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Bond Forever

"Die Another Day" might be the worst James Bond movie ever made. And yet the 007 mystique won't go away.

11:00 PM, Nov 21, 2002 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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IT'S A SAD FACT of life that longevity confers respectability. If you hang around long enough, eventually, you become revered, no matter how second-rate your work is. Take, for example, Helen Thomas. If the dim, crotchety White House correspondent was in her fifth year on the job, she'd be a laughingstock. As it is, she's an "institution." This principle holds for things as well as people. The history of architecture is filled with structures which are thought, initially, to be ridiculous, but are eventually adored (the Eiffel Tower, the Vietnam Wall, the former World Trade Center).

The same can be said for movies. If a movie lives long enough--which is to say, spawns enough sequels--it becomes immune from criticism. So it is with James Bond. It means nothing to say that "Die Another Day," the 20th Bond movie, is abysmal. It's useless to review "Die Another Day" as we would "The Thin Red Line" or "The Manchurian Candidate"--or even "Speed." The Bond movies are such institutions that they can only be regarded in respect to one another. All we can do with "Die Another Day" is sift through the Bond canon and try to find its proper place.

If you stop for a moment to consider the success of the Bond franchise, it's truly staggering. It has given birth to countless imitations and managed, nearly single-handedly, to keep a major movie studio financially afloat. It is so iconic that there is even a successful franchise of parodies. No other fictional property can claim more longevity or fruitfulness.

Ian Fleming began Bond in 1953 with the novel "Casino Royale." He churned out a new Bond book every year for the next nine years until Bond made his way onto the screen in 1962 with "Dr. No." Over the next 40 years, 19 more Bond films would be made.

The film franchise was never overly dependent on Fleming for much more than Bond's name. Fidelity to the source material was almost non-existent; when Fleming sold the rights to 1977's "The Spy Who Loved Me," he stipulated that the filmmakers were allowed to use only the title of his book--not the plot. By 1995, with "Goldeneye," the films existed entirely on their own, without any reliance on Fleming's work.

From the start, the movies have always been trivial--high on style, short on intelligence, subtlety, continuity, artfulness, you get the picture. But what style! When Sean Connery first leered across the screen in his Saville Row suit, it was as if Hugh Hefner's America had become flesh. Bond was everything the '50s Playboy man wanted to be: Lewd, polyamorous, and classy all at once. The secret, of course, was his accent. If an American were to tell a girl, "I hope my big end can stand up to this!" he'd be a troglodyte. When a Brit does it, he's dashing.

"Dr. No" was such a runaway success that a Bond movie was made every year for the next six years. But the series fell, quite quickly, into relying on technical and dramatic crutches. By the fourth installment (1965's "Thunderball"), the series was increasingly dependent on spy gadgets to help with plot mechanics. In 1977, with "The Spy Who Loved Me," the franchise moved from cinematic espionage to comic-book pap: The villain wants to start a nuclear war so that mankind will be forced to live under the sea. He has webbed fingers and a henchman named Jaws, who is indestructible and has steel teeth. As Andy Lane and Paul Simpson say in their book, The Bond Files, "['The Spy Who Loved Me'] is seen as marking the place where the rot began to set in."

"The Spy Who Loved Me" was the beginning of a dark period--creatively speaking--for Bond. Nineteen seventy-nine saw the release of "Moonraker," one of the most preposterous--and profitable--entrants in the Bond oeuvre. This middle period would come to a close in 1983, the year that two competing Bond movies were released: The quirky, entertaining "Octopussy" and the depressing, mean-spirited "Never Say Never Again." In many ways, "Octopussy" was the apex of the Bond series with tightly written plotting and dialogue--thanks no doubt to an original screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser, of Flashman fame.

