August 17, 2011

#5byBond: Die Another Day

We’re following along with John Gruber and Dan Benjamin of The Talk Show. This week’s Bond film, Die Another Day, is the twentieth in the long-running franchise. It stars Pierce Brosnan in his final outing as the British secret agent. (Ever notice that the villains always know exactly who he is? Not much of a secret.)

We’ll see John Cleese take over the role of Q following the death of Desmond Llewelyn, while Judi Dench will return as M. This week’s villain is Gustav Graves, played by Toby Stephens. Madonna sings the title theme and makes a brief appearance in the film.

There was a six-year break in the making of Bond films after this one, due to protracted wrangling over the rights. Brosnan, with an eye toward how an aging Roger Moore was received by filmgoers, ultimatley decided to leave the role, paving the way for a re-boot of the Bond story line in the next film.

This is the last run for Samantha Bond as Moneypenny, in fact, it’s the end of the line for that character.

My notes:

  • They’ve boogered-up the gun-barrel sequence with a funky drum track laid over the Bond theme. Not only does it not sound good, it’s just wrong.
  • A surfing Bond and his commando team come ashore in North Korea. Shades of Roger Moor’s endless skiing. That aside, the stuntmen appear to surf through some incredible waves. The scene is largely computer generated, but it looks great.
  • Good opening action sequence. Bond blows up a shipment of conflict diamonds, and manages to kill the rogue Colonel Moon who is trading weapons for them. I dig the sporty hovercraft festooned with machine guns.
  • Michael Madsen is a Felix Leter-type G-man? Awesome!
  • Bond is removed from 00-status by M after being sprung from North Korea. First time that plot device has been used in the Bond movies. But then he wills himself into a heart attack to escape the infirmary? That’s a bit much, even for Bond.
  • Huh, Bond makes contact with the Chinese, and now he’s working for their intelligence agency. Interesting twist.
  • “Raul,” Bond’s contact in Havana, looks a lot like Fidel with a cigar. Is supposed to be Raul Castro?
  • Bond picks up a sweet old ride from his contact, a fifties Ford Fairlane. I’d like to take a ride in a classic like that.
  • Halle Berry, secret agent. Who’s she working for, CIA?
  • Madonna plays a fencing coach, and she performed the opening theme song for this movie. I’ve never been fond of her acting, though. She’s got about two minutes of screen time, tops. Perfect.
  • The fencing match between Bond and Graves is over the top. Just too much of a stretch, like Bond’s mock heart attack. They bounce around an old fencing club, wrecking scenery and drawing blood. Since when is Bond a master swordsman (heh)?
  • Bond is invited to meet with M in an abandoned Tube station. Very Le Carre. Well scripted.
  • Bond meets with Q for a virtual reality training session. He’s apparently back on the job after his meeting with M. (We learn Q is short for Quartermaster, but Q was called “Armourer” in the Fleming novels. Armourer sounds better. Q is just Q, no reason needed.)
  • Bond asks if an old jet pack still works … that jet pack was used by Sean Connery in Thunderball back in 1965. Its use was one of the first super-agent acts by the younger Bond character.
  • Also in Bonds’ hand, Elsa Kleb’s dagger-bearing shoe. He sniffs it and winces. Yummo.
  • Damn, there’s the mini-jet airplane that Roger Moore used in the opening action scene of A View to a Kill, and the fake crocodile sub from Octopussy. Several other props from earlier Bond films are tucked away in Q’s lab.
  • Oh, man, that is a beautiful car: the Aston Martin Vanquish. And Q makes it invisible.
  • A nice twist: Gustav Graves’ assistant, Miranda, is an MI6 agent.
  • The greeter at Graves’ Iceland to-do is Mr. Kidd, reminiscent of Mr. Kidd, the assassin from Diamond are Forever.
  • Halle Berry is back. Still no sign of who she’s working for, but she’s an American.
  • Oh, another great twist. Graves is really a transformed Colonel Moon, from North Korea. We thought he was dead. The Cuban clinic treatment has fully changed his appearance, but left him an insomniac.
  • And Miranda becomes the next Bond Girl.
  • The laser almost cutting Halle Berry into pieces is straight out of Goldfinger. “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”
  • Halle Berry works for the NSA. Re-fucking-diculous. Why do writers insist on putting NSA operators into assassin roles? Repeat after me: crypto. NSA is all about cryptology and cryptography. Codes, not killing.
  • Oh, man, another twist. Miranda is a double agent for the North Korean Colonel Moon. That’s a double-twist for Miranda.
  • If the Icarus weapon can lock onto a heat signature to target something, wouldn’t it be blinded by its own beam?
  • The film has been pretty good up to now, but Bond para-surfing out of danger takes it off the rails, as usual. And the CGI nature of his para-surfing is as obvious as actors “driving” a car in front of moving background scenery. It breaks the illusion of the super-agent action sequence.
  • Mr. Diamondface is driving a Jaguar convertible, with a Gatling gun mounted in back. Awesome. I need one for my commute. Where did Mr. Diamonface get a Bond car?! Yeah, this movie’s completely off the rails, headed into a gully. Ah, well. Good while it lasted.
  • Bond infiltrates North Korea after everyone figures out that the Icarus weapon will be used to neutralize Korean DMZ land mines.
  • Halle Berry battles Maranda. It’s a battle of tank top vs. halter top! With swords!
  • How long does the Antonov cargo jet fly as it comes apart? For-freaking-ever.
  • In this film and the last, MI6 HQ is shown to be at Vauxhall Cross, the location of the real British external spy agency. Even that underground Tube station Bond visited carried VC signage.
  • Damn, Moneypenny kisses Bond. How long has this been coming? Since 1963? Oops, it’s just virtual reality.

