"It's impossible now to make the greatest Bond film ever because the greatest Bond film ever is made up of all tiny bits of the other, you know, 20 films now."—Composer David Arnold, "Inside Die Another Day"
Die Another Day represents an odd moment in the Bond franchise, one that finds it looking simultaneously into its future and its past. Since Pierce Brosnan became 007 in 1995's GoldenEye, the series has taken on an increasingly postmodern bent, demonstrating an awareness of itself absent in previous entries. This is nowhere truer than in Die Another Day, the 20th film in MGM's official franchise, released 40 years after Bond stormed into our popular culture in the Terence Young-directed, Sean Connery-starring Dr. No.
Facts of the Case
Freed in a prisoner exchange after 14 months of captivity in North Korea, 007 becomes a rogue agent tracking the connection between a loose-cannon North Korean colonel (Will Yun Lee), a wunderkind entrepreneur named Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), and the trade of African conflict diamonds outlawed by the United Nations.
Along the way, he teams with a United States National Security Agency operative named Jinx (Halle Berry, Monster's Ball) and a sexually chilly MI6 agent, Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), while facing off against a powerhouse North Korean thug named Zao (Rick Yune, The Fast and the Furious).
As Bond uncovers the villains' insidious use of gene therapy, the existence of a deadly satellite powered by the conflict diamonds, and the identity of the agent who betrayed him into the hands of the North Koreans, he must race to save the American army on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone as well as, of course, the world.
The release of this film's predecessor, 1999's The World is Not Enough, marked a new approach to Bond films, a ramping up of their self-conscious connection to the series' past. To anyone familiar with the franchise, The World is Not Enough drew explicit connections to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, starring George Lazenby as Bond. Both offer our hero a wealthy heiress with murky loyalties as a love interest; kinetic ski chases as central set pieces; and, of course, it's in On Her Majesty's Secret Service that we learn the Bond family motto: "The world is not enough." It's not that the 1999 film is a remake or rip-off of the 1969 film (odd, too, that they were released exactly 30 years apart); it's that it wishes to create a multi-layered experience for the Bond aficionado, one that rewards multiple viewing by using harmony and dissonance between the two films' narratives.
Die Another Day is the next step in that aesthetic. Its connections to 1971's Diamonds Are Forever—contraband diamond smuggling, deadly satellites, eccentric entrepreneurs, scorpions as devices of torture and death—are obvious. Added to that is layered homage—in honor of the franchise's 40th year—to just about every other Bond flick, not to mention Ian Fleming's series of novels. We have Bond peeling off a wet suit to reveal tailored clothes beneath à la Goldfinger, a bikini-clad Halle Berry emerging like Aphrodite from the foamy sea just as Ursula Andress had done 40 years earlier in Dr. No, Bond taking cover as an ornithologist and carrying about the very James Bond-authored bird book Fleming had used as inspiration for his superspy's name, a Q briefing in which Brosnan fondles Bond's deadly briefcase and the villainess Rosa Klebb's switchblade shoe from 1963's From Russia with Love as well as Thunderball's jet pack. The list goes on and on.
Contrasting this nostalgia, director Lee Tamahori (Mulholland Falls) and editor Christian Wagner (True Romance, Face/Off) throw in MTV-style speed ramping, a hyper-stylized editing technique heretofore unknown in the world of Bond. Digital color-grading provides stark shifts in the visual tone of the story's various locations. Computer-generated special effects are used for a couple key sequences. True, they're used with varying degrees of success (the para-surfing Bond: not so good; the disintegrating plane in the film's climax, a combination of CG and optical effects shot with a scale model: very good), but their presence marks a significant change in the production of special effects in the world of Bond, a series known for doing things the old-fashioned way. The film also has a gritty physicality and violence largely absent from the series since Bond and Red Grant went at it in the train compartment in From Russia with Love.
This tension between nostalgia and hip film style make Die Another Day a perfect bridge to modernizing the series. The film is the ultimate statement of a Bond aesthetic that was refreshingly new at the beginning of Brosnan's tenure in the mid-'90s, but feels like its reached its terminal point. Much as I like Brosnan (and he's my favorite Bond since Connery), one more film with him in the lead may be one too many (a paunchy, aged Brosnan à la Roger Moore in A View to a Kill is the last thing any of us wants to see). The next film needs to maintain the formula everyone expects of the series, but run with the veneer of cool modernity Die Another Day toys with. George Lazenby was the last time the series had a hero younger than 40. A thirtysomething actor—whether it be oft-rumored Ewan McGregor or Jude Law or someone else entirely (that's the province of producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson)—may inject some much-needed life into the series.
But let's talk about this film…
Die Another Day is an absurdist action flick. Check your brain at the door. But those are the ground rules upon entering a Bond flick. If you didn't know that, you've been living under a rock the past few decades. The Bond franchise began losing its cachet as an action series with the advent of video games with 3D imaging. While younger action film auteurs put the viewer in the center of the action, Bond films continued to relegate their audiences to the sidelines, watching stunts as passive observers. Not Die Another Day. It tosses you at high speed across a frozen lake, hurls fuselage from a crumbling airplane at your head, places you inches from our hero engaged in fisticuffs with a thug henchman amidst a web of deadly laser beams. It's a heck of a lot of fun if you're game.
