Sunday, May 17, 2009

REVIEW: The Worst of Bond, Part 3: Die Another Day

"Damn, I could use a silencer, now that I think about it. I'll trade you this nail clipper I swiped from Q-division for it."

Ah, Die Another Day. The movie that epitomizes the word #*$@&%#!. This was the fourth James Bond movie in the Pierce Brosnan era, which included the utterly awesome GoldenEye, the mostly harmless Tomorrow Never Dies, and the completely corporeal The World is Not Enough. Most people, including myself, agreed that Brosnan was one of the better Bonds, combining most of the best traits of previous portrayals of the character. I can’t speak for everyone, especially those who grew up with Connery, but when I think of James Bond in general, not a specific movie, my image is basically that of Pierce Brosnan. But just as Brosnan himself was good, but generic, so were his movies. They were basically all similar globe-trotting, action-heavy entries that tried to keep seriousness and humor, realism and fantasy in pretty close balance, all while making sure to scatter three or four huge action scenes throughout. They basically tried to appeal to everyone. And since the Bond fan base is composed of people who favor the jokes, sexiness, action, espionage, and travelogue scenes in different measures, I guess that was smart from a business perspective.

"I looking for John Connor. I need your clothes, your boots, and your... Oh, wait. I already have them. Never mind. Good day, sir."

So I suppose I should almost find it courageous that for Brosnan’s fourth go-round, they actually stopped riding the fence and actually went right after one audience. They modeled a film more for the people who loved the action and spectacle over the drama and thin ties to reality, the same thugs who were complicit in making a XXX sequel possible. Die Another Day was essentially the latest iteration of You Only Live Twice and Moonraker. And considering my previous two reviews, you might imagine where I stand on that idea.

First of all, the title. Die Another Day? Doesn’t that have almost the exact same meaning as Tomorrow Never Dies? Or maybe the exact opposite meaning. I’m not sure, but in any event, it sounds like it was devised using some James Bond-themed magnetic poetry.

Ah. So maybe this movie's actually a very subtle satire of foundationalist classroom pedagogy.

Actually, the sad thing about this movie, for me, is that it actually starts out kind of well... Er, it starts well after it starts out really badly. In the opening gun barrel sequence, we actually see a computer-rendered bullet flying directly into our faces. Now, the gun barrel opening is just a tradition and a fun little logo for the James Bond character, so I shouldn’t think much of it, and I should just be happy that there’s no disco twang to the music, like there was in some of the Roger Moore films. But I have to question the logic a bit here. Why is Bond shooting a bullet back down the barrel of his opponent’s gun? And after he makes his shot, why does blood spill down? Whoever designed this sequence does realize that there’s a difference between a gun barrel and a targeting scope, right? Right?

And thus, we get one step closer to the much-anticipated James Bond/Col. John Matrix team-up movie.

So anyway, aside from the stupid title and the silly opening gun barrel logo and the promo material for godawful TV shows on the Regal Cinemas “Twenty”--which, in all fairness, might not have been DAD’s fault--the movie starts out well. It opens at night with Bond and two South Korean agents surfboarding into North Korean territory, sneaking through the jungle. If you have to come up with a James Bond surfing scene, that’s about as good as any reason to do it. Furthermore, I liked that this is one of the very few times in a Bond movie that Bond is actually fighting an enemy nation. Even during the Cold War, the ultimate villain was nearly always a trans-national, completely fictitious organization or a rogue industrialist or military officer. Here, even in its grossly simplified way, the film actually depicts a real nation as villainous, which is a very small step away from political correctness that I wholeheartedly approve of. Even if in real life, North Korea is only threatening because the international community couldn’t convince a paraplegic dog to stay off the couch, much less a dictator to stop building a nuke. North Korea may have a madman at the helm, but it’s a dirt-poor nation propped up by China’s support and other nations’ refusal to take military action against it; it’s not exactly an imposing evil empire.

Filmed on location in South Korea, Hawaii, England, Iceland, and Hell.

