Die Another Day
(SPOILERS) Is Die Another Day the worst Bond movie? It certainly puts in a sterling bid for that unenvied garland. It is a peculiar fish, though, spectacularly failing in its attempts to celebrate 40 years of the franchise and its status as the 20th official Bond outing. Wisely, these elements, while liberally included, aren’t damagingly foregrounded; they’re just there. If only the same were true of the picture’s more woefully ill-advised innovations; I’m all for the series experimenting stylistically, but Lee Tamahori’s decision to mess about with the frame rate and indulging in speed ramps are ugly and ill-fitting. Add to that some of the worst CGI ever witnessed in a $100m-plus budgeted motion picture, in a series that hitherto prided itself on keeping things as real as possible (at least the models were real models), and it’s no wonder there was a four-year lay-off and rethink in its wake.
The strangest thing about this outing, though, is that whenever I revisit it (not that often, granted) I fool myself into thinking it’s not that bad. The reason is fairly simple; the first half of the movie is actually quite enjoyable; it’s pacey, colourful, with several good set pieces and narrative conceits. Unfortunately, it goes straight off a (ice) cliff in the second, requiring Brosnan to engage in some CGI-wave parasurfing in response. Which only sinks it further. Die Another Day becomes interminably dull, and aesthetically unpleasant.
General Moon: I don’t approve of what they do here.
James Bond: Tell it to the concierge.
As has become par for the course for Pierce Brosnan’s era, it’s the shallowest of lead characters who must have some depth plied from him by any means possible. As a result, Bond is captured by the North Koreans (a new nation to make the villains! Well, if you don’t count Odd Job) at the end of the pre-credits sequence and undergoes imprisonment and torture (waterboarding, injected with scorpion venom, the usual routine).
As sadly becomes clear, the picture marries its nominal realism and earnest character beats far more disastrously with the greater plot than it did in the previous The World is Not Enough, such that the producers acknowledged they misjudged what fans wanted from the series. I think they actually mistake the botch that is Die Another Day for viewers rejecting the outlandish per se; it’s not that Bond can’t do another Moonraker, it’s that it really needs to know it wants to do another Moonraker. Die has probably the least stylistic coherence of any Bond picture as a consequence.
In another Brosnan era token gesture to real world issues, Bond is tracking down traffickers in conflict diamonds at the outset, with Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) and henchman Zao (Rick Yune) the perpetrators. Moon apparently dies (wait, anyone remember Sean Bean in Goldeneye?) and Zao ends up with a diamond-dashed faced. Following an attempt to make a hovercraft chase exciting (not really, and in a sign of how the movie is going, the close-ups are ever-obviously on a sound stage) and 14 months in a Korean nick, Bond is released in an exchange with Zao, now persona non grata as he’s under suspicion for squealing information that got a US agent killed.
So Bond is put in the “acting alone” position we saw in Licence to Kill and then in most of the Craig era; working outside the system (one that still believes in its right to police the world, as Colonel Moon scoffs) is the inevitable pullback from a broader disenchantment and disengagement with the establishment that has gradually seeped into the series post-Cubby Broccoli (can you imagine Sir Rog giving a shit about such things?) Bond’s 00 status is rescinded.
Added to which, there are echoes of the main thrust of The World is Not Enough, in which M said no to terrorists; here she tells Bond “Your freedom came at too high a price” (while Michael Madsen, doing his best Michael Madsen impression (he even smokes!) scoffs “Look at him, you’d think he was some kind of hero”; where’s he been for the last 40 years?) Bond has received the kind of treatment Elektra King did, but of course he hasn’t turned. There are a few nice touches during this sequence; the doctor noting “Liver no too good. It’s definitely him then”, and that he threw away his cyanide years ago – he’s not the suicidal type.
Aside from the rest of his activities being unofficial, though, this is a less encumbered Bond than we saw in The World is Not Enough. Which is good to an extent, but unfortunately Brosnan is given nothing of merit in the second half (mind you, neither is anyone else). His best scenes come with his casual escape from custody, dropping off the ship and arriving in a Hong Kong hotel in his PJs, a vision of wilderness man chic, all long hair, beard and chest rug, majestically holding in his belly.
