In Which There’s Sex For Dinner and Death for Breakfast
Ah, James Bond, 007. A Franchise so titanic in its cultural legacy and influence that it is practically impossible to talk about, even in the discrete sections of individual movies. How can one reckon with a singular franchise that has 25 movies released over the span of nearly 60 years. The mind boggles at just the amount of stuff that is contained in these celluloid worlds. A whole universe counter to the entire history of recent cinema exists in this single series. As such I doubt I’ll be able to hit on every point that needs to be made.
The Bond franchise is fascinating in many respects, but perhaps it’s most fascinating is that it is a near perfect reflection of the popular culture into which each film is released. For Bond is unique in that it is both the bleeding edge of cool, and constantly fighting a existential war against irrelevance. The fact that the lead actor is constantly recast, but also desperately needed to hang on is an ideal representation of this. As a franchise Bond needs to be hip and with it, but it also has to grapple with the fact, that even early on, it had an enormous legacy that it also has to cater to.
So that’s how we end up with a balance of Bond movies that riff on current Hollywood trends while also sticking to an expected formula that plays on deeply ingrained iconography. It’s a structure that allows the series to riff on a variety of tones and genres (blaxsploitation, sci-fi, and Die Hard-esque action) while still technically being a part of a larger whole. It also means, with rare exception, that it’s an incredibly reactive series. One that, outside of the cliches and tropes it dreamed up itself, wholly plays off what the audience might want at any given moment. So as a cultural canary, 007 is invaluable resource, as each film plays as what the producers think is needed to get butts in seats.
This is important because there is no larger gulf between what a Bond film looked like in 2002 and what it would become in 2006. While not even the largest gap between movies or eras, it represented the most radical shift in structure that the franchise has seen, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that Bond aping early 2000’s aesthetics lead to the pretty disastrous topic of today’s entry: the ugly and lugubrious Die Another Day.
Pierce Brosnan’s stint as the man with a License to Kill is quite interesting in and of itself. When GoldenEye rolled around in 1995 it was one of many Hail Mary’s in the series. A project where everything had to go just right for the franchise to continue in a meaningful way after the end of the Cold War. And here’s the thing, it totally did. GoldenEye isn’t a perfect movie, but it does a good job of moving Bond into the Go-Go 90’s while having spiffy action and a charismatic lead.
Unfortunately Brosnan’s Bond quickly found itself in a weirdly hostel environment for the series as a whole. Just a year after GoldenEye another spy series based on material from the 60’s took off with Mission: Impossible. Simultaneously each subsequent Bond film with Brosnan had to contend with the suddenly popular mockery of the franchise from the newly minted money mill of Austen Powers. Despite still being a lucrative project the Brosnan era quickly found itself at the short end of many a joke.
So at the conclusion of his run Brosnan was in a bit of sticky situation, both positioned of being outmoded in popular culture, and totally politically unprepared for how to contend with a post 9/11 environment. So the result is Die Another Day, a movie that tries to chase every trend that seems to be cool while living in a bizarro fantasy land where the dastardly North Koreans are the foes of the world. It indulges in some of the goofiest elements in the entire series, while also constantly insisting that this is the coolest shit in the world. Like you wouldn’t believe how cool this is, look at it.
What’s incredible is that Die Another Day cycles through some of the hoariest Bond tropes while insisting it’s hip and with it. The main plot involves both a giant space laser (seen in projects like Moonraker and GoldenEye) and a gross point about people changing races (which popped up in You Only Live Twice). The difference here is that the whole thing is awash in an ugly early 00’s sheen. A look that relies on hyperkinetic editing and a reliance on some incredibly dodgy special effects.