The mission is to ambush some arms dealers before they can board a helicopter, then steal their identities and hide a bomb in a suitcase full of diamonds they’re planning to give to North Korean general Moon (Kenneth Tsang) in exchange for weapons. As Bond arrives, Moon is managing his stress by kickboxing a punching bag (yes, I guess you’re allowed to do that) that is later revealed to contain his anger management therapist; clearly, this guy aspires to world terrorism or playing for the Knicks, one or the other. Bond’s cover is immediately blown when someone snaps a picture of him, sends it to some unknown informant, and is informed that he’s a secret agent. I guess all those years of blasting bad guys while using his real name has caught up to Bond, although you would have thought that radically changing his appearance four times (not counting the Woody Allen phase) over the last forty years might have bought him some anonymity.

"I can finish the mission, M. Give me a chance. It's so easy, even I could do it."

Bond compensates for his weaknesses in the area of disguise by showcasing his strengths in the area of blowing the living hell out of everyone and everything in the region. The initial explosion that saves him from a firing squad comes courtesy of a Q-gadget, but otherwise, it’s just Bond shooting stuff up, killing more people in the film’s first six minutes than Connery managed in six films. The battle continues as Bond chases Moon (or vice versa, I’m not sure) in a hovercraft race across a mine field. Yes, they’re down to hovercrafts as far as vehicles Bond has not yet driven to death goes. Hovercrafts armed to the teeth with rockets, machine guns, and flame throwers. I’m not sure who thought a flame thrower was a good idea for this vehicle--even if it’s more plausible here than on a damned helicopter for God’s sake--but it does prove to be an effective weapon for Moon to not kill Bond with. The chase ends with Moon and his hovercraft going over a waterfall, presumably to their fiery ends, and Bond surviving, but finding himself in custody by the North Korean army.

Yes, Bond actually gets captured. And tortured! For 14 months! In fact, the whole opening title sequence chronicles Bond’s imprisonment, complete with a techno/acid rock song by Madonna that helps bring Bond’s pain to life.

Well, now I understand a little better how Cubans can afford their health care.

After the titles finish, Bond is surprised to find himself released, traded back to the British in a swap for the terrorist Zao (Rick Yune) after the Brits come to think that Bond has been giving up secrets under duress. Scruffy Geico Caveman Bond insists that he never said a word, and wants to chase down Zao and force him to spill the identity of whoever gave up his identity; and he’ll definitely need Zao for that, since half the world’s population knows who he is. M (Judi Dench) rescinds Bond’s 00-status and license to kill while they figure out what to do with him, and that works about as well as it did in License to Kill, the last time that happened. Bond proves a pioneer by daring to actually travel around the world and kill people without government certification, after he jumps off the British medical frigate and surfaces at a dock in Hong Kong, in front of a green screen so obvious that the Hong Kong skyline might as well be black and white stock footage from the Korean War.

"Arr, there be a great leviathan of the seas off yonder port bow. It be chewing scenery mercilessly!"

With a little help from the Chinese, who are ceasing their support of the North Korean government just long enough to help Bond bring it down, Bond follows Zao to Cuba, continuing his tour of the world’s socialist paradises. Posing as a tourist, he scopes out the experimental medical clinic on the beach that Zao’s been admitted to. While there, Bond meets Jinx (Halle Berry); she’s a sassy American who, unknown to Bond, is actually a CIA secret agent! Quite a twist, there. The two are immediately attracted to each other’s ability to weave naughty one-liners into their conversation, even though their puns don’t have any literal meaning whatsoever, and the whole thing amounts to a variation on the “Yo Mamma…” joke battle (and yes, she will eventually actually say “Yo Momma“ in this movie). This sad little exchange naturally leads to sex, and for what I think might be the first time in a Bond movie, the two are shown actually doing it, not making small talk afterwards. Way to stay classy, movie. They make the first Bond movie with an African-American actress in the lead role, and decide that also makes it the right time to move the series closer to soft-core porn.

