Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Sunday, November 25, 2012
On October 5th of this year I was fortunate to attend a special event at the Motion Picture Academy celebrating the history of music in the James Bond series, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the release of DR. NO in England on that very day. It was an enjoyable evening, featuring appearances by the likes of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY composer Bill Conti, lyricist Don Black and best of all legendary guitarist Vic Flick who performed the James Bond Theme on the same guitar he first played it on in 1962. Throughout the night clips from the films were naturally shown—a number of the famous title sequences but also various scenes that spotlighted the music featured, seemingly at random, on both 35mm and digital (you can guess what looked better). It was a reminder of how these movies in particular gain from seeing them on the largest screen possible—I wonder if anyone there got as much of a kick out of seeing the climax of A VIEW TO A KILL projected more than I did. One other such clip shown was from DIE ANOTHER DAY which in just a few minutes managed to spotlight some of both the good and bad of that film in equal measure, moving from the cool enjoyment composer David Arnold brought to the Cuban section to the misguided spotlight put on its female lead.
Probably the most spectacular entry starring Pierce Brosnan and a huge hit besides, its success didn’t stop the producers at EON from making the surprising decision to reboot on the next film with a new star beginning completely from scratch and now a full decade after its release the reputation of DIE ANOTHER DAY seems to have maybe spiraled downward as an offshoot of that decision. The first thing that comes to mind revisiting the film is the terror upon realizing just how fast time has gone since November 2002 but once I’ve calmed down I find myself placing it in the context of the time—the overriding feeling of CGI sound and fury that was really beginning to be prevalent during that period while also coming at a point before the BOURNE influence really began to be felt all through the action genre. I can’t bring myself to totally dislike the film since I can never allow myself to be that negative about any Bond film but it remains a case where throughout there are elements that I find myself enjoying that are continually negated by all the noise and effects. Even though I’m not quite ready to put it on the list of all time worst Bonds that some do—there’s at least an energy found in all the mayhem a few entries that might be worse really don’t contain—I still wish the film would at least try to me halfway.
After a mission to North Korea is botched resulting in Bond (Pierce Brosnan) being held captive and the presumed death of Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) Bond is held captive for 14 months and when he is released in a prisoner exchange for Zao (Rick Yune), Moon’s second in command. After M (Judi Dench) informs him that his status as a 00 has been compromised Bond escapes heading on the trail of the diamonds and of Zao, who he learns has headed to Cuba. There, while preparing to infiltrate a private gene therapy clinic Bond meets the mysterious Jinx (Halle Berry) who clearly has her own interest in whatever is going on that intersects with what the rogue agent is investigating. The diamonds Bond recovers on the site leads him to a mysterious billionaire known as Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) sending him back to England where he encounters Graves’ assistant Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike) and another encounter with M that sends him off to Iceland on the trail of Graves and what he may really have in store for England, Korea and the world.
As I write this it’s November 2012. SKYFALL has happened, quickly becoming an enormous success and I’m still trying to process exactly what the film is. Whatever that might be, it feels so different from what has come before, not just in a light/dark way, that much as I admire some of the film I’m still trying to place it in the context of the series. Due to the nature of the ending I’m very curious where things might possibly go from here but as for DIE ANOTHER DAY the series as we then knew it of course went nowhere from there. Eventually it was learned that Brosnan was out, done after four films, sent off to the character actor salt mines. The rumored Halle Berry/Jinx spinoff movie never happened. Any arguments over how the concept of canon could possibly work in the James Bond universe were null and void. As Daniel Craig made his first appearance in the opening of CASINO ROYALE, none of them happened. James Bond as we knew him was dead. Long live James Bond. We didn’t see any of that coming on opening night of DIE ANOTHER DAY which at the time felt like it had more hype attached to the release than any of them ever had before. I think they all will from here on to the end of time.
Directed by Lee Tamorhori, the film at the very least feels more dynamic in its staging than the somewhat anemic Michael Apted-helmed THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH but, like the opening gunbarrel which this time adds a bullet zooming directly towards the viewer, it also feels more hyperactive while at the same time considerably more overbearing and leaden in its approach. It’s as if it’s trying way too hard to get excited about every single piece of action, adding in the occasional swooshing camera effect as if trying to boost up the excitement by any means necessary--even the opening bursts of the familiar theme at the start of the gunbarrel feel just a touch overblown. Part of the film’s reputation in memory seems to be centered around the prevalent invisible car Bond is given by Q which quickly became a Jar Jar Binks-type shorthand for everything wrong with the film and maybe even everything wrong with the series up to this point. To be charitable, this may be one of those cases where the good becomes a little forgotten due to how much the bad stuff is allowed to overtake everything else. There are elements in there (written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade) that feel right if you look for them but they’re just on a different scale and belong to a different film than they’re making--the enjoyable interplay between Bond and the Kerim Bey-type Cuban sleeper agent Raoul played by Emilio Echevarría never really amounts to anything beyond just a pleasant stop along the journey but it’s a nice diversion in the middle of all the mayhem while cutting 007 loose from Universal Exports for much of the first half allows for a looser approach both from the film and Brosnan’s own performance, looking ahead to how he would really loosen up while playing this sort of role in THE MATADOR a few years later.
