Die Another Day (12A, selected cinemas)
The big difference between the Bond books and the Bond films is the formula. Ian Fleming didn't have one. Sometimes he put 007 up against evil megalomaniacs in exotic locations: but he also wrote The Spy Who Loved Me, a tale of small-time hoods told by a young woman — une jolie Quebecoise, of all things — in which Bond doesn't turn up until halfway through, and From Russia With Love, with its gorgeously vivid Bond-free Soviet prologue, and a dozen or so short stories, one of which — Quantum Of Solace — is little more than a colonial dinner-party anecdote. Fleming had amazing confidence in his character's adaptability to form: it's a marvel he didn't put him in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
The movies have never trusted 007 that much. If you want to see a Bond film that's not all formula, you have to go back to the first, Dr No, which, though it begins with the tuxedoed gunshot and concludes with the post-caper legover, nevertheless has no pre-credits sequence, no big title song, no apres-kill one-liners, no John Barry score and no visit to Q's workshop, and is poorer for the lack of them. By the second picture, From Russia With Love, all these are in place. By the third, Goldfinger, the franchise is fully grown: listen to the ripe, unhurried swank of Barry's scoring immediately after the credits, as the camera swoops from high above Miami down to the hotel pool and into the story. As good as it gets, Bond-wise.
So I confess I'm a little puzzled by those critics whose line on Die Another Day is that it's such a shame Lee Tamahori's gritty, edgy, darker opening gets squashed so quickly under the arthritic Cubby Broccoli formula. This is a reference to the first 20 minutes in which Bond gets tortured by the North Koreans and a Madonna theme song, not necessarily in that order, and emerges 14 months later dressed in rags and more hirsute than Sean Connery's back hair dunked in a vat of Miracle-Gro, Don't see what's so hot about this myself: who needs another grungy, hairy guy in a landscape drained of colour? The audience I saw the movie with sat warily through this opening and sprang to life the moment Bond escapes to a Hong Kong hotel, orders up some shirts and has a shave. They loved the formula, all the way to the end, in which Moneypenny is virtually laid on the desk, (I still pine for Lois Maxwell, who must be 112 by now, hut I'm learning to love Samantha Bond, the eponymous Bond girl.) 007 neglects formula at his peril: in the late Eighties, Timothy Dalton eschewed casual sex and, even worse, sexual banter and almost killed the franchise. Someone had paid far too much attention to that rote objection that Bond is a misogynist anachronism. Male journalists say that just to cover themselves and women don't believe it either. Licence To Kill (1989), which defers to all the PC hooey, is far more dated in all Carey Lowell's joyless feminist posturing than anything from the Pussy Galore era. Bond's producers won't be making that mistake again.
But, if they sometimes seem uncertain about where to take the series, well, why wouldn't they be? Pre-Bond, the most successful series was Hope and Crosby's Road pictures. There's simply no precedent in a present-tense medium like film for something that just keeps on going, staying the same but getting more and more popular, decade after decade, generation after generation: Bond movies have been around for 55 per cent of the history of talking pictures; Roger Moore's run as Bond was halfway through before Rosamund Pike, the engaging villainess in this new film, was even born.
So you can understand why the 20th Bond film in 40 years has been constructed as an hommagc to its hero's indestructibility. In Cuba, Bond poses as an ornithologist, after glimpsing a copy of A Field Guide To Birds Of The West Indies — written by the
real-life James Bond, whose name Ian Fleming appropriated because it sounded so dull and anonymous. The plot, something to do with African 'conflict diamonds', a space laser and a British knight of foreign origin, is off-cuts from Moonraker and Diamonds Are Forever. 'Diamonds are for everyone,' says the bad guy (Toby Stephens getting by on lip-curling). The Union Jack parachute recalls The Spy Who Loved Me. The new (John Cleese) pays tribute to his predecessor (the late Desmond Llewellyn) by rummaging with Bond through all the old gadgets, including Rosa Klebb's stilettoed flatties. Goldfinger's final flight is evoked. Roger Moore's daughter appears as a British Airways trolley dolly.
This is all enjoyable in an understated way. But one wishes they'd gone the whole hog, and got John Barry and Shirley Bassey back for the music. The last Bond song to sound like a Bond song was k d lang singing Don Black's lyrics at the end of Tomorrow Never Dies. Madonna's monotonous old-hat techno honours the bad Bond convention of hiring pop acts long after anyone's interested in hearing them (Duran Duran, a-Ha — or was it A-ha?).
The most famous horn mage is Halle Berry's flame-bikinied re-enactment of Ursula Andress's emergence from the Caribbean. Miss Berry looks great. You can't fault the swing of her hips and sway of her breasts as she crosses the beach. But once she opens her mouth and starts attempting social intercourse with other characters you remember what a humourless plonker of an actress she is. For my money, the sexual chemistry set only really starts bubbling when the frosty Miranda Frost (Miss Pike) shows up and starts mercilessly mocking Bond's technique.
Pierce Brosnan is terrific. I thought he looked a wee bit too young and malemodel-ish in Goldeneye (1995), but, at 48, he seems just right. He acknowledges Bond's absurdity but plays him for real, and those little tilts of the head and lopsided smiles get him over some very pedestrian dialogue.
The problem is everything between the conventions and the regulars. Tamahori is a one-note director who doesn't seem to understand that, in a car chase, what counts is not the editing but the continuous motion. The sword fight in the Reform Club must have sounded great in the pro
duction meetings, but is a disappointment in execution because Tamahori refuses to slow down. It's not just that all the best Bond villains and the best Bond girls came from Fleming, but that the novelist understood a lot more about pacing. There are two great set-pieces in the Goldfinger novel — Bond's golf game with the villain and his dinner afterwards. The movie dropped the dinner but kept the golf. Four decades on, Tamahori would have junked the golf as well. That's why we treasure the clichés: if it weren't for the obligatory banter with Q and Moneypenny, there'd be nothing but noisy editing and blue-screen computer tricks like every other action movie. One of these decades someone will make a Bond as good as the titles and the theme music and the martini-ordering. In the meantime, enjoy the accessories.