Friday, December 6, 2013

Die Another Day (2002)

As another era of James Bond films came to an end, most were quick to dismiss the final contribution of Pierce Brosnan to the series. "Die Another Day" received lukewarm reviews when it came out, and years later it's still dismissed by many as the last straw to a tired franchise that had gotten stale and moldy enough to start making penicillin out of it - clearly only being salvageable by scraping everything and rebooting it, which four years later they would do. Even at the time I remember walking out of the theater thinking it was trash.

But here's the crazy thing, and it's something I honestly didn't expect: Upon seeing it again after a decade, I actually don't think "Die Another Day" is that bad. I won't lie to you and say it's a great movie, because trust me it has issues to spare, and when it's dumb it's really dumb. And maybe I was in a bad mood that day in 2002, or maybe I was expecting too much from it. Or perhaps it was because I hadn't yet seen the true lows of the series that I couldn't appreciate it when a Bond movie managed to be merely "alright." While absolving the film of its faults due to other films before it being worse isn't what I'm setting out to do here, I do have to take the big picture into account and offer a moderate defense of "Die Another Day." It's really not anywhere close to as horrible as its reputation suggests.

They're molding him into Ernest P. Worrell. The devious bastards.

The opening finds Bond in North Korea going under cover to disrupt a diamond-trading-for-weapons deal run by Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) and his partner Zao (Rick Yune). When, after being betrayed by an unknown source, Bond's cover is blown (along with Zao's face after an explosion imbeds diamonds in it) he attempts to escape but fails, and Moon is presumed dead after Bond drives him off a waterfall. Being disavowed by MI-6, Bond spends the next 14 months in prison being tortured before he is exchanged for Zao, who had been captured elsewhere in the meantime. M (Judi Dench) revokes his 00 status because she thinks he may have squealed under torture, but Bond is too pissed to let Zao run loose on account of him, and there's still a traitor to find. So, like in "License To Kill," he goes off the grid to settle some accounts. In my opinion it's one of the better setups the series has had.

That leads us to one of the weirder plots of the franchise, involving a satellite that can serve as a second sun, a hotel made from ice, weird neon headsets out of "Tron," a billionaire entrepreneur/professional thrill seeker named Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), and gene reassignment therapy, a truly absurd concept that takes the relatively simple process of plastic surgery and makes it a thousand times more complicated and physically impossible. It's kind of a wild ride while it lasts, and while it could be called many things ("silly" being a notable option) it's seldom dull.

Oh, and there's an invisible car, too. Most people will remember that.

As you can see, the gadgets in "Die Another Day" have made a prevalent and clamorous comeback. It's possible that Bond has more toys in this movie than he's had in quite some time, although I have yet to make an official count. Whether or not you like that is up to you. Some people don't care for that aspect of the franchise, but personally I enjoy the gadgets. I always have a good time watching him get good use out of them, which he most certainly does here.

Unlike "GoldenEye" or "The World Is Not Enough" which brought out this sweet car to basically do nothing but drive around, the car in "Die Another Day" gets put through the freaking gauntlet. This car must have gotten more use than any other car since maybe "The Spy Who Loved Me." And the car in that one doubled as a submarine. And yeah, here it's invisible. And yeah, that's dumb. The way they explain the tech is just slightly plausible enough to make you almost buy it, but I'd almost prefer it if Q had admitted that they had found a wizard in the London subway system and had hired him.

I mention this because I think that's one of the things that made "Die Another Day" work for me, at least a little bit. It's so packed to the brim with wild stuff going on and crazy gadgets and locations and action segments that it's a fun ride despite the stupidity. Even when there are scenes like Bond and Graves sword-fighting through a posh mansion like Inigo Montoya and the Six-Fingered Man, it's still a possessing of just enough of a flippant attitude about the whole thing while refraining from being overly goofy about it that I actually found myself having a good amount of fun. They could have made this really silly and did the Roger Moore thing of winking to the camera, but they didn't. And that, to me, made all the difference. It's stupid. It knows it's stupid, but it's not treating YOU like you're stupid. Does that make sense?

Aww! The hovercraft is smiling! He's so happy to be helping James out!

Before you get the wrong idea and think that I'm heaping wild praise upon "Die Another Day," allow me to clear the air a bit: This is still not a very good movie. There are things about it which are bad enough to nearly ruin the experience. It's just that the good things in it are good enough to still make it watchable. It's akin to an argument given by Christopher Hitchens but written down by a dyslexic 4th grader. The grammar, spelling and penmanship is horrid, but man is it full of rock-solid ideas.

I've mentioned the good, mainly being the abundance of action and gadgets, but it's also worth mentioning Brosnan again, since he's just too awesome as James Bond. I can't help it, I love the guy. Toby Stephens is also fun to watch as a Bond villain. He's kind of like what you would get if Hugh Grant and Eric Stoltz screwed. I dug it. I wasn't as big of a fan of Rick Yune, though. He was scary I suppose, but I don't know. I couldn't understand why he never took the diamonds out of his face.

 He'll tell you it's from an explosion a British spy set off in his face, but the real story was that his older brother got really mad at him while they were playing that board game Forbidden Bridge and slammed his head in the box that held all the jewels.

