The scorecard for the 20th “official” James Bond adventure, “Die Another Day”:
LAST TIME WE LEFT 007: Bond (Pierce Brosnan) was in bed with improbable nuclear physicist Christmas Jones (the awful Denise Richards) and uttered a particularly ribald one-liner, which, along with a killer opening and a deliciously villainous turn by Sophie Marceau, was one of the very few memorable aspects of 1999’s otherwise messy and disappointing The World Is Not Enough.
THE GUNBARREL: Exactly as one has come to expect after 40 years, but with the added touch of a CGI bullet shooting straight to the camera–the first of director Lee Tamahori’s tweaks to the traditional 007 formula.
THE OPENING SEQUENCE: An exciting hovercraft chase over a minefield in North Korea leads directly into the film’s main plot, continuing the precedent set by World and setting the decidedly darker, grittier tone for this adventure.
THE MAIN TITLES: As in the last three films, we get Daniel Kleinman’s CGI-enhanced dancing girls in the old Maurice Binder tradition, but with a twist: for the first time, a title sequence actually serves the story, with said girls rather cleverly emerging from the still-progressing action. In screen context, Madonna’s techno-dance title tune strikes as even more un-Bond than it already is on its own, directly clashing with the happenings on screen. (Note to the producers: give reliable score composer David Arnold another crack at composing the opening theme.)
BOND: In his fourth outing, Brosnan has now completely made the character his own–which isn’t to say he’ll erase memories of Sean Connery, but his take feels just as right and iconic. He’s a bit more energized this time out, no doubt due to the meaner, meatier shadings he gets to work with; he again has to stop the usual larger-than-life baddies, but he has to do so as a renegade after some rather dramatic turns of events in the first act.
THE VILLAINS: Megalomaniacal (of course) Richard Branson-esque zillionaire/thrillseeker Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) may not be as balls-out nutty as some of his predecessors, but writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade give him a more fully realized character arc than one would expect. His right-hand man Zao (Rick Yune) is a formidable physical challenge for Bond, not to mention a striking visual: thanks to an explosion and an interrupted cosmetic surgery procedure (both caused by Bond, of course), he is hairless and has diamonds embedded in his face.
THE WOMEN: CIA operative Jinx (Halle Berry) makes a striking, bikini-clad entrance from the ocean à la Ursula Andress’ Honey Rider in “Dr. No” (one of this 40th-anniversary film’s clever nods to past Bond films), and while she then disappears from the film for long stretches, Berry and the character ultimately live up to the stunning introduction. A fun, foxy foil, Jinx is in many ways the distaff Bond: same sense of style, same cavalier attitude toward sex, same propensity for the suggestive one-liner–although slightly more vicious in the fight. Berry obviously has a ball, and the proposed spin-off series for the character has some promise. Newcomer Rosamund Pike holds her own with the more seasoned cast members as the aptly named woman of mystery/fencing expert Miranda Frost. (Purvis and Wade deserve tons of extra kudos for making Miranda a shady publicist–which, if you ask me, is a stroke of genius.) However, Madonna’s extended cameo as bondage gear-wearing fencing instructor Verity is very much in line with her sore-thumb theme song–the less said, the better.
THE SUPPORTING CAST: Judi Dench’s M retreats to the background after an expanded post-Oscar role in World, but she reliably exudes her trademark regal authority. As the new Q, John Cleese is hilarious, further developing the antagonistic relationship he established with Bond when he was his predecessor’s assistant in World. Samantha Bond’s Moneypenny has a little more to do this time out and gets one of the film’s best jokes in the process. Time will tell, though, if series newcomer Michael Madsen, playing nondescript CIA head Falco, will have his character develop into someone more interesting in future films.
THE ACTION: The three-year layoff between films seems to have done wonders for the crew’s creativity. The set pieces are far more spectacular and creative than we’ve seen in the Brosnan era or perhaps even the entire franchise itself; the jaw-dropping car chase on ice is a cinch to go down as one of Bond’s best-ever moments, and even more grounded sequences such as a swordfight between Bond and Graves are also rather exciting. Most impressive, however, is how all of the action appears to grow organically out of the plot–even the more preposterous bits, like one extended surfing scene. The CGI effects aren’t always convincing (especially in that surfing scene), but in the over-the-top world that is 007’s, the odd cheesy visual feels somehow right.
OVERALL: Brosnan’s best mission as Bond yet, and the most satisfying installment of the franchise in recent memory.