Die Another Day (2002)

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Lee Tamahori directs Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry and Rosamund Pike in this overblown 007 adventure involving diamonds, the Korean demilitarised zone, genetic face changes, space lasers, ice palaces and an invisible car.

Is Die Another Day the worst Bond film ever made? The man on the street thinks so. They’ll tell you about that shoddy disappearing car, the excessive and even shoddier CGI, Madonna’s cameo and the fact they had to hard reboot the entire series after it. CTRL-ALT-DELETE on the hardiest of franchises. Killing Pierce’s chance of ever starring in an entry as golden as Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live and Let Die, The Living Daylights or Casino Royale. He’s the only Bond never to have a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ adventure, even though the part fitted him like a leather glove and he revived it from obseletion.

Pierce, a gentleman off screen during his tenure, recently spoke out about how problematic the hubris in his last film was. He is quoted in Total Film as saying, “There were things I read in the script that were so ridiculous, like the invisible car, but I just tried to act my way through it and believe in it. You can really give yourself a massive headache and a great amount of stress trying to wangle some sense of believability into it. There was a certain frustration within me as the films went on, as I could see the world happening around me and the movies. I wanted Bond to get a little more gritty and real and down and dirty. But however you try to nurse it along, the scripts would come along with the same outlandish scenarios. So you go with the flow, and just enjoy the great experience of travelling the world and being this character.” Rog would be proud of his attitude. His contract negotiations for a fifth movie the following year ended with a short stoic phone conversation with EON telling him he was a great Bond and thank you. Torturously brutal.

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And we were all hoodwinked by Die Another Day initially. I left the cinema on opening night jubilant. All Bond is junk food. Great on the first bite. It was epic and daft and spectacular and sexy and cliched and over the top as all Bond should be. I had watched it with my even bigger James Bond fan bro, Davey, we left the Nicholson Street Odeon utterly pumped. The reviews were decent. The box office stellar. The rot started to creep in around day 2. I realised it was the first Bond I had no desire to catch again on the big screen. The silly stuff dominated my memory of it. I never bought it on DVD (until now). When it has appeared on TV while channel surfing I never managed to watch more than 20 minutes before switching off. I haven’t viewed it in its entirety, from sniper sight to “James Bond Will Return”, in over 15 years. The internet started griping. Like The Phantom Menace this is the first Bond to face the continued escalating wrath of message boards, comments thread and retrospective reviews. Another world were an average entry can become a hate crime within a few snowballing days of negativity. Echo chamber evisceration. I’ve written before how much easier it is to be a retroactive troubleshooter when writing a review. An autopsy is more obvious than a celebration. Die Another Day is probably the first film I have no affection for that I feel warrants essay length examination rather than a precis.

So… is it really that bad? No. There are some awful decisions. Some jarring excess. And they mainly happen in the second half, meaning we are left with the worst and strongest flavours in our mouths after viewing Die Another Day. But on this cautious revisit I kept waiting for the point were it all fell apart, assuming it was straight after the first act. But it took a long time coming. A crumbling mess by the end but three initial fifths were redeemable, utterly pleasurable Bond nonsense.

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The opening is fantastic. A thrilling hovercraft chase across a Korean minefield. Bond captured and then tortured during the credit sequence. The narrative kicks back in and he is facing a firing squad over a misty bridge. Turns out it is actually a gripping prisoner exchange. Once traded, MI6 and the NSA put Bond on lockdown in a private clinic. They think he has broken, talked and so they’ve released North Korean terrorist Zao before he could give them all up. 007 fakes a cardiac arrest. Escapes, swimming over the harbour to Hong Kong. Was the clinic prison in the MI6 base hidden in the wreck of the sunken RMS Queen Elizabeth as seen in The Man With Golden Gun? Dishevelled, unshaven, dripping wet, Bond enters the lobby of a 5 Star hotel. They give him his usual suite and send up a tailor. The concierge turns out to be Chinese Secret Service. A half-assed hit is foiled. Bond convinces them to give him a passport so he can track down Zao. He personally wants to cash in a refund on the unwanted price of his freedom.