Little he does later provides memorable signature moments. Using London Calling is a bit cheeky (The Clash blazing a trail for a pillar of the establishment?) for his trip back to Blighty (announcing the picture is soon to go down hill), and his swordfight with Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) is ridiculous but well choreographed, but once Bond moves on to Iceland all is lost. Indeed, are we really to believe the world’s foremost superspy wouldn’t check his weapon before removing it from under his pillow?
Jinx: I told you I was a jinx!
The posters for the picture, no doubt riding on the tails of her Oscar success, had Bond sharing equal status with Halle Berry’s Jinx. There were even rumours of a spin-off (although, can you imagine that now; she’s a heroine who works for the NSA). Which is mystifying, given how wooden she is. There’s zero chemistry with Brosnan, and, worse, an excruciating piece of innuendo-laden dialogue in Havana when first they meet that turns to ashes in their mouths (“So, what do predators do when the Sun goes down?”), leading to a hasty shag. Berry looks the part, particularly re-enacting Ursula Andress’ cossie moment from Dr. No, bus she isn’t a patch on Michelle Yeoh’s special agent in Tomorrow Never Dies, who had a far more persuasive rapport with Brosnan.
Miranda Frost: I know all about you – sex for dinner, death for breakfast.
It’s left to the lesser female co-star/henchperson to steal the acting honours, then, and Rosamund Pike is highly delectable (particularly in her finale bra top) as Miranda Frost (Frost, she’s an ice queen, geddit?) The only problem, aside from the legion elsewhere here, is that this is another leading lady betraying Bond straight after The World is Not Enough. It’s almost as if Wade and Purvis and Feirstein were devoid of inspiration… The showdown between Frost and Jinx at the end is also rubbish, but no more so than the one between Bond and Graves, although Berry delivers her pay-off line terribly (in response to “I can read your every move”; “Read this, bitch!”)
Gustav Graves: I never get furious.
The choice of North Koreans for arch-villains caused some controversy, but I’d be more insulted that I was made antagonist in a shitty Bond movie. On top of which, there’s an implication that a Korean villain is a better villain if he’s actually British underneath (or over the top). The attempt here is to make a “classic” larger-than-life Bond villain of yesteryear, but it flounders hopelessly.
I usually like Stephens (he’s superb in Black Sails), and I don’t think it’s so much his youth counting against him as he he’s encumbered with a really stupid character; you certainly can’t blame Bond for not figuring he’s really Colonel Moon, as there’s nothing remotely similar about them. Aside from the rage thing, telegraphed in the first scene where Moon is using his anger management therapist for kickboxing practice (in another movie that might have been a good gag, here it falls flat; Tamahori has little negligible for comic beats).
Gustav Graves: You see father, I remember my Art of War.
The face/ethnicity-change plot is silly, of course, but that’s not necessarily an impediment to a decent Bond movie; it’s where they end up taking it that kills the proceedings, and this element certainly pales into insignificance against the litany of other risible factors. Stephens appears to be going for OTT sneery swagger, but he lacks the relish of a Richard E Grant, coming across sub-Guy Pearce, and he isn’t even handed fun villainy to justify such behaviour. That’s the real reason the outlandish elements fail here; none of it is fun, and this approach really needs to be to work.
Grave’s scheme is so crappy you could miss it being explained if you blinked (his Icarus, light-giving satellite will cut a path through the Korean Demilitarised Zone, enabling North Korea to invade the South; yeah, good plan, so why did we have to spend 40 minutes in Iceland again?)
Zao: How’s that for a punch line?
Yune’s Zao is an inexpressive and unmemorable henchman, (“Sparkling personality”, as Bond puts it) whose most notable line comes as he punches Bond (above). Generally the gags fail to land, even in the cheesiest manner (Mr Kil: I am Mr Kil; Bond: That’s a name to die for).
It’s the list of outlandish elements that get the most flak in Die, though. And rightly so, from the invisible car, to the windsurfing CGI, to the less than impressive but still expensive Ice Palace, the Icarus satellite, the face-changing villain, the Goldfinger lasers (a messy, silly and just plain sad sequence), and Graves’ electro-zap armour.
