If one agrees that in many ways Pierce Brosnan took a page from Roger Moore in his portrayal of James Bond as a cool and unflappable secret agent, it’s too bad he also followed Moore’s example and ended his tenure in the role with one of the series’ worst films. Die Another Day isn’t a very good film. It’s not that Brosnan’s previous two Bond films were masterpieces, but Die Another Day is a very specific kind of bad film. It suffers from being both undercooked and over-produced. It wants to be very serious, but is obsessed with the most garish and ridiculous aspects of the Bond series. It’s packed to the gills with action, but it’s poorly edited and often features shoddy special effects. Suffice to say that, a few enjoyable bits aside, Die Another Day ranks near or at the very bottom of the pile of James Bond films.
Perhaps some consideration of the context of the film is warranted, given the state of both the series and popular filmmaking in the year 2002. After kicking the Bond series back into high gear, both at the box office and in filmmaking terms with GoldenEye, the next two Brosnan Bond films continued the box office success but failed to make a massive dent in the popular culture landscape, nor were either critically well-received. Both were competently made action films but Die Another Day was conceptually a chance to get back to what made the classic Moore Bond films of the seventies so unique. Additionally, 2002 was the 40th anniversary of the debut of Bond on film in Dr. No, so the film would celebrate the series’ legacy and place in British and world cinema (Her Majesty, the Queen, even attended the premiere, only the second time she did so for a Bond film). A much-hyped fact at the time the time of the film’s release was that Die Another Day features references to each of the preceding Bond films—such as Honey Ryder’s bikini from Dr. No and a Union Jack flag parachute from The Spy Who Loved Me. This would also be the first Bond film released in the new millennium; though the film doesn’t make any reference to 9/11, the opening sequence of the film is set in North Korea and addresses the then-current geopolitical climate to some extent. It would take until the subsequent “reboot” of the series with Casino Royale to get what could be considered a “post-9/11” Bond.
Additionally, 2002 was a time when Hollywood filmmaking was undergoing a transformation from the kinds of more traditional blockbusters that dominated the 1990s into the franchise films that would dominate the 2000s. Computer generated effects were pushing the boundaries of what could be accomplished in special effects, with films like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones offering completely CGI characters, and, in the case of the Star Wars film, being shot entirely on digital cameras. Die Another Day attempts to enter into the use of extensive CGI effects with some fairly disastrous results. For example, a climactic sequence of Bond “surfing” a wave of melting ice contains some of the worst digital compositing I’ve ever seen in a major franchise film; it is infamous in its terribleness.
The desire to seem hip and of the moment marrs the film in other ways as well. The film opens with James Bond and two other agents being deployed into North Korea by surfboard (surfing was so hip at the start of the new millennium). While reminiscent of the opening of A View to a Kill, where Bond “surfs” on the snow to escape his enemies while a cover of The Beach Boys plays, in 2002 the “extreme sports” moment plays as simply an effort to seem up-to-date. The previous summer had seen Vin Diesel taking on the role of an extreme sports secret agent in the disastrous spy film, xXx. To see Bond even stoop to such a level leaves a bad taste in my mouth. In their efforts to include both current trends such as CGI and extreme sports so blatantly, the film’s producers marr their film and seriously damage their intention of making Die Another Day a film that would pay homage to the series as a timeless and important part of British filmmaking history.
And this leads to what is Die Another Day’s greatest miscalculation. It’s not simply that the film is silly and at times extravagant. Past Bond films had been silly. A great deal of the Roger Moore era is silly, and there are ridiculous bits peppered throughout the whole series. Nor is it necessarily a problem that it’s outrageous. Some of the best Bond films are the one’s that embrace the outrageousness of their premises. Outrageousness is what separates Bond from other spy wannabes. It’s that Die Another Day’s outrageous silliness is woven into a film that so badly wants to be taken seriously and be seen as hip and cool. And hip and cool Die Another Day ain’t.
