This James Bond film begins in an unconventional way.
Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is captured and tortured; his imagination conjures dancing, sadistic, Asian women made entirely of ice or flame. Meanwhile, a techno-enhanced Madonna sings cryptically on the soundtrack about the necessity to "close my body now".
Bodies, closed or open, are a big feature of Die Another Day. More than ever before, Bond confronts a world of international espionage informed by the horror and science-fiction genres. A villain such as Zao (Rick Yune), his face disfigured and then reconstructed, resembles the character of Pinhead in the Hellraiser series of films.
Even the natural world is scaled to fantastic dimensions here. The principal location is a gigantic ice palace, remarkable in itself – and especially so when it is gradually devastated in an exciting climax.
Of course, there is also much business as usual for Bond's faithful fans – the double entendres ("I get the thrust of it"), slick vehicles, and bevy of beautiful women, ranging from Halle Berry's spirited, action-hero turn as Jinx to Rosamund Pike's amusing ice princess number as Miranda Frost.
New Zealand director Lee Tamahori has had an unsteady career in America since the international success of Once Were Warriors (1994), but here he hits his stride in the mainstream.
He blends homages to previous Bond classics with what he regards as "darker, edgier" material. The spectacular set pieces, executed in collaboration with second unit director Vic Armstrong, match those of xXx (2002).
Gags for Bond aficionados such as a marvellous scene involving an amorous Moneypenny (Samantha Bond), and the demonstration of old and new weapons technology by a new Q (John Cleese), are priceless. Tamahori even dares to recreate, with Berry, Ursula Andress' famous moment of emerging from the water in Dr No (1962), and gets away with it.
Politically, the Bond series producers have unfussily decided to align themselves with the good fight against Bush's Axis of Evil. Here, North Koreans are the baddies, while the country's ancient temples are used both for exotic effect and for their immediate, blow-'em-up dispensability.
But it would be churlish to push this critique too far. While the Bond films try, not always successfully, to adapt themselves to contemporary world events, the political landscape is only an expedient backdrop for escapist entertainment. And, on this level, Die Another Day is an efficient, well-oiled machine.
© Adrian Martin December 2002