Tag Archives: Die Another Day

James Bond: What’s next?

Looking to the future.
Looking to the future.

With what can now safely be called the Bond Begins trilogy coming to a close, as Skyfall ends, in essence, right where Dr. No commences (at least thematically if not quite chronologically), the logical question becomes, where does James Bond 007 go from here?  Absent any hard information about Bond 24 for the time being (save a confirmation of Skyfall’s John Logan returning as screenwriter), 007 fans will return to their usual far-fetched speculation about titles, creative personnel and theme songs, while every D-list actress and reality starlet’s publicist will plant specious stories about their perpetual wannabe clients being pursued by “desperate” 007 producers to star as the new Bond girl (can we collectively agree going forward that after stacking up massive critical acclaim – including five Oscar nominations – and grossing over a billion dollars on Skyfall, Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli are anything but desperate?)  What is of interest to me is not the minutiae of who plays whom and who directs what; it’s what will be done with the character of James Bond.  With the ghosts of Vesper Lynd and M laid to rest, anything is possible for the next chapter.  But will the producers slip lazily back into formula, or will they push through to something new and untested?  Even Skyfall borrowed from previous Bonds, using a facially-scarred former MI6 agent as the villain (Goldeneye) and centering the plot on M’s dark past (The World is Not Enough).  There is an obligation now, it seems, to outdo past glories yet again, lest the disparaging reviews write themselves (“Well, it’s no Skyfall, but…)  Is James Bond finally trapped by his own success into running aimlessly like a tuxedoed mouse on a wheel?  I’m sure no one wants to return to the era of Bond in the 80’s, where an aging star creaked his way through formulaic plots assembled lazily by committee with no deeper insight into Bond’s character.

I’ve lurked on the message boards of major and lesser-known James Bond websites for years, and it’s always mildly amusing to read the ideas that are pitched for future adventures.  Some are quite awful.  Others are simply impractical.  A great number are recycled, whether deliberately or in subconscious plagiarism, from what has gone before.  What is most interesting though is the almost uniform approach these well-meaning fans take – to whit, the place from which they begin:  the villain and the plot.  The bad guy should be this, that or whatever (usually a fairly one-dimensional stock madman) and his plan should be to threaten to do this.  And in fairness, some of the plots that are concocted are fairly elaborate, if awfully familiar.  The biggest question that arises when reading these synopses is, where is James Bond?  (He often isn’t plugged in until the third paragraph, usually in afterthought:  “…and Bond has to stop him.”)  With apologies to my fellow Bond fans, they’re all missing the most crucial ingredient for any story that draws inspiration from the classical hero’s journey – what is that journey?  Why is he taking it?  What will he learn about himself along the way?  How will he forever be changed by it?  Anyone trying to dream up a realistic Bond 24 plot needs to answer these questions before they start dreaming up cheesy names for seductive, large-breasted henchwomen.

To resolve the issue of where does Bond go, we have to look back at where he’s been over the last three films.  He has loved and been betrayed (Casino Royale), he has learned the futility of vengeance (Quantum of Solace), and in Skyfall he has buried his “mother.”  What do you take away from the man who’s lost everything?  I mentioned in one of these 007 posts somewhere along the way that there is a theme running through the entirety of the Bond series – less pronounced, perhaps, in some of the more pedestrian efforts – that being James Bond withers the soul; that his life, despite its exotic trappings, is not one to be envied or emulated.  What keeps Bond going is what Silva mocks him for in Skyfall:  “England, the Empire, MI6… so old-fashioned.”  Even in Quantum of Solace, as Bond seeks to strike at the organization responsible for Vesper’s death, duty remains paramount in his mind, cemented by his final declaration to M that “I never left.”  The films have never touched on in any great detail where Bond’s sense of duty comes from.  As an orphan he seeks to identify with any parental figure, and given that governments are frequently described both in positive and negative terms with parental analogies, it’s not too difficult to see why such a “maladjusted young man,” as Vesper calls him, might gravitate toward public service – first, as indicated in Bond’s official biography, in the Royal Navy, and ultimately in its Secret Service.  Queen and country is what drives Bond, ironically, even with his “pathological rejection of authority based on unresolved childhood trauma.”  In reviewing The Man with the Golden Gun, I talked about the oddity in the construction of the plot that had Scaramanga scheming to create a monopoly on solar power that would drive the oil companies out of business – something of a laudable goal, not your typical supervillain scheme that threatens the entirety of humanity.  Yet Bond is still driven to stop him by any means necessary, out of fidelity to England.  Scaramanga himself points this out when he tells Bond, “You work for peanuts… a hearty ‘well done’ from Her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension.  Apart from that, we are the same.”  Skyfall literalizes this sense of duty to country by personifying it as M, and yet, even after her death, Bond’s England soldiers on – as does he, recommitted fully to his work and arguably, his destiny, as he happily accepts a new assignment from M’s successor before the final fade out.

