I was very surprised to discover many younger James Bond fans now consider Die Another Day (2002), the 20th official 007 film, to be the worst in the franchise's history. The instant embracing of and acclaim for new Bond Daniel Craig - after months of negative, pre-release buzz - in the subsequent entry, Casino Royale (2006), undoubtedly has been a factor. Though overproduced in the manner of You Only Live Twice and Moonraker, I found much to like in both this and its immediate predecessor, The World Is Not Enough (1999) including, to my surprise, Pierce Brosnan's performances as James Bond.
Coming off the television series Remington Steele, Brosnan wasn't just perceived by many as James Bond-Lite, he was Roger Moore-Lite - the one actor with even less gravitas than the former Saint. In fact Brosnan fought long and hard to bring the character back to something closer to Ian Fleming's original conception: a more hardened, psychologically-scarred and emotionally distant post-Cold War world spy. There was little of that in Brosnan's first outings, GoldenEye (1995) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), but in both The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, Brosnan's real potential as James Bond finally bubbled to the surface. Though neither film was perfect (the misbegotten casting of Denise Richards in the former overshadowed that film's many qualities), each pushed the envelope a little further, with The World is Not Enough practically a dry-run for everything that is good about the 2006 Casino Royale. In short, the Craig Bonds wouldn't exist as they do were it not for the foundation laid by Brosnan in the decade before.
Century City, We Have a Problem
Technical Issues: The high-def debut of classic 007 has proved a frustrating experience for many consumers. While there's been much elation about the enormously impressive Lowry-enhanced transfers, especially Dr. No and From Russia with Love, many are having trouble getting these and the other titles to even play on their machines at all. Statistics aren't available, but perhaps upwards of 50% of consumers have been impacted on at least some level.
For many but apparently not all, the problems can be fixed by doing a firmware update on one's Blu-ray player. Unfortunately, Fox has not exactly been helpful or, publicly at least, on top of this problem; to date they've made no official statement and are steering angry customers toward hardware manufacturers. The discs themselves come with an insert that reads, in part, "Although this Blu-ray disc has been manufactured to the highest quality standards, it is possible that it was manufactured after your Blu-ray disc player." This is a major disconnect with reality. Who out there doesn't buy / rent movies manufactured after their players? Is Fox unfamiliar with the term "New Releases," or that they account for 90% of their sales? Gimme a break.
The insert notes that, should you run into problems, "Your player may require an update. If an update is available, simply follow your manufacturer's guide...or contact the manufacturer's information center." In other words, legally we wash our hands of you. Even if there's no update. Even if we screw up. Go Fish. This is what is called disingenuous legalese.
That this kind of thing should happen on this scale with such prominent catalog titles is inexcusable, and exemplifies the finger-pointing between software and hardware manufacturers, a failure to assume rightful responsibility, that runs the risk in this economy of grinding the format's growth to a halt - and which is making collateral damage out of early adopters to the format. I discuss the issue further in an editorial courtesy DVD Savant located here.
The film opens spectacularly: On a mission to assassinate a rogue North Korean Colonel, secret arms dealer Tan-Sun Moon (Will Sun Lee), James Bond (Brosnan) assumes the identity of a buyer in order to infiltrate Moon's North Korean base. However, Moon's brother, Zao (Rick Yune), learns from a mysterious Western World source that Bond is a British Agent. An incredible chase ensues, during which Zao is injured and Moon goes over a waterfall to his death, just as troops - led by the brothers' unwitting General father (Kenneth Tsuang) - move in and capture Bond. He's imprisoned, tortured, and subjected to psychiatric drugs.
Fourteen months later (14 months later!) Bond is released back into Britain in a prisoner exchange for Zao, but "M" (Judi Dench), 007's boss, is not happy at all, suspecting Bond of "hemorrhaging information" while under torture. With his double-O status suspended indefinitely, Bond escapes British custody by faking a heart attack (how?) opting to investigate Zao's whereabouts privately. Financed by Chinese Intelligence (Zao had murdered several of their agents during the interim), Bond makes his way to Cuba where he learns Zao is undergoing DNA replacement therapy to permanently alter his identity. There Bond also encounters a sexy American NSA agent, Giacinta "Jinx" Johnson (Halle Berry). Further clues lead Bond to suspect naturalized British philanthropist and adventure-seeker Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens, obviously suggested by Richard Branson) of leaking information to Colonel Moon. Graves, for his part, is currently under investigation by another MI6 agent, Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike, classically beautiful), incognito as his publicist.
Die Another Day is obscenely over-produced, with enough eye-popping action set pieces for three or four movies, with far too much spectacle pushing the film toward out-and-out fantasy, with believability stretched well past the breaking point. The first third of the film, hardly short of action, is much more serious and Fleming-esque. Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade rather ingeniously lay all the groundwork for the film in the pre-titles prologue, a mini-movie all by itself rife with innovative action (no small feat in a series where everything's been done before - multiple times usually) while establishing several important characters and even introducing, albeit slightly, some interesting post-9/11 political discussion, unusual for the series. Instead of the picture stopping dead in its tracks for the usual Binderian titles, as is almost always the case, Bond's months of torture are actually dramatized through the titles themselves, another innovation.
Though Bond never cracks (or he does? We never know for sure), the film proper opens with Bond seemingly about to be executed, and the look of fear, desperation and, finally, reluctant resignation on his face is unmistakable. This is followed by a less than heart-warming reunion scene with M, beautifully acted by both, with smart dialogue all-around. Brosnan is excellent in these scenes especially. When he was first cast as Bond I thought the producers had made a terrible mistake, by the time it was clear he wasn't coming back for more I was genuinely sorry to see him go.
