Wednesday, November 20, 2002

I went and saw Die Another Day , the new Bond movie. I am not really a fan of the series. (I think I find the English public school quality of the concept to be a bit much). When Judi Dench referred to Bond as "a sexist, misogenist dinosaur" in Goldeneye , I was pretty much in agreement. That said, the Bond movies do have their moments. We have a teaser sequence before the opening credits in some exotic location, which has some relation to what is to follow if you watch carefully enough. Then we have Bond being briefed back in London, and a series of set pieces in various exotic locations, in which the same women (which Bond seduces) figure. There will usually be two of these women, at least one of whom is likely to be good but who will initially appear to be working for the bad guys, or who will be bad but initially appear to be working for the good guys, or will be bad but initially appear to be a double agent who is one of the good guys but is working under cover for the bad guys). An evil genius who wants to rule and/or destroy the world will keep showing up too, and Bond and one of the women will end up confronting and defeating the evil genius before one final scene in which Bond and the woman mouth double entendres at each other in some picturesque location.

This film departs from the usual formula more than most: mainly because Bond's pre-credits operation fails, and the film takes two or three non-standard steps to get back to the usual formula. Still, the film moves from North Korea to Hong Kong to Cuba to London, to Iceland, to North Korea again.

Lots and lots of other films have copied the formula over the years, but there has been a rush of it lately. Tom Cruise and Brian De Palma managed to trash the precis of the Mission Impossible TV series in the first 25 minutes of the first movie, before replacing it with a fairly standard Bond like plot. And of course Rob Cohen and Vin Diesel this year made xXx which attempted to copy the formula and give it an extreme sports edge. However, they did so in an extremely feeble way. We had a pre-credits sequence in Prague. And, once the plot got going properly, the further activity took place in, well, Prague. Hey guys. Prague is pretty, but it is boring. It's a pretty normal country full of German tourists. It just isn't plausibly full of dubious business and bad guys who want to take over and/or destroy the world. And bad guys with thick Russian accents who are into car theft, prostitution, and, incidentally, destroying the world with a feeble little boat that sails down the Danube don't really cut it any more. While this genre of movie is to a large extent aimed at 16 year old boys, it shouldn't be the sort of movie that 16 year old boys would make. it shouldn't be set in the place that 16 year old boys would give if you asked them to name an exotic foreign location. It needs some sort if aura of sophistication that the 16 year old boys cannot understand.

Look, to get this sort of movie right, you have to get the locations right. These have to be strategically edgy and important places, places where somewhat dubious things are going on, really cool places, or some combination of the above. The more picturesque the better. Places where actual wars are presently occurring probably leads us a little too close to reality. So, North Korea is good. Cuba is good. Afghanistan was perhaps good a decade ago, but not now. Cyprus is good. Russia remains reasonably good (although overused, although Russia is a big place so you might try somewhere like Kaliningrad, or somewhere in former Soviet central Asia, or something like that). For slightly dubious places, maybe Vienna, or Hamburg, or Zurich, or Hong Kong. (Macau might be better). In the cool category, Iceland is good. Bilbao is good since they let Frank Gehry lose there. Cambodia might be good. (Of course, once you go to one of these places, the events that take place there are generally completely ludicrous for these places, but somehow that's not the point).

This I think is where the Britishness of Bond actually works. The right type of Englishman is comfortable dealing with the underside of places like this. Americans aren't always. For one thing, Americans travel less in the wide world. (When I go backpacking I am eternally running in to English people, but not so much Americans, except in certain places that are particularly popular with Americans. Americans seem less inclined to get off the beaten track and wander. Although there are always exceptions). In such places, the fact that Americans are Americans is more obvious I think, too. The Americans are the global hegemon, and this affects the way that other people respond to them.

As another side of this, compare with another film, Proof of Life starring Russell Crowe, in which Crowe plays an expert in extracting hostages who have been captured by people demanding money. Crowe's character is Australian, but supposedly a former British SAS soldier. When asked about this, he says that the British army sees more action than the Australian army. Disregarding the fact that this is no longer true (the Australian SAS has recently seen action in East Timor and Afghanistan and will shortly be going into Iraq, I suspect) this was a perfectly reasonable career path. Australian, Brits, and New Zealanders have long served in one another's armies, and the type of slightly under the table business described in that movie is run out of London and is full of colonials (South Africans, too). Americans don't do this, because they attract too much lightning, and they don't have the same colonial background. This was an instance where a Hollywood studio allowed an Australian actor was allowed to play an Australian character rather than an American, and this was right, as the character in question was much more plausible as an Australian. (It's a shame the film didn't make any money, as it means they might not do this again. For what it's worth, its quite a decent movie. It's set in a fictional South American country that is in fact Ecuador, and it is a stunning looking film, too).

While James Bond type characters obviously do not exist these days (and never did, really), we do seem to suddenly be in a peculiarly Bondian world, with non-state actors, and peculiar alliances between seemingly unconnected players in odd parts of the world. It is perhaps the special forces troops who play the "highly trained elite" role to deal with this nowadays. These guys are much more democratic, I suppose, but still, the British SAS are amongst the best of them, for much the same reasons, I think.

(And as a final observation, Judi Dench and John Cleese seem to be having much more fun in the Bond movie than do all the famous British actors in the Harry Potter movie, most of whom seem to have turned up largely for the paycheque).

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