Saturday, September 28, 2013

Die Another Day (2002)

This is a re-working of a piece I wrote for The Agony Booth last year.

Last year marked the tenth anniversary of two spy thrillers, both of which are incredibly silly, way too over the top for their own good, and pathologically obsessed with what’s been done before.

The first is the Vin Diesel flick xXx. Made in a blatant attempt to show up the Bond films, it featured Vinnie as Xander Cage, an extreme sports enthusiast with his own web show who gets roped into the secret agent game by Samuel L. Jackson. The film was fairly pathetic in how it conducted itself, opening with a secret agent clearly intended to be Bond getting killed after trying to blend in at a punk nightclub while dressed in a full tuxedo.

The rest of the movie was pretty much the same crap we’ve seen before in every other action movie from the early '00s, only with an unlikable jerk-ass of a hero, and a lame "we're cool and everyone else sucks!" attitude that’s truly off-putting. It’s funny; the other big spy franchises like Mission Impossible and the Bourne films have never felt the need to take down what came before.

Making the movie look even worse is how much better our feature today is. Die Another Day is exactly what I described above: silly, over the top, and obsessed with the past. The main difference is in this case, it works to the film’s benefit... More or less. To be fair, you can argue that it does some of the same things wrong that xXx does, and I readily admit that the fact this out-grossed xXx is more a reflection on how bad the Vin Diesel movie is than how good this one is.

Die Another Day is pretty much the Moonraker of its time, which is both good and bad, as we will see.

The film came out in time for the 40th anniversary of the series, so the film is chock full of references to the previous 19 movies that came before it. For the most part, they’re incorporated into the movie pretty well, but as with all things, perfection is unattainable.

We get tons of action, lots of good looking women, plenty of explosions, your prerequisite cheesy humor (actually, the entire film is quite cheesy), and most importantly, the great unanswered philosophical question of our era: If an invisible car is involved in a crash, will the insurance company cover it?

