Friday, December 18, 2015

The World's Going Up in Flames and They're Still Playing at Toy Soldiers! (Die Another Day)

fig. 1: "I don't want to spoil it, but I'm straight-up the best thing about this movie."
You know when the film starts with your main character being tortured over months and months in a North Korean prison and you're totally in to it, you have a complicated relationship with that character.

I have fond memories of Die Another Day even though I know it is a piece of shit. I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan in the summer of 2002, and didn't really know anybody. I had a room mate, a friend from High School who knew a whole scrum of interesting people. Her friends gradually became my friends, down entirely to their generosity of spirit. Die Another Day was one of the first outings I went to with them, and the first I think where my room mate didn't make it. I think she has the same issue with James Bond films as my wife does. But that's later.

Die Another Day opens with what's become de rigueur for the franchise, a cold open in which the perpetually smarmy Bond quips and explodes his way through some major international incident, all without breaking a sweat. Then he's caught. Then he's captured, and tortured, and poisoned. I  vividly remember watching this sequence in the theater thinking "Oh yeah. This is so James Bond didn't stop 9/11," which, as the tenuous relationship these films have with realpolitik, isn't totally out of the question. When Bond gets out, M tells him that while he was gone the world changed. Unfortunately for the Brosnan era, James Bond didn't.

There's a glimmer of the movie that could have been in that first half hour. The hovercraft chase is surely overblown, and a little silly, but Will Yun Lee is a charming, charismatic presence, and the North Korean setting allows James Bond to go after real-world bad guys for a change. Then Bond is caught, and tortured, and effectively disavowed before going on the lam to try and crack this thing on his own.

Shortly after this, the film loses its way. Nothing in the Brosnan era was ever going to approach the flavor of verisimilitude the Craig films would later attempt, but there's a tug-of-war between realism and outright camp in Die Another Day that realism soundly loses, and if it's not when Bond shows up at a swanky Hong Kong hotel looking like Aquaman than it must be right about when Bond and Jinx stumble on the DNA machine.

fig. 2: Jinx

Jinx. It wasn't until researching this film for the rewatch that I learned the reason Halle Berry was cast was to spin her off in to her own film series. It makes sense. Coming fresh off her Oscar win for Monster's Ball, she's just a bit too A-list to be another of Bond's flings, and it helps explain the jarring presence of Michael Madsen in this film, who acts as if he's already starring in this other franchise. Some time I'll get around to checking off all the Americans in these films and what that might say about a British film franchise whose primary demographic seems to be American men. Maybe when we get to Joe Don Baker.

Had this whole gambit payed off, who knows? Maybe we'd be seeing Alexandra Shipp playing the new Jinx. Maybe it would have deformed the franchise's later attempt at changing course. Maybe it would have sailed away into stranger waters. None of this happened, of course, because Die Another Day was largely terrible, and Jinx wasn't any help.

Indeed, the film is crammed with so many elements, the idea that it could somehow serve as a back-door pilot for a Jinx film franchise (effectively launching a "James Bond Cinematic Universe" a full decade before every movie studio in Hollywood went gaga for the idea) is completely ludicrous. At a glance, we have: (A) A North Korean Colonel turned English Aristocrat through (B) Some kind of Star Trek-level DNA re-sequencing machine, who (C) is laundering conflict diamonds through a front in Iceland, leading to (D) an entire set-piece involving a collapsing ice palace, whose collapse is caused by (E) an orbital space laser composed of and funded by those diamonds, and leading to (F) a supercar fight, where (G) one of the belligerents has a straight-up cloaking device, the whole Orbital Doom Laser possibly? made possible by (H) a mole in MI6 who seduces and betrays James Bond--as one does--the same mole that gave up Bond (I) way back in North Korea, before the (J) torture and disavowment.

None of it hangs together. Any two or three of these elements, given time to breathe, might have made a more compelling film. Even the racebending, by far the most questionable element in this film, could have worked if given some semblance of thematic heft. Colonel Moon is one of the few bad guys to pose a threat not to Bond's life, but in the beginning of the film at least to Bond's position as the point of the spear of Western Paternalism. Turning up all rebuilt, giving smug whiteness better than the guy who's made it his brand for forty years.

To be clear, I am not of the opinion that any of these movies have to be weighty, brooding tomes, or even that Bond himself needs to question his place in the world. But the Brosnan era suffers from a dearth of things to say, and in light of the eye-opening tragedy a little over a year previous, this silly ramble through face-changing and diamond lasers seems almost crass. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this film is in less bad taste than it seems looking back with a decade plus of hindsight. Maybe, a year after a bunch of assholes thought the best way to talk to God was to use a bunch of airplanes to commit mass murder, we needed a light and fluffy spy adventure about DNA machines, laser satellites, diamond-encrusted bad guys, and Halle Berry. Maybe this was how the Western World heals.

In any event, if not caught up by real-world events, James Bond is definitely caught up by those in cinema. Not only the aforementioned Mr Bourne, but also by the shift in movies and particularly on television toward more complex, less straightforwardly-heroic characters. Though everything about James Bond speaks to that nuance--he is even here, for what I believe is the first time, explicitly referred to as an assassin--he is never played or written as anything other than straightforwardly heroic. You get the sense, particularly with non-James Bond films in which Brosnan appears that he is keen to subvert that image. Here, in his fourth outing as the character, Brosnan seems largely checked out. His Bond films always veer between the winking entendres of the Roger Moore era and a simmering anger that hearkens back to Dalton and Connery. Brosnan is very, very good at playing that seething rage, but can't overcome the kind of crap writing that delivers such lame quips as "I missed your sparkling personality" to the guy with the diamond shrapnel in his face and the MRA entitlement that substitutes for seduction when he tries to neg a fellow MI6 agent into bed by telling her she must prefer this palace of ice since she doesn't immediately want to fuck him after knowing him all of five minutes. Not quite the "men want to be him, women want to be with him" dynamic. Next thing you know, he'll be peacocking.

Though Die Another Day would go on to be financially successful, it couldn't dodge both the shifting landscape of popular culture and the general feeling that it came off a damp squib of a movie. Pierce Brosnan would continue to play subversions and iterations of the title character (as he did in 1999's sublime The Thomas Crown Affair remake), particularly in The Matador where he is just a delight. His entire era, which in hindsight feels like an era in transition, would give way to something else. Something new.

fig. 3: Off into the sunset

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