James Bond Review: Die Another Day

Leading up to the North American release of the latest James Bond feature film, Skyfall, The Shattered Lens is reviewing each and every James Bond film in the history of the franchise. Today’s film is the controversial Die Another Day, the twentieth film in the James Bond franchise, and the final such film to feature Pierce Brosnan in the titular role as 00-agent James Bond. Despite launching to mixed reviews – particularly overseas, where it generated significantly negative reaction in North and South Korea – it was at the time the highest grossing Bond film of all time.

Our cold open for this film has us in North Korea. There, 007 is assuming the identity of a diamond smuggler who is assisting a North Korean Colonel, Tan-Sun Moon, in laundering blood diamonds as part of an ongoing search for advanced military hardware. In order to bypass the landmines of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the good Colonel has constructed an entire army of hover vehicles which can cross the region without triggering the mines, allowing for a land invasion of South Korea. Bond proceeds with the exchange, but is identified by Zao (Rick Yune), Colonel Moon’s right hand man. Bond triggers an explosion which badly disfigures Zao’s face, which becomes embedded with dozens of diamonds. Colonel Moon attempts to escape on a hovercraft, and Bond pursues him, eventually chasing the Colonel off the edge of a waterfall, apparently killing him. Afterward, Bond is captured by General Moon, the Colonel’s father, and is imprisoned.

After over a year of imprisonment and torture, Bond is traded during a prisoner exchange for Zao. Upon returning to MI6, M (Dame Judi Dench) tells Bond that his 00-status has been suspended. Both she and the Americans believe that Bond cracked under torture and revealed classified information, necessitating the prisoner exchange that brought him back. However, the release of Zao leaves both M and Bond extremely bitter. Determined to recapture Zao, Bond evades MI6’s security and disappears. He travels to Hong Kong, seeking a way back into North Korea, but his contact there informs him that Zao has attempted to disappear in Cuba and provides him with the necessaries to travel there instead.

After he arrives in Havana, Cuba, Bond investigates a clinic there which specializes in gene therapy that is virtually unknown in the first world. Bond’s local contact describes it as prolonging the lives of their leading citizens, and the richest folks in the West, but Bond also learns that the gene therapy would allow a person to totally restructure their appearance and assume a whole new identity. During his investigation, he meets a woman who introduces herself as Jinx (Halle Berry) who, initially unknown to Bond, is an NSA agent on a similar investigation, albeit one with presumably very different goals. Bond locates Zao inside the clinic, and a chase ensues. Although Zao ultimately manages to escape by helicopter (and Jinx in dramatic fashion by diving off the sea wall and boarding a waiting boat which drives her off), Bond recovers a pendant left behind by Zao. Upon unscrewing it, Bond discovers a cache of diamonds. Upon inspection, the diamonds are chemically identical to diamonds found in Sierra Leone, but they bear the identifying mark of a diamond mine owned by a British billionaire and thrill seeker, Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens). Bond is determined to investigate.

This forms the basis of the remaining plot. Our set pieces this time aren’t quite so varied, as much of the remaining story plays out in Iceland, where Graves’ diamond mine is situated, and where he has constructed a special ice hotel for the purpose of a technology convention. Eventually, we return to Korea, for a final showdown that seems somehow empty, despite the increasingly high stakes in terms of both explosions and technology.

The truth, ultimately, is that Die Another Day is a bit of a mess. It has a seemingly incessant procession of action sequences, but they raise the stakes primarily through CGI and improbable wizardry, in a way that threatens our suspend disbelief. I know that this is Bond, and that in 80s-early 00s Bond very much fell into the trap (who didn’t?) of ‘bigger and better’. However, this film takes things a bit too far in my estimation. Its villains aren’t quite as fun as the ones in the past two films (well, Mr. Stamper is kind of a drag I suppose), and don’t really fit the Bond mold. The story is pretty straightforward, but probably doesn’t receive quite the treatment that it deserves to get us established in it. The interactions between Bond and M are a bit too stiff, and I say that even keeping in mind tomorrow’s review piece, Casino Royale. There’s something about Die Another Day that made me think everyone involved was just going through the motions, like a sense of fatigue just hung over the proceedings. It was a bit of a bummer.

As for the women of Bond, Die Another Day actually has a lot to recommend. Breaking convention, this section is heavy with spoilers, but I’m going to risk it just this once. Don’t read on if you’re new to this film and planning to watch it!