James Bond: both licensed to kill and an RN...

The next day, Bond raids the clinic, and finds that Zao is undergoing an experimental DNA surgery to permanently change him to look Caucasian. Even having finished the film, I’m not entirely sure why this would have been necessary, but I do know that Zao might have wanted to have the doctors pull out those diamonds embedded into the side of his face first if his goal was to blend in. You see, when Bond set off his exploding briefcase of diamonds at the beginning of the film, a bunch of the diamonds embedded into Zao’s cheek. Personally, I think that Diamondface might have been a less horrible title for a James Bond movie, and at least would have had some vague connection to the plot. But in any event, the ever-inventive Bond spars with Zao, using an MRI and a gas tank as his weapons of choice, but Zao gets away anyway. And so does Jinx, who’s independently assassinating the doctors, but gets cornered by Cuban soldiers at the edge of a seaside cliff. She escapes by stripping down to her bikini, flashing Bond a coy wink, and transforming herself into a computer effect from Dead or Alive Volleyball long enough to dive backwards about 200 feet into the ocean, where a boat is waiting for her. The Cuban soldiers are shocked, wondering how it’s possible that she survived the fall. The simple answer is that it’s not possible, but in a James Bond movie, nobody ever fails at anything as long as they’re smug while they do it.

...although he's been known to confuse the two licenses.

Having recovered one of Zao’s diamonds, Bond discovers that it’s a conflict diamond or something like that, but everyone thinks it actually came from a mine in Iceland owned by British entrepreneur Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens). If that doesn’t make any sense, it doesn’t have to, because its only purpose is to identify the bad guy. Bond jets back to London, in a scene accompanied by the song, London Calling by The Clash. That’s beautiful. He’s a British agent who visits London at least once every movie, and yet this time around, they decided to make a joke about it.

"Hey, I just asked what color it was. I didn't ask you to demonstrate it."

More beautiful is the scene where Bond confronts Graves, a petulant little snot, at a fencing club. Graves’ fencing instructor is played by Madonna, blessing the film with her acting skills after already providing the banshee wail over the opening credits. Thankfully, Bond does NOT sleep with her; at this point, only drug-addled old men would go for Madonna, like Alex Rodriguez for example. Graves is rather irritated that Bond accuses him of building his empire off the blood of Africans, and decides that the best way for him to get rid of Bond without exposing his villainy to the world is to attack him with a broadsword. Fortunately, old Mordred gets bested by Bond, and shows he’s a good sport by inviting him to a scientific demonstration in Iceland. Thanks, Gus. Bond goes along with it, either because he figures that turning himself over to his mortal enemy’s hospitality is the best way to stay a step ahead of him, or because he’s just hoping the scientific demonstration involves something cool like zombies being reawakened.

The Young Charles and Camilla Chronicles

But before he goes, M wants a word with him. You know that whole deal about Bond being mentally scarred by his year of torture and his own country accusing him of treachery and disowning him? Yeah, that’s LONG gone. That sounds like a Timothy Dalton movie, and the producers were going more for something like a cross between Roger Moore and Mike Myers. Instead, M now supports Bond’s mission to figure out what Graves is up to, and sends a hot young female agent named Samantha Frost (Rosamund Pike) along to help Bond, but with orders not to sleep with him. You know, I’m sure that somewhere on the MI-6 payroll there’s a competent male agent other than James Bond. If M’s such a puritan that she can’t put up with him having an inappropriate personal relationship while he saves the bleeding world, maybe she should stop pairing him with hotties.

"We can finish materializing it once the rest of the bailout money comes in."