The film’s pre-credit sequence has Bond attempting to foil an arms deal in the DMZ and ends with him in a North Korean prison after dispatching the rogue Colonel Tan-Sun Moon (Will Yun Lee). On the whole it’s a fairly effective sequence, featuring some of the film’s best action bits, such as a hovercraft chase over a minefield. But then the film’s title sequence starts and the tonal mismatch begins to become apparent. The title sequence features Madonna’s titular theme song, which, while not terrible on its own merits as a pop song, is pretty dire as a Bond theme. Perhaps the song’s harder edges were meant to complement the visual images of the sequence, which for the first time since Dr. No features images that directly further the film’s plot. Still, to hear Madonna’s twitchy club anthem play overtop images of Bond being tortured at the hands of North Korean forces makes for a very strange opening. The suggestion of Bond being vulnerable sets a darker and grittier tone which doesn’t mesh with the ostensible playfulness of having Madonna do the theme, let alone what follows in the plot. This is just one more example of Die Another Day’s double-mindedness.
At the end of the title sequence, Bond has been in a North Korean prison for 14 months, but is subsequently relinquished to British custody in exchange for the aforementioned Korean colonel’s right hand man, Zao (Rick Yune). Afterwards, he meets with Judi Dench’s M, who informs him that he is suspended from duty after being suspected of leaking information. Convinced that he has been set up, Bond decides to take up a lead found in Hong Kong and follow Zao to Cuba. In Cuba, Bond meets a “playful” American NSA agent, “Jinx,” played by Halle Berry. Bond follows Jinx to a secret clinic where clients can have their physical appearance completely altered by a special DNA re-sequencing treatment. In storming the clinic, Bond discovers that Zao was in the possession of diamonds that bear the imprint of a newly ascendent British billionaire, Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens). Bond then returns to England.
This whirlwind plot description covers the first part of the film, which isn’t entirely terrible. It has some nice sequences and exotic locales. It sets up personal stakes and a Bond loosened from his leash, working for himself, but it doesn’t do anything with it. Neither the stakes nor what the film does with them are as interesting as anything in License to Kill. In fact, the whole notion of having Bond be suspended and working rogue is quickly undone upon his return to London when he is recruited back into MI6 to investigate Graves. It’s unclear what is gained by having Bond lose his 00 status in the first place. The latter parts of the film certainly don’t seem to even notice it, though it does mean his early wanderings lack direct motivation.
Bond’s descent into London on a passenger liner is scored to The Clash’s “London Calling,” another example of how Die Another Day is filled with meaningless and, to my mind, inappropriate choices. I like the Clash alright, but their scathing critique of British culture doesn’t fit with Bond’s aesthetic. But clearly the song was chosen simply for its iconic value and title. Such a choice exemplifies the way the film consistently mistakes including references for the presence of deeper meaning. In one scene the new Q (John Cleese, in a thankless role introduced in the last film) showcases Bond’s new gadgets, which include an “invisible” car. The scene is filled with cameos from past films, featuring their gadgets and in-jokes. But by this point the scene, rather than reinforcing the ties to the past films, simply reminds the viewer of the series’ high points and makes the viewer wish he or she were watching one of the other films instead.
At this point in the film the plot begins to tip from a serious Bond action film into something of a farce. Bond goes to a fencing club to confront Graves (the sequence features Madonna in an uncredited cameo as a character named Verity who seems to have taught Bond swordplay in the past). Soon after meeting him, Graves goads Bond into a lavishly outrageous sword fight in front of dozens of other people and the media. The fight is actually quite entertaining, with both character’s upper class trappings giving way to a cartoonish brutality. But Stephens is almost literally chewing the scenery, snarling, and throwing himself and Bond around. The idea that such behaviour would be easily brushed aside afterward strains at the film’s credulity, which is subsequently abandoned from this point on.
From here Bond is invited to Iceland to view Graves’ new tech demonstration. He is accompanied by Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), an MI6 agent undercover as Graves’ assistant. In Iceland, Bond reteams with Jinx, who has been sent by the Americans to investigate Graves as well. Graves hosts the international visitors to his solar technology demonstration in a huge ice palace. The ice palace is a gaudy monstrosity, more comparable to the day-glo aesthetic of Gotham city in Schumacher’s Batman sequels than the retro vibe of the Connery or Moore films. While the outrageousness of the idea of an ice palace lair could be goofy fun along the lines of Blofeld’s volcano base in You Only Live Twice, it’s hideously realized and looks just silly.
