Carry On, Bond

After 40 years of secretly servicing Her Majesty and countless pretty young things over the course of his 20 films, James Bond is back for his first mission of the new millennium.

They say life begins at 40, but has Bond become an anachronism? Britain’s playboy superspy is a relic from the brief hedonistic period of the sixties dubbed Swinging Britain – a time when the cheesy double entendres he spouts were probably considered suave, and his exploits formed JFK’s favored light reading matter.

When Roger Moore vacated the silver screen role in 1985, scriptwriters faced the challenge of updating Bond for the PC milieu – Timothy Dalton’s Bond even acknowledged safe sex – producing an uncomfortable dichotomy between fantasy and responsibility. But these compromises produced a diluted, humorless Bond and, as Die Another Day proves, he works best when completely divorced from reality.

So Pierce Brosnan slips into something more comfortable once again, with the usual elements dutifully in place: Nutbag billionaire striving for world domination from a ridiculous lair, manned by pantomime henchman? Check. Glamorous women to both help and hinder our hero - and keep him busy in the bedroom? Check. Improbable gadgetry, apparently designed for
007’s eyes only? Check. The baddies even have a Communist affiliation for Bond to get his teeth into. The formula is as well worn as Bond’s shameful repertoire of sleazy, Carry On-style one-liners.

The movie also niftily pays tribute to Bond’s heritage, with cameo appearances from props like the briefcase gun – Bond’s first ever gadget – and a copy of Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies, written by James Bond, the real-life ornithologist whose name Fleming borrowed.

The plot sees Bond’s cover blown while he’s on a mission in North Korea (hardly surprising as 007 always introduces himself to his underworld foes upon first meeting), and he’s captured before the stylized opening credits
roll. Bond is then subjected to a double helping of torture: he’s slapped about mercilessly, all to the grating sound of Madonna’s substandard theme song. Although he appears extremely well fed after 14 months of solitary confinement, he emerges, shaken and stirred, with a split lip, a bushy beard, and a gentle Irish brogue. Unsurprisingly, M (Judi Dench, whose brusque, matronly act in the franchise is starting to irritate) takes one look at Bond and kicks him out of MI5.

But, Bond, renegade that he is, will escape and bat around the globe like some jet-setting pinball to Cuba, back to London, then on to Iceland, attempting to even the score with North Korean colonel Zao (Rick Yune). Soon enough he’s facing off with sneering millionaire Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), who lives in an ice palace while he sorts out his satellite-weapon-thingy. Stephens is an English Shakespearean posho who hams Graves up into some sort of hideous synthesis of Rupert Murdoch and Hugh Grant’s evil twin brother. Nasty.

Kiwi director Lee Tamahori packs Die Another Day with enough preposterous pyrotechnics to rival the likes of the brash xXx, or John Woo’s explosive action style. An understandable decision, perhaps, considering the recent resurgence of no-brainer, high-octane action flicks. But, as is always the case with these films, a non-stop avalanche of special effects has a numbing effect, leaving audiences immune to the fact that someone’s just surfed down a cliff face. Tamahori floods the screen with good intentions but displays a defiant lack of restraint, with rapidly edited ideas fizzing about the screen like redundant neutrons. There’s some naff use of CGI, and the less said about Madonna’s wooden cameo the better.

But amidst the chaos are some magnificent scenes. Bond has an exhilarating sword fight with Graves, turning over a stuffy member’s club in the process. Multiple Goldfinger-style laserbeams heighten the intensity of a punch-up in archetypal Fleming style, and Zao certainly fits the classic Bond villain mould with his diamond-studded face.

The presence of Halle Berry also makes this the sexiest Bond flick for ages. There’s been much guff about her “emancipated” Bond girl (as if there were such a thing), Jinx. While her role has been expanded, as if to acknowledge the fact that an Oscar-winning actress accepted the part, Jinx still succumbs t
o Bond’s leery charms on the first night, distracts the baddies by flashing her bra at them, and is saved from certain death by her manly rescuer. Berry said herself that her bikini-clad emergence from the sea was the only scene Prince Phillip didn’t waffle through at the premiere, and her presence undoubtedly increases the steam factor – Bond even gets his first onscreen orgasm in 40 years.

Rosamund Pike, meanwhile, fares worse by initially daring to resist. “I know your type,” she says to Bond. “Sex for dinner and death for breakfast, well, it’s not going to work with me.” Inevitably, though, she’s soon to be found on the business end of a good old-fashioned Bond seeing-to, in an ice bed carved into the shape of a swan.

Much has also been made of Brosnan finally filling Sean Connery’s character-defining shoes in Die Another Day and, true enough, he now seems to inhabit the role to the extent that it’s hard to imagine the next Bond. Brosnan slips effortlessly between louche chauvinism and gritty determination, somehow combining the camp frivolity of Moore with the cool and tenacity of Connery. Brosnan also manages to prevent the franchise from slipping into parody, which is no mean feat, given the cringe-worthy double entendres required of Bond.

It’s all ridiculous stuff, of course, but Brosnan, unlike Dalton, gets the joke and he’s happy to run with it – for one more outing, at least. Despite the ludicrousness, the unsubtle assault on the senses, and the re-treading of ancient ground, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Something of a guilty pleasure. Die Another Day? Probably not – there’s still life in the old dog yet.

 -- Published by, 2002


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