Die Another Day

Critics have hailed Die Another Day as a return to what makes James Bond great, and a sign that the franchise hasn’t lost steam in its fortieth year. I’ll go so far as to say it passed the time nicely. Pierce Brosnan is as suave and unflappable a Bond as you could want, but the 007 movies of late — particularly Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough — have lacked something important: a sense of their own absurdity. Die Another Day largely dispenses with all the geopolitical mumbo-jumbo and whittles matters down to a revenge plot and a big laser gun. It’s the first Bond film in a long time that doesn’t seem drenched in flop sweat. It’s a solid if unsurprising piece of work, a perfectly respectable spy blockbuster.

Brosnan gets to show anger, pain, and sexual avidity here in a way he hasn’t before as Bond. He’s after a spy who sold him out in North Korea, leading to his fourteen-month capture and torture at Korean hands. (Do the math on that: it’s been fourteen months since 9/11, and after Bond is rescued and brought back to headquarters, Judi Dench’s M says “The world has changed since you’ve been gone.” “Not for me,” retorts Bond, letting us know that at least one thing — the 007 series — will remain a comforting constant.) Bond is stripped of his double-oh status, but he goes rogue in search of that unknown, backstabbing spy. It’s not just “007, you have to do this and stop that before the bad guys take over the world blah blah yawn” — although he also has to do that. The mission this time feels more like a personal score-settling, with the obsessiveness of a Sicilian vendetta.

Said obsessiveness probably comes courtesy of this ride’s conductor, Lee Tamahori, who made the scorching Once Were Warriors all those years ago and then fell into Hollywood stupor (Mulholland Falls, Along Came a Spider). I still think he’s wasting his talent on formulaic thrillgasms, but it’s clear that whatever’s been wrong with his recent films hasn’t been directorial weakness. Tamahori keeps things chugging along, pausing when necessary for eroticism or the obligatory tour through Q’s gadget room (John Cleese, though saddled with some awful one-liners, steps into Desmond Llewelyn’s shoes smoothly). He also stages a fantastic gnashing sword fight between Bond and stinky Brit foe Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens, who overdoes the sneering Britishness for reasons the plot eventually clarifies).

Women? Well, Bond has something of a match in Jinx, played by Halle Berry with self-aware pulchritude and an infectious happiness at getting to be a Bond girl. As the first Oscar winner to snuggle into Bond’s pecs, Berry sure isn’t there as a career move — she’s there because she wants to have fun, and it shows. Another Bond conquest, Miranda (Rosamund Pike), is blank-faced and forgettable, and as if it weren’t bad enough that Madonna inflicts the most heinous theme song on 007 fans since Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill,” she also appears as Verity, a fencing instructor. She trades a few lines with Brosnan, who — proving himself a gentleman of unimaginable proportions — does not laugh in Madonna’s face.

There’s large-scale ridiculousness involving the aforementioned laser gun, and a skidding car chase through the fragile interiors of a lair made out of ice, and a helicopter whose rotors kick in just in time …. Die Another Day has a clear and uncomplicated throughline, and room enough for the heroes to be witty and the villains to be nasty. I’m still not a Bond worshipper, but the latest product off the Broccoli assembly line at least doesn’t stall halfway through. Unlike the last couple of entries, this one feels as though it was made by people who couldn’t wait to go to work every day — people, including Brosnan, who wanted to find new things in Bond while harking back to the films that made them want to do Bond in the first place. Die Another Day is both skillful and playful, and that’s about as high a compliment as I can give a 007 film.

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