As noted, the first half of the picture is quite reasonable, and it’s devoid of most of these elements. The Cuba sequence is particularly jolly, and the only part where David Arnold’s score stands out. Bond punching out a particularly deserving and uncouth South African is also a merit point, but this is where the use of ugly, choppy, then in vogue (God knows why) slow motion begins to adversely intrude on the action.
The Iceland section (not that Iceland is icy, but I guess they didn’t care) is outright terrible. The design is ugly, there’s incompetent mix and matching with the Eden project, and the action is slow and aimless, with no apparent objectives from either heroes or villains. As a result, we end up with interminably dull escape-and-capture scenario, one that includes inglorious speed ramping, as Bond outpaces the Icarus satellite (leading to the CGI parasurfing) and engages in an invisible car chase.
Then there’s the collapsing ice palace, and Zao being gratuitously impaled on an ice chandelier. Apparently Cubby Broccoli said a movie should never go back to the same place twice (Bond returns to the palace to rescue Jinx), and that may not be a catchall but it certainly proves to be the case here, particularly when the location was lousy the first time. The result is a visual mess, one where the cuts between studio and locations are glaringly obvious (none of the main cast went to Iceland, and it shows). It’s dreadfully apparent the trio of screenwriters were at a loss on how to structure the last half of the movie.
The picture doesn’t pick up any with the tiresome plane finale, an unspectacular litany of bad CGI and shaky cam. It serves to underline what an unengaging, noisy mess the picture has become.
James Bond: You know, you’re cleverer than you look.
Q: Mmm, still, better than looking cleverer than you are.
M is mainly a show in the first half, surprisingly not overpowering the movie as she would in the Craig era, and the other regulars have fairly decent brief turns. Colin Salmon has his third of three successive appearances as MI6 staffer Charles Robinson and, while John Cleese’s Q isn’t really the series’ best decision, at least you know what you’re getting (he’s also the last Q for a decade).
The highlight is the near-final Moneypenny scene though, in which she finally gets to cop off with James (ah yes, I forget to mention the virtual reality element; very current, very early –‘90s). Unfortunately we don’t leave it there, as we revisit Bond and Jinx, and innuendos about leaving his 00-cock inside her.
Lest we forget, there are also the cameos, both of them pure cardboard. Oliver Skeate , a non-acting show jumper, delivers a line to Bond at the Blades Fencing Club, and Madonna provides him with good company (she doesn’t like cockfights, garnering a Razzie for her troubles). Her title song? It’s neither her nor the series’ finest hour, but both it and the accompanying visuals (torture, CGI scorpions) signal the gaudy, crude excess of Die’s last half, so I guess it’s in keeping.
Brosnan wanted Brett Ratner, and I’d like to say we dodged a bullet, although (I can't believe I’m going to say anything positive about him) at least he wouldn’t have gone in for speed ramping. I’d have favoured either of the other options (Stephen Hopkins, editor Stuart Baird) above him, although it shows just how set on malleable movie makers the series was even at this stage. No one was in the mix whose name could possibly vie with the Bond brand itself.
Tamahori arrived full of bad ideas, it seems, from switching the final fight to the plane (it was to take place on a Japanese indoor beach) to the car chase in the ice palace (he thought it was too good a set not to use…) I seem to recall thinking he was a positive choice when his name was announced, because he at least had action experience (unlike Michael Apted). That ability is seen, more or less, during the early stages, but all competence appears to desert him after that.
Maybe there was a hex on Bond from uber-Royal Premieres? The Queen previously got her lizard claws into You Only Live Twice, another contender for worst Bond. But then, Casino Royale broke that possible curse, it seems. Die Another Day was, of course, another massive hit, the sixth highest grosser of 2002 globally, showing that, provided it doesn’t cost too too much ($142m; Eon should have sued the effects house) a profit is guaranteed for any old 00-toss. No doubt the expense was even less of a dent than it appeared, what with the surfeit of (20-odd items) product placement. A good judge in such matters, Sir Rog didn’t much like the movie, opining that, even as a Bond who’d been into space, it went too far: “Invisible cars and dodgy CGI footage. Please!” He’s not wrong.