Sunday, November 13, 2011

Definitive Bond Marathon: Die Another Day (2002)

 (directed by Lee Tamahori)
007 (Pierce Brosnan) had fallen into the clutches of enemies of the state before, yet being equipped with the quartermaster’s special tools and his own legendary quick wits provided for miraculous escapes. This time would be different however. M orders were for 007 to infiltrate North Korean Colonel Moon’s (Will Yun Lee) personal base situated along the DMZ zone have put an end to his diamonds for weapons business. Circumstances led Bond to engage Colonel Moon in a terrific hovercraft chase, which itself ended with Bond being captured by the North Korean military and the colonel supposedly dead. Our agent remained incarcerated for 14 months...until, to M’s great reluctance, Britain decided to make a trade with the North Koreans: James Bond 007 for Zao (Rick Yune), colonel’s Moon right hand man who had fallen into our hands.

Unsatisfied with his fate, Bond opted to go against official regulation and hunt down Zao to finish off the job he had been tasked with over a year ago. The renegade military man was now in Cuba for a very mysterious reason: plastic surgery. Just prior to coming face to face with his old nemesis Bond came to notice a CIA agent who was also hot on Zao’s trails, Jinx (Halle Berry).  Even together they failed liquidate Zao, but opportunity for them to form a partnership would come knocking again as both were sent to Iceland to attend a grand spectacle of technology hosted by one of Britain’s most tireless entrepreneur, Gustav Graves (Tobey Stevens). His crack team of scientists had created a super satellite which fed off the power of the sun, and he was about to make a glorious demonstration of its power. Something about Graves did not sit well with Bond however...

2002 was the 40th anniversary of the James Bond film franchise. Indeed, Dr. No had had been released exactly four decades prior, and to the delight of fans of the franchise around the globe, it was decided that 2002 would be a celebratory year. Anniversary books were published, the original scores to every film were given re-mastering treatment, and of course a new Bond film was to be released. The producers make some very deliberate choices in the pre-production and production of the latest 007 adventure, Die Another Day. The new film would have to pay tribute to Bond’s past stories as well as become cutting edge and as up to date as possible. The single most important thing was to make the movie big. They made the movie big alright, and in more ways than one.

I rarely get as passionate about a Bond film as I do whenever the issue of Die Another Day is of the order. As much as I would love to have it otherwise, that passion emanates from a compounding frustration whenever watching Lee Tamahori’s version of this favourite film universe of mine. True enough, the current marathon has proven a fertile field to explain my bitter disappointment with entries the likes of DAF and AVTAK, yet in hindsight those two seem comparatively easy to thrash. They are terrible from start to finish. DAD is far more annoying and sly in how its awfulness creeps up on the viewer. In a nutshell, the main criticism aimed at DAD is that is comprises of two films in one. The first, while far from perfect, is genuinely good. The second is some of the worst material the franchise has ever asked its fans and general movie goers to swallow and digest.

The section of DAD that earns some well deserved points is its first half. Quite honestly, it tries some rather bold things, especially for a Bond film. The North Korean setting is compelling for how unapologetic it is with regards to real world politics (much like how the original Fleming novels were as they very bluntly pointed out that, in the world of 007, the Russians were simply the bad guys), as well as for the cinematography exercised. That cold blue palette exudes a great sense of atmosphere, as Bond is pretty much alone in a land of enemies, not to mention that the location is a cold military compound. Perhaps the lone sour spot is the hovercraft chase between Bond and Colonel Moon. It came to no surprise when the supplemental material on the disc revealed something I had suspected all along: those crafts are not moving as fast as the editing wants to the viewer to believe, which feels a bit cheep to me. That being said, what follows is terrific: James Bond 007 is captured by the North Korean military and imprisoned for a period of 14 months. 14 months! This is James Bond! That adds a lot of weight to the story and to the legendary quality of the character, who is up and running after Zao barely a day or so after being released in an exchange program set up by his MI6 superiors (a nice touch on the part of the filmmakers to show the torture scenes during the title sequence, thus helping us not pay attention to Madonna’s ridiculous theme song). Brosnan is pretty good during this stretch, despite some weak one liners (‘saved by the bell’=lame) and the Cuban setting, even though it wasn’t actually filmed in Cuba, is a lot of fun. 007 going on his own for personal redemption, similar but not identical to what happens in LTK. The first hour or so of this film, generally, does the franchise justice. There is some intrigue about the whole plastic surgery aspect of the plot, 007 going semi-rogue makes the proceedings interesting as well, and the locations are superb. There is enough materiel for a fan such as myself to want to know where the story is headed.

