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Bond is back! And he’s arguably better than ever, though of course there’ll be plenty of detractors when the DVD is released in a short while. The same people who were bleating when they watched the film in the cinema and who think Hope Floats is the greatest movie on earth. Let’s face it, the formula for a Bond flick is tried and true; plenty of elaborate action sequences, a completely contrived plot, some trademark lines and a couple of A-list female sex symbols in a mix of visual flair. You can’t go past the figures, and we all know these films rake in the cash across a wide range of cinema-going ages. But the question remains; how does this one stack up against the rest?

The challenge was for Director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) and company to provide something a little more daring and exciting than previous versions to push the envelope on the sub-genre a little. For the most part they do a good job, too, with action sequences featuring military hovercraft, big-wave surfers and a spectacular car chase inside an ice palace that has to be seen to be believed (and I’d also love to see the budget for that scene alone!).

Chill out, James

The story itself is unsurprisingly pretty stock-standard fare. Bond (Pierce Brosnan in his fourth outing as 007) is sent to assassinate a Korean who is dealing in weapons and diamonds. Unfortunately there’s a rat in the ranks and an unidentified informant blows his cover, leading to a heap of explosions and our favourite agent’s subsequent capture. The Koreans, naturally, make him pay for trying to be crafty, resulting in complete abandonment from those down at 00 headquarters.

Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a Bond film if he remained locked up for the duration, so after an interesting release (14 months after his capture) James quickly finds himself back where he belongs. And this time he’s fuming, so off he travels to settle a few scores. First cab of the rank is Korean terrorist Zao (Rick Yune), who was the other half of the trade deal that saw Bond released when headquarters thought he was blurting out their secrets. Strings are pulled and Zao is located but before the inevitable meeting there’s the inevitable courting of the Bond girl. This time it’s a girl named Jinx (Halle Berry) and she and James immediately hit it off, so to speak.

The rest of the film follows the familiar plot pattern we’ve all seen 19 times before. But the thing is no one should really care because what is delivered is out and out entertainment at it’s best. Bond meets some other interesting characters along the way, including another agent by the name of Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike) and pompous villain Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens). Of course our favourite gadget man Q appears once again, this time played by John Cleese after supporting the late Desmond Llewellyn in the previous film as his protégé, R. The scene with Cleese and Brosnan is particularly pleasing, making references to Llewellyn’s character, the relationship between gadget man and agent and providing a subtle undercurrent between the two that many would have missed first time around.

Being the 20th film in the franchise those behind the latest flick decided to pay homage to every Bond film that has come before it. Some references are thinly veiled, such as Berry’s Ursula Andress-like emergence from a sunlit swimming session, while others are a little hard to spot, like the ejector seat in Bond’s new Aston Martin hailing back to the days of Goldfinger. True Bond fans will delight in trying to spot the rest, and let me tell you it’s not an easy task. Or you can cheat and check out the net or the extras for more details.

A bad batch of Berry

As you can tell I had heaps of fun revisiting this flick, but I did learn a few things while grinning from ear to ear:

[*]Halle Berry still can’t act (although she seems to revel in all the camp)
[*]Metal acne looks really cool
[*]Rosamund Pike can act, and she’s cute as a button to boot
[*]Iceland is a great looking place

The only real gripe I would have with the latest Bond creation is that it seems we’re now resorting to wimpy, cardboard cutout villains to tackle 007. Let’s get back to the days of man mountains like Jaws or brooding baddies like Oddjob. Let’s have James tackle someone he can’t knock over in a single punch. In this film we’ve got a menacing looking Korean bloke who only chases Bond from an automobile and a transformed Korean bloke who can only exert his power with a giant laser beam (Austin Powers fans, chuckle now). We’ll have to wait and see if things change for the better.

In all, Die Another Day is nothing short of good, plain fun. The formula has been followed to the hilt but the action sequences just keep getting better. Brosnan is perfect again as our hero and Rosamund Pike makes a great addition to the Bond girl stable, even though Berry’s body is the only remarkable thing about her performance. Sit back and enjoy the best film franchise in history, and I’m not kidding.

If any film deserves a brilliant transfer it’s this one and for the most part the DVD doesn’t disappoint. The 2.35:1, 16:9 enhanced visuals come up trumps in all areas, particularly in the sharpness stakes. The tough landscapes we travel through over the course of the film wouldn’t be the easiest to render but all the detail and depth is maintained. There’s the odd spot of shimmer evident in the more trickier scenes on the ice but the print is totally free from any visual nasties. Colours look great if a little muted from some of the digital grading performed. That said, though, the grading was a conscious choice on behalf of the filmmakers rather than any fault with the transfer. Top notch.

The "egg-head" look was back in vogue

Boom! I tell you what, you won’t want to doze off during the film in a hurry (not that you should, might I add) otherwise you’ll be quickly woken by a DTS 5.1 powered explosion that’ll rock more than your sleepy eyelids. There’s some serious power in this mix, with my woofer getting a real workout following several rather tame releases on the bass front. The major problem with the mix, however, and one thing that is constantly screwed up, is the disparity between volume levels for the action and dialogue scenes. One minute you’re straining to hear the hushed tones of Brosnan, Dench and Pike, so off you go to fetch the remote. But then up pops an action sequence which nearly bursts your ear drums. There’s far too much of a difference between the lowest and softest sounds, which may drive audiophiles nuts as they constantly change the levels throughout.

