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Die Another Day   C

MGM Studios

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Lee Tamahori
Writers: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Toby Stephens, Rosamund Pike, Rick Yune, John Cleese, Judi Dench.

Review by Rob Vaux

I'll say this much for James Bond: he's certainly spry for his age. With the venerable spy movie franchise turning 40 this year (and the original Ian Fleming novels pushing 50), it's hard to imagine any other series lasting so long and enduring so well. It doesn't hurt that the current Bond, Pierce Brosnan, has a winning mixture of charm and grit unseen since the Sean Connery days. When you add a pair of Oscar winners (Halle Berry and Judi Dench), a kinetic director (Lee Tamahori) and a recent rejuvenation of the spy genre with the likes of XXX and the TV show Alias, an entry like Die Another Day shouldn't lose. So why, then, does it feel so hollow?

Bond has always been superfluous, even ludicrous, and indeed, the outrageous elements become part of the series' charm. But rarely has the ridiculousness been stretched so far, rarely have we been asked to swallow so much for the sake of fun. Moreover, Die Another Day never escapes the urge to play with everything that's come before it -- so much so that it forgets to give us something of its own. This isn't a Bond film so much as an amalgamation of Bond's greatest hits, repackaged with the standard-issue postmodern spin.

On the other hand, it never really bores. After the interminable philosophizing of 1999's The World is Not Enough, this latest entry is wise enough to keep it fast and loose. Tamahori refuses to linger in any one place for long and has great fun with some of the big set pieces, from a crackerjack opening scene on the North Korean border to a fencing match gone spectacularly awry. The acting works well, too. In addition to Brosnan's impeccable turn as 007, we've got a neat villain (Toby Stephens) with the appropriate name of Gustav Graves; Dench in fine form as Bond's superior M; John Cleese filling in for the late Desmond Llewelyn as new gadgetmaster Q; and an utterly delectable pair of Bond girls -- Berry's so-good-when-she's-bad Jinx, and Rosamund Pike's icily alluring Miranda Frost. They all take great joy in fulfilling their assigned archetypes, and Die Another Day benefits from their joie de vivre.

Sadly, it's not enough. While the acting passes muster, the other traditional elements of the Bond franchise feel either stale or drastically overplayed. The story sends 007 on the trail of a nefarious assassin (Rick Yune, another standout), through the expected array of exotic locales and colorful characters. Only this time, the locales don't feel all that exotic. There are not a whole lot of four-star hotels on the 38th Parallel, and Havana (where Bond picks up Jinx) doesn't rate high on the glitz and glamour factor these days. Nor does Iceland, the site of Graves' hidden fortress, though Tamahori makes a go of it with some lovely glacier shots and a very cool ice palace. Neither can the plot inspire much beyond passive interest: yet another effort to destroy the west using secret technology. The humdrum backdrop and bland payoff are contrasted with some astoundingly over-the-top gadgets and action scenes, which push the limits of credibility even for Bond. It's as if -- to compensate for the standard-issue drabness -- they deliver everything else with cartoonish distortion. I can swallow a lot for 007, but the sight of an invisible Aston-Martin or a parasail off a glacier-induced tidal wave may be too much for even the most die-hard fan. Though they have some spark, the extremities prove more distracting than engaging and even feel grossly out of place at times (to paraphrase Apocalypse Now, "Bond don't surf").

Furthermore, the film's guiding creative principle -- an endless series of riffs on earlier entries in the franchise -- never achieves anything beyond a few chuckles. Die Another Day features (among other things) Bond losing his 00 status and going off the reservation (License to Kill), a giant laser threatening to cut someone in half (Goldfinger), a bikini-with-knife ensemble straight from the Ursula Andress collection (Dr. No), a plane depressurization sucking someone out the window (Goldfinger again), and, perhaps most inspired, a storeroom full of all the Q gadgets from all the previous films, now mothballed and collecting dust. The pieces pile up, mixing together in a malaise of past shadows that add up to very little. Tamahori's witty approach masks it for a time, but sometime during the second hour it becomes clear how much of a snow job it is.

The 007 franchise is largely critic-proof at this point, so any real complaints come with tongue firmly in cheek. Die Another Day does what all the other films in the franchise do, and for many, that's enough. Perhaps it's impossible to try anything really different with Bond; perhaps after 40 years, there's nothing left but cannibalizing what's come before. But Die Another Day has enough energy to make one hope for better things, and it's disappointing when it can't take advantage of that potential. Great fun? Maybe, but Die Another Day ultimately leaves us with the sense that we've been snookered.

Review published 11.26.2002.

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