Die Another Day continues to feature Dame Judi Dench as a pleasantly strong and uncompromising intelligence chief (I probably haven’t made enough of how much I enjoy her in the role of M in my reviews up to this point). In addition, we’re treated to Halle Berry as Jinx, an ass-kicking NSA agent who seems to do a lot of getting outmaneuvered and captured for being so adept. I didn’t care for Berry’s performance in this film, and I’d be lying if I said she stacked up well against Tomorrow Never Dies’ Michelle Yeoh as a Chinese intelligence agent. Still, compared to some of the other Bond girls, Berry is definitely a warrior. The other major female character, however, is Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), a frigid and beautiful MI6 agent… actually, a double agent, who betrayed Bond in the cold open. Pike’s character definitely gives off the edge of competence and deadliness that I, for one, am rooting for in female characters in any Bond movie, and she sells it well. Unfortunately, she’s not nearly as fun as Elektra King, as her motivations are completely unexplored and she just feels like an add-on to the existing plot surrounding some dangerous North Koreans.

Overall, this is probably not one of the better Bond films, though I’d argue that it doesn’t deserve the bad rap that some have given it either. It’s not a terrible film, just overwrought in a kind of Michael Bay way that undermines the characters and concepts. This is a common complaint of all four Pierce Brosnan films, especially, as well as some of the Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton efforts. However, this is the one that I most agree with that assessment of. This film really gets out of control with effects and gadgetry.

That’s it for today’s review. I leave you with the theme from Die Another Day, performed by Madonna. Tomorrow’s review will be of 2006’s Casino Royale.

Before I Abandon America For Canada, Here’s 6 Trailers To Remember Me By.

Hi everyone!  Yesterday was election day here in the United States and what can I say other than that I’m taking my cute ass to Canada!  That may sound extreme but earlier this month, I promised that if Hello Kitty and Tuxedo Sam did not win this election, I was heading up north.

And in honor of my future life in the land of Degrassi and Ryan Gosling, here’s another edition of Lisa Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse and Exploitation Film trailers.  And guess what?  This edition is dedicated to Canadian films!

1) Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe (1990)

This is less of a trailer and more of an advertisement designed to entice retailers to keep Abraxas in stock.  But, what’s really important here is that it’s Canadian.

2) Expect No Mercy (1996)

With a title like Expect No Mercy, it has to be good!  Plus, it was made in Canada.

3) Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001)

Who needs Abraham Lincoln?

4) The Playgirl Killer (1966)

“The Playgirl Killer … in color!”  I think the Playgirl Killer looks like he might be distantly related to Steve Buscemi.

5) Starship Invasions (1977)

I think this film might involved starships invading something.  It’s hard to tell from the trailer.

6) Rolling Vengeance (1987)

It’s out for revenge!  And it’s … rolling, apparently.

What do you think, Trailer Kitty?

Don’t Blame Doc! (Photogapher: Erin Nicole. Model: Doc Bowman)

VGM Entry 62: Enix

VGM Entry 62: Enix
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Today Square might be remembered as the uncontested kings of Super Nintendo RPGs, but this is not an accurate assumption. As a young kid obsessed with anything approximating the genre, I anticipated every new Enix release with nearly equal glee. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Enix was a publisher. You won’t find games developed by them. While Square’s games emerged in house from the drawing board, Enix released titles developed by a wide variety of companies.

Quintet was the leader of this pack. Quintet is a Japanese video game developer officially founded in April 1989. According to Wikipedia, the first game credited to them is Legacy of the Wizard (Nihon Falcom, 1987), an installment of the Dragon Slayer series. Hence a bit of a to-do is made about their origin, with “June 1987 / April 1989” listed as the ambiguous founding date. The source for their official founding date links to a nearly illegible magazine scan (in English), and I don’t want to give myself a headache trying to decipher it, so I’ll take the Wikipedia editor’s word on that one. (The fact that whoever edited the article noticed an ambiguity in the first place marks them as more attentive than the vast majority of game-related editors.)