In terms of a comparison between the DTS and Dolby Digital mix I think this time there’s a bit to report. The Dolby Digital track is still up there with the best of them but lacks what seems to be a lot of the realism of the DTS mix. Some of the effects fall a lot flatter than the DTS soundtrack and the extra punch is really welcome on a film such as this one, so now’s the time to upgrade your equipment if you haven’t already. Overall, however, you’ll marvel at the surround use and clarity of even the most furiously action-packed moments. Shrapnel will fly by, bullets will zip past your nose and the explosions will shake the room beneath you. If it weren’t for the volume issues this would be one of the best mixes of recent times.

On the cover it looked like we were going to be treated to some great extras. On the menu it looked to be quite the opposite. But taking a closer look it seems you need not worry as there’s a hell of a lot of content to go through after the film is over, and none of it is sub-standard at all.

On disc one we’ve got two commentaries, the first of which includes Lee Tamahori with producer Michael Wilson. Each participant occupies a front speaker, which is a subtle but welcome touch to the track. The both of them are very eloquent and seem particularly comfortable talking about their film. Highlights include Tamahori pointing out a Korean priest playing a diamond dealer and the both of them talking about the wide variety of locations used during the film, such as a London interior masquerading as steaming hot Cuba.

"Now, where was headquarters again?"

The second commentary features Brosnan himself for the most part, talking about his involvement in the film among other little tidbits of information such as the actual existence of the Da Vinci machine and his relationship with Tamahori and the other actors. He’s a man of few words during some cases but overall his Irish tones are quite interesting to listen to. Brosnan is “joined” by Rosamund Pike when her character appears in the film, even though their tracks were recorded separately. Pike is great to listen to (though I’m obviously biased ‘cause I think she’s the next big thing) and the highlight of her contribution is her tale of landing the part. She says, “I got the job in eight days, I’ve never got a job like that in my whole life.” Attempts are made to blend the two tracks together but once you know they’re not in the same room it becomes obvious and the focus shifts to the content. Thankfully both commentary tracks pull through on that count, making them well worth a listen for fans of the film.

The only other extra on disc one is called M16 Datastream, which may seem like a glorified name for a trivia track but really is worth a look. A window pops up when something needs to be said, covering everything from the idea behind bounding land mines to the various homages throughout the film. We even get an interview with the effects supervisor on the film when the relevant scene comes along, which is a very useful addition. There’s some great info on this track so don’t dismiss it as just an add-on, by any means.

Moving on to disc two, we reach the guts of the extras section. The great animated menus take us through the various documentaries on the production, the first of which is called Inside Die Another Day. Here we are treated to lengthy pieces on some of the more extravagant sequences in the film; the hovercraft chase, the ice palace, Cuba, the scene in Q’s lab, the car battle and the finale. Several other topics are discussed along the way, with a mix of interviews, behind the scenes footage and clips from the film making this long section feel very polished indeed. Great for behind the scenes fans to learn more about the making of the film. This section also leads into a piece called Shaken & Stirred On Ice, which deals with the whole ice location and what they looked for to make it stand out. Again, some great interviews make the piece worthwhile.

The Mission Deconstruction section contains several sub-sections. First up is a look at two scene evolutions, from the hovercraft chase and the car battle. Here you can choose to view just the storyboards or a comparison between the sketches and the finished film. Interesting viewing. The inter-action sequences section uses the angle feature to view four sequences from the film; the hovercraft chase, the car chase, the sword fight and the Antonov fight. It’s great to flip through and see the angles on offer, and it’s almost like you’re deciding how to edit the sequence, much like the similar feature on the Die Hard discs.

Still in this section we’ve also got the title design featurette, a montage showing us the evolution of the title sequence and it’s various elements and set to music. Fascinating stuff to see how the whole thing evolved from live action and computer generated images into the elaborate title sequence we’ve become so familiar with in the Bond films over the years. Rounding out the Mission Deconstruction area we are taken to a piece on digital grading, where post-production supervisor Michael Solinger introduces us to the technique where they clean up some of the shots from the film to make them look the way they initially intended. The before and after comparisons are particularly interesting in what is a very detailed piece.

The Equipment Briefings section looks at the various gadgets used in the film and makes great use of the animated menus to give us a virtual advertisement for each item. There’s the surfboard, the glass-shattering ring and, of course, Bond’s gadget-filled car. Short but sweet.

Still going strong, there’s the Image Database section where we get to see various still shots from the publicity side, from on the set and from the special effects and gadget side of the production. Make sure you check out the rather amusing photo of Lee Tamahori looking at a nice view in the last picture of the sets & locations section. There’s a heap of images to go through, which probably suits a DVD-ROM better than a standalone player.

The full Pike, with a twist

The Ministry Of Propaganda features a shameless plug for the Nightfire computer game and the Special Edition DVD Collection . Also included are the trailers and TV spots, Madonna’s music video and a making of featurette for the song as well as a making of piece on the game by EA sports. Some welcome additions amongst this lot.

And....phew! That’s actually the last of it. None of those pesky deleted scenes to be seen anywhere, but that’s the same right across the world. The only thing us Region 4 guys miss out on is the additional documentary on the Region 2 disc, but considering Bond is a Brit through and through we shouldn’t have expected any less. A great extras package that may not seem much on the surface but really does have some quality pieces throughout.

What more could you ask for? Another step in the creative Bond franchise and definitely the most extravagant. Some great action sequences, stunning locations and Rosamund Pike make this one a Bond adventure not to be missed. The DVD set is up there with the best of them, too; a great visual transfer, an audio track marred only by inconsistent volume levels and more extras than Bond has lovers make this a must-have DVD to throw into your collection.