Die Another Day
And so we're back again - for the 20th time, James Bond saves the world and gets the girl. I hope I've not ruined any surprises for anyone there as Pierce Brosnan returns for his fourth outing as the super secret agent in what may turn out to be one of the best entries in the entire series.
This time, the action starts in North Korea as Bond tries to foil an elaborate diamonds-for-weapons deal. Needless to say, there are explosions and chases galore in the pre credits sequence, but in a nice twist, the mission fails and Bond ends up captured and imprisoned, seemingly abandoned by his masters.
After a fantastic titles sequence (which even manages to make Madonna's title song seem better than it really is), we are fast forwarded 14 months to see a bearded, bedraggled Bond being traded by his Korean captors for one of their own. After some recuperation, Bond realises he had been betrayed on the original mission and sets out for revenge. I do apologise if I appear to be skipping over the more detailed plot elements here but, as I'm sure any fan of the series will know, the story is no longer what's important in a Bond flick. What the paying public want now is action. And we get it by the truckload (and car, boat and planeload).
Director Lee Tamahori certainly made good on his promise to toughen things up in this film. The opening titles are played out over some truly horrific scenes of torture - somewhat softened by the usual presence of naked girls in silhouette. We get a much tougher Bond picture than we have been used to : Even the 'exotic' locations don't get any more glamorous that the De-Militarized Zone in Korea and the corruption-riddled, post-revolution Cuba. In fact, for the first half of the film, Bond is effectively 'fired' from the secret service and has to rely on his own wits and connections to try and lead him to his nemesis.
Of course, once MI6 slide back into the frame during the third reel of the movie, our hero is furnished with all manner of gadgets and gizmo's and we are treated to a cracking turn by John Cleese as the new 'Q', admirably taking over the late Desmond Llewellyn's contempt for the '00' agent. And it's here that all the usual Bond elements come back into play: The beautiful women, the power mad villain, the unstoppable henchman, the outrageous set pieces - they're all here but Tamahori is savvy enough to keep a close enough restraint on the picture to prevent it falling into self parody.
There are some truly wonderful action scenes ranging from fistfights (including my personal favourite where Bond lays a particularly annoying South African tourist out cold), through sword fights to the usual over-the-top climax - this time involving a transporter plane and a space-based super-weapon literally burning holes in the earth's surface. Some of the special effects leave a little to be desired, as does Tamahori's somewhat annoying reliance on jump-cuts, slow-mo and even some Matrix-style 'bullet time' camera moves. In the main, however, it's nice to see a film that doesn't rely too heavily on CGI, preferring to leave most of the set pieces up to good, old fashioned stunt men.
The performances: Brosnan's Bond is in danger of becoming my favourite incarnation - Connery's cool calculation, Moore's humour and Dalton's burning intensity. They're all here, mixed in with Brosnan's own laconic delivery. This is, by far, Brosnan's best performance as Bond; Toby Stephens has tremendous fun as villain, Gustav Graves. A real throwback to the old school of Bond villains, power-crazed mad men, desperate to take over the world, he's right up there with Blofeld and Goldfinger; Rick Yunes plays 'Zao' a Korean soldier, wounded by Bond, who has aligned himself with Graves. Yunes is a menacing revelation in this role and an awesome makeup job transforms him into a henchman worthy of rubbing shoulders with 'Oddjob' and 'Jaws'
And the women are just as well represented. In Halle Berry's 'Jinx', we have one of the strongest female characters that's ever appeared in a Bond film. She's tough, smart and, let's face it....being played by Halle Berry, she's sexy as hell. Rosamund Finch plays 'Miranda Frost', in keeping with the film's 'icy' ending and, whilst lagging behind Berry in the sex appeal stakes, certainly provides an adequate foil for Bond, with her densely written character. Even Madonna turns up in a 'barely-there' cameo and, for her troubles, gets to deliver one of the best innuendo-laden lines in the film.
It appears that the producers have thought long and hard about the direction that Bond should go in. Whether or not Brosnan sticks around, they seem to have realised that it doesn't pay to screw with the formula. Give the punters what they want and they'll all leave happy. If you want internal angst, go and see a Mike Leigh film. If you want sharply written dialogue, go and check out David Mamet.
Come on, it's nearly Christmas - the only festive tradition older than James Bond involves three wise men and a chilly stable.