When you're struggling as badly as the James Bond franchise, it's time to step back and key in on what made things great to begin with. Well, back to basics is exactly where this latest Bond has gone and with good effect. Despite a few flaws, Die Another Day is a loving reminder of just exactly what it was that made us like Martini swilling 007 in the first place.
Die Another Day is the 20th adventure of James Bond on the silver screen. Since the first, several have played the character, but none save Connery have so perfectly embodied what we have come to expect from the James in the way that Brosnan has. Unfortunately, even though this is his fourth film as 007, it is only the second time any of the Brosnan flicks have been any good.
This time we find 007 (Pierce Brosnan) in North Korea, hunting down rogue Korean generals with plans of world domination. Korean Generals is good, a nice departure from the whiny Internet billionaires posing as villains in the last few franchise installments. Though James succeeds, his mission is compromised and he loses the trust of MI6. Underground and slightly rogue, he sets off to hunt down the mole that betrayed him. Fortunately for us, this leads him to a variety of fantastical set pieces and nicely done explosions, which if we're honest, is really what Bond is all about. As usual, they've even worked in at least one excuse for him to wear a tuxedo… something no REAL Bond movie should ever be without.
Eventually 007 collides head on with a wealthy, James Bondlike diamond merchant who makes his home in the strangely diamond rich glaciers of the far north. Aided by a variety of colorful and fairly cool henchmen, swaggering mastermind Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) forces Bond, as usual, to risk everything to save the world… and look good while doing it.
Much of this particular Bond installment is clearly homage to classic Bond films of the past. They've thrown in everything we've ever loved about previous 007 movies and given us more of all the wickedly cool things we've always wanted to see. The result is a film which, even for a James Bond movie, wastes little time on character development and focuses primarily on launching as many heat-seeking missiles across the screen as it possibly can. Gone is all the meandering garbage of the previous two outings, which wasted our time and slowly sapped away our IQ's. Instead, we're given an edgier, grittier spy film, which while remaining staunchly PG-13 throws every Bond bang it can at the screen and simply lets the audience watch it play out.
Whether cavorting bare-chested on Cuban beaches (sporting chest hair borrowed from the set of Austin Powers) or battling it out on the frozen wastes of Iceland (I thought Iceland was green and Greenland was icy?) Bond is back as a carefully constructed amalgam of all the really cool things we always liked about him in the first place. That's right, babes, guns, revenge, assassination, wacky villains, and gadgets. LOTS of gadgets!
Gadgets are everywhere, and for once our super-spy hero actually USES all of them. But here again it's back to basics, with the traditional Bond watch and simpler gadgets like a glass shattering ring. Gone is the trendy BMW, replaced by the much more Bondtastic Aston Martin. Here's a shock… for once Bond's wicked cool car is actually USED! Not just used but thrown out into full throttle, super-car battles that blow away every Bond gadgetfest you've ever seen or even imagined. Listen up! Even if everything else in this movie was a pile of gunk (which it is not), this is a MUST SEE. Bond fan or not, it's worth the price of admission to see James and diamond-faced henchman Zao (Rick Yune) duke it out as the god of spy movies intended: Man to man, car to car, Jaguar vs. Aston Martin. God bless James Bond.
However, despite harkening back to the good old days of better Bond, this version is painfully aware that it is every bit a 40 year old franchise facing a young generation of xXx wannabe's. To compensate, they've gone digital, the first Bond movie to really whole-heartedly embrace the over-used digital effects of today's movie extravaganza. Much of this is painfully obvious as digital wizardry and as usual, typically bad cgi mars what might have been a perfectly enjoyable FX experience. Youth movement also prompts Die Another Day to forgo its usual Bond themed opening swan song and instead go with a techno-club mix of a suspect Madonna tune. The song itself is passable, but it meshes badly with what is otherwise a visually entrancing opening sequence. But as we all know, the best way to market to the young is with surfing. Yes surfing. Bond goes surfing. James Bond should not surf. If he does surf, it definitely shouldn't be rendered in cgi. If it is going to be rendered in cgi, at least make it good cgi. If you don't' have any good cgi, get a Muppet or an animator or something! On the whole, we'd have all been better of if the Die Another Day editing department had just left it out.
Characters take a second seat to set pieces and gadgets it's true. Yet after a long string of impotent nemeses, at least first-time Bond director Lee Tamahori has given us baddies worth beating up. Then there are Bond's babes, who stack up nicely against past Bond breasts. Still, you'd think hiring an Oscar winner like Halle Berry might give you a Bond Girl who could do more than just wear a bikini. Her role as Jinx is written with plenty of "pluck", exactly what you'd want if you were trying to insert a strong female character into a film franchise that's typically accused of womanizing. But Berry is merely passable and fails to take real advantage of the few opportunities she's given to shine.
With all the disappointments churned out by today's franchise-mad Hollywood, it's refreshing to see a beloved character return to being something truly great. They've gotten the formula dead right this time, even if the classic Bond feel nearly crosses the line from homage to ripe parody or if blatant attempts at pandering to teenagers fits in poorly with the movie's overall "old school" feel. But a misstep here and there is acceptable in a movie that's simply FUN and not caught up in trying to be something that it most certainly is not. When all else fails, get back to basics. It works for Bond.