But here's the bad, and it's bad. We'll start with the slightly less awful, being that that the editing in this film is pretty janky. Being the first millennial Bond film, I guess we had to go really stylized with it. And by stylized I mean ""The Matrix" happened." Much like nearly every other action film after Neo said "Whoa," there are some truly bizarre random slow downs and frame-rate sputterings that pop up very often that would look more at home in a music video. In fact the entire movie kind of looks like a car commercial. That's the only way I can describe it. Although in its defense I'm sure it would have aired during the Superbowl. It doesn't go full blown Paul W.S. Anderson, but it's close.

And as much as I actually like Madonna as an artist and am a fan of her music, the opening theme is terrible. It bleeps and bloops at us like a laptop starting up, completely devoid of the style and swagger the best of what came before possessed. You gotta have sleaze and swing in a Bond opening. It's not something you're supposed to rave to, it's something you smoke a carton of cigarettes while playing cards to. But I don't even think this would cut it as a song to play in a club, let alone at the front of a Bond movie. It doesn't put me to sleep or anything, but it does set a tone of things being slightly off.

"Ah yes, Mr. Bond. After this drink, we shall fight to the death in a good-natured fashion. By the way, why is Madonna here? And why is she the only one who gets to wear black?"

However, the most egregious fault the film has can be summed up in four syllables: Halle Berry. Good. Grief. I ragged on Christmas Jones for being insufferable, which she was, but at the same time Denise Richards really can't be blamed for being a terrible actress in it because she's Denise Richards. What did you expect? But Halle Berry has been accused of being good at her craft. Apparently they even saw fit to give her an Oscar for it at one point. I have no idea what her excuse was here.

Here's the thing: Jinx isn't a bad character. In fact she's kind of awesome. She's a CIA Agent who is pretty lethal in her own right, and doesn't always need Bond to save her. She does occasionally, but there are moments where she handles herself just fine, and is pretty useful overall. She's not the kind of whimpering bimbo we're used to. And I liked that. But here's where it starts to go south. Fast.


You see, I see what they were attempting to do with Jinx. They were trying to make a female James Bond. And I suppose that's an...alright idea. They've done the "Bond meets his equal" schtick before, but that was simply involving skill levels. And Jinx is tough and savvy and is a decent spy, so there they've essentially succeeded. But when I say they were trying to make a female James Bond in this movie, I mean they were trying to clone him. And even if that was a good idea, which it isn't, she's less Pierce Brosnan and more Roger Moore. Oh dear.

The issue comes from the dialogue. That's where you can tell they weren't interested in Jinx as a character at all. They just wanted another mouth to put rejected Bond quips into after they'd been determined too dumb for him to say, so they switched the pronouns and gave them to her. Every line of hers...EVERY SINGLE LINE out of her mouth is some cringe inducing pun or innuendo, oftentimes flying in the face of whatever the situation is and coming across as irritatingly childish at best and horrifyingly distracting at worst. For the love of Sean Connery's toupee, even Bond picked the moments to bust out the one-liners. He wasn't always on. There is a time and a place for snark. If I wanted unfunny crap spewed out constantly no matter the situation, I'd watch something Joss Whedon wrote.

"Switch them off or I'll be half the girl I used to be!" Somebody got paid to write that. Halle Berry got paid to say it.

But for all that is good in this world, I don't think anyone could have given a worse performance than Halle Berry did. It's shocking how bad she is here. Don't get me wrong, the dialogue would have made the character always suck no matter what, but I can envision a scenario in my head that features an actress not making Tanya Roberts look like Meryl Streep in comparison. At least Denise Richards looked like she was trying. It's really stunning how much Halle Berry looks like she does not give one single crap, simply flying by on an eternal smirk saying "Hey look at me! I'm Halle Berry! I'm a Bond girl! Yay! I don't have to act today! This is fun! Penis joke!" All the meanwhile Brosnan is playing it relatively straight and Rosamund Pike is over there completely showing Berry up every step of the way. Where's the justice?

Literally every line of hers can be followed up with the phrase "SHUT UP, HALLE BERRY."

If there was one thing that utterly guts this film, it's her. Everything else is actually not that bad. Like I mentioned before, it's a lot of fun, it's pretty looking despite some weird CGI going on, Brosnan is still the mack daddy, and it calls back to A LOT of older Bond films. A decent drinking game could be made if the players all had good enough knowledge of the series. In fact it seems a bit like an over-caffeinated version of one of the older Connery flicks like "You Only Live Twice" or "Diamonds Are Forever." I kind of liked it.

So with that we bid farewell to Pierce Brosnan. With the exception of one film, I had quite the fun journey with him. With a 75%, he had one of the better records as far as veteran Bond actors go. But once again the series would sit silently in the wings for a brief hibernation once again, as Hollywood broke out their new favorite toy: The Reboot. After this we got a new start along with another new Bond. Nobody was exactly sure what we would get, but it's pretty clear that no matter what it was, it would have a substantial coating of grit.

This is actually a really good trailer, but man it's like reliving my hatred for Halle Berry all over again. Watch at your own risk.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "Die Another Day" is not nearly as bad as its reputation suggests. No, it's not that great, but that's mostly due to weird stylized editing and a legendarily bad performance by Halle Berry. But if you can grit your teeth and suffer through her wretchedness, this isn't a bad little action flick. This is middle of the road Bond. Not one of Brosnan's best, but still far from the worst.




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