The spy who went into the cold
Pierce Brosnan continues to bring his gifts to the role of James Bond, and for that we can be thankful. However, the screenwriters have let him down a bit this time. To be sure, Die Another Day (known during pre-production as Beyond the Ice) contains all the elements that have made this series so successful (no need to recount what those are, since just about everybody knows them). But the format seems to work best when it treads the line between pure escapism and the gritty atmosphere of international tensions. Here, we’re asked to follow Bond too far into science fiction.
It gets off to a good start. Agent 007 has been sent on a mission into North Korea near the Joint Security Area to assassinate a Col. Moon (Will Yun Lee), who has been dealing arms to South African terrorists in exchange for diamonds. After a lot of explosions and a merry hovercraft chase, Bond seemingly succeeds in killing Moon, but is captured by his target’s general father (Kenneth Tsang). After 14 months of torture by scorpions, Bond is freed in exchange for Moon’s aide Zhao (Rick Yune), who bears the scars of their previous encounter: diamonds embedded in his face by an explosion.
Having cost Britain plenty, Bond is kept imprisoned by M (Judy Densch), too, but he finds the security measures lax and makes his way to a Hong Kong hotel. With the help of the Chinese govenment (who lost three agents to Zhao), Bond tracks Zhao to Cuba. There, Zhao is in the middle of a DNA transplant, which is interrupted when Bond and American NSA agent Jinx Johnson (Halle Berry) bust up the place trying to kill him. All three agents escape the fireworks, but are reunited in Iceland following the diamonds, which were manufactured by flamboyant multi-billionaire Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens). Graves has built an ice palace on top of a glacier, and has gathered VIPs there to introduce his secret project: a huge, satellite bourn mirror in space he calls Icarus, which can make arctic tundra into farmland. Of course, its true purpose is as a terrible weapon, and Bond has to stop Graves’ evil plan while exonerating himself by killing Zhao.
The plot is pretty good, and the action sequences terrific, but credibility is stretched into Moonraker territory at several key junctures. One point comes when 007 is training at a secret underground base using a shooting range built by Q (our friend John Cleese), which uses virtual reality technology closer to a Star Trek holodeck than anything available now. Another is the ice palace itself – I know that there are frozen hotels, but the movie takes the point too far. Besides, even on a glacier you can never see the casts’ breath. And then there’s Bond’s escape from the giant sunbeam off the edge of the glacier, which he accomplishes by fashioning a surfboard out of the bonnet of a rocket car. Optical effects have never been a 007 strong point, and during this sequence Brosnan looks like Frankie Avalon “surfing” in front of rear-projected ocean. Speaking of which, did I mention 007 has an invisible car this time out?
Still, there’s never really been a bad 007 movie, and this one has all the merits mentioned above, plus strong female characters and the novelty of a James Bond held under torture, then cast out by MI6 to fend for himself. Oh, and Madonna proves she can’t act her way out of a black leather teddy once again.