The appearance of Die Another Day demonstrates once again that after some 20 films, a handful of 007 impersonators, dozens of beautiful women, plots and situations that pretty much repeat themselves over and over, and a batch of recognizable conventions, the James Bond movies constitute a genre all their own. They influence the innumerable action-adventure thrillers of the last four decades, from the average Arnold Schwarzenegger flick to La Femme Nikita, and provide the inspiration for the mostly ridiculous spoofs, from Casino Royale to Goldmember. The amazing publicity apparatus surrounding the current release, seemingly even larger and louder than the hoopla of yesteryear, further suggests the films' continuing contemporary importance --- just about every talking head, from the shills of the entertainment shows to the somber interviewers of National Public Radio, contributed to the media blitz for Bond.
The movie itself continues all the traditions established lo these many years ago, which in a sense provides a kind of reassurance to most audiences, who really prefer the familiar to the unknown. It begins with the usual spectacular sequence of stunts and fireworks, this one involving three surfers, led by James Bond (Pierce Brosnan), riding an enormous wave to a beach in North Korea. Once ashore, Bond, impersonating a courier delivering diamonds in exchange for powerful weapons and armored vehicles, almost immediately touches off a series of explosions, participates in a fierce gun battle, and flees the Korean army in the first of many furious chases. A rather odd montage sequence follows, however; one that echoes the sado-masochistic scenes of the Ian Fleming novels --- nobody seems to read them nowadays --- with Bond captured and tortured with the decidedly low-tech methods of ice-water plunges and repeated scorpion stings. Understandably, the procedure motivates 007 to embark on a quest for revenge.
The rest of the picture moves along in the usual manner, shifting locations from Korea to Cuba to London and, finally, to Iceland. Along the way, besides more of the usual gunplay, narrow escapes, and high-speed chases, Bond meets a couple of attractive women: one, named Jinx (Halle Berry), is seeking her own revenge; the other, a fellow agent appropriately named Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), is a snow queen who, of course, soon thaws in the presence of Bond's irresistible heat. The major villain this time around is Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), the familiar megalomaniac billionaire masquerading as a philanthropist, who occupies an ice palace in Iceland, where a truly sensational series of chases, stunts, explosions, and special effects wrap up the action.
Although the movie attains a slightly higher level of quality than the recent Bond flicks, mostly through its extraordinary technological and chemical wizardry, the plenitude and even the success of all its magic suggests a threadbare cinematic imagination. The stunts grow ever more wonderful and ever less believable, the vaunted gadgetry now exceeds any possible credibility, and the chases keep recurring, as the director finds himself with nothing else to do but put his protagonist on the run once again. The snickering adolescent sexual innuendo, moreover, seems even more conscious, labored, and witless than usual.
Bond fans will no doubt cherish the new gimmicks, including Graves' own private satellite, which transforms the sunlight into a killer ray, burning everything in its path and melting the Arctic ice. The obligatory tour through the armory, led by a new Q (John Cleese), introduces yet another automobile, which this time around not only sports all the usual rockets, machine guns, ejectors, etc., but, with the touch of a button, can be made invisible. Anyone who can accept that nonsense, along with the villain's undergoing a complete change of DNA, should absolutely love the movie. One of the picture's best moments, a long and generally terrific swordfight between Bond and Graves, actually recalls some of the anachronistic contests of Fleming's novels --- a nice if, no doubt, inadvertent homage to the creator of the character and the source of the billions of dollars the pictures have generated.
Die Another Day also represents just the sort of filmmaking that, like it or not, currently dominates far too much contemporary cinema. It positively explodes with all the slick, careful, accomplished, and colossally expensive techniques of the action blockbuster, which nicely distract from, and substitute for, such matters as plot, character, and emotional and intellectual content. The continuous movement at high speed and the flashy effects quite serviceably provide a sort of eroticization of violence, draining any actual eroticism or any hint of passion from its unconvincing and puerile sexuality.
As for the actors, well, nobody except the usual media shills would regard any of them as more than adequate, though they do not, at least, disgrace themselves. Pierce Brosnan maintains a certain suavity, which means that even after hand-to-hand combat, his tuxedo is unwrinkled and his hair is all in place. Halle Berry looks quite lovely in her bikini and a tight leather body suit, worn perhaps to honor Honor Blackman of an early Bond flick. Otherwise, aside from all the gadgets and gimmicks, the product placement --- which these movies raise to a high art --- makes watching Die Another Day seem rather like thumbing through the advertisements in a stack of high-class, slick magazines. Come to think of it, that also pretty much sums up the movie's dedication to the false and shiny surfaces of life.
You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:15 a.m.; rerun on Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.