James Bond celebrates his 40th birthday on the bigscreen in “Die Another Day,” a midrange series entry that sports some tasty scenes, mostly in the first half, but also pushes 007 into CGI-driven, quasi-sci-fi territory that feels like a betrayal of what the franchise has always been about. A gargantuan marketing push, along with public curiosity about the heavily stressed Pierce Brosnan/Halle Berry pairing, looks to ensure killer B.O. worldwide for this 20th “official” Bond entry.
That producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli and director Lee Tamahori intend to introduce a few new wrinkles to the time-tested formula is apparent even from the opening credits sequence, which departs from the norm by mixing visual narrative elements in with the usual abstracted and gyrating female forms. What it shows are glimpses of Bond being tortured under incarceration by the North Koreans, who, in the arresting action prologue, succeed in capturing the secret agent after he infiltrates a Communist camp in the demilitarized zone and, his cover blown during an attempted trade of diamonds for weapons, engages a hot-headed colonel in a wild chase aboard heavily armed hovercrafts.
Fourteen months later, Bond is still imprisoned, with long locks and scraggly beard that makes him look like a young Alan Bates auditioning to play Jesus. That Bond finally gets out is no credit to him, as he’s released in a prisoner exchange, and while the “Castaway” look results in a good laugh when the bedraggled former prisoner strides in among all the swells at the Hong Kong Yacht Club and asks for a room, the net effect of the entire interlude is unsettling, at least for Bond veterans of long-standing; while it’s daily routine for Bond to be thrown into immediate jeopardy, never in memory has the character effectively been neutralized, or put in a similar position of not being able to control his own fate.
The process of neutering Bond is completed by M (Judi Dench, of course) when she rescinds his license to kill and informs him that, since he’s suspected of having broken under interrogation (conducted under the effects of scorpion venom), “You’re of no use to anyone now.”
Intent to track down the North Koreans’ contact in the West, Bond, operating on his own, heads for Cuba, where he encounters not only Zao (Rick Yune), a fearsome terrorist whose face Bond bizarrely disfigured with little diamonds during the fracas in the demilitarized zone, but the stunning Jinx (Berry). Bikini-attired and sporting a knife belt, latter arises from the surf in a deliberate replay of Ursula Andress’ unforgettable entrance in “Dr. No” four decades back and strides right up to a waiting Bond, who, from the available evidence, hasn’t enjoyed the pleasure of female company in well over a year. Nothing can keep the brakes on these two, but after a night of passion it becomes clear that Jinx is after Zao, too, on behalf on the Americans’ National Security Agency.
Pic hits its stride for a time back in London with the entrance (via parasail over Buckingham Palace) of the central villain. Young, handsome and outrageously wealthy, Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) passes himself off as a businessman to whom success just comes naturally, but his snide arrogance betrays his true identity as yet another in a long line of Bond adversaries who wants to dominate the world.
Adding to the sinister stature of his character, Stephens contributes a measure of prepossessing physicality and aristocratic personal grit that makes Graves one of Bond’s most worthy adversaries in a long time (Stephens is the son of Maggie Smith and the late Robert Stephens). Fact that the two men seem so equally matched is used to great advantage in an excellent extended sequence, probably the film’s best, in which the very competitive gents face off in a sporting duel at an elegant fencing club, only to have the battle escalate to murderous levels as they pursue one another all over the premises. In a film overloaded with relatively routine and undifferentiated gunplay, the blood, sweat and muscle involved in this genuinely exciting combat are gratifyingly reminiscent of the most intense of all mano a mano Bond fights, that between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw on the train in “From Russia With Love.”
But just when expectations are raised, they quickly fade in the pic’s second half. It’s as if screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade simply ran out of steam and the special effects team took over; the plot, such as it is, spins off its axis like an errant merry-go-round for the sake of some arbitrary and overly familiar action scenes. The obviously game Berry gets to recreate Connery’s famous laser peril from “Goldfinger” but disappointingly has few further chances to spark with Bond.
Most of the latter going is set in Iceland, where Graves maintains an “ice palace” and has invited hundreds of his closest personal friends to witness a demonstration of his new space satellite with a reflector so strong that the orbiting craft will function as a second sun. In fact, of course, the device is the world’s most powerful weapon, one that Graves is in cahoots with North Korea to impose on the free world.
On a dramatic level, follow-up to the nocturnal display prompts immediate head-scratching, as all the other guests are suddenly gone the next morning. What are Bond and Jinx doing still hanging around, and don’t Graves and his henchmen find their continued presence suspicious? On the level of technique, film “Die Another Day” goes way past any previous Bond into the realm of impossibility by introducing the agent’s stunning new Aston Martin Vanquish as a car that Q (John Cleese) has equipped with an invisibility option, which Bond uses in an ice field car battle with Zao, the latter in his new Jaguar (Jinx shows up in Iceland behind the wheel of a new T-Bird).
But worse is a windsurfing escape by Bond from an ice avalanche that is so patently absurd and so blatantly a CGI concoction (especially in contrast to the stunning real surfing of the picture’s opening sequence) that it proves a total turn-off. Even at their most outlandish, the Bond films have usually made a point to keep the action at least on the outer edges of physical feasibility; Bond’s innumerable conquests over peril over the years may not have been bloody likely, but you could swallow them in context. These new bits with the car and avalanche are simply beyond the pale.
Fiery airborne climax also has a computerized feel in part and is sufficiently protracted to prompt the feeling that this day has gone on long enough.
There are momentary compensations along the way, particularly in Bond’s testy relationship with yet another beauty, Miranda Frost (the Grace Kellyish Rosamund Pike), Graves’ publicist and a secret agent for M who’s aptly named for her chilly demeanor and announced intention never to succumb to Bond’s charms.
Brosnan once again proves more than up to the task of filling Bond’s shoes and, especially in the early going, gives the character some dark and nasty shadings that reveal a welcome desire to take Bond back to Ian Fleming-based basics. After the promising beginning, unfortunately, most of what Berry is called upon to do is pretty generic action stuff. Madonna, who co-wrote and sings the banal title song, does an unbilled cameo at the start of the fencing club scene. (At least she’ll be in one hit in 2002.)
Aside from the jarring CGI material, production values are up to series standards, with locations in Cadiz, Spain (doubling for Cuba), Iceland, Norway, Maui and the U.K. providing resplendent backdrops for the exotic action. Jump-framing of the introductions to certain scenes amounts to an annoying affectation that will date the film in the long run, and sound mix at times allows the score and loud effects to battle rather than complement each other.