- The Washington Times - Friday, November 22, 2002

I was puzzled initially by one of the motifs in the opening credit sequence for the new James Bond thriller, "Die Another Day," the 20th installment in the durable line that began with "Dr. No" in 1962. Danny Kleinman, who inherited the main title imagery from the late Maurice Binder, envisions a trio of undulating females in what appears to be a molten state.

Could this be a hallucination experienced by the hero himself? Once again portrayed by Pierce Brosnan, he enters the credits in a fairly shocking condition, captured and then tortured by minions of the North Korean government after failing to navigate an escape route across the demilitarized zone during the prologue, which depicts an outrageous sabotage mission.

At the end of the credits, we learn that 14 months of captivity have passed, leaving Mr. Brosnan with a curiously burly physique and a beard to rival the Count of Monte Cristo's. Many a distressed image could have flashed through the mind of Agent 007 during the beatings and near drownings that also are illustrated in the same set piece shared by the lava-hued sirens. As this Bond movie continued to unfold and unravel, however, I was persuaded that Mr. Kleinman was anticipating the overheated defects programmed into "Die Another Day," subject to repeated meltdowns as a spectacle and espionage melodrama.

For example, we're destined to witness a literal meltdown of the villain's lair, a preposterous ice palace supposedly located in Iceland. For reasons that remain too bughouse to summarize, this improbable location (the hotel lobby appears to be heated by clouds of dry ice) becomes the target of the villain's devastating space satellite, an orbiting scourge called Icarus.

This hot-on-cold calamity polishes off a climactic sequence of cat-and-mousemanship that also determines which of Mr. Brosnan's new consorts, Halle Berry as a lethal and elusive huntress named Jinx Johnson or newcomer Rosamund Pike as a luxury item named Miranda Frost, can be trusted beyond the bedsheets.

Miss Pike, the more reluctant and suspect conquest, seemingly is attached to Toby Stephens as a youngish archdespot named Gustav Graves, who evidently can afford to turn Iceland into a spa one day and reduce it to a flooded fridge the next.

These four principal characters are destined to settle their rivalries inside a plummeting transport plane that starts to go molten during its uncontrolled descent. The eventual explosion is delayed until Mr. Bond and Mr. Stephens can duke it out in one compartment while Miss Berry and Miss Pike are dueling at swords' points in another.

By this juncture, the movie has exhausted your patience with so many preliminary, episodic meltdowns that the clincher is rather like a superfluous torture session. Your system has been so desensitized by gratuitous and uncoordinated sensationalism in this ironic case that it's a matter of indifference whether one or more of the contending parties is spared from a gory and/or flamboyant kiss-off.

In the aftermath of "The World Is Not Enough," the most stylish and ingenious of the Brosnan Bonds, released in 1999, it probably was unreasonable to expect anything but an off performance of some magnitude. The troublesome thing is that the magnitude turns out to be gargantuan in the hands of director Lee Tamahori, evidently less adept at preserving and upgrading a franchise than Michael Apted.

The same writing team, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, is responsible for "Die Another Day." Obviously, they aspire to a hard-nosed pretext by emphasizing Bond's ordeal in North Korean hands and then his determination to operate free-lance after being cast aside by Her Majesty's Secret Service, once again represented by Judi Dench as M and John Cleese as the new Q, whose sarcasm already seems a bit too practiced.

The writers seemed to have fresh tricks up their sleeves in "Enough." They seem to go prematurely grotesque and stale in the new film, which repeats what appears to be a favorite device for villains: deep-seated resentment in heirs preoccupied with formidable papas. It might be a welcome relief if the next Bond rediscovered the virtues of simple, uncomplicated despotism.

Miss Berry, who enters as a sea siren, wearing a replica of the bikini that adorned Ursula Andress in "Dr. No," proves a fetching playmate for the hero, and it's a comfort to discover that Jinx isn't concealing deep, dark motives. She can be savored as a hired gun in her own right.

It wouldn't surprise me if Toby Stephens, the son of Maggie Smith and the late Robert Stephens, emerged as a successor to Pierce Brosnan before the decade is out. The youthful self-confidence in his portrayal is already something of a rebuke to advancing middle age in Mr. Brosnan. It also might be fun to see Mr. Stephens teamed with the dreamy Miss Pike in a contemporary romantic comedy that took advantage of their stellar potential. They provide the movie with sounder sources of rejuvenation than the writers or the stunt specialists.

Rick Yune sports a memorable makeup job as a villain who ends up with diamond shards embedded in his face. A stealth update of the Aston-Martin needs some fine-tuning. It appears to be parked long enough to be discovered by dozens of Graves' henchmen, who might not see it but could collide with it. Eventually, it suits the convenience of the filmmakers to show such a collision. There has to be a better way of showcasing a car with a Harry Potter cloak.

"Die Another Day" seems to blunder into a scenic booby trap by allocating lavish time to the Iceland setting, most of which is simulated on studio sets and back lots and begins to look more laughable than ominous.

It doesn't help when Bond is left dangling over a bogus ice cliff from which no escape is feasible, particularly not the wind-surfing getaway improvised by Mr. Tamahori and his colleagues. A prolonged car chase begins on a real frozen lake, but the surface scarcely lends itself to coherent patterns of pursuit and escape.

An awful lot of strenuous and wrongheaded effort has gone into this anniversary Bond. It leaves you with what surely is a wrong idea: that the keepers of the franchise are eager to obliterate their meal ticket.


*1/2

TITLE: "Die Another Day"

RATING: PG-13 (Frequent violence in an adventure fantasy context; recurrent sexual allusions and innuendo; some gruesome illustrative details)

CREDITS: Directed by Lee Tamahori. Produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli. Written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Cinematography by David Tattersall. Production design by Peter Lamont. Costume design by Lindy Hemming. Special-effects supervisor Chris Corbould. Visual-effects supervisor Mara Bryan. Model-effects supervisor John Richardson. Second unit director Vic Armstrong. Music by David Arnold

RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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