But what if this were all taken away?

What has never been examined in any great detail in any of the 007 films is Bond’s moral compass, absent his loyalty to England.  What if England itself was the enemy?  Who is Bond then?  What if Her Majesty’s loyal terrier is compelled to break off the leash – what if doing the right thing means betraying queen and country?

Some might argue that Licence to Kill touches on this briefly, as Bond walks away from M and England to pursue private vengeance, but the film features only one brief scene set on British soil (not even filmed there, ironically) and Bond never actually questions or betrays his fidelity to his homeland, he just considers retribution for Felix Leiter to be more important at the time.  So as far as I can tell, this is completely unknown territory.  (Quantum of Solace did flirt with this idea of Bond being considered a rogue by his own government, but the screenplay was so underwritten it never took the time to explore this idea to its fullest extent.  In that movie, despite pretensions of being on a mission of vengeance, Bond is really doing Her Majesty’s work his own way, and simply not stopping to file the required TPS reports.)

I’m not saying I expect Bond 24 to follow this line of thought.  Such questions tend to veer into the realm of the political, and Wilson and Broccoli, like her father before them, shy from making political statements.  Villains of a particular nationality are usually portrayed as rogues, with a sympathetic character from the same homeland always included to disavow all official connection with them – witness the genial Soviet General Gogol versus the crazed General Orlov in Octopussy, or the conciliatory North Korean General Moon against his megalomaniacal son in Die Another Day.  From Russia with Love’s adaptation changed the bad guys from the novel’s Soviet Union to the stateless SPECTRE.  Yet you can see the groundwork laid for an exploration of these shadows in Quantum of Solace – the usually reliable CIA (at least in the Bond movies) are portrayed as willing accomplices in a Bolivian coup d’état, and one of the leading members of Quantum is a “Guy Haines,” said to be a top advisor to the British Prime Minister, and whose fate is left unresolved at the end of the film.  And the worldwide audience is at a place now where trust in government is at a record low.  Corruption and incompetence is expected and tolerated; democracy is an exercise in spending rather than ideas.  And yet one can see the threads of the greatness that once was drifting in the cynical wind – hope has not been extinguished yet.  Where is Bond’s Britain on this new political map?  Is David Cameron meant to be the “PM” whom Q, Tanner and Mallory worry about in Skyfall?  Does Bond worry about what cuts to the National Health Service may mean for his martini-damaged liver?

