For me there are few greater pleasures in going to the movies than watching a white circle pan across a jet black screen, simply because that means that Britain, and the cinemas, greatest hero is about to start doing his thing again. And so it proves with Lee Tamahori's
Die Another Day, the 20th James Bond film, released in the year of the franchise's ruby anniversary.
Typically, a stunt sequence most action movies would be glad to use as their climax is deployed here simply as an appetiser. Our hero (Pierce Brosnan, as ever flawlessly embodying Bond the icon) is in North Korea, as ever pursuing his own uniquely pyrotechnic brand of international relations. But when the dust settles there's a shock in store for all concerned: rather than having it away on his toes and then having it away with, well, whoever he feels like, Bond is nabbed by the Koreans and slung in the clink. Bond spends the title sequence being tortured by his captors (the audience is particularly inclined to sympathise, as they spend the title sequence being tortured by Madonna).
It's over a year before he gets out, a startling plot development but a very clever one. The usually invincible, immaculately turned-out Bond is grounded in reality as never before - unkempt, unshaven, and treated as damaged goods by his own superiors. And the film continues in the same gritty, realistic vein for some time, drawing you in, making you believe, making you care about the characters. And then, inevitably, once it has you, it soars off into a ludicrous realm where DNA transplants and invisible cars are entirely commonplace, taking
you with it, well aware that reality has suddenly become a twinkling dot in the far distance, but really not caring at all.
There's been much talk of how this new film contains knowing homage’s to many of the previous Bond films - and this is true. But, let's face it, there are rarely more than cosmetic differences between these films anyway, and this one boils down to another retread of Bond
Plot No.2: villain uses weapon in space to cause mischief. Along the way are all the things you'd expect from this franchise - girls, explosions, gadgets, girls, designer clothing, cars, spectacle, explosions, one-liners, girls, explosions and girls (quite properly, Bond does not let the malnutrition, brutalisation and psychological trauma of his prison experiences get in the way of his usual regime of conspicuous consumerism, chauvinism and carnage).
To be honest, the female characters are rather underwritten - Halle Berry rises above this through sheer force of personality and by virtue of being so damn easy on the eye, but Rosamund Pike struggles to convince. The villains have had much more thought put into them, however - there's a great henchman in Rick Yune's Zao, and Toby Stephens gives a fine, multi-layered performance as the oily Gustav Graves. One of the best things about the Brosnan Bond is the way the role of the chief villain has been played with - after making the
villain a friend of Bond's, and then the Bond girl, they now take the next logical step and - in a manner of speaking - make the villain Bond himself. A wonderful idea, but one wonders where they can go next without repeating themselves. The Bond regulars - Judi Dench, John
Cleese, Samantha Bond and Colin Salmon - carry out their roles with customary aplomb, and there's a cameo from Michael Madsen (an actor I've always had a soft spot for since Reservoir Dogs).
The only previous film of Lee Tamahori's that I've seen is the brutal domestic drama Once Were Warriors, which brought both the director and Temuera (Jango Fett) Morrison to international attention, and to be honest I couldn't see why the Bond producers had given him this assignment when I first heard he'd got the job. But they clearly
recognised that talent is talent: this is the most stylishly directed Bond movie to date, with entirely novel techniques and flourishes being utilised throughout. Even more impressive is his command of pacing and tempo - starting the big set piece sequences small and controlled,
before slowly building them into some of the most frenziedly exciting, over-the-top action scenes seen in recent years. Only some unconvincing CGI lets him down - also the fact that the film feels like it peaks too soon, the actual climax seeming a little routine and mundane given some of what has preceded it.
But these are quibbles. This is a stunning piece of pure entertainment, with the swagger and wit of the very best Bond movies. When the franchise is on this kind of form, it's almost irresistible, and it's barely credible that a film so rooted in tradition and formula can seem so vital and fresh. As far as action-adventure movies go, nobody does it better.
James Coburn 1928-2002
...but someone who tried once or twice was James Coburn, who passed away a short while ago. Coburn's career hit its peak in the 1960s when he made most of the films for which he is best known - after supporting roles in The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and Charade, he starred in the two Bond spoofs Our Man Flint and In Like Flint (which Mike Myers admits inspired the Austin Powers series). There was also a series of successful collaborations with Sam Peckinpah, beginning with Major Dundee in 1965 and culminating with 1977's Cross of Iron. Illness kept Coburn off the screen for most of the 1980s, but his career enjoyed a brief resurgence in recent years with roles in (amongst others) Maverick, Payback, and Affliction. For the last of these he won an Oscar. Earlier in his career he was also a successful producer and screenwriter.
Coburn's long absence from the screen means he will probably be best remembered for the iconic performances from early in his career, and as an actor with the same kind of laconic charisma as Clint Eastwood or his friend Steve McQueen. Without him, cinema in the swinging 1960s wouldn't have swung quite so energetically, and that's an epitaph anyone would surely be proud of. RIP.
And just before I go, I'd just like to point you in the direction of my all new, singing and dancing The Vault of Lies, where a great many of my pieces of writing of frankly variable quality recide. Don't say I didn't warn you...