After "Octopussy," the films began to change. For one thing, as United Artists, the parent company which produces the series, continued to falter financially, the Bond movies became increasingly important profit centers. Product placement, always prevalent in Bond movies, would soar to new heights, as the studio sought to wring every potential dollar from the Bond machine. And 1985 began another marketing gimmick: the stunt-casting of theme songs. Prior to 1985, the theme songs were performed mostly by mid-level talent, or Shirley Bassey (a former lover of series song composer John Barry). Starting with "A View to a Kill," the Bond theme songs have been performed by: Duran Duran, a-ha, Glady Knight, Tina Turner, Sheryl Crow, Garbage, and now Madonna. Singing a Bond theme song today is like being booked on "Saturday Night Live"--only hot, top 40 artists need apply.

But another, more significant change began with "A View to a Kill." Bond began as a spy movie and turned into a superhero movie. But in 1985 it began genre-shifting again into a flat-out action movie. Through the mid and late '80s, the Bond movies steadily added shoot-outs and explosions until, with 1995's "Goldeneye," they were nothing more than a series of elaborate set-pieces: "Die Hard" without the craftsmanship. (It is a testament to the essence of "Goldeneye" that the Nintendo video-game version of the movie out-grossed the film itself.)

Yet still, people flock to Bond. It doesn't matter how bad a Bond movie is--what matters is simply that it is, and, almost as importantly, that it appears, at least in the surface details, to follow the template of every other Bond adventure. So long as James makes the quips, plays with the toys, mutilates the bad guys, and gets the girls, people go home happy. When you're an institution, 100 percent of life is just showing up.

ALL OF WHICH SUGGESTS that "Die Another Day" should be a resounding success. Director Lee Tamahori, whose last job was directing a video-game version of James Bond, has chosen to throw in many an homage to the series: Bond poses as an ornithologist (hinting at the character's roots). The bombshell Jinx makes her entrance in a manner almost identical to Ursula Andress's in "Dr. No" (and wearing a similar bikini). At one point, Bond goes to a secret MI6 post where he wanders through a museum of gadgets from films past, including, among other things, the alligator from "Octopussy" and the jump-pack from "Thunderball."

But there's no joie de vivre. It goes without saying that the plot is incomprehensible (a rogue North Korean colonel uses "genetic manipulation" to turn himself into a Brit so that he can build a satellite that can be used as a weapon to take over South Korea and then the world). And full of movie-logic (in a scene straight out of the Adam West "Batman" or "The Simpsons"--or "Goldfinger" for that matter--a villain decides to kill Jinx not by shooting her, but by cutting her up with a laser drill that starts inches from her face and moves slowly, slowly, slowly toward her, until the cavalry can arrive). And, of course, derivative. As John Cork and Bruce Scivally point out in their excellent James Bond: The Legacy, this is the third Bond movie with a villain trying to use a satellite as a weapon.

But in "Die Another Day," it's irony without wit, camp without fun. After vanquishing a foe, Bond's (primary) female companion, Jinx, quips, a la Jerry Springer, "Bitch." She tells another goon, "Your momma."

(A note on Halle Berry: At last year's Academy Awards, Berry won an Oscar for Best Actress and, in her speech ranted quite hysterically about the barriers she was breaking down and the discrimination she has faced as an actress of color. Berry was awarded her Oscar for "Monster's Ball," but her two previous roles were in "X-Men" and "Swordfish." Now here she is as cheesecake in a Bond movie. I can't think of another actor whose Oscar-winning role was bracketed by such embarrassing work.)

But the worst scene in "Die Another Day" comes in a sequence where Moneypenny finally has her moment with Bond and the two of them have at it on her desk. It's played for laughs, but it is the meanest, least chivalrous moment in the entire series. It calls to mind Barbara Bel Geddes's breakdown in "Vertigo."

If nothing else, "Die Another Day" will be remembered for this bit of ingenuity: The producers found a way to get product placement for three different cars. Jinx gets a Ford Thunderbird, the villain gets a Jaguar, and Bond gets his Aston Martin. The negotiations for how the duel between these machines was to proceed must have been dizzying.

So where does "Die Another Day" fit in the hierarchy? Somewhere beneath "Moonraker" and above, say, "Casino Royale."

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.

Correction Appended, 11/22/02: The article orginially that "Goldeneye" was released in 1991, not 1995, and that the theme song to "License to Kill" was performed by Patti LaBelle, not Gladys Knight.