In Skyfall, we saw a James Bond who wasn’t sure he wanted to be 007 anymore – addicted to painkillers and doing tequila shots at a beach bar, before family loyalty called him back into service to try and regain his classic self.  The man who stumbles around in exile in the first act, drinking Heineken (horrors!) as he can barely be bothered to notice the beautiful girl lying next to him, is a man without purpose.  At the end, as he stands on the rooftop of Regent’s Park contemplating the promise of the morning sun and the Union Jack soaring in the breeze, Moneypenny hands him his final gift from M – her prized porcelain British bulldog; bequeathing M’s sense of duty to a greater calling that she knew in her dying moments that he shared.  A powerful gift – and if it is somehow taken away from him, what becomes of Bond then?  Bond vs. England to save it from itself would be a powerful story, with Bond forced to question everything about who he is and whom he’s chosen to align himself with.  From this seed, the rest of the story can spring forth.  Then you can start figuring out the shape of the ideal, modern villain who could somehow turn Bond against his own homeland, and a love interest who can help Bond smash the conspiracy and restore honor to his life.

I should be clear – I am not interested in a rehash of the exhausted “one man must clear his name, the villain is his former mentor” trope that was every action movie released in the late 90’s.  Nor do I want to see Bond turn into Jason Bourne, pursued relentlessly by agents of the organization he is trying to leave behind.  This would be Bond choosing to betray his country for a compelling reason, and the consequences of that betrayal.  Testing whether Bond’s loyalty is truly to Her Majesty or to a deeper moral code, hidden somewhere in the murky ambiguity that accompanies a licence to kill.  Stripped of any issues of loyalty, where is James Bond on the grand divide?  Can a man who murders people for a living be, fundamentally, a good man?  That’s the question my hypothetical movie would want to examine, and my starting point for developing the screenplay.  If, you know, I got the call from Eon.  That phone can ring anytime, guys.

Wherever John Logan, Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli choose to take 007 next, just as a fan I hope for two small things, both involving the leading lady – first, I really hope we’ve seen the last of the “Bond’s equal” female spy, a la Jinx, Wai Lin, Anya Amasova, etc.  As I’ve said before it’s an unimaginative stock character that gets shoehorned in when there is no more logical reason for having a love interest in the movie.  And second, after three movies where Bond ends his adventure alone, it would be nice to see the poor guy have a walk-into-the-sunset moment with a gorgeous companion at his side, in a cleverly-written scene that doesn’t involve puns about how many times Christmas comes in a year.  Everyone Daniel Craig’s Bond has slept with has died, and he’s earned an old-fashioned Connery-in-the-raft ending, methinks.

Sigh… long wait to November 2014.

Skyfall Countdown Day 3: Die Another Day

“Yeah, I didn’t like her last album either.”

It’s become fashionable in Bond fandom to wear one’s contempt for Pierce Brosnan’s 007 swan song as a snarky badge of honour; to attempt to one-up other anonymous keyboard wielders with profanity-laden schadenfreude at the movie’s expense.  Yes, it’s over the top, yes, it’s dabbling in the dreaded science fiction arena again, yes, the special effects are dodgy and we’re not sure that what Madonna’s doing in it can be charitably called “acting.”  But the way professed fans go after this movie with raging hate-ons about everything from the CGI bullet flying through the opening gunbarrel to the villain’s robo-suit does little to diminish the perception of fandom as the proverbial bunch of spoiled virgins squatting in their parents’ basements on a diet of Doritos and Mountain Dew, so thoroughly jaded as to be unimpressed by anything.  It has its faults, but it’s simply not that bad a movie.  Most of the criticisms levelled at The World is Not Enough (those that did not solely blame Denise Richards) accused it of being too low-key and having a confusing plot (i.e., one that isn’t explained on a blackboard for the slower members of the audience).  In preparing Die Another Day, the filmmakers wanted to streamline the story and bring back the notion of Bond movies feeling big.  In that, I believe they succeeded.  But let’s delve deeper, shall we?