Let’s take a closer look.
  •  First off, as I noted, this film is cheesy.  Really cheesy in parts, as can be seen with the CGI bullet rocketing towards us in the gunbarrel sequence.  This is a small taste though as most of the cheese comes in the second half.  I've come to the conclusion that this film is really a culmination of everything that the nineteen previous movies had been going for.  The film is a mix of the mildly serious but still fun tone you got in the first six films, the two Timothy Dalton entries and a few of Roger Moore's outings, the deliriously cheesy stuff the rest of  Moore's output provided and all mixed in with the "everything but the kitchen sink" approach Pierce Brosnan's films seemed to go for.  It works, more or less.
  • I love the opening scene with the surfers coming out of the waves.  It's just bombastically over the top (thanks in no small part to David Arnold's score) and, like the rest of the pre-title sequence, does a fair job of getting you in the mood for a really good Bond movie.
  • I get a chuckle out of Bond casually taking the sunglasses of the diamond smuggler he's impersonating.  Pierce was always good at the little Bondian touches like this.
  • Equally amusing is the first scene for Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) who will be our villain for the day*.  Not often you get a villain intro that has the man beating the hell out of his anger management therapist who he has stuffed into a punching bag.  At least not since Cannon Pictures went out of business.
*Sure the guy takes a header off a waterfall about twelve minutes in but for anyone who has seen the film,  you know where I'm coming from with this.
  • While the opening action sequence is fun, director Lee Tamahori and his crew do make a few missteps,  First off, the sequence is shot with desaturated tones to give the sense that this is happening before the main action of the film.  This would be fine if not for the fact that right after the main titles, the first thing we see more or less is a big title caption telling us fourteen months have passed.  The sound mix is also off as the music is nearly drowned out entirely by the sound effects.  Call me crazy, but when the James Bond Theme kicks in as Bond is starting to win, I like to hear the damn thing!  Still, the hovercrafts were pretty neat.
  • I also like the notion of Bond being held captive for over a year which might be the biggest suspension of disbelief the viewer has been asked to make in the entire series.  And that includes Denise Richards as an atomic scientist.
  • Rick Yune is pretty good as Zao, our primary henchman though to be honest, aside from the diamonds that end up stuck in his face, he's a little dull.
  • The Madonna song for the movie is not entirely terrible.  In fact, compared to having hot wax poured on one's groin it's rather good.
  • Sort of fun to have Bond go for about eight minutes sorting the Robinson Crusoe look.  Might have been amusing to have him go through the whole film looking like that.
  • Okay, I'm probably the only one who would laugh but still!
  • Kenneth Tsang is pretty good as Moon's father (yet another in the long line of Generals in Bond films).  The role is surprisingly deep for such a relatively small part (there are father and son issues between the two Moons) and in a better movie this subplot would be actually sort of touching.
  • I enjoy General Moon getting irritated when Boind smarts off to him.  I can sort of relate to that in a way.  Fourteen straight months of Pierce Brosnan being a smartass would get on my nerves as well.
  • The Bond/Zao transfer scene is one I like to think of as "shallow suspense" as it would take a dangerously stupid fool to believe that the film would kill off 007 twenty minutes in.  Not helping matters is the really bad exchange between Bond and Zao.  The thing reads like it was written by the most unimaginative eight year old on the planet.
  • Actually, the dialogue is a problem throughout the movie as most of it is tired, lame puns and sort of bland exposition.  
  • No idea why they wasted money on Michael Madsen if they weren't going to do anything with him.  It would be fine if he turned out to be the guy who set Bond up (more on that later) but no, he just has a few scenes where he has that constipated look on his face Madsen uses to express disdain.
  • Evidently, Bond's liver is in such bad shape that it serves as a reliable means of identification.  Sort of logical when you stop and think about it.
  • Bond gets sent to Havana and it is here we meet Jinx (Halle Berry), our Bond Girl.  Jinx is not the best of the Bond Girls, really.  She's supposed to be another equal to 007 but considering she gets captured more than Bond does, I'd have to say she's not quite there.  If nothing else, she makes one wonder how good NSA training really is.
  • Berry is okay in her first scene though, which has a nice reference to Dr. No and Ursula Andress' entrance.  There is a bit of unintentional comedy though as Berry sashays towards Bond in such an over the top manner it's a wonder the poor woman didn't blow both her hips out.
  • The gene therapy clinic is probably the most ridiculous element of the film.  We find out that Moon has undergone extensive D NA replacement therapy to get a new face.  A fact we learn after Bond interrupts Zao in the middle of his treatment which ends up making him look suitably creepy.  Doesn't make him interesting but hell!
  • The action at the clinic isn't too bad, though the highlight for me Berry running out after Zao as he escapes.  She just stalks out in sort of a T-1000 way that makes me smile.  It's like Halle Berry prepped for her role as an action hero by just watching old action movies.  Granted, I feel that's a perfectly valid acting technique but the woman has a goddamn Oscar!