But as is so often the case with this series, when a story could potentially remain small and more tightly focused on Bond as an agent the trials and tribulations he faces, that is not the direction the filmmakers wish to take. Nay, the film’s scale must shoot through the roof. This is the twentieth film after all! Make it loud! Make it huge!

Oh brother, do they ever make it loud and huge...

From the moment Bond meets up with M in the secret London underground location, things speed in one direction and one direction only: down, way down. It’s all so strange how the two halves of this movie are so vastly different. This second half is so ridiculously over the top it really becomes difficult to accept, not merely as a James Bond movie, but even as part of the same movie. The eye-rolling moments start in the second half, when Q, now played far too intentionally like a clown by John Cleese, demonstrates how Bond’s new Aston Martin can reflect light in such a way bla, bla, bla so as to become invisible. Right at this moment, at least in my opinion, it becomes clear that the rest of the movie is most likely going to be a big joke. Interestingly, Bond re-uses one the most famous lines from all 007/Q verbal jests: ‘You must be joking.’ It's just a shame it had to be used for a scene such as this one.

Our protagonist is then sent to Iceland to investigate Gustav Graves’ business operations regarding this brand new satellite of his. Before going any further, a moment should be taken to enlighten the 00-uninitiated. To fully capture the spirit of the 40th anniversary celebrations, the producers and writers and director thought it clever to include various nods to the character’s past within this single film. While a cute idea on paper, some of them prove to be less than effective, some downright ridiculous, especially when they choose the worst things to pay homage to, namely, the overall plot to DAF, one of the worst entries in the entire series. Laser satellite made of diamonds and a villain who has changed his appearance thanks to plastic surgery, anyone? That’s right, Gustav Graves is supposed to be our friend enemy colonel Moon, only now Caucasian and speaking in a perfect British accent. How he covers up his past to be accepted as one of Britain’s major entrepreneurs in a matter of a single year doesn’t seem to concern the screenwriters much, the point is that they are doing a call-back to DAF. Fan service is, in absolute zero circumstances, a necessary tool for storytelling. It can be fun, I shall admit that much, but when it is making your story worse, that’s not a good sign. To top that off, Tobey Stevens, in the role of Graves, smudges his performance with nothing but sneer, which becomes very, very grating after a while. The abrasive cockiness he displays is more annoying than it is genuinely threatening.

So back to this ‘plot’, Bond meets up with Jinx in Iceland, the latter whom is pretending to be a journalist. Now, Jinx is not the most impressive Bond girl the series has created, but she was at least serviceable during the Cuba sequence. Maybe a few too many lines that aimed for sass and nothing else, but serviceable. Much like the rest of this movie, Jinx is absolutely atrocious from Iceland onwards. A ‘Yo momma!’ reply when being interrogated, seriously? A ‘Bitch!!!’ cry when defeating the MI6 traitor Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike)? Screenwriters, now you really must be joking. Except that they aren’t. Ugh.

In all sincerity, the mistakes committed by...I guess just about everybody, could be partially forgiven were the action scenes of high calibre. I mean, if a Bond film’s script is going to be trash, at least get the action right. You know, like paying homage to Moonraker. Apparently that wasn’t a good idea, but rather than pay homage by doing things for real (with stunt people, that is) they actually decide to go state of the art, in line with what so many other films had been doing for a few years already at that point in 2002: CGI. I have made the case many times before, both at Between the Seats and on the Filmspotting message boards, that I support CGI and understand its usefulness. Bond films, on the other hand, are not where you want to use it, at least not abundantly (Quantum of Solace has a bit, but uses it well). The ‘doing for real’ aspect of the series is one the producers and virtually everyone involved had proclaimed with great pride for years already. Why the sudden urge to go CG so intensely and in so many scenes is confounding. The results are ridiculous, with Bond being chased by a laser as ‘powerful as the sun’ on an ice lake, a finale involving a CG plane being torn to shreds by the same laser, and, by leaps and bounds the most egregious decision, Bond using a broken metal plate from a speed vehicle and a parachute to windsurf and jump from iceberg to iceberg as a tidal wave fast approaches from behind.  If you think that last part sounds stupid just by reading it, rent the movie and watch it. You ain’t seen nothing yet, brother.

I forgot one thing: speed ramping. That never needs to appear again in a Bond film. Never. Period.
DAD is a film that aggravates me to no end. The fact that is starts strongly, only to end with its tail wagging shamefully between its legs, is infuriating. Even the simple task of grading it poses headaches. What to do with a film that offers an entertaining first hour but lazy writing, poor acting and stupid action during its second? I don’t think I ever had to actually grade this movie, so I’m honestly wondering what to do as I type this conclusion. I forgot one thing: speed ramping.
Bad finish (F) trumps good start (B).


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