It is a brilliant half hour. Pierce gets to do some solid acting. He gives us grimacing endurance, betrayed hero and wryly conciliatory peacemaker to the Korean general whose son he killed in the chase. The fallen, unkempt Bond is an effective and divertingly new experience in a franchise that often struggles to innovate the icon on its own terms. There’s something grittier and closer to Fleming’s novels about this hard start. It is not perfect. Bond is first glimpsed stealth surfing. And it plainly is a masked stunt double, and it worse yet feels like an unlikely and youth pandering moment for the character. The producers overreacting to the XXX franchise… a movie that wondered what would happen if James Bond was an extreme sports dude? Forgetting that Bond had been snowboarding, jet skiing and sky diving long before Vin Deisel was even born. And Madonna’s theme song, while quite lively, just needed a classier producer to say some of the samples about Sigmund Freud bring the whole tune down. The credit sequence using CGI fire and ice to depict Pierce’s months of torture are a great concept, yet weakly executed. But these are niggles in a starting sequence most blockbusters would be proud to begin with.

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The following sequence in somewhere that looks like Cuba keeps up the old school Fleming air. Bond makes contact with a long dormant sleeper agent. Infiltrates a private clinic through stealth and guile. There are nods to this being the 40th anniversary and landmark 20th episode. Easter eggs including the book the character was named after, a familiar old fashioned gun and THAT legendary shot from Dr. No is recreated. All good, laudable legacy invoking hijinks.

Halle Berry emerges from the shimmering blue ocean  like Ursula Andress did four decades previously. All dappled curves and bounce. She looks juicy but that’s all she really brings to the film. The Oscar winner and bona fide movie star didn’t have much chemistry with Pierce. Doesn’t seem at all enamoured with the caper. The writers struggle to do much with her. For a spy of alleged equal skill as 007, she needs rescuing three times. The later Pierce entries palpably suffered from trying to bring big American names into the Bond “good girl” role. They always come across as dumb and bored. Adding none of the exotic mystery, the ‘out of everyone save Bond’s league’ value, something that previously only glimpsed in arthouse fare newcomers do so effectively. The Craig reboots have leant hard into avoiding Bond girls who bring too much baggage for mainstream audiences. They have never again cast an actress who sees the part as just another paycheck rather than a career promotion to potential stardom.

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More classic Bond homage once we hit London. Our villain, a smug posho, the sort who might have bunked with James at boarding school, parachutes down to Buckingham Palace with the Union Jack as his canopy. Doing it better than The Spy Who Loved Me. Bond goes to get a feel of this diamond dealing wrong-un at a fencing club. Turns out Madonna runs it. Her presence has never been the mark of quality cinema but considering the series has found walk-on parts for tennis stars and Richard Branson I see no real issue here. Bond engages his target in a fencing match. It turns aggressive and then spills out into the hallways. A really rousing set piece. We are still racing along the rails, still on course and still at a devilish speed.

The sequence also introduces us to a young Rosamund Pike in her movie debut. Her Miranda Frost lives up to her name, coldly dismissing Bond then icily betraying him. A triple agent, all porcelain skin and haughty naughtiness. This is more like it. Miranda Frost would never spit “Yo momma” at the villain under threat of torture, she’d probably just give a naughty little squeal of anticipation. While it would be hard to say there is much evidence here that Pike would prove to be an eventual acting powerhouse, she fills out her bad Bond girl role far more efficiently than Berry does as her opposite number.

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I’m going to bring up my main issue with why Die Another Day suffers as a relegation Bond. It adds very little new and replaces it with very little better. It is sticking to a recipe when it has run out of many of the smaller ingredients. And that’s following a trend that has been lurking in the secondary characters since the 1980s. There’s a feeling of hangover from the last 19 films. The best example of this is the Vauxhall Cross sequence. Now I’ll never walk past that wooden door on the Southbank without thinking it leads to MI6. It is an effective bit of mythology building, and belongs to a less gaudy espionage tale. Yet once we get to the abandoned tube station we get our Q portion. Constantly a light relief highpoint of the series, Desmond Llewelyn and Pierce’s gadget showcase scenes were always drenched in endearing enthusiasm. But Llewelyn has passed and John Cleese (who, like a Madonna, had cameo’d as an assistant previously) here has been promoted. He is a pissy priss, sniping at 007 like he doesn’t want to be there. As with Berry a glaring paycheck player. All the affection has gone, all the chemistry has gone, that wry smile of Pierce’s has gone. It was the cheeky, uncontrollable smirk of a Dublin lad living out his childhood fantasy of Quartermaster Boothroyd giving him a weaponised car, a laser watch and exploding pens like what he watched at the fil-lums in the sixties. A smile we all understood and shared. No young kid dreams of receiving his invisible car from a grumpy former Python only participating as alimony is due.