Bond’s stop by MI-6 headquarters also brings him a handful of gadgets, presented by Q (now played by John Cleese, who’s clearly not used to being in movies quite this silly):
> A ring that can shatter glass. Sounds nifty and practical. Verdict: I approve.
> A rebreather. Also sounds handy. Verdict: Very good.
> Virtual reality goggles that Bond uses to train in a simulated hostage crisis. Yeah, because Bond hasn’t gotten nearly enough practice shooting people in this movie so far. Verdict: I disapprove, unless this is all just a joke at Pierce Brosnan’s expense for Lawnmower Man.
> A patented Q-car. Aside from the usual features like rockets and a nearly indestructible exterior, what could be the big gag for this one? Turns into a submarine? Already done it. Can be remote-controlled? Been there. Flies? Nah, that would be far too unbelievable. Morphs into a giant walking robot? Copyright infringement. We’ll just have it turn invisible instead. Verdict: The hell?

"Yes, the ice is interesting and all, but do we get HBO?"

So with order restored to the universe--Bond has no emotional baggage, he’s loaded with ridiculous gadgets, and his opponent is clearly defined and obvious--it’s off to beautiful Iceland, where Graves’ reception is being held at a hotel made entirely of ice. Now, you’d be right to accuse this of being a completely absurd locale, stuck in the movie just for the sake of being weird, and to give the movie an ‘ice’ theme for the marketing department to play on. But apparently the ice hotel in this movie is based on a real place in Iceland, where rich tourists can pay gobs of money to spent a night encased in ice. It’s kind of like they created a Titanic-themed hotel, but one focused on the last leg of the journey moreso than the first.

"I hope you have a very good reason for interrupting my 3D deep sea nature documentary."

There’s a huge party underway at Mr. Freeze’s hideout, where even Halle Berry/Jinx has shown up. Showing not even the slightest interest in maintaining a cover, she and Bond and Frost engage in a three-way… of godawful quasi-sexual puns. When the subject of their conversation turns to science, Frost asks if Bond told her about his “big bang theory,” to which Jinx responds that she “got the thrust of it.” When she says the line, she literally--literally!--has tongue planted in cheek. That’s epic. And once again, while I tend to prefer double-entendrees to have the initial entendree covered--in other words, for the non-lewd meaning to exist--I guess something more clever would have gone over the heads of the 12-year-olds and lower primates that this film was aimed at.

"Whoops. Sorry darling, but, er, how do I put this? Dante's Peak just erupted a little earlier than I had predicted."

Graves demonstrates his new toy, a massive diamond-based space satellite with the power to reflect the sun’s light and redirect it at the dark half of the world, enabling plants to grow better and the post office to stay open past 5 o’clock or something like that. Of course, we all know that Graves really intends to focus the beam more and turn it into an orbital death ray. I have a couple of problems with this gadget. First, Bond has enough experience dispatching orbital super-weapons, especially those built from diamonds, to know something’s up. Second, I find it a bit unlikely that one tiny satellite could reflect enough light to illuminate more than about a millionth of the Earth at a time, considering that the whole damn moon does a crappy job of it. Third, I highly doubt you’re going to be able to throw a lavish gala for idle rich Euro-trash and get much support for a project designed to bring about global warming.

There's a reason why the British don't go to their dentists very often.

In any event, Jinx suspects that something’s up, so after Graves finishes his 45-second demonstration that he flew everyone to Iceland to observe, she goes sneaking around in an inconspicuous red leather jumpsuit. She infiltrates Graves’ big greenhouse dome thing by climbing to the top of it and lowering herself down on a rope, gambling that none of the thugs guarding the dome ever look up or towards the center of the huge open room they’re in. But since they’re so diabolical, they somehow find her, and she’s to be executed by Graves’ henchman, Mr. Kil (Lawrence Makoare). There’s been a lot of milestones in film history--first talkie, first full-length cartoon, first movie in color--but I think first James Bond movie to have a villain named Mr. Kil is a singular honor that earns this film a place in any classics collection. But fortunately for Jinx, Bond also suspects that the man who recently tried to kill him in public with a broadsword might be looking to cause trouble. After fulfilling his contractual obligation by sleeping with Frost (Whew! He was at risk of being monogamous for the course of the movie there until now!), he awkwardly sneaks into the greenhouse with the help of his invisible car. But it’s kind of difficult to get a car into a greenhouse, so he has to go at it on foot. Damn that fatal design flaw in the stealth car! When he reaches Jinx, she’s tied down and about to be carved up by dancing laser beams, Goldfinger-style, but Bond starts rasslin’ with Kil as the lasers go spinning out of control. Bond and Kil keep punching and kicking each over as deadly lasers jump all over. It might have been a pretty tense scene if the lasers weren’t obviously edited into the movie to purposely avoid the two of them, and if Bond and Kil had made even the slightest effort to avoid them while beating the tar out of each other. In the end, Kil gets killed by a laser. Bet you didn’t see that one coming.

