Latest Bond flick dishes up action, lacks visual dazzle

by Jeremy Skog | 11/26/02 6:00am

There is something truly risky about showing James Bond in a moment of weakness. As a cultural icon he always seems to land on his feet, no matter what ridiculous stunt he needs to pull to do so. For Lee Tamahori, the director of "Die Another Day," however, the risk pays off.

After infiltrating a North Korean military base, Bond, played for the fourth time by Pierce Brosnan, is pursued in an appropriately explosive chase scene, this time around in hovercrafts. His captors bring him in to be tortured, and the film shifts smoothly into the title sequence, the best of the series, with flashes of the interrogation worked in among the usual female silhouettes and accompanied by Madonna's catchy theme song.

The reminder is that James Bond is not, and was never meant to be, an invincible character, no matter how much Roger Moore may have tried to make him into one. Released on the 40th anniversary of the first Bond film, "Dr. No," the 20th installment had to break new ground. Referring back to the human character of Ian Fleming's books was a good choice.

However, the attempt to humanize Bond is also the film's greatest flaw. Bond goes through the next hour and a half as he would in any other movie of the series, hardly affected by 14 months of torture once he's had a shave and a shower.

The directors missed a great opportunity to show the true vulnerability of the character and craft a more personal sort of Bond movie, like "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." The result is a stunt-packed action movie that follows the Bond formula. As an action movie however, it is superlative.

Freed after being traded for the terrorist Zao, Bond takes off on a trademark vendetta in an attempt to hunt down the person who set him up. He passes through Cuba, London and Iceland and finally returns to North Korea to expose a classic megalomaniac scheme.

The film is tightly paced, with little downtime, so it can be intense to watch and difficult to take in everything in one sitting. Fans of the careful pacing of "Goldfinger" will not be impressed. Unlike Brosnan's previous action-packed efforts in "Tomorrow Never Dies," however, this film has a high replay value. The stunts were just as fresh on a second viewing.

This picture is likely to become a series classic, although one of the best moments of most Bond films -- the henchmen seeking revenge on Bond after the villain's death -- is sadly lacking from this film.

Due to the popular appeal of the Bond series, "Die Another Day" features what few action films can muster -- a great cast. Besides Brosnan, Judi Dench returns as M and John Cleese settles nicely into his role as Q, already seeming as able as the late Desmond Llewelyn. Toby Stephens is appropriately vile as Gustav Graves, but the real scene-stealing surprise is newcomer Rosamond Pike as the icy Miranda Frost, who seems born into the role.

Unfortunately, Oscar winner Halle Berry is disappointing in her role as the NSA agent Jinx. Her delivery of quips is often stilted and her work never seems natural. This is even more troubling, because MGM is discussing a film based around the character as the first Bond spin-off.

The Bond series had long eschewed the computer effects that are all too common in the genre these days in favor of stuntmen and camera tricks. It is a tradition that Tamahori should have followed. There are some obvious screening effects in Jinx's escape from Cuba, while Brosnan's rendering in the Iceland surfing scene is even more preposterous than Roger Moore's blue-screen ski chase in "The Spy Who Loved Me." These effects will be as much of a pain to future viewers as Denise Richards' "acting" was in "The World is not Enough." Future Bond directors should look to the past when they consider what makes a memorable stunt scene.

On a positive note, however, the car chase is undoubtedly the best in the series, and perhaps the best in movie history. At least one vital element of a true Bond film was done correctly.

The rest of the movie suffers from an overdose of slow motion and music video-like camera effects in an attempt to raise the pulse. Most of the scenes, especially the brutal sword fight in a London club, are effective enough without the camera trickery that simply clutters the film.

While the Bond series has always attempted to end with a pithy one-liner, the recent films have featured some true groaners that seem like parodies of the genre. The series has reached what is hopefully a nadir with this installment, where the last five minutes could easily have been cut. The writers, who had held up admirably until this point, attempt to substitute lurid double entendres and misdirection for wit. There is some good reparte in this film, and it's a shame it couldn't continue the whole way through.

Despite its shortcomings, "Die Another Day" provides ample evidence as to why James Bond is the most enduring character in Hollywood history and still manages to outclass all potential heirs to the throne. The film succeeds as one of the best action movies of the year and a notable entrant into the Bond canon. In the words of Carly Simon's "Spy Who Loved Me," theme song, nobody does it better.