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2003 Milk Plus Droogies

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Kill Bill Vol. I

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Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

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Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

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Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

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Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

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David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

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Miranda Richardson, Spider

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Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

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Irreversible

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Harris Savides, Gerry

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The Blog:
Monday, November 25, 2002
 

Die Another Day



Now that I think about it, I'm not a big franchise guy. Those who know me are aware that Star Wars is about as interesting to me as toe cheese (with Star Trek coming in just after "self-mutilation with a table saw" on the entertainment scale), I've never seen or read anything Harry Potter, I was unamused and irritated by Lord of the Rings, and despite strong first entries, I've begun to hate the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon movies. When sequels start popping up one after another, I guess I tend to brand them as cash cows with little intent outside box office gross. Two notable exceptions are the Alien and Mission: Impossible franchises, both of which are very well produced, have a talented movie star in the hero role, and benefit from hiring truly unique directors (Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, Brian DePalma, John Woo, etc.) to add their personal stamp.

This brings me to the largest franchise of them all, the 40-year long James Bond juggernaut. I could count on two hands those among the 20 Bond films I've actually seen. And of those, I've only liked four. Before Die Another Day, I was satisfactorily entertained by Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and A View To A Kill -- the last one being the most underrated (sure it's stupid and cheesy, but aren't all of them? At least they paired up the two most bizarrely awesome villains in any 1980s film: Christopher Walken and Grace Jones! Plus, the Duran Duran song stood on its own as a damn good single). I think the rest are dull, stodgy, and a whole lotta who cares.

But now, I'm starting to see where this whole thing has been leading for 20 movies. What started as a series of spy pictures with little action, a few subtle gadgets, and a boozing, casanova leading man of the '60s, has escalated and escalated into a series of sheer absurdity: one ludicrous stunt after another testing any rational person's sense of believability, playing up the camp inherent in the premise of a super spy with endless skill, physical stamina, budget, charm, and lives. It makes sense, then, that Die Another Day, being released in a year where spy adventures are both the target of satire (the hilarious Austin Powers) and shameless appeal to brain-dead youths (xXx), would ratchet up the Bond formula to its peak: action beyond your wildest dreams, stunts of which even Superman would be terrified, villains out of a comic book's comic book, and non-stop chicks with guns, tits, and one-liners. The goal was to make both the ultimately refined and prototypical Bond film while also sabotaging it by making its head-slapping ridiculousness flow over the top and bringing to the table a director with the skill to pull it off.

All the credit is due to director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) and his editor, Christian Wagner (unsung hero of top-notch blockbusters True Romance, Face/Off, and Spy Game). For once in a big-budget Hollywood action spectacle, we can see what's going on. Wagner cuts the action together so seamlessly that you always know where you are, who's hitting whom, and the pace and rhythm has a musical feel. Tamahori has supplied his editor with sufficient coverage, crisply shot and back-loaded with some pretty damn good special effects (save for a few cartoonish CGI shots). These days, action directing is taken for granted, and while Woo, DePalma, and the Scott brothers are the among the best in the business, Tamahori isn't too far behind. He puts such witless hacks as McG, Michael Bay, Simon West, and previous Bond fool Roger Spottiswoode to shame.

Some credit should also go to Neal Purvis and Robert Wade's screenplay, which dreams up some clever action scenes to fit in with the standard world-domination bad guy stuff. It also overdoses on double entendres, which, while mainly idiotic, at least acknowledge how integral they are to the Bond character. Pierce Brosnan (Dante's Peak, The Lawnmower Man) is adequate as 007, though he gets to play James as we've never seen him -- long-haired and shaggy bearded as though he was Anthony Hopkins's stand-in in Instinct -- but Oscar-winner Halle Berry (B*A*P*S, Father Hood) pretty much sucks as an American version of 007 who is reduced to damsel-in-distress during the movie's best action scene (a fight between two Knight Riders: Bond's invisible Aston Martin and Rick Yune's army surplus Jaguar). Berry's Jinx has no personality to speak of, coasting on hard-ass chick spy cliches without a single unique quirk or spark.

But who cares about character. This flick is all about shit blowing up, and more shit blows up in Die Another Day than I've seen in a long time. Granted, one look at the movies I've seen in 2002 reveals I've been paying rent to the art houses, splitting time between British neo-realism, Swedish miserablism, and saucy Spanish-language sex flicks, but I can't remember the last time I was so thrilled by shit blowing up. The pace never lags in this flick, since it has so many cool stunts to pull out of its hat: the hovercraft chase in Korea, the fencing duel in London, the fist-fight around laser beams, the aforementioned car chase/fight, the clinic acrobatics in Cuba, and the climactic scene aboard a disintegrating airplane racing into a satellite beam with heat as powerful as the sun. Who dreams up this bullshit? Not a second of it is realistic in the slightest, but you'd have to be a real piece of Samsonite to take it seriously anyway. I marveled at the craft it took to put this all together, and sure it's loud, violent (with this kind of a graphic and bloody body count, how did it get a PG-13?), and obnoxious but my jaw was open long enough not to care.

I could give two shits in a handbag about the purity of 007 and the authenticity of the franchise. When a director, editor, and technical team are this skilled at action sequences, you should forget about James Bond the icon and start thinking about James Bond the movie -- Die Another Day is the essence and the failure of the 007 franchise: so impossible to take seriously that when it streamlines the formula and wears the flaws on its sleeve, the results are kick-ass popcorn escapism. Perhaps the most telling surprise of this movie's superiority is that even Madonna manages not to suck in her cameo. Sometimes Hollywood does it right.