It was risky, but he had to try it. The extra life was within his grasp.

Bond confronts Graves and discovers that he’s actually Colonel Moon, who’s already undergone the DNA replacement and has taken over the identity of the real Gustav Graves. His whole scheme was to impersonate the billionaire capitalist and build a super-weapon that he could use to help North Korea conquer South Korea. Not to put down the country of South Korea, but aside from the Wachowski brothers and fans of cheap and crappy MMORPGs, I suspect Western viewers think that taking over South Korea is low on the totem pole of things a bad guy might do with a super-weapon. But still, Bond is of course determined to stop it. Unfortunately, when he fires on Graves, he finds his gun empty. Miranda Frost enters, and reveals herself to be not only a traitor, but THE traitor who sold out Bond and gave him 14 months in a North Korean prison (or 3 minutes listening to a Madonna song, whichever you think is worse).

But whaddaya know, Bond manages to escape with the help of his supersonic ring, which proves very useful when he’s about to be executed on a glass floor. He escapes in an ice dragster and is chased by a giant solar death ray across an ice shelf. Wow, that’s extreme! How could it get more extreme than that? Well how about the death ray (having failed to catch up to Bond because he drove faster than light) melts enough ice to create a tidal wave. But Bond’s an expert surfer, remember, and he’s learned from Jinx how to transform into a Playstation character, so he rides out the tidal wave on a board and a sail. Now THAT is extreme! That’s more extreme than even a Mountain Dew commercial. I could TOTALLY see Bond holding a Dew bottle in this scene and saying something extreme to the camera like, “I like my Dew shaken, not stirred… although I need to let it sit a bit afterwards because it gets fizzy.” Yeah. Extreme.

And a light shone down from Heaven, guiding the wise men as they journeyed in their luxury sedans to the Ice Manger.

Back at the hotel, the villains trap Jinx in her hotel room and aim the death ray at the ice palace, which (and I never would have thought the movie was heading in this direction) causes the ice fortress to start melting. Bond has to get back to rescue Jinx before she drowns. He heads back to his invisible car, but Zao spots him and gives chase in another “fully-loaded” car, as Q would have said. Yes, this is the movie that finally brings to life the great idea of having two Q-cars go at it. They fire missiles and counter-measures at each other, and fire machine guns, and… missiles. And that goes on for a little while. They drive their way through the melting ice hotel, but Bond uses his invisibility power to trick Zao into driving into a lake, where he finally gets impaled by a falling chandelier. It’s such an ironic death, because the movie had established early on that he absolutely loved chandeliers. And Bond says to him, “Who turned off the lights?” Or maybe that was just my growing schizophrenia talking.

Bond rescues Jinx from her now-submerged hotel room, taking her back to the greenhouse where he submerges her in a hot spring to avert hypothermia and performs CPR on her. She coughs and sputters her way back to life and quips, “What took you so long?” At which point Bond pulls out his Walther PPK and shoots her in the head.

"You sure this worked when they did it in the Strangelove movie?"

