In what may be his last outing as Bond, Pierce Brosnan illustrates the uncertainties of the "New World Order" as Bond attempts to deal with smuggled diamonds, spends fourteen months in a brutal North Korean prison before being exchanged for an assassin, and attempts to clear his name of treachery while being variously aided and abetted by the CIA, MI6 and the Chinese Secret Service.
The film starts with Bond landing clandestinely in North Korea in an attempt to eliminate a particularly psychotic North Korean colonel (Western-educated, with a collection of sports cars) who appears to be handling "conflict diamonds" - gems from war-torn Sierra Leone. However he is betrayed and after a massive shoot-out with hovercraft in which Colonel Moon is killed, is captured and thrown into a North Korean prison (tortures include being stung by scorpions and being held face-down under water). Eventually he is released in exchange for the man who almost killed him and who was himself badly disfigured, Colonel Moon's henchman Zao, who was held for bombing an Asian summit. Back home he finds himself under suspicion of having broken under the torture and betrayed secrets, being thus regarded as "damaged goods". Escaping, he goes first to Cuba and then to London, where his welcome is somewhat lukewarm. In the meantime the mysterious but flamboyant entrepeneur Gerry Graves, a man who seems to be also linked to the conflict diamonds, is launching a space project, Icarus. Bond is allowed to proceed, semi-officially, to Graves' "ice palace" in Iceland to see what lays behind the public face.
Although sometimes recent Bond films seem to have lost their way, this seems more contemporary, dealing with the modern concerns of valuable commodities that finance civil wars and rogue individuals in rogue states. Also Bond is made to seem a little less invulnerable (shades of Timothy Dalton?), mainly because of the fourteen months of torture and deprivation he has to endure in the North Korean prison. (Having said that, Brosnan even manages to make the Robinson Crusoe look appear good). In the old films, Connery or Moore would doubtlessly have produced a laser gun from the sole of a shoe and blasted their way out: Brosnan instead is shown to be a wreck when he reemerges in the West.
Villains and girls are always important in Bond, and the film is reasonably well served in both categories. Toby Stephens plays the demented Gerry Graves, one of the school of well-spoken arch-villains but with a secret, while Rick Yune exudes brutal menace as his enforcer, Zao. Halle Berry starts badly with what looks like a desperate attempt at the beginning of the film to ape Ursula Andress's famous "rising from the sea" scene, but afterwards improves quite well. Rosamund Pike as MI6 agent Miranda Frost is the real revelation, though: it would be a pity if the legendary "curse of the Bond girl" were to rob her of future and better roles. An interesting aspect of the film is that the "special relationship" between Britain and the US (or their respective intelligence services) is shown to be under strain, with "M" and Falco (Dench and Madsen) barking and growling at each other. Madsen is certainly a change from Bond's old buddy Felix Leiter, but carries the part well. Kenneth Tsang is not mentioned in some of the reviews, but I think he gives a moving and dignified performance as the North Korean general who wished his son to become a bridge to the West but is forced instead to confront his offspring's psychopathic tendencies. Dench and Cleese, of course, are such old troupers that one never expects anything less than quality from either of them. All in all, it's good to see this sort of film using decent actors and actresses.
The action sequences are well done, and one suspects that the producers and special effects men from early films wish that they had had today's technology when they were making the overblown films of the sixties and seventies. Chief among the gadgets is Bond's Aston Martin, now fitted with devices to make it virtually invisible to the naked eye, but competition comes in the form of Zao's Jaguar, a more traditional vehicle bristling with weapons. Apart from the hovercraft early on and the inevitable hi-tech car chase, there's also some excellent sword-fighting sequences and a climactic struggle aboard a North Korean transport plane. As usual there is a fairly high body count, mainly of henchmen and other guilty parties, but although some of the deaths would probably be horrible in real life, the film portrays them as fairly bloodless, so I think the tolerant rating of the film is justified.
Other points to mention might be the Madonna theme tune, which to my ears just does not match the catchiness of many of the older Bond themes, and some of the self-referencing in parts of the film which buffs will no doubt pick up, for example, Brosnan taking a book entitled "Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies" (Ian Fleming actually owned such a book, and the author was one James Bond). Also some of the action sequences have been done before, such as people being sucked out of windows in depressurising aircraft (Goldfinger) or Bond escaping from a crashing plane (Octopussy, Licence To Kill). Since most action movies are based around variations on a theme, this isn't really a gripe.
Where does Bond go from here? Actually the lineage is looking healthier than it has done for a while, Brosnan having proved that there's life in the concept yet. A lot depends on (a) who follows in Brosnan's footsteps, and (b) whether screenwriters can continue to produce reasonably intelligent and yet entertaining storylines.
For a concise and interesting analysis of all the Bond films, go to Matthew Newton's The Bond Informer.
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