As ever in a Bond film, the Americans get it wrong, and it’s left to the Queen’s
loyal subjects to make things right. And in Die
Another Day, the latest installment in the greatest moviemaking franchise
of all time, the New Zealand director Lee Tamahori shows Francis Ford Coppola
a thing or two about the waves off the coast of south-east Asian peninsulas.
If Robert Duvall’s Bill Kilgore thought he was being wild and crazy surfing
off the coast of Vietnam, he’d have been put right in his place by the opening
sequence of the new 007 flick: James Bond and two sidekicks surfing their way
in to North Korea – at night, no less – on some of the
biggest waves you’ve ever seen in your life.
The film never lets up from there. Tamahori seems a little over-reliant on
the rush-cuts of John Woo: no need to explain how we got from A to B if you
can simply make a whooshing sound, speed the film up a little, and jump straight
into the action elsewhere. But it doesn’t matter: he’s got the gadgets, the
punchlines, the cocktails, the banter, the girls, the exotic baddies down pat.
He also has the attention span of a gnat. Die Another Day is 132 minutes
long, but it never even thinks about getting boring: it passes in a rush of
adrenaline, and you’re shaking when you leave the theatre.
I have quibbles: although I love Judi Dench as M, I’m tired of her leaving
her office the whole time and putting herself in harm’s way. The virtual-reality
jokes set in MI6’s Vauxhall HQ are obvious, and the second one risks jeopardising
the timeless relationship between Moneypenny and Bond. And although no Bond
film would be complete without a gadget-filled car, I really don’t see the point
of having two gadget-filled cars face off against each other on some
frozen lake in Iceland. Oh, and while I’m at it, the convention of having the
baddies scream for a second as they realise their impending doom is getting
very tired (although, conversely, the convention of having the baddies always
choose the slow-and-spectacular death over the quick-and-easy is here gloriously
Part of the problem, I think, is that although Bond films have always sent
up a certain genre, they’ve now become that genre, and they’ve become
reduced to sending up themselves. Bond plays with his old gadgets in Q’s lair,
and old Bond films are referenced more than once: a car chase in an ice palace
which is a facsimile of one in a car park in Tomorrow Never Dies (I
think); Halle Berry emerging from the Caribbean in a two-piece in an unmistakeable
homage to Ursula Andress in Dr. No. I’d also like to think that that
the horribly bad back-projection in the Icelanding surfing scene is some kind
of a nod to Roger Moore’s skiing sequences: I can’t think of why else they did
But for all that it’s becoming harder and harder to come up with something
original, this remains one of the best Bond films in memory; indeed, it could
well be the best since Sean Connery hung up his license to kill and disappeared
off to start selling whisky to the Japanese instead. Bond shows his normal flair
not only at surfing but also at fencing, in a fantastic scene which almost (but
not quite) matches the swordfight in The Princess Bride; and Halle
Berry makes a superb Bond girl, with attitude to match her high-diving skills.
The credit, I think, is to be shared equally between Tamahori and Pierce Brosnan.
The keepers of the Bond flame have done extremely well by taking critically-acclaimed
filmmakers (Tamahori directed the Maori film Once Were Warriors; Michael
Apted, of The World Is Not Enough, is an acclaimed documentarist),
giving them silly budgets, and telling them to go have fun. Tamahori has never
directed an action film before, but he did do an excellent job with the underrated
thriller Along Came A Spider, and he obviously loves Bond. This, for
all its knowing references, is classic Bond, complete with ’61 Bollinger and
sleeper agents for Her Majesty running cigar factories in Cuba.
Brosnan, for his part, is at this point a master of the Less Is More school
of acting. When he finds a Chinese secret agent in his hotel room, he merely
hints at what he would do if he could be bothered to act: he knows that what
we’re doing is remembering Connery do the same thing, so he more or less fades
into the background and lets our nostalgia take over. And when he’s chatting
up Berry on the terrace of a Cuban hotel, he basically lets his cigar do the
talking, as though he’s almost too sophisticated to actually deliver the lines.
As for the baddies, it’s interesting that they’re North Korean this time. It’s
also interesting that they’re renegade North Korean: even the old general thinks
it’s all a bit much. For all that the Americans exist in this film mainly to
perpetrate an all-too-plausible intelligence cock-up, they’re still setting
the geopolitical stage within which Bond operates. "The world has changed,"
M tells Bond at one point, "I don’t have the luxury of seeing things in
black and white like you do." Replies Bond: "Well, I haven’t
changed." For which we should all be grateful.