Still, my favorite sequence in the film is when 007 visits Havana, Cuba: walking about in a flowered shirt and sunglasses, sipping a cocktail by the beach, strolling around his hotel among the other guest. It harkens back to the earliest of the Connery films, shot in a time before everyone in the middle class was making annual Club Med pilgrimages, a time when watching Bond pose as an elegant man of leisure on a tropical island vacation was captivating entertainment. It's in this location that our hero meets Jinx, the best Bond girl since Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies, who was probably the best Bond girl since Honor Blackman in Goldfinger. Jinx is so perfect a Bond girl—and Halle Berry so high-profile a star—she creates an imbalance, leaving the other girl (there are always two), Miranda Frost, bland and extraneous. Some complained during the film's theatrical run that, Berry or not, in the end Jinx was a damsel in distress like all the others, but here's a news flash: this is a Bond film! What did you expect?
The only significant problem with Die Another Day is that there are a few too many characters. Frost isn't the only one who seems unnecessary. Filling the Oddjob slot of physically-menacing thug is Zao, a chiseled Korean scarred by a Bond-triggered explosion and half-completed gene therapy. Bond's automotive showdown with him is worthy of the franchise, but there's also a fist fight choreographed among deadly laser beams between Bond and a Samoan tough-guy named Mr. Kil. Who is he? Since when does Bond get into extended fights with garden variety henchmen? It's obvious some of the set pieces came first and characters were tossed in as fodder for Bond's combat skills. And, speaking of extraneous Bond girls, what the heck is Madonna doing in there? She shows up in a fencing outfit, spews out some expository dialogue, then disappears. None of it ruins the film, but it makes it significantly sloppier than the best in the franchise.
This DVD Special Edition of Die Another Day is another benchmark for the Bond films. This is the first time any in the series have received a two-disc treatment. The package is impressive, housed in a dual-disc keep case with a gatefold slipcover that closes with Velcro (what's MGM's new thing with Velcro slipcovers, by the way?). Disc One boots to a stylish menu in keeping with those of the other Bond special editions. The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen (there's a separate full screen edition, but who cares?) and, with the exception of some haloing, the transfer is pure eye candy, struck from an exceptionally clean source.
The disc offers two very beefy soundtrack options: Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, and DTS ES. I don't have a 6.1 setup, but both tracks are impressive on my 5.1 system, reference quality. Explosions rock, ocean waves thunder, and bullets whiz around your head, yet dialogue's always clean and discernible. David Arnold's excellent score is also well-rendered throughout the entire soundstage. Arnold, I should also mention, has been a saving grace for this series since his work on Tomorrow Never Dies. He's got a magnificent ear for timbre that's allowed him to modernize the franchise's scores while maintaining continuity to John Barry's iconic work in the past.
The disc also offers Dolby Digital Stereo Surround tracks for speakers of Spanish and French.
Supplements on Disc One include two audio commentaries. The first brings together director Lee Tamahori and producer Michael G. Wilson. The second offers up Pierce Brosnan and Rosamund Pike, recorded separately and edited together. Commentaries on Bond discs have always been dry and dull. These are no exception. Tamahori and Wilson are low-key and mainly talk about mundane production details. Obviously, a film on as grand a scale as a 007 adventure would be logistically challenging, but hearing the nitty-gritty of it all just made me want to take a nap. Brosnan and Pike are even worse. Neither seems particularly comfortable doing a talk track. When they're not verbalizing what we're watching onscreen, they're silent, allowing us to bask in the glory of the mono track that plays in the background. It might've been a good idea to get them in the same room before recording the track. Even better would've been a track with Brosnan and the new Q, John Cleese.
The MI6 Datastream is a combination of Pop-Up Video-style trivia and the "Secrets of 007" feature on The World is Not Enough. This is better, though, because it's not a branching feature. When the video vignettes begin, the film continues running in a smaller window on your display. Best of all, no messing around with your remote is required.
Disc Two is all extras, of course. First up is Inside Die Another Day, a series of seven featurettes that run as a single 82-minute documentary if you select the "Play All" option. Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic and Dolby Stereo Surround, the segments are much more in-depth than electronic press kit materials, offering real insight into the film's production. My only beef with the documentary is that each featurette has its own end credit sequence that's disrupting when one is using "Play All."
Mission Deconstruction offers two multi-angle features as well as a 10-minute featurette on the design of the title sequence, and a three-minute featurette on the digital grading process. "Scene Evolutions" covers the hovercraft and car battle set pieces and allows you to toggle between storyboards and storyboard/shot comparisons. "Interaction Sequences" allows you to toggle between raw footage from two- and four-camera set-ups for four different action set pieces. It's a fascinating piece for the technophile because all of the footage has documentation of frame rate, lens, and T-stop setting for the shot.
Equipment Briefing contains computer animated vignettes of five of the gadgets used in the film. Q provides a voice-over briefing outlining each of the gadgets' capabilities.
Ministry of Propaganda contains theatrical trailers and TV spots, a music video for Madonna's title song (despite the bashing it took from Bond fans, at least it's a change of pace), a four-minute featurette on the making of Madonna's video, and a trailer for the "007: Nightfire" video game along with a three-minute featurette on the making of the game.
An elaborate photo gallery round out the extras.
I find Die Another Day the most entertaining Bond adventure of the Brosnan-era, packed with eye candy and high-octane action. Still, watching Bond these days is a very Zen experience: if you think about what you're doing, you'll no longer be able to do it.
MGM has delivered a beautiful two-disc Special Edition, boasting a strong (though not perfect) presentation of the film as well as a boatload of quality supplements.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Lee Tamahori and Producer Michael G. Wilson
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