Dir: Lee Tamahori. UK/US. 2002. 129 mins.
Die Another Day has a lot to live up to: the hoopla surrounding the fortieth anniversary of the James Bond franchise, a box office track record that has seen each of the last three entries gross around $350m worldwide, and the expectations of youthful audiences still buzzed from the high energy action of new-generation spy adventure XXX. So is the venerable 007 up to the job' The answer is probably yes, thanks largely to canny casting and a massive marketing campaign. Because while the franchise's twentieth entry, directed by New Zealander Lee Tamahori and featuring Pierce Brosnan's fourth portrayal of Ian Fleming's suave super-spy, is certainly not vintage Bond, it does come equipped with the requisite supply of furious action and, in Oscar-winner Halle Berry, perhaps the highest-profile Bond Girl in the franchise's history. Berry's presence should be particularly useful in the US, helping blockbuster-starved MGM attract more of the younger cinemagoers that have rejuvenated the Bond series over the nineties run of Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough. Add in the effect of Madonna's top ten theme song and an estimated $120m worth of tie-in advertising and a $100m-plus gross should be well within reach, even against stiff competition from the Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings sequels.
In the international marketplace, Die Another Day will be the first Bond movie distributed under MGM's current deal with 20th Century Fox. With that deal soon up for renewal, Fox will be pulling out all the stops to at least match the $200m-$250m grosses of the previous three (UIP-distributed) Bond offerings.
Sticking to Bond tradition, the new film opens with the customary action-packed pre-credits sequence, this one pitting 007 against a corrupt North Korean army general in an exciting hovercraft chase. Thereafter, the film makes its biggest departure from the traditional formula with an atypically grim half hour during which Bond is tortured by his Korean captors. Finally released into the custody of his MI5 bosses (with Dench returning as the no-nonsense M), Bond finds himself under suspicion of treachery. His attempt to clear his name puts the film back on a more conventional path, with the action zipping first to Cuba and then to Iceland as Bond, assisted by Berry's CIA agent Jinx, goes up against sneering villain Gustav Graves (British theatre actor Stephens) and his satellite weapon of world domination, Icarus.
The dark dramatic elements add a new twist to the usual formula, but, just like its nineteen predecessors, the film lives or dies on its familiar ingredients.
With a $100m-plus budget at his disposal, Tamahori delivers a string of action set pieces that make up in volume and pace what they sometimes lack in coherence. Among the more enjoyable are a car chase across a frozen Icelandic lake - with Bond's Aston Martin rendered invisible by Q's 'adaptive camouflage' gadget - and a swordfight with Graves in a posh London club. Less successful are the sequences that rely on some rather dodgy looking CGI effects work.
Graves makes for an over-the-top but not very interesting villain with a sidekick, Zao (Yune, from The Fast And The Furious), who looks cool but doesn't do much. Except for a brief sequence set in Cuba (and shot in Spain), the settings, in Iceland and Korea (the latter recreated on UK locations), are disappointingly colourless. The tongue-in-cheek comedy is supplied by gadget guru Q (Cleese, taking over the role from the late Desmond Llewelyn) and a string of sexually suggestive one-liners that feel even more cheesy than usual.
The new Bond Girls are the film's biggest assets (as the movie's own dialogue might have put it). Madonna's brief cameo is an awkward let down, but young British newcomer Pike (from the BBC's Wives And Daughters) is enjoyable as the cool yet alluring Miranda Frost. Berry's Jinx, by contrast, provides the film with some sexual heat, especially in an entrance that recreates Ursula Andress' famous bikini scene from Dr No (one of a slew of sly references to earlier franchise entries). Though the character is featured heavily in Die Another Day's advertising campaign she actually appears fairly briefly in the action, at least until the climactic action sequence set on a military transport plane. Berry plays the part of the 'female Bond' with an appealing mix of sexiness and intelligence, though she doesn't seem completely comfortable with the more muscular action moments. Still, the character - around whom a spin-off movie is currently being planned - might in future provide the sort of fresh appeal necessary if the Bond franchise is ever to reach the half-century mark.
Prod cos: Eon Productions, MGM Pictures
Dists: MGM (US), 20th Century Fox (intl).
Prods: Michael G Wilson, Barbara Broccoli.
Scr: Neal Purvis & Robert Wade.
Exec prod: Anthony Waye.
Co-producer: Callum McDougall.
Prod des: Peter Lamont.
Director of Photography: David Tattersall.
Ed: Christian Wagner.
Music: David Arnold.
Main cast: Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Toby Stephens, Rosamund Pike, Rick Yune, John Cleese, Judi Dench.