl. Bond, spotting her, murmurs "Buenos dias". "Ola," she replies nonchalantly. It's a tiny moment, but I prize its casual expression of civility more dearly than anything else in the film. It's the one time when spontaneity, however illusory, breaks from the mechanical more-bangs-for-your-buck principle that drives along the franchise. "James Bond Will Return" announces the end title – of course he will, as surely as we will be raising our hopes when number 21 comes round.

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