WFTB Score: 5/20
The plot: Bond’s mission to halt the flow of conflict diamonds to North Korea is compromised, and when he is traded after 14 months he’s cut out of the loop at MI6, presumed to have given up secrets under torture. Determined to find the cause of his troubles, Bond first heads to Cuba where he hitches up with the mysterious Jinx; both follow the diamond trail to Iceland, where entrepreneur and swordsman Gustav Graves is about to unveil a machine with extraordinary power – and devastating potential.
It wasn’t until Ross married Rachel for the third time on Friends that I became aware of the phrase ‘Jumping the shark’. James Bond has undoubtedly had off-days prior to Die Another Day (most of them in Octopussy, I’d suggest), but the sheer accumulation of improbabilities to be found here was almost enough to stop 007’s heart beating permanently. More of that later.
The film opens in fairly regular fashion, Bond (Pierce Brosnan) passing himself off as an illicit diamond trader, hoping to trap capitalist-minded North Korean Colonel Moon (Rick Yune). However, Moon’s comrade Zao (Will Yun Lee) blows the spy’s cover, and while Moon is apparently killed during Bond’s escape attempt, Zao receiving a face full of diamonds for his troubles, Bond is captured and tortured, only spared death after more than a year of captivity by a trade-off for Zao. Bond returns to the west for further incarceration under M’s (Judi Dench) supervision, but in a piece of heart-stopping action he escapes and heads off to find Zao in Cuba. Whilst there, he discovers that beautiful American Jinx (Halle Berry) is also looking for clues. A signature on discarded diamonds leads Bond to Iceland and Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), an expert swordsman and adventurer who made his millions from a diamond mine in the frozen country and ploughed the money into funding Icarus, a satellite that provides sunlight but can whose rays are capable of much more focused and destructive energy. Graves is being shadowed by lovely MI6 agent Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), no mean fencer herself; but when Bond charms her into bed, who is taking advantage of whom?
If I were to restate my complaints about the Bond formula this review would go on forever, so I will just say that yes, there are exciting stunts and vehicles; no, not one bullet ever hits Bond; and yes, the one liners are as shocking as they always have been. James actually does quite a lot of walking around slowly in the first half of the film, perhaps a concession to Brosnan’s advancing years, but in general he carries off the part smoothly, verging on lazily. Aside from Madonna’s silly cameo, I can’t complain about any of the other acting, the villains proving villainous (Stephens’ face was born to sneer) and the ladies more than gratuitous eye candy, able to wield weapons with aplomb. I even applaud the efforts of the writers to shake up the formula a little by showing 007 in extended captivity, by excluding him from the Secret Service, delaying his inevitable meeting with ‘Q’ (now the irascible John Cleese) and making Jinx a pseudo-sidekick. And although the story is a cut-and-shut of two different plots (and Graves’ true identity isn’t a mystery for nearly long enough), it is no better or worse than typical Bond fare; in a universe where Denise Richards can be a nuclear scientist, concerns about whether Iceland would happily let Graves plunder resources, or NASA blithely allow his satellite to get into space, are very much by the by.
Yet, for all its absurdity, the Bond universe has always been rooted in the category of unfeasible but just about doable; and it is in this respect that Die Another Day well and truly jumps the shark. Early on, Bond escapes from his hospital bed by making himself go into cardiac arrest, a skill presumably learnt during his captivity. I’m well aware of people being able to slow their heart rate, but to stop it completely? How do you get yourself going again? The fact that Lee Tamahori shoots this sequence in a slo-mo, montage style, which he repeats throughout the film, just adds to the annoyance. That’s not all: there’s the unlikely mating of Bond and Jinx after a minute of putrid dialogue that presumes to pun on bird-watching (a clumsy nod to the origin of Bond’s name); the silly Virtual Reality sequence that sees Tamahori ripping off The Matrix, though at least it gives Samantha Bond’s Moneypenny something to do; and the much-mocked sequence where Bond parasurfs (if that’s the term) away from a falling ice sheet, for which the CGI version of Bond and the green-screen superimpositions of Brosnan are equally poor. The idea has always been that if a stuntman can do it, 007 could do it, and using computers is just cheating.
Also cheating is Q’s invisible Aston Martin, surely one of the most misguided gadgets in Bond’s entire inventory. Even if the technology is theoretically possible, it’s inconceivable that it would look like it does in this film; and it still sounds like a petrol-driven car, except when the film-makers want us to forget it has an engine. It’s a mystery why so much effort went on making such a silly idea look so good, especially when most of the Iceland sets look so fake (similarly, whilst the power of Icarus looks thoroughly convincing, Toby Stephens is fitted with a silly electrocuting mega-arm that belongs in a different genre of movie entirely).
Die Another Day could be forgiven anything if it was, deep down, fun; but the truth of the matter is that for all its crazy gadgets, editing tricks and eclectic soundtrack choices (‘London Calling’ by The Clash just doesn’t suit the mood) a lot of the film is dull, and I was disappointed that the battle at the Ice Hotel wasn’t the climax – there were more computerised stunts and groansome one-liners (‘Read this, bitch!’) to come. Perhaps most damagingly, the film drove Bond to a point where he was becoming a ridiculous self-parody: and the thought of that was enough to change the colour of 007’s hair.