Yep, he definitely shoots her in the head there. That’s the end of the movie. There’s definitely no scene where Bond and Jinx are sent in alone to stop Graves in North Korea. He definitely wasn’t wearing some Starship Troopers power armor on a jumbo jet, having decided that the best way to make use of his death ray was to clear the mine fields in the DMZ and lead the way for conventional ground troops. Definitely didn’t happen. It’s kind of an ironic ending, but quite poignant. Bond, the raving sexaholic, had finally found someone who was incredibly gorgeous, but so teeth-grindingly obnoxious and spiteful that he was willing to end his life and career, and sacrifice world peace, to avert the many horrible one-liners that Jinx would have perpetrated. And for that, Bond deserves our thanks. And I, for one, welcome our new North Korean overlords.

"Control, this is Bond. I have target sighted. Cannot get a clear look, but I estimate there's a 30% chance it's Madonna." "Control to Bond, you are cleared to take the shot."

There are many things wrong with this movie, but I’d like to single out Halle Berry for a moment. She’s very pretty, but she’s also a horrendous actress. I’ve never seen Monster’s Ball, for which she won the Academy Award, but I’d rather watch a 96-hour marathon of Dragon Ball Z than endure another of her performances after watching her in this, X-Men 1-3, Swordfish, Catwoman, and Gothika. She’s not just bad at speaking her lines with any dramatic urgency or comic timing, but she’s absolutely contemptuous of the movies she’s in. Watching her wink and smirk her way through this role, determined to show that she was in on the joke, rather than attempt to play it somewhat straight, was revolting. When she’s not the center of attention in a movie, she sulks and phones in her part (like in X-Men), and when she’s actually the star, she gives a horrible performance. If Hollywood just wants an attractive and talented black leading lady, I know of plenty who are vastly better at what they do than Halle Berry.

"Now, who's ready for some Rollerball?"

Not to say that she’s the only one to blame. I don’t know what happened to Lee Tamahori, who once upon a time directed the wilderness survival movie The Edge, from a script by David Mamet, that pit Anthony Hopkins against a Kodiak bear. How he went from that fine film to ice palaces, orbital death rays, DNA-swapping, an inexplicable cameo by Michael Madsen of all people, and flame thrower-equipped rubber hovercraft that blow up bunkers by crashing into them I’ll never know. But if this was the movie that killed his career, we at least have the satisfaction that his career found its just reward and went straight to Hell: his movie after this was XXX: State of the Union, a film that needed all of its computer-rendered effects to make you believe that yes, indeed, Ice Cube could jump.

"Are you sure you want this?" "Yes. No matter how much I scream, I need you to remove every inch of skin that Billy Bob Thornton touched."

This movie also had the conceit, since it was released on the fortieth anniversary of the first official Bond movie, Dr. No, and was also the twentieth Bond movie in the official series, of paying tribute to all of the previous films in some subtle way. Usually, this manifested itself in an action scene being lifted, such as parts of the hovercraft chase mirroring the boat chase from The World is Not Enough, or Zao’s death by chandelier mirroring 006’s death by satellite dish in GoldenEye. Then there was Halle Berry remaking the Ursula Andress bikini scene from Dr. No and the 10-minute golf match between Bond and Zao, ripped straight from Goldfinger (I’m pretty sure it was a deleted scene). Even though all the little references make the movie even less original and more disjointed, trying to catch all the little in-jokes at least gives a Bond fan something other to do than pay attention to the insipid story screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade were vomiting back in our faces, so I guess that’s a point in the film’s favor.

Fortunately, the Bond franchise redeemed itself with Casino Royale, as it (sort of) had with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and For Your Eyes Only in response to my last two reviewed films. That’s how the Bond movies work: they build themselves up to horrible, brain-dead, plot-free excess, then after hitting rock bottom, they come back with a serious and level-headed movie.

I decided that a shot of a vehicle and random non-explosive crap blowing up around it would be a fitting way to finish this review.

And then they piss it all away each time by making Diamonds are Forever, Octopussy, and Quantum of Solace. So much for that redemption thing. But enough Bond movies for now. Reviewing the same friggin’ movie three times in a row kind of wears on me.

The End of The Worst of Bond. James Bond will return in You Only Review the Worst of Bond Twice.

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