Brosnan looked a little old in this one, so his sense of timing for exiting the role was true. He’s been an enjoyable Bond over four films, and although the final three were not well-received by critics (and some fans) I found them worth re-watching.

This is the Bond film I least remembered from years past. Everyone remembers the Connery and Moore films, but these last six starring Dalton and Brosnan were made after I had lost interest in Bond. No doubt my ambivalence was due to the poor filmmaking and buffoonish characters in the last four or five of Moor’e Bond films. By the time Die Another  Day was released my response was, “ugh.”

So I was mildly surprised at how long this film went before heading off the rails. It contained three good plot twists and a good bit of hard-bitten Bond characterization by Brosnan. He drove a couple of beautiful cars in the story and met a couple of very pretty women. And the villain, while cartoonish, was believable. All-in-all this was an enjoyable film for a Saturday afternoon.

I was mildly disappointed with how the writers used the otherwise terrific Michael Madsen. Not only did they stupidly insert the National Security Agency into the plot, rather than the more correct-for-the-plot CIA, they made Madsen’s character a blowhard. Too bad.

There were a number of neat throwbacks to Bond films of the past. From the jet pack to Kleb’s shoe to the industrial cutting laser, each was a nod to the franchise that had grown out of Fleming’s books. Fitting that this will be the final installment before the Bond film franchise is re-booted.

CGI effects were a bit over-used throughout the film, especially for the super fast-motion camera dollies. There were a couple of super slow-motion pans, no doubt inspired by the Bullet Time effect from The Matrix, but they didn’t look nearly as smooth as that film’s effect. Bullet Time only works by stitching together images captured by dozens of high-speed cameras, which were obviously lacking in this film.

This film marks the end of the long-running story line of James Bond, at least as far as his film incarnation is concerned. The next two, and the one to be released in 2012, feature not only a new Bond but also a re-imagining of the character. The writing and direction take the spy back to someone more closely resembling Ian Fleming’s hero, while firmly planting him in the modern day.

I was no more interested in seeing Casino Royale when it was released than I had been in seeing Die Another Day, but I had occasion to watch it with a friend while visiting his home. I’ll make no secret of the fact that I was floored by the production and Daniel Craig’s Bond. So get excited, because the next Bond may be the best yet.

Up next, Daniel Craig becomes James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale. It’s number twenty-one for the franchise, number one of the re-booted storyline, and the first for that very good actor. (He’s in theaters now with his Western Space Oddity, Cowboys and Aliens.)