The story begins with 007 undercover inside North Korea on a mission to assassinate the rogue Colonel Tan-Sun Moon (Will Yun Lee), who has been trading illegal African conflict diamonds for arms.  A rogue MI6 operative exposes Bond to Moon’s henchman Zao (Rick Yune), and following a hovercraft chase through the Korean DMZ in which Moon is apparently killed, Bond is captured, imprisoned and tortured for fourteen months.  He is eventually released, traded back to the West in exchange for Zao, stripped of 00-status and about to be packaged off for rehabilitation.  But Bond, who believes he’s been set up, escapes British custody and with the aid of Chinese intelligence finds his way to Cuba, where Zao is undergoing a peculiar form of DNA-replacement therapy designed to transform his appearance.  It’s here that Bond first encounters NSA agent Giacinta “Jinx” Johnson (Halle Berry), who’s also hunting down the resourceful Korean.  It seems Zao is paying for his “makeover” with African conflict diamonds bearing the laser signature of Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), which leads Bond back to Britain and eventually to Graves’ ice hotel in Iceland, where the diamond magnate is demonstrating his Icarus satellite, which can redirect solar energy anywhere on earth.  With Jinx’s help, Bond discovers that Graves is in fact the presumed-dead Colonel Moon, having undergone DNA-replacement therapy to take on a new identity, and that Icarus is actually a destructive solar laser.  And Bond finally meets his betrayer – MI6 agent Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), who has been assisting Graves/Moon in his master plan to use Icarus to detonate the minefield in the DMZ and give North Korea’s million-man army a clear path to invade the South.  Everything comes to a head in the skies above Korea as the two countries teeter on the brink of war.

Die Another Day was the first Bond movie to be made after 9/11, when the idea of the hero shifted away from the wry smirk of the testosterone-jacked Uzi-sprayer to the self-sacrifice of the first responder and the common man finding bravery in his darkest moments.  It also came out in a time when Jason Bourne was first carving his cinematic mark, and when the makers of the Vin Diesel vehicle XXX were bragging publicly about wanting to take down the Bond franchise with their hyperactive, video game-inspired knockoff, accusing 007 of being a spy movie for grandfathers.  Despite ever-escalating box office numbers, Bond was again in danger of irrelevance.  The solution was to stage the next movie as a celebration that would remind audiences why they loved Bond in the first place.  Director Lee Tamahori was clearly interested in giving a much larger scale and faster pace to this 40th anniversary outing, and he and writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade packed the screen with sly references to almost every Bond movie that had come before (diehards claim there is indeed a reference to every preceding Bond movie, but some of them are probably just wishful thinking applied to coincidences).  Octopussy’s Acrostar jet, Rosa Klebb’s spike-toed shoe and Thunderball’s jetpack are just a few of the toys on display in Q’s lab this time around.  The plot borrows an unused element from the Fleming novel Moonraker in the shaping of its villain, a man who appears to have gone from nothing to a highly-respected member of British society in a short amount of time but is in fact a foreigner bent on destruction.  Some of these homages do come off as recycling, especially in the space-based weapon angle we just saw in Goldeneye a few movies ago.  But Die Another Day is essentially a greatest hits package, and in between the familiar and the winks to Bond’s past we do see some terrific individual scenes, and an attempt to do the same old things in a stylistically different way.  And some people just didn’t like that very much.

The first half of the movie is the tribute to Bond’s past, while pushing him into some interesting new directions.  It’s a bold decision to show the unstoppable 007 suffering the brutal consequences of failing in his mission, and looking for the first half hour of the movie like a refugee from Cast Away.  It being a PG-13 movie, we were never going to see the true horrors of torture, but Tamahori and director of photography David Tattersall incorporate black-and-white cinematography and different film speeds to make the audience uncomfortable.  In addition, the image is slightly desaturated in the opening North Korean section of the movie to add, subconsciously, the feeling of a cold and bleak foreign land, in contrast to the warmer, richer colours of the Cuban portion of the movie.  When Bond arrives back in England (to the strains of the Clash’s “London Calling,” another choice that upset a lot of fans for no apparent reason), Tamahori unleashes the finest action sequence of the entire film (once Madonna’s limp cameo is out of the way): the swordfight between Bond and Graves.  Beginning with epees, the battle escalates with samurai swords and tears apart half the club before it’s stopped.  Wisely, Tamahori never cuts away from the two characters as they duel – John Glen would have added all sorts of comic reaction shots of people diving out of the way, staring at their drinks in disbelief and so forth.  We the audience then, never get a breath from this intense and memorable exchange – to our benefit.  Like the best action beats, this scene works better because there is some emotional underpinning at work, even if it is, at heart, as Madonna describes, a “cockfight.”