From the moment Bond in tatters strolls nonchalantly into that Hong Kong hotel to the point he reaches Iceland for the big Gustav Graves presentation I honestly feel ok with the plotting of it all. There’s some funkiness, some eccentricity that comes from Bond wandering around Cuba with his tour around the Cuban gene therapy clinic briefly taking on a certain MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN vibe and Bond’s clandestine meeting with M feels like an opportunity to not only fill things in on the exposition front but also to settle down and in this unusual location of a mysterious abandoned Undergound station (“I’d heard of this place. Never thought I’d find myself here.”) acknowledges the mystique as well as the tradition of the entire series, lending a genuine sense of weight to all that surrounds it. It’s sort of a revenge story allowing Bond to get back at who betrayed him in North Korea, but not really—the Brosnan entries generally seemed unwilling to focus on one clear goal in the stories and too much of the time the film goes for the spectacle it all has to culminate in, that overwhelming feeling of sound and fury to the point where many things are barely noticeable or just too much overall--the opening surfing sequence which was probably hell to shoot but goes by so fast you barely noticed it while the fencing sequence where Bond and Graves spar off goes on so long and so loud with music blaring everywhere (this sequence aside, I like David Arnold’s score for the most part this time out) that all the fun just seeps out of things and it becomes too much of a slog. It’s a sequence that may have played as nimble during the Roger Moore era of shooting a henchman out of a tree and simply walking away with an eyebrow cocked but here just becomes too overwhelming for the sly ridiculousness that maybe should be felt.
And as much as the film pays lip service at the start to presenting a Bond in a somewhat different place things soon return to how they usually are—based on M telling him “While you were away the world changed” his reply “Not for me” indicates that even 9/11 doesn’t change James Bond (I guess it took the producers of the series to ultimately do something about that). By a certain point Bond just becomes another figure within all the CGI madness and it’s possible that the apparent aim to also make the film something of a vehicle for Halle Berry, maybe the biggest star to ever be a Bond Girl, makes things somewhat lopsided. Certain early reports had the actress playing a villain—whether true or not (it’s understandable that they would have wanted the recent Oscar winner to be the lead, not to mention any touchiness that may have come from an American portrayed as a bad guy soon after 9/11) and if this was how Michael Madsen as CIA agent Falco was originally going to be a part of things that would make sense of why his character never seems to serve any purpose. In the case of Berry’s Jinx this is the rare Bond film where the first girl Bond meets is also the final girl he winds up with in the end—not that this is automatically a bad thing it just turns them slightly more problematic in terms of the focus in relation to what the established formula is. The script seems to portray Jinx as a somewhat enigmatic figure from the start but the way the film presents her and how Berry plays the character she really can’t turn out to be anything other than what she is and in terms of dialogue she’s never written very much beyond wisecracks—all we know is that she’s named Jinx because she has bad luck from being born on Friday the 13th, but that never really matters. Much of Bond, even during the Brosnan era, is meant to remain an enigma but he’s James Bond, with decades of association to him and Berry never gives off any indication that there’s anything going on under the surface to make her the she badass needs to be. She’s just kind of a showoff and it’s not enough. Plus the lack of any mystery to her makes it a little too obvious where the plot is going--on first viewing I thought the film might pull some kind of triple bluff with the revelations involving Rosamund Pike’s Miranda Frost but instead of intricacy to the plotting it just goes in straight for the kill, maybe only interested in the action that things have to build to and ultimately it’s not very satisfying.
