Die Another Day (2002)

D: Lee Tamahori
S: Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry

Be careful what you wish for. When The World is Not Enough came out, I wrote that as each new Brosnan Bond passed, it made the previous one stand out more fondly in the memory. The films were so comfortably formulaic, I said, that there was nothing to really distinguish them from one another. The makers of Die Another Day, which is officially Bond No. 20 and marks the 40th anniversary of the franchise, tries to be different.

Die Another Day is a genuine attempt to update James Bond, which is to say that it is a flashy action film dripping with attitude and cinematic gimmickry designed to appeal to the all-important teenage demographic rather than fans, devotees, or anyone older than Anakin Skywalker. It is propelled along by increasingly outragenous hi-octane action scenes, features cardboard characters in stock situations enlivened only by the veneer of smart postmodern trendiness, and boasts of a post-Matrix editing style which makes a virtue out of jarring, juddering cuts and unnecessary, hyperkinetic camera movement. Yes, the Bond people have responded to xXx by caving in: they are now trying to imitate their own imitations.

Hardy ears will hear echoes of the same criticism made many years before. By the time You Only Live Twice came out (or even Thunderball), Bond films already seemed like parodies of themselves. The more serious charge of being indistinguishable from the herd of mainstream genre product was levelled at Licence to Kill at the end of the vigilante years of the 1980s when its plot seemed to vary little from the standard 'my best buddy's been killed and/or injured so I'm gonna get the guys who did it' movie popular at the time. Timothy Dalton was Bond enough to still hold on to the core of his character though, and some threads of Fleming ran through the heart of Licence to Kill. The franchise's heart began to flutter though, leading to the hiatus which eventually ended with the 'return' of GoldenEye.

Pierce Brosnan has been uncomfortable with the role of James Bond since GoldenEye, constantly arguing that in order to get closer to Fleming, he needed to push the character into a harder, less appealing aspect. He has finally succeedd in doing this, but in spite of the multiplicity of in-jokes and a postmodernist double bluff in the grandaddy of the action adventure now doing fugues on its own harmonies, the result is a long way from thrilling and a long way from what made Bond movies worth seeing.

Plot? Do you really want to hear about the plot? There's no real point actually. Call me unprofessional, but it is mostly nonsense, and without the saving grace of a bit of Bondian edge (or even Bondian camp), there is nothing to make it worth telling you about. The best part is the credit sequence which depicts a captured Bond being brutalised and tortured by North Korean heavies. No laser beams, no shark pools, no steel-toothed giants, just plain old fashioned fists and ropes, suggesting a meaner and more realistic take, perhaps along the lines of For Your Eyes Only, or, dare we say it, From Russia With Love. This impression is reinforced not long after by a virtual reprise of the premise of Licence to Kill, where Bond is disavowed by MI6 and cut loose. Unfortunately this doesn't go anywhere. Brosnan's Bond seems to respond to this challenge by emptying his character of all emotions, even affected ones, leaving a gaping hole at the centre of the drama. The adventure he becomes involved with is defiantly non-realistic, packed with action scenes so elaborate and ridiculous that the franchise has to surrender to computer-generated imagery. This results in the singlemost awful scene in all of Bond history, a woeful set piece in which our hero escapes from a plunging cliff of ice on a digital wave. Children will scream with delight. Some adults may cry.

Curiously, this is Bond going backwards and forwards at the same time. The film resurrects many of the great Bondian clichés, then tries to pay them homage while killing them off. The result is a kind of self-referential cinematic suicide which the audience is compelled to watch in dumb horror, unsure of how to react. Witness the all-too-obvious scene were Oscar winner Halle Berry emerges from the sea in a bikini with a knife strapped to her thigh. Ha ha. Hysterical. We get it. It's like Dr. No, right? Ursula Andress? Yeah? I'm impressed. Director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) nonetheless feels compelled to employ slow motion just to underline the point and also, presumably, so that young teenage boys will get the full benefit from watching Ms. Berry's breasts dripping and bouncing. The scene dies completely shortly thereafter as Brosnan reacts to this grand entrance with wooden indifference and a mechanical string of innuendoes and one-liners. Both actors seem contemptuous of the lines, as if their characters as so used to doing this that they may as well be discussing the stock market. An equally mechanical sex scene follows, the action suggesting a mutual disregard between the characters which makes it all seem pretty pointless. The scene is therefore deliberately stripped of resonance, let alone chemistry, and the entire revisionist joke (both within the film and as part of a wider postmodern self-referential thing) falls so utterly flat that the film floats like a corpse on its own stagnant surface.

Die Another Day is Bond at his nadir. Its cynical disregard for its own audience is reflected in the dead-eyed stares which come from the once twinkling eyes of its jaded star all the way through the film. It might be argued that the hard, cynical core of the novels has never been truly captured on screen (Licence to Kill actually came closest in some respects) and that Brosnan has been trying to push things in that direction since he ascended to the figurative throne. There is a difference between cynicism and apathy though, and this film is apathetic where Fleming was genuinely cynical. Brosnan has been a better Bond in several non-Bond films including The Thomas Crown Affair and The Tailor of Panama, both films which reflect different elements of the Bond persona and Brosnan's ability to work at both ends of it. He looks thoroughly bored here, and seems to have professionalism enough only to turn up. The knock-on effect is obvious, from Berry's hopeless GI Jane routine (which has uncomfortable political resonances for a contemporary audience) right down to the appalling return of the Moneypenny syndrome as Samantha Bond takes the character she reinvented so nicely in GoldenEye right back to her anachronistic roots. Tamahori has tried to give the impression of life by maxing out the set pieces on a level of Bondian outrageousness such as we would expect, including a hovercraft duel, a car chase on ice, an increasingly violent fencing scene featuring a cameo by Madonna (who also provides' the film's disharmonious, atonal title tune), and a climax involving satellites and minefields which again hearkens back to the Moore years in its operatic idiocy. The film lacks the cartoonish effervescence to carry it off though, and everything about it screams of an emptiness so all-consuming that it leaves you utterly depressed.

This is a sad moment for Bond fans, but one which comes as no surprise to anyone and which will matter less to many. Like Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, this is a film which is so wilfully slipshod that large scale incompetence is passed off as progress. There are children out there for whom Attack of the Clones represents the pinnacle of the creative imagination. Those same children will love Die Another Day, as will anyone born after people stopped caring.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.