Bond’s arrival in Iceland at Gustav Graves’ ice hotel begins the portion of the movie that fans had the most trouble with.  They didn’t like Bond’s invisible car, the scene with Bond escaping (via CGI) from the collapsing ice wall, or the use of speed ramping in the editing of Bond’s high-speed chase with Zao.  The invisible car actually isn’t that much of a flight of fancy, being an extrapolation of technology actually developed for military use.  I’ll concede the point about the ice wall, not because the special effects and the use of a digital Bond in a series renowned for its real-person stunt work are suspect, but because the entire scene could be lopped out of the movie with no letup in the narrative.  The speed ramping reminded too many people of The Matrix, I suppose, but when one considers the style contrast between the old-school spy movie of the 60’s at work in the movie’s first half and the leap ahead into the future in its second, it makes sense, and there’s enough energy at work here to keep the picture moving even through some of its saggier bits.

I do have issues with Die Another Day in a couple of areas.  Firstly, the acting is a real step down from some of the impressive work done in The World is Not Enough.  The relatively unknown Stephens, who would go on to play Bond in a series of BBC radio adaptations of the Fleming novels, is the best of the lot, punching above his weight to deliver a snarling performance that stands him in good stead against some of the more famous actors who’ve faced off against James Bond in the past.  Some criticized Stephens’ interpretation as petulant, but again, it’s logical when considering the nature of the character, a young North Korean seemingly spoiled by an unfeeling father and a longing for the excesses of the West.  John Cleese is a delightful (if short-lived, as it would turn out) successor to Desmond Llewelyn as Q.  But other than that it’s verging a bit on amateur hour, U.S.A.  Halle Berry would win an Oscar prior to appearing in this film, but she’s relying a little too much on sass to create a likeable character, forgetting that sass in and of itself doesn’t equal memorable.  In fairness to her, she doesn’t have much to work with in yet another “Bond’s equal” female agent role – the played-out archetype Bond’s screenwriters resort to when they can’t think of a more logical reason to have a love interest in the movie.  (A plan to give Jinx her own spinoff movie series was mercifully abandoned.)  Rick Yune is kind of a non-factor, lowering his voice to sound menacing and skulking about in slow motion, and for a supposedly lethal killer, we never actually see him kill anyone.  And Judi Dench goes terribly underused here after factoring so significantly into the action of the previous movie.  Secondly, the dialogue is hammy, trading nuance and character for pun after pun.  It hasn’t escaped notice that Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, now credited with co-writing their fifth consecutive Bond movie on Skyfall, are often rewritten by others, but here they are in full command of the script and one longs for the deft, literate touch that Paul Haggis would provide on the forthcoming movie.

But at the end of all that, much like Moonraker, I still give a thumbs up to Die Another Day.  I appreciate the nods to Bond’s past, I like some of the riskier touches, I can even appreciate the ones that don’t work for the attempt alone – and when the classic Bond theme kicks in, I can’t help being pumped.  Die Another Day is, as I said, Bond’s greatest hits, and much as you do often want the intellectual challenge of the more difficult concept album with its experimental tracks, sometimes it’s better to kick back and put on the party mix where you know every song is going to be one you love.  Die Another Day is a movie full of flaws and miscalculations, but it succeeds on the question of entertainment, and those inclined to waste megabytes trashing it might want to just give it a rest – for the sake of their own sanity.  There are much more important things in the world to get upset about.

Tomorrow:  Back to the beginning.