This was the year that all the super-spies came gunning for 007. Jason Bourne had a crack at the cold-war chic and vicious punch-ups. xXx went for the outrageous stunts and nicked its plot from Thunderball. Heck, even Austin Powers cranked out an all-action pre-title sequence. Nice try, lads – A for effort, pat on the back for ambition – but, like all the wannabe Bond beaters over the years, you were only ever going to be the rest. As his 20th outing easily proves, 007’s still the best.
The mission this time? Well, after a big-bang opening sequence in Korea, Die Another Day settles down into grown-up global double-crossing and some hard-nosed espionage. Someone’s framed Bond and James ends up out on his own, looking for answers. Hunting down the Korean connection, he finds a trail leading from Cuba to London and then off to the Icelandic diamond mines belonging to businessman Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens). En route, JB crosses swords with Graves’ sexy PA Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), scarred heavy Zao (Rick Yune), oddly familiar-looking fencing coach Verity (all right, it’s Madonna…) and the usual disposable heavies and mad scientists. Not to mention Viagra-on-legs Jinx (Halle Berry).
Reacting to the challenge from the new spies on the block like a can of petrol reacts to a match, the mother of all franchises has finally decided to stop cruising and start accelerating. CG effects, martial arts, hovercraft chases, sword fights, virtual reality, rocket-powered ice-sleds, modern geo-politics, surfboards, torture, invisible cars… They all get stirred into a melt-yer-fillings pyrotechnic brew that still, somehow, finds time for the traditional Bond virtues of girls, gags, gadgets and good guys saving the world.
It doesn’t all work out, of course. There’s an itchy half-hour after the pre-title sequence where Die Another Day seems to be trying hard not to be a 007 film. Bond is stripped of his toys, his aura of invulnerability and even his grooming, as the agent who never even experimented with designer stubble ends up, post-torture camp incarceration, as a hairy, bearded man-beast. The pre-Brosnan Bonds have all tried to show the man behind Her Majesty’s finest, but none of them put him through the wringer like this. It’s brave, it’s interesting and it’s different, but it does clog up the action arteries a bit.
Then, like an overstretched elastic band, all of this bleakness snaps away, and the film shoots off in a completely different, gloriously glossy direction. From being the anti-Bond, Die Another Day U-turns to become the most Bond-like Bond film since Goldfinger. And that, boys and girls, is when it really takes off.
In rapid succession, DAD punches out two snarling action set-pieces, including the franchise’s first-ever sword fight, spectacularly reintroduces John Cleese as the new Q and starts mainlining some genuinely gut-clenching humour. Meanwhile, anniversary in-jokes reference highlights from 007’s career to date. Thunderball’s jet pack, From Russia With Love’s spiky-toed shoes and Halle Berry’s gentlemen-you’re-drooling, Dr No-style bikini are the most obvious, but assorted other juicy (ahem) titbits are scattered through the movie for the faithful to pick up like lumps of candy.
And that’s all before it segues into a rollicking, camera-spinning final hour of megalomaniacal villains, car chases, mammoth sets and do-or-die quipping as exciting, funny and sexy as anything the series has ever produced.
Like the franchise, Brosnan’s not past it yet either. Actually managing to look younger as the film goes on, he slips inside the character as easily as Bond slips into a tailormade suit, balancing the sly charm and innuendo-heavy chat with the need for bouts of ruthless violence and casual killing. He’s certainly good for one more outing (though two might just be stretching it).
But he’s not the only secret agent here who should make a return visit. Stuff yer Bournes, xXxs and Powers – if there’s one spy who could challenge JB for world dominance, it’s Halle Berry’s Jinx. Slick, sassy and oh-so-sexy, the Oscar-winner kicks even more ass than she wiggles, matching Bond blow for blow. There’s never been a 007 spin-off before, but there should be one now. Who knows? In 40 years’ time, we could be wondering who’s going to be the next actress to play Jinx…