Frustratingly the setup here is actually not a terrible idea. While off in North Korea, Bond gets captured and is imprisoned for more than a year. Once he gets out he realizes that M would have let him out to dry, and he decides to engage with his own connections to uncover why his operation got blown in the first place. So he gets to traipse about Hong Kong and Cuba for a bit, but this really doesn’t lead anywhere, because as soon as the first act concludes this thematic idea is mostly abandoned for rote formulation on what a Bond film needs to be. That formula includes big bad Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), the alias assumed by a Korean general after Bond kicks him off a cliff, planning to burn down the world with his space laser. Bond has to stop him with the help with Jinx Johnson (Halle Berry) and the duplicitous Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike). Bond eventually goes from Korea, to Cuba, to England, to Iceland, and back again. All soundtracked with thudding club beats and garish effects.
The problem with the movie can be basically cut into two parts: it looks horrendous and the it takes itself way too seriously for the actual content on screen. To try and get ahead of mocking critiques director Lee Tamahori leans into the too cool it vibe while including elements like sneak surfing and invisible cars. You see, these elements are not inherently a problem for the film, but the film keeps insisting that these things are slick and not silly. Like when you speed ramp a shot of the invisible car you are insisting that what’s being shown on screen is the thing an audience will go wild for. Instead you are highlighting the ridiculousness in a manner that demonstrates how goofy the whole experience truly is.
This is also linked to the general look of the film, which takes all the wrong lessons from stuff like The Matrix and The Phantom Menace. What we have here is an overblown looking feature that also has the textural template of late 90’s screensaver. Even before we get to the ropier digital effects the whole thing is just color timed to hell. The washed-out look of the cold open, or the chintzy glassiness of the Iceland sequence. Each just turns the exotic local into a set for an ugly music video.
And boy the effects. Usually I’m forgiving of outmoded technologies in movies because it adds a sort of kitsch factor to what is being presented. That a movie of this scale could only look this way at a particular time. While that holds true for Die Another Day, the work is just so atrocious that it slices the eyes with the bad compositing, rendering, and lighting on hand. A rubbery Halle Berry jumping from a cliff, or a PS1-esque looking wave on which James Bond surfs. It’s all just so bad and distracting, and you wished they had pursued different setpieces for the technology they had at the time. One of the joys of many of the old Bond films, despite their myriad flaws, is the extravagant use of miniatures and practical effects, and here that joy is surely sapped away as the run time drags one.
Don’t forget the truly puzzling politics of the thing. Yes Bond has always had an icky perspective on world affairs, but here it is just laughably offensive. Portraying both Koreas in such piss poor manner that it invoked an official response from South Korea minister who said it was, “the wrong film at the wrong time.” But as you’re watching you realize just how it plainly does not make sense in a world after September 11th. Yes, yes North Korea has continued to be an ongoing issue in world affairs, but in 2002 it proved to be laughable when compared to the state of the world.
So in the effort to get out ahead of being the butt of the joke, the Brosnan run ended on one of the most laughable entries in the series. If this was how 007 would respond to the current Hollywood trends and world events, than maybe the mockery from Austen Powers was needed, and a replacement by another supermassive spy franchise was in fact good. And look what else popped up in 2002, both Spider-Man and The Bourne Identity played much better to what audiences were interested in while also being stellar movies in their own right. Bond had truly become a dinosaur, and would need a miracle of sorts to continue.
Odds and Ends
- How’s the theme and title cards? Both terrible. The Madonna song is just chintzy sounding club music that feels like an out of date conception of where music is at, and the graphics accompanying turn the implementations of Bond’s torture into sexy ladies.
- Halle Berry is honestly a great call for a Bond girl, she just won an Oscar, played a key role in the the nascent superhero boom with the X-Men movies, and is undeniably attractive. But she’s also shockingly absent from a great deal of this movie. Not popping in till around the thirty minute mark and basically disappearing till the third act.
- Hey I forgot Rosamund Pike is in this movie, and she has had a nearly twenty year career of almost becoming a mainstream and not quite cracking it.
- For all the shit given to the Star Wars prequels it is undeniable that the work they did with CGI was lightyears ahead of where almost everyone else in Hollywood was at. Watching the giant computer wave made me realize that.
- Going to be a bit of synergy between this week and next, as Lee Tamahori also directed the sequel to xXx, the delightfully subtitled xXx: State of the Union.
Next Week: Vin Diesel isn’t your daddy’s spy in xXx.