I get to be equal to James Bond. How much fun will that be and how empowering will that be? Not only for me as a woman and as an actress, but for other women.
— Halle Berry
Miranda: I take it Mr. Bond has been explaining his big bang theory.
Jinx: I got the thrust of it.
— Die Another Day
Ouch, ouch, ouch. The opening credits sequence of Die Another Day shows James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) being tortured almost to death. Captured by a crew of North Korean axis-of-evil-types — peeved because he’s come to kill the vociferously ambitious Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) — Bond spends some 14 months being battered, kicked, half-drowned, burned, and stung by scorpions, again and again. All this under Madonna’s catchy dance tune/title song, and the usual dissolving girly figures: icy, fiery, and generally ethereal and alluring because, well, women just be that way in Bond pictures.
Amid the good fun, the torture looks fairly brutal. This even though it’s not so clearly represented as the abuse in Madonna’s music video (directed by Traktor), in which she endures similar ice-bucket-dunking, glass-smashing, slapping, and kicking by “Korean”-looking men in uniforms, as well as fencing with her-double-self, appropriately set in a Bond paraphernalia museum. Madonna’s black eye and bloody injuries appear close-up and dirty, her yoga-fied sinewy torso twisting and resilient: no tasteful silhouetting for Ms. Ambition.
Still, Bond’s shadowy version shows him kneeling and collapsing, enough so you understand that, even if his psyche remains intact, his body aches. Indeed, by the time he’s exchanged for a North Korean prisoner, the dastardly Zao (Rick Yune), Bond is spectacularly beat-down and hairy (no shaving in prison). He limps out to the exchange spot, in tattered prison pajamas, his eyes blinking from his ordeal. And when M (Judi Dench) sees him back at HQ, looking weak and tied up with wires and tubes, she insinuates he divulged info while drugged and so, he’s “no longer useful.”
Such impugning of his character upsets Bond, of course. Seconds later, he’s escaped and on his way to find out who betrayed him in North Korea and redeem his reputation. From here, the film delivers what you expect — numerous explosions and stunts, excellent cars (Bond’s silver Aston Martin V12 Vanquish, Zao’s green Jaguar XKR); fabulous ice (here as diamonds and an elaborate “ice palace” in Iceland, site of one big showdown); large weapons; and an array of sensational adversaries.
One of the North Korean villains has a particularly nasty “issue”: he’s so self-hating and driven to rule the world that not only does he engineer a satellite that’s a combination artificial sun/laser-gun satellite (a bit too profoundly named “Icarus”), he also engages in some genetic replacement therapy, so that he turns into a white, imperial-seeming British diamond magnate who dabbles in genetic engineering and world-destroying satellites.
Bond’s own issues likewise have to do with self-identity. Not only is he feeling rejected and vulnerable in this 20th film of the Broccoli series, he’s also looking increasingly antiquated. That’s to be expected after a 40-year run, but with XXX and the rest of the extreme generation rolling up on him, 007 has to work a little harder to seem current than when everyone knew he was the smoothest, best equipped spy on the block. Now, he’s got “nostalgia” jokes — an old, sputtering jetpack in Q’s (John Cleese) gizmo collection, a cigar smoked with an old friend in Havana (after 13 years not smoking on screen, he’s upset anti-smoking activists).
However you read the cigar business (granting that sometimes it is just what it is), Bond’s interaction with Cuban wheeler-dealer Raoul (Emilio Echevarría) gives him a rare chance to discuss “politics,” for a minute. Bond, himself recently called an “assassin,” says he’s looking for a terrorist. Sage Raoul comes back: “One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter,” but Bond isn’t buying. He knows Zao is all-bad, and the film agrees, scarring him like a classic Bond villain, his face marked by a spray of embedded diamonds across his face following a previous encounter with JB, his eyes pale blue following an unfinished DNA transfer.
Bond’s general hardheadedness here is of a piece with his aging, with shots acknowledging the hard work of the “action” (that Brosnan isn’t really doing) — strained face, squinting eyes, occasional loss of breath — and a reference to his bad liver. (All that said, the film features an egregiously lame surfing stunt: Bond teetering on a board on a non-wave, back-dropped by the fakiest green-screening you’ll see this year.) Most troubling is the pile-up of stunts: everyone likes to see them in a Bond movie, but when they fill in for character and plot, they’re just a pile-up.
At the same time, and no surprise, Bond maintains his legendary status with females: Moneypenny still swoons when he (or a facsimile of him) comes near, and the iciest operative in sight, Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), resists until she falls, and her ulterior motives only make the liaison seem more pointless. The one woman who doesn’t take the plunge is a fencing instructor named Verity (Madonna), who was supposed to be overtly lesbian but whose most explicit references to her relationship with Miranda were cut out. She is left with one line, dismissing Bond’s very noisy and furniture-destructive tussling with an opponent: “I don’t like cockfights.” The moment is tight, but before you start wishing you has another scene in the film, recall Swept Away.
Bond’s boyish behavior is the least of his problems. His imminent obsolescence has been underlined by all the talk about franchise expansion. Much of this involves Jinx (Halle Berry), whose publicity quite outstrips her actual activity and screen time. She’s good with puns (important when you’re dealing with James Bond), a better shot, a decent mimic of Ursula Andress rising from the sea. Plus, she looks fierce in her leather catsuit. Still, all the love for Berry — she’s the first Oscar winner to play a “Bond girl,” the first black woman on a Cosmo cover in 12 years (and they say Bond is behind the times!), and the first Bond girl to have an animated website (hallewood.com), including links to other Halle sites, makeup tips (she being a Revlon girl before she was a Bond girl), and a Fan of the Month Contest — doesn’t really help Jinx.
Her primary trouble is lack of screen time: the film loses steam when she’s absent. And that’s related to her definitional limbo: Die Another Day is at once Jinx’s sidekick role and star vehicle, as before the film even opened, spin-off buzz started circulating (the “female James Bond!”). Apparently unbothered by Bond, Jinx is able to move in and out of his picture without expending much energy. She dives off a cliff, pilots a plane, blows stuff up, infiltrates the bad guys’ lair, and hacks off a corpse’s arm so they have a palm to scan at the lair’s exit.
She’s smart and self-possessed, and (thank goodness) doesn’t appear so in love with James Bond as he is with himself. Jinx brings into Bond’s consummately white-guy heroic world a new possibility: a black woman who can do anything you can imagine him doing, at least when she’s not consigned to drowning in a melting ice-palace room (and while we’re on the subject, this silly set looks like one of Dr. Evil’s concoctions). Even Jinx’s one-liners update Bond’s (admittedly, this doesn’t take much effort), while maintaining a requisite corniness. Case in point: Zao ties her to a board and threatens her with a laser beam. He hisses, “Who sent you?” She juts out her jaw: “Your mama!”
Assuming Bond is inevitable and we can’t even wish for his retirement, the primary downside to Jinx’s contribution to Die Another Day is structural. The climactic sequences (and there are too many) are spread over the two heroes’ clashes with villains. Predictably, the frantic crosscutting dilutes the thrills. More to the point of the Bond franchise, Jinx looks better — more threatening, more fun, and a whole lot slinkier — in her formfitting camouflage than Bond. If she’s not exactly “empowering… for other women,” she’s surely doing the job for herself.