At this point the film’s plot matches the goofiness of the rest of the film. Jinx and Bond uncover the fact that Graves is actually the supposedly dead rogue North Korean Colonel Moon, who has used the DNA therapy to drastically alter his appearance. In a convoluted series of reveals, Graves demonstrates that his new “Icarus” technology is actually a space laser which he will use to facilitate a North Korean invasion of the south. Frost is revealed to be the one who betrayed Bond at the beginning of the film, and Bond and Jinx must team up to save the day.
On paper, the introduction of ice palaces, invisible cars, and character’s masking their true identities sounds like a lot of fun, but Die Another Day manages to waste such entertaining notions. But more egregiously it makes them look simply stupid. The design of the ice palace is tacky, the plot convolutions poorly timed and executed. Earlier I mentioned that Bond can toy with the outrageous—in fact, it’s a key piece of the series DNA. But here it’s not much fun. If the film is to be taken as a summing up of the series’ best moments to this point, Die Another Day comes across as an insult. The Bond series has often explored and exploited the juvenile fantasy of Bond’s job and personality for thrills, but Die Another Day lacks in that department. Instead of the goofiness being balanced by the earlier plays for seriousness, it comes across as off-putting and gaudy. Poor execution and an overt lack of taste work best when there is a knowingness to their deployment, an acknowledgement that aesthetic boundaries are being pushed; but Die Another Day presents them with a seriousness that I can only read as an utter miscalculation of tone.
It doesn’t help that the film is hampered with a villain played by Stephens as a complete ham. As a portrait of the outrageousness of British upper class entitlement, Graves is a failure. What might have worked as a criticism in early scenes featuring him (I still enjoy parts of his introduction and the sword fight) are undone when it is revealed that he is actually a North Korean villain. His outrageousness simply becomes Colonel Moon’s projection of the decadent west, and any critique is instantly muted.
As for Halle Berry’s Jinx, I shudder to think that Eon was really serious about giving her a spin-off series after this film, since she is one of the film’s worst parts. Berry’s line readings are all extremely wooden, but to her credit she is asked to recite line after line of cliched dialogue and catchphrases. At one point she even taunts her opponent with a “Yo mama!” joke. Critics and fans made much of Berry’s terrible line delivery in X-Men when she asks one of the villains, “Do you know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning?” But in Die Another Day, each and every line is delivered at the same pitch and tone. It’s one of the worst follow-ups to an Oscar-winning performance I’ve seen.
Some people must have gotten a kick out of Die Another Day’s return to the excess and outrageousness of the later Roger Moore Bond films, as it did fairly well at the box office. But despite its box office success, on the whole the film was considered enough of a creative failure to warrant a back to basics retooling of the whole Bond franchise. It is so bad that a simple refresh wouldn’t work. The series went for the hard reboot. Die Another Day’s efforts to do an up-to-date Bond film, with modern CGI action and trendy references, didn’t mesh with the film’s goofiness. The subsequent Daniel Craig Bond films would abandon almost all the trappings of Brosnan’s final outing and force a true rethinking of the character’s role in a post-9/11 world of terrorism, while getting back to his origins in Ian Fleming’s novels. Die Another Day on the other hand shares some similarities to Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, in that each pushed their respective series, which had always had cartoonish elements, so far into the direction of farce that they necessitated a hard reboot in the form of Casino Royale and Batman Begins, respectively. If anything can be learned from the debacle of such films it’s just leave the ice palaces and bad puns on the cutting room floor.
Die Another Day (2002, UK)
3 out of 10
Directed by Lee Tamahori: written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade based on the character created by Ian Fleming; starring Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Toby Stephens, Rosamund Pike, Rick Yune, John Cleese, Judi Dench.