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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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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.