The same feeling with the VR Moneypenny sequence near the end. The surprise VR training mode scene gives us a guessable yet gripping little bonus stand-off around M’s offices. Some good action shots for the trailer. But in the main it appears to be a set-up for a closing joke where Moneypenny can live out her “Oh James” fantasies. Who programmed government property to do that? The epilogue is awkward filler to give Moneypenny something to do this entry. And while Samantha Bond was a better swap for Lois Maxwell than Cleese was for Llewelyn, no one thinks of her now when they think of the role. See also Masden’s de facto Felix Leiter. The EON team kept recasting or redacting core elements based on who can no longer perform the role rather than if the role really improves the movies when updated. The biggest case for complete reboot is the alternative ingredients now dominate and the flavour is off.

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When we get to Iceland it all falls to pieces. We get nods to the laser satellite from Diamonds Are Forever and the laser table from Goldfinger. Too many nods. We get a car chase that feels more The Fast and the Furious than Thunderball. And that ain’t terrible. The invisible car is a step too far into unbelievable fantasy but it serves its narrative purpose and even delivers one neat little unexpected surprise in a film with no other shocks. My issue with the final hour is it lacks panache. Bond means luxury, this looks cheap. The ice palace and diamond mine are built and lit with a similar fibreglass artificiality as Batman & Robin’s playpit sets. Ken Adams probably couldn’t look directly at the screen at the gala premiere. And as for the effects work…

What has always set Bond apart from the pack is the practical stunts and convincing miniature FX. They had the best teams in the world assembled for these sequences. You could always expect to see something achieved on screen that no other action blockbuster had ever attempted. Die Another Day doesn’t just look like every CGI saturated tentpole from the turn of millennium, it looks worse. The cliffhanger sequence where Pierce improvises a parachute and a wakeboard to escape a pursuing space laser is one of the shittest computer animated sequences ever released to multiplexes. They abandoned what they were great at to play third rate catch-up with Hollywood. That is hardly Pierce’s fault.

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And so we end up on a falling apart, gigantic plane. Frost and Jinx’s cat fight catches the eye more than Bond and Graves’ grapple against the vortex. Bond improvises an adequately impressive escape involving a helicopter in a cargo hold. It isn’t very memorable but it will do. The obligatory closing jokey farewells that stretch the now patience testing running time loom into view. Pierce signs off with half hearted flirt. Jinx coos at him she is so good. He retorts, a little too on the mark, “especially when you’re bad” no doubt thinking of Miranda Frost’s slightly flushed raspberry cheeks rather than Berry’s cheekily flushable acting. Ever the gentleman.

Fade out on Pierce’s Bond career. Unfairly being shoved from the franchise he revived because of creative decisions he actively voiced concerns about. Think about it EON. 007 is a series ripe for spin-off. We could have a disillusioned, disabled Felix Leiter as an international gun for hire (the highlight of the recent comic series.) A young Bond, like in the excellent Charlie Higson novels? Or why not… and here’s my point… bring Pierce back into the fold? Let him loose on a sixties set reboot? Or an ageing Bond à la Logan? The middling yet maligned Die Another Day was your fault, not Brosnan’s. Let the Irish lad return to the role he was born to perform. A role he always made you a pretty penny playing, no matter how compromised the final product was. Audiences love Brosnan as Bond, you still have a chance to give us a blockbuster that matches his and our passion for your property.

PS Thunderball is dull as dishwater.

5

 

My Top 10 Bond Movies

1. Goldfinger (1964)

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2. You Only Live Twice (1967)
3. Quantum of Solace (2008)
4. Casino Royale (2006)
5. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
6. The Living Daylights (1987)
7. Live and Let Die (1973)
8. The Man With Golden Gun (1975)
9. From Russia With Love (1963)
10. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

 

 

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