The plotting of Bond’s investigation leading to involving Gustav Graves is kind of a mashup of DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER with LICENCE TO KILL along with dashes of a few others in there and I can’t even bring myself to say very much about it since I find most of the stuff involving Graves and North Korea to be uninteresting—the detail of the character not being able to sleep, a presumed side effect from the genetics surgery, feels like just another one of those details tossed in that never amounts to much, like Robert Carlyle’s bad guy in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH having a bullet in his brain. As the 20th film the film has subtle and no-so-subtle tributes to each of the other films throughout including the beats I’ve already mentioned but one favorite of mine might be Brosnan aping a Connery THUNDERBALL move by popping a grape in his mouth while slinking through the gene therapy clinic. These touches are in DIE ANOTHER DAY if you want to look for them but the film is more interested in the big stuff to allow for a satisfying narrative—the CGI, the gargantuan action setpieces, trying to keep Brosnan happy by giving him enough to do in scenes while also tailoring it as a stealth vehicle for the other star. With all these pieces taped together the structure that is DIE ANOTHER DAY is sort of able to remain standing but not very securely. The Iceland setting is fantastical which I don’t mind but all the sneaking around soon turns into action that goes on forever, with some terrible CGI and after a half-hour of all this there’s still the climax to go. It’s at least not a half-hour climax like TOMORROW NEVER DIES but fun as it sounds to have it all take place on a burning plane cutting back and forth between the two fights happening simultaneously it’s all just more noise. Maybe that’s all these movies are meant to be in the twenty-first century. Of course, CASINO ROYALE found another answer to the question of ‘what should a Bond film be?’, so I guess I’m allowed to continue asking.
Whatever he may have thought of the material, Brosnan exudes total confidence in the role by this point, confidence that comes through in the character’s declaration that he threw away his cyanide capsules years ago. Whether or not he knew this was the last shot at it he’s fully comfortable in the character’s skin, particularly during the first half when the character goes rogue. Berry is more problematic—I honestly prefer her in roles outside of her ’00-’04 career peak (BULWORTH mainly, but she’s also very good in the recent CLOUD ATLAS) but here she doesn’t seem to be playing anything other than “Halle Berry Movie Star”. She looks great, no complaints as far as that goes, but there’s no character and during those moments where she puts a ‘scared’ expression on her face she doesn’t seem to realize how playing it this way kills how cool she could possibly be here. Toby Stephens manages the appropriate sort of arrogance as Graves, while Rosamund Pike as Miranda Frost feels like a character that could have used some sharpening in rewrites but she does a terrific job, bringing an unexpected intensity to even a few lines during her quiet briefing with ‘M’ and is one of those cases where it feels like a little bit of a letdown when she’s revealed as ‘just’ a bad guy, nothing more. Colin Salmon as Charles Robinson, Samantha Bond as Moneypenny and John Cleese as Q make their final series appearances (I’ll bet Cleese in particular just assumed that he’d be playing this part until the end of his days), Dench does solid work as ‘M’ with maybe the strongest tension ever felt between Brosnan and her, Madonna sings the (not very good) title song while also appearing briefly as Verity during the fencing sequence (“I don’t like cockfights,” she intones flatter than a pancake) and Michael Madsen plays CIA agent Falco, looking as if he has no idea what he’s doing there but the bit where he pops a cigarette in his mouth as soon as the threat is vanquished at the end is the most human moment in the entire film. Too bad he never got to play the role again either in further Bond films or whatever that Halle Berry spinoff movie was going to be.
Speaking of those small moments--on opening night at the Cinerama Dome the big stunt in the film, that awful CGI effect that’s supposed to be Halle Berry diving off that cliff, got absolutely zero response from the crowd. On the other hand, a throwaway gag with Moneypenny paying off the tension between Bond and her near the very end caused the place to absolutely explode. Sure, these were hardcore fans so they didn’t care very much about Halle Berry but somewhat indicative of how the film didn’t seem that interested in the things that weren’t about all that bombast. The film broke all the expected records at the time but maybe somewhere deep down this feeling was part of what caused EON to change course for the next film. It’s always been a little puzzling to me why they went so drastically different on CASINO ROYALE, a film I absolutely love, and whatever the reasons were they certainly went beyond not wanting to pay Pierce Brosnan’s fee anymore. It’s still a shame that his tenure as Bond seemed to fall short for reasons not so much having to do with him. On the other hand, DIE ANOTHER DAY is still a James Bond film. And considering the drastic changes that have occurred in the series since it’s almost as if it’s is the last Bond film, or at least the last with any real ties to the ‘classic’ continuity. So I can’t completely hate it even though my wishes that I could like it more than I do it will always fall short. As the YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE-influenced David Arnold love theme swells to a conclusion DIE ANOTHER DAY ends with a cheap joke (no surprise) of Jinx asking Bond to ‘keep it in a little longer’ until we get to see what she’s actually referring to. I’ll bet Pierce Brosnan wanted to play the character a little longer too. Of course, even when you get to embody one of the most famous characters ever life sometimes falls short. Maybe I’ll never get the perfect James Bond movie that’s in my mind. Maybe nobody will. Pierce Brosnan certainly never got to star in one, whether his first or his last. SKYFALL really isn’t but none of these are QUANTUM OF SOLACE either so I’ll try to look at the bright side. These films will continue to be fought about by people like me who spend way too much time thinking about them and I suppose as long as we have James Bond films to look forward to over many Thanksgivings in the future there’s always going to be a chance that the perfect one will come along sooner or later.