The rest of the film is highly entertaining and downright awesome in terms of scale, but after a while it's like wandering around an amusement park after eating too much cotton candy. The Bell Rocket Belt in Thunderball and Ken Adam's volcano set were pretty audacious by mid-1960s standards, but Die Another Day is like those movies to the tenth power. It's got an Ice Palace, a space satellite shooting destructive laser beams the width of Luxembourg, super-luxury cars are destroyed left and right, while Bond's own wheels, an Aston Martin (again), has a new, outrageous feature: invisibility. Though by 2002 standards there's an impressive amount of full-scale destruction and surprisingly plentiful miniatures, for the first time there's also an awful lot of CGI and green screen work, unrealistically giving Bond the agility of Spider-Man. Though ultimately highly satisfying, Die Another Day is preposterousness to the point that its outrageousness eventually starts working against it.
Fresh from Monster's Ball, Halle Berry is incredibly sexy though her character lacks depth. She's as unhesitant about killing bad guys as Bond, at one point casually dismembering a henchman's hand because she needs his hand-print, yet rather peculiarly she remains cheery and unaffected by all this grim violence. Looking at Bond, you'd think you'd just about have to fall in that narrow range between utter misanthrope and dangerous psychopath to be licensed to kill, yet Jinx is as affable as a Wall-mart greeter. The writers also go way, way overboard with the double-entendres; many are quite witty but others cross the line into the sophomoric.
And while at times it comes closer to the super-hero genre than the spy movie, there's just too much to like. There's a neat plot twist at the halfway mark; Madonna, who sings the jarringly (but not inappropriately) Techno-poppy title song, is surprisingly good in a small, uncredited role as a fencing instructor; late in the film is a genuinely exciting, heroic rescue; Brosnan is unexpectedly terrific; and the action scenes are extremely impressive.
Video & Audio
Die Another Day was filmed (mostly) in Panavision on Kodak stock with prints by DeLuxe in DTS-ES, Dolby Digital EX, and SDDS. The advantages of the 1080p, 50GB dual layer transfer are most noticeable in wide angle shots of the scenery, especially the Havana scenes (filmed in Spain), the subtle color palette of the ice and snow in the Iceland scenes, the detail in some of the effects shots and the opening titles, and in close-ups of the actors. The high-def picture does have its drawbacks, as it's also much more clear what shots were digitally manipulated via green screens, what shots are pure CGI, and so on. Many of the Iceland exteriors were faked on the Pinewood backlot, and in some shots you can even spot painted backdrops behind the cast, though the fake ice and snow is matched pretty flawlessly. My Panasonic Blu-ray recorder worked okay, though I could hear it trying to keep up, making jzzt-jzzt-jzzt loading noises during the second half of the feature.
The DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio reflects 2002 theatrical prints pretty well, the kind of bass-heavy audio orgy that'll have Grandpa Simpson shouting "Turn it up!" My one complaint is that the sound effects tend to drown out the dialogue a bit, which seems to be a frequent problem for Fox with these Lossless releases (A Bridge Too Far is an extreme example of this.) Also included is a 2.0 Spanish track and a French one in 5.1 Dolby Surround, and subtitles in English and Spanish are included. The disc is also Closed-Captioned.
As stated in my review of For Your Eyes Only, a big turn off is the "smart menu technology," which is quite inferior to the menus created way back in 1999 for the DVD release. The big problem is that they are hopelessly confusing, divided as they are with such cryptic headings as "Ministry of Propaganda," "Mission Dossier," and "Declassified: MI6 Vault." Even if you know what you're looking for, this menu isn't going to help you find it.
The supplements all appear to be carry-overs that originated either in the 2003 "Special Edition" or 2006 "Ultimate Edition" DVDs. Unlike some of the other Bond Blu-rays, none seem to have been remastered in part or whole in high-definition:
Audio Commentary with Director Lee Tamahori and Producer Michael G. Wilson (from the 2003 release)
Audio Commentary with Pierce Brosnan and Rosamund Pike (from the 2003 release)
MI6 DataStream Trivia Track (from the 2003 release)
"Inside Die Another Day" Documentary (from the 2003 release)
Scene Evolutions (Storyboard Comparisons) (from the 2003 release)
Multi-Angle Inter-Action Scenes (from the 2003 release)
Five featurettes ("From Script to Screen," "Shaken and Stirred on Ice," "The British Touch: Bond Arrives in London," "On Location with Production Designer Peter Lamont," and "Just Another Day"; the first one is especially good) (from the 2006 release)
"Image Database" (photo gallery) (from the 2003 release)
The only other extra is a coupon (via an Internet code) for the latest Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, due out in a few weeks.
Though some glass half-empty types might complain about the lack of brand-new extras, it seems to me six-plus hours of material more than adequately covers every facet of the picture imaginable (not having seen the 2006 material until now, I was surprised how good those later additions are). Ultimately, it's the movie itself that counts most, and it looks and sounds great. Of course, whether it'll play in your machine at home is another matter.
This reviewer is not at all happy that so many consumers are having trouble with these new Bond discs, but Die Another Day seems to be the title experiencing the least number of problems for consumers, so with the caveat about its player compatibility, it otherwise deserves its Highly Recommended rating.
James Bond will Return (in Casino Royale)
This review is dedicated to Forrest J. Ackerman