But the article and its relevant links lead me to believe the issue isn’t as complex as it seems. Tomoyoshi Miyazaki, director and president of Quintet, was a Nihon Falcom employee (he was involved in developing the first three Ys titles), and it just so happens to be the case that Legacy of the Wizard was released in North America in April 1989. The only real confusion is that Wikipedia suggests that Quintet developed both the Famicom and the NES ports, and that the former was released in 1987. If both were released in 1989, or alternatively if Quintet only developed the NES release (if the division of labor between developer and publisher renders this thought unintelligible, my apologies), then there is no issue. And moreover, if Tomoyoshi Miyazaki was a Nihon Falcom employee, the ambiguity may capture a simple gap in time between Miyazaki beginning to call his development team Quintet and his registering the name as a corporate entity.

Whatever the case may be, Quintet were busy in 1993. Following ActRaiser in 1990 and Soul Blazer in 1992, they managed to pump out two games in a span of two months. This probably wasn’t a great idea in retrospect. Illusion of Gaia, composed by Yasuhiro Kawasaki, was musically pretty shallow (this might account for why I never bought the game after renting it as a kid), and as an installment in the unofficial Soul Blazer Trilogy it was a sad decline from the quality of Yukihide Takekawa’s Soul Blazer. In its subtler moments, 2:49 to 5:35 for instance, it boasts an atmospheric vibe vaguely reminiscent of Jeremy Soule’s Secret of Evermore two years later, but the rest is of poor quality.

ActRaiser 2 on the other hand had an outstanding score, and is a real testament to the diversity offered by Yuzo Koshiro. While I remain unmoved by his more popular Streets of Rage sound, as a classical composer he not only competes outside of the video game spectrum, but makes the Super Nintendo sound like a real symphony with unprecedented professionalism. Nobuo Uematsu is always quick to point out that he had no professional training, and my own musical inclinations lead me to treat such claims with an appreciative nod of respect, but where he did try to emulate an orchestra on the Super Nintendo he never came close to the level of Koshiro. (Indeed, “Dancing Mad”‘s charm is it’s quintessentially SNES sound within the orchestration.)

Koshiro’s work in ActRaiser 2 in contrast might as well have been a live recording. Koshiro is, like Chris Hülsbeck, an artist I’ve I in many ways simply failed to appreciate, but not here. Quintet’s problem in this instance is that Koshiro’s stellar score was ActRaiser 2‘s only redeeming value. I mean, I never played it, but that fact is directly relevant to its commercial failure. In choosing to abandon the simulation side of the gameplay and go for a straight side-scroller they essentially ostracized their entire fanbase and entered a much more competitive field in which the Enix seal of approval meant jack.

Produce was a pretty obscure developer founded in 1990, probably most known for Super Adventure Island (Hudson Soft, 1992) and The 7th Saga. My most vivid memories of The 7th Saga are of the obnoxious pseudo-avoidable encounters that were for all practical purposes random but gave you the sensation of just being bad at avoiding them. Still, as with most Enix titles it was a refreshing change of pace from the Dragon Quest-patterned norm, and perhaps it had a good plot of which I was simply oblivious at the time (I doubt it though.)

What really strikes me though, listening to this video, is that it actually had a really great soundtrack. Norihiko Yamanuki doesn’t even have a vgmdb entry, and he’s surely one of the most obscure SNES composers to have actually accomplished something. There’s nothing really compositionally striking about the music of The 7th Saga, and it doesn’t really surprise me that I overlooked it as a kid. Yamanuki’s accomplishment here is more in the subtle qualities of the arrangement. The bubbly little tapping tones that prevail throughout this collection, most dominantly in the track at 1:00, really give the game a heartwarming sort of appeal; it’s quite pretty.

Ogre Battle was probably the most successful real-time strategy game for the SNES, at least in the United States. It stemmed from a long lineage of similar titles in Japan, but few had found sufficient success for overseas ports. Quest, the developer, had worked on similar projects in the past, though Ogre Battle would be the first in their Ogre series. A game of few settings and themes–the entire plot unfolds within the combat setting, and there are no separate story scenes as in say, Final Fantasy TacticsOgre Battle demanded a whole bunch of tunes well suited for long, drawn-out conflict.

The game did, nevertheless, have a pretty extensive soundtrack. Masaharu Iwata did the bulk of the composition, contributing 24 tracks, while Hitoshi Sakimoto added 12 and Hayato Matsuo added 6 (based on the ost liner notes on vgmdb). If the music sounds a little similar to the score of Final Fantasy Tactics, that’s no coincidence. Masaharu Iwata and Hitoshi Sakimoto composed it too.