  • I like the use of "London Calling" by The Clash as Bond re-enters the UK.  It also segues nicely to Toby Stephens as Gustav Graves.  The reveal that he is really Moon is rather obvious seeing as A: it makes sense and B: Moon's theme plays as Graves parachutes down to be interviewed by a flock of Great Britain's finest journalists.  I get the feeling these were legit tabloid writers.  There's just a certain sleaziness that even the best actor would be hard pressed to duplicate.
  • Plus, the man looks dour while parachuting, how can he not be evil!  Not helping matters either is the reveal that he is set to be knighted...after apparently being a big shot for at least a year (no idea how long the therapy takes but it can't be a quick thing).
  • We also meet Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), Graves' assistant (also an MI6 agent and the one who set Bond up)  who is, appropriately enough, a bit of an ice queen.  Her reveal as a villain doesn't really work either as there is nothing in her demeanor that indicates she and Bond will be knocking boots as the end credits roll.  Actually, given how over the top the film is, it might have been funny to have Bond get both girls at the end but I digress.
  • The best part of the film comes with Bond and Graves meeting and having a confrontation which leads to a very nice sword fight.  It's well shot, acceptably acted and there is no bad CGI or needless slow motion to louse things up.  Oh, if only it would last.
  • Interestingly enough, the first half of the film is a pretty decent, if quite loose adaptation of the novel Moonraker.  In both, Bond investigates a popular public figure who turns out to be a psycho with an unpleasant background.  The latter half of the film will prove to be more in line with the film version of Moonraker, though not as charmingly daft.
  • John Cleese is okay as the new Q, though I'd be hard-pressed to call him truly fun here.
  • The big knock on the film is the invisible car but to be honest, I sort of dig it for how silly it is.  Hell, like I said, the second half of the film is essentially a less charming version of Moonraker.  I'm sure if that film could have found a way to pout Roger Moore in an invisible car being chased by bad guys, they damn well would have!
  • The intro to Graves' ice palace in Iceland is pretty cool with a great rendition of the James Bond Theme.  Sadly, the nice scenic shots are shot to hell by some sped up footage courtesy of editor Christian Wagner.  I truly hate the choppy editing that comes up in films from this period and here it is just obnoxious.
  • The second half of the film comes off as very flat and predictable.  You can almost set your watch to the story beats.  Bad puns, Graves more or less flat-out telling Bond he;s up to something, the inevitable reveals of the bad guys, the captures and escapes, it's just sort of rote.  Hell, it's not like the first half is really innovative but when stacked up against the second half it's downright unique!
  • For all the script issues the film has, I do get a kick out of the exchange between Frost and Jinx.  Pike does haughty and upper class quite well.
  • It's corny, it's cheesy but damn it all, I love that in 2002 a James Bond villain has an orbiting death ray (ostensibly meant to provide artificial sunlight which doesn't really seem like a practical idea) not to mention later on, a rather silly looking battle suit with a bargain basement Nintendo Power Glove to operate said death ray.
  • Zao and Mr. Kil (oh yes, the film does go for the obvious pun when he meets Bond) menacing Jinx with a diamond cutting laser leads to a rather good fight with Bond and Kil.
  • Graves expositing to Bond is okay, though I really only get a kick out of how delighted he is that Bond guessed his true identity.  I am too, if the greatest secret agent can't put together an easy mystery like that, it's a real bad sign.
  •  After the non-surprise reveals, Bond has a rather nice escape scene by way of Graves' rocket sled.  He has to avoid the death ray and apart from the really bad CGI, it's a decent sequence.  If you can't make Bond escaping a huge wave caused by a death ray slicing into a glacier look great, do something else.
  • The showdown between Bond and Zao is good though, a nice bit of car action and a messy end for Zao.
  • The stuff on the plane is somewhat flaccid as Bond and Jinx hop onboard Graves' huge plane and have to stop him from precipitating WWIII.  There are some good bits: Graves/Moon killing his father, the nearly see-through sports bra Frost wears while fighting Jinx, the goofy great Graves has on for the last fight and his death scene, but it just doesn't click as well as it should.
  • The film ends with the usual stuff and after four films, Pierce Brosnan's tenure as Bond comes to an end.  He was actually quite good, sort of a blend of everything the other actors brought to the role.
Die Another Day is a flawed, watchable piece of silliness that fails more than it works but not enough to warrant a bad review from me.  Tamahori was the wrong choice for director, the casting doesn't quite gel and the editing is bad but there is still a strong element of fun to the film that makes me enjoy it.  Of course, it could just be the bikini Berry is wearing in her first scene and the sports bra Pike has on in her last but still!  On the flip side, while I like the film, I am more than happy with the reboot that started with 2006's Casino Royale.

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About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.