The first part of the film plays some nice twisted games with the Bond genre. Bond blazes in, his usual heroic self; yet against the quietly lethal efficiency of the Koreans, his daredevil exploits appear clumsy and obvious. Ironically, the Koreans have classic Bond gadgetry at their disposal, too; the moment he lands on their soil, he is photographed with a tiny camera, the photo is instantly transmitted to HQ; Bond is identified, his cover is blown, and he is captured.
Once captured, he is tortured; the torture is shown obliquely through the title sequence, but we're left in no doubt that it's pretty grim. As his head is pushed repeatedly and violently underwater, for longer periods each time, we begin to see tiny silvery naked women dancing in the water ... then Madonna's edgy, jerky title music begins. The title sequence is a disturbing montage of Bond's tortured face and Bond's body being slammed into fists and walls and floors, with almost parodic dancing "Bond girl" silhouettes, composed of water and flame, superimposed on the slow-motion violence. It's almost as if Bond is seeing his cinematic life and iconography flash before his eyes as his heroic image crumbles.
When he is released, in exchange for a Korean prisoner, the bearded, ragged and emaciated figure who walks through the fog to the point of exchange seems to bear no resemblance to the James Bond the world knows -- licensed to kill, dressed to kill, suavely womanising his way around the globe in pursuit of the Bad Guys. And when, on his return, M coldly tells Bond that he is no longer any use to them -- his excessive methods have supposedly compromised security and cost lives that could ill aford to be lost, though in fact it transpires that he has been betrayed by his own side -- the whole issue of who the Bad Guys are becomes a lot less black and white.
Unfortunately, after this unsettling beginning, the plot falls comfortably back into the armchair of Bond By Numbers. Sure, it's exciting stuff -- there are ice palaces, landmines, swordfights, invisible cars, rings that can shatter glass, giant lasers, helicopters, and all kinds of breathtaking thrills and spills. Not to mention two hot chicks. Where the interesting bits of the plot -- Bond is betrayed by someone on his own side and has to claw his way back to the status he formerly enjoyed -- could have continued to explore the initial darkness and ambiguity, they are instead sold into the service of the standard Bond plot, the big machines, sparkly diamonds, evil villains, and so on.
On the face of it, the character of Jinx is a welcome departure from the classic Bond girl; she is short, dark-skinned, short-haired, easily able to hold her own in verbal sparring with Bond, and -- as is later revealed -- she is in fact herself a secret agent (for the Americans); a colleague, not a conquest, for Bond. Miranda Frost, on the other hand, with her classic Bond-girl looks, is set up to be a colleague for Bond -- a fellow British agent -- but becomes a conquest in both senses of the word when she turns out to be the one who betrayed Bond.
The attempt to twist the stereotypes is shallow, however; it hardly comes as a shock when the "bad girl" (dressed in black, fast talking, sharp shooting, sexually confident) turns out to be the good guy, and the "good girl" (dressed in white, serious, professional, keeps work and pleasure separate) turns out to be the traitor. Furthermore, the implications of this are uncomfortable -- Frost is effectively sent on a mission with Bond to encourage her to "fraternise" with her fellow agents, suggesting that a female agent only gains credibility by submitting to the sexual supremacy of Bond; and Jinx, who is supposedly a highly trained secret agent, finds herself tied down beneath an approaching laser gun (and saved by Bond), and finally unable to escape from a locked room, where she nearly drowns (the images of her floating in the melting ice echo the title sequence) before being, surprise surprise, saved by Bond.
Ultimately, while the film makes a valiant attempt to subvert the Bond stereotypes -- or at least makes a very convincing nod in that direction -- in the final analysis it only confirms them. Which is, after all, what the audience want to see: not a battered, broken Bond in ragged pyjamas, but a Bond who emerges attractive and victorious, with barely a hair out of place and certainly no scratches in his magic invisible car.
While we're on the subject of the invisible car, it's worth mentioning that John Cleese is once again superb as Q. Also, it is really here that the Bond genre is most effectively subverted -- the initial display of the invisible car strongly hints that the array of Bond gadgets are in fact just the Emperor's New Clothes. Though initially sceptical, Bond has to buy into the deception in order to maintain the mystique of his role; but the assimilation of the car into the Bond myth makes it real, as it is conjured out of nothing by Bond's need for a magical way out of a tight spot.
All in all, definitely worth seeing, but not as good as it seemed to hint that it could have been.