by Ray Pride
At the age of 40, James Bond's in the midst of a colorful midlife crisis, but at least in Die Another Day, partner-in-smirk Halle Berry can hold her own against Pierce Brosnan's increasingly craggy demeanor.
While their interplay doesn't strike memorable sparks, they're both pleasant to watch, which was especially important at the press screening I caught. The print on display had some of the crispest music and sound effects I've heard in ages, yet the dialogue was often nearly-inaudible.
For years, there's been all kinds of hope that the Broccoli family that owns the franchise would bring the extremely profitable series into the modern age, but they've always seemed content to attain a high level of mediocrity rather than make truly memorable entertainment, or God forbid, art. I'm no particular fan of the series, and thinking about the movies over the weekend, I couldn't remember plots, locations, quips, from the last four or five. (So much for fanboy cred.)
While Die Another Day doesn't do anything so radical as hire Jude Law to be Bond, or David Fincher to direct, its descent into strange science fiction territory is an interesting step sideways. The James Bond pictures always seem from another time, or more properly, of no time at all, divorced from the era of the Ian Fleming novels and from the other movies of any given year. What's freshest about this installment is Brosnan being given the chance to draw on the darker side of his personality, and the game voluptuousness of Berry as an American spy whose derring he does, or vice versa: they're equally sassy. (Except, of course, when someone winds up calling a woman a "bitch," Berry gets the honors.)
The opening, set in the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea, has a grittiness and spatial coherence that's rare in the canon of generally overproduced Bond stunts. (Heavily armed hovercrafts are the zoomy vehicles of choice.) Tortured by North Koreans under the main credits -- dripping translucent female forms gyrate atop his sufferings -- Bond is held captive for 14 months before being released, long-haired and shaggy-bearded, to accusations of being a traitor. So far, so peculiar.
His powerlessness is compounded once M (Judi Dench) pulls his license to kill; now a rogue male, he circles the globe -- Hong Kong, Cuba, London, Iceland and Korea again -- to find who put in the fix. Some testy banter with John Cleese as gadgets-master Q in a neat deserted Tube stop set is amusing, and a stop in Cuba leads to... let's forget the plot and just say that Halle Berry can't keep her clothes on. There's a scene where she's evading some squad of goons or other burdened with those made-in-Hollywood machineguns that couldn't hit the side of a barn. She runs barefoot up the stone steps of a pier, and wouldn't you know, that rose-red little sundress keeps riding up to her butt cheeks? Testing the limits of the PG-13 rating as well as the blood pressure of Maxim readers worldwide, she's the film's best special effect. (Fill in your own single-entendres.)
Berry's entrance, out of the surf in a small hot-orange bikini, purposely mocks a legendary Bond scene from that may once have mocked Boticelli's famous painting, "The Birth of Venus," but now only makes a curve-happy allusion to the first view in Dr. No of Ursula Andress. Her compact form, up against statuesque baddies, should be an opportunity for creative mayhem, but you can't help but wish that more daring fight-scene directors were on hand to give her things to do. Other than a testosterone-fest of a fencing match between Bond and vaguely Richard Branson-like baddie Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), most of the film's action stays on the yawnsome level of computer-generated mediocrity, or about as plausible as Madonna's gauze-filtered cameo as a fencing instructor. There's more plot, more actors. I stayed awake waiting for the cars to go vroom-vroom.
New Zealand-born director Lee Tamahori's 1994 feature debut, Once Were Warriors, was a notably intense drama of family dysfunction, but his American career is distinguished mostly for its mediocrity. While I haven't seen the Sopranos episode he directed, Mulholland Falls, The Edge and Along Came A Spider are increasingly bloated and anonymous work. While Tamahori does more with composition and camera movement than the likes of Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough), this is still a Bond film, where brand names and one-liners are the highest form of honor and humor. There's one irritating tic here, where all too many scenes are jump-framed in the style of coming attractions trailers, leaping forward in with already dated herky-jerky affectation.
Cool cars, though. And supposedly the producers are going to develop an action series for Berry. And stuff gets blowed up. How blowed up? Blowed up real good.