James Bond Retrospective: Die Another Day

And here we reach the complete nadir of the franchise. Yes, there’s been bad Bonds before – Diamonds are Forever, A View to a Kill, Octopussy – but none that have been quite as insulting as Die Another Day. Most of the bad Bonds have at least one redeeming feature – a great location, a strong villain or killer set-piece – which makes them memorable, or at least, watchable in a lazy Bank Holiday kind of way. But Die Another Day? There’s nothing of value here. It’s the Batman and Robin of the franchise; and despite being at the time, the highest grossing Bond movie, the film was so dreadful it lead to a four year hiatus whilst the producers scrambled to reinvent the series. There hadn’t been as big a break between entries since the six years between Licence to Kill and Goldeneye, rendering Die Another Day as big a threat to the franchise’s core as the fall of the Soviet Union. The only good thing to come out of Die Another Day was the counter-reaction of Casino Royale. It’s a mess of a movie and one even diehard fans will struggle to sit through.2To give Die Another Day some faint praise, it actually starts fairly well. The pre-credits sequence, in which Bond infiltrates North Korea for the first time, provides some good action and ends with Bond in an unusual position; he’s captured by the bad guys. It’s one of the few times in the series that we see Bond fail, and suggests an interesting route for the film to take, one which examines Bond’s fallibility. We’re then thrown into Madonna’s auto-tune heavy theme song, which lyrics aside, isn’t terrible – it has a good beat and is much more lively than some of the Moore era ballards – it’s just that it feels more ‘gay bar’ then ‘Bond movie’ and doesn’t fit the series at all. Critics and fans tend to fall sharply on either side – some enjoy Madonna’s track, some think it’s the worst, but at least its memorable. That aside, there’s a clear attempt to modernise the franchise here, illustrated with this song, but these attempts to update the series come at the cost of its identity. Look how in comparison, Goldeneye and Casino Royale managed to update the formula without throwing everything out of the window.8

Bond is let down by his country and left to rot, with Judi Dench’s M seemingly siding with the mission, not the man. These opening gambits are good, but unfortunately dropped fairly quickly – Bond’s fallibility and M’s priorities were explored in far greater depth in Skyfall, years later. The film remains afloat as Bond jets off to Cuba, in a sequence that captures some of the sun-kissed Caribbean vibe of the Connery films, but unfortunately the good will doesn’t last, and the film starts to collapse with Halle Berry’s Ursula Andress entrance. Die Another Day marked the series’ 40th Anniversary and so there’s a deliberate attempt throughout to reference in some form, every previous Bond movie – Berry enters from the sea in a bikini, we see the case from From Russia with Love for example. These are meant to be treats for fans but really, just serve to remind the audience of much better movies. It doesn’t help that all the references are thrown in without any heart or passion; it’s a box ticking exercise, and one the 50th Anniversary Skyfall did so much better. Berry’s introduction brings the film’s first red flag – a backwards cliff dive down entirely in CGI. It looks cheap and fake, and betrays the series’ real-stunt roots, again, another attack at the Bond identity. In the majority of Bonds, the action was done with impressive stuntmen. Sometimes, the cracks would show – the audience can clearly tell they’re looking at a stunt double – but that doesn’t matter when the stunts are so impressive; you appreciate them for the sure amount of skill involved. Die Another Day has none of this. All the action sequences are laced with heavy CGI, and none are convincing. This only gets worse as the movie progresses – the wind-surfing iceberg sequence is without a doubt, the nadir of the entire franchise. It’s ridiculous in all the wrong ways, and looks like a cheap Ps2 game to boot. The CGI exploding plane climax is also terrible, and the opening sequence aside, Die Another Day contains the worst constructed action scenes of the franchise, directed with no flair, with far too much obvious CGI. Compare the climax, in which Bond starts a helicopter falling from a plane, with Goldeneye’s daft opening, where Bond starts a plane falling from a cliff. These sequences are both silly, yet Goldeneye’s is suspenseful, well directed and works – Tamahori can’t compete with Campbell and his similar scene is a suspension of disbelief destroyer. It says a lot that Bond surfs in Die Another Day. Twice.6

The film completely falls apart when we meet our villain, Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) who parachutes into London to the Clash’s ‘London Calling.’ It’s not so much that the use of the Clash is a huge cliché here, it’s that fact that director Tamahori thought contemporary music was a good fit for Bond. Bond movies are built on John Barry’s score, and an orchestral soundtrack formed around the title song; adding actual songs from the real world is such a huge misstep and feels cringeworthy; something similar was attempted with a Beach Boys tune in A View to a Kill, and it’s one of the series lowpoints. Tamahori really doesn’t get Bond and that’s the biggest issue with movie – Die Another Day could be any bad late 90s/early 2000s action flick; it has more in common with xXx than it does Bond, and really, if you replaced the name of the title character, there’d be nothing here to indicate you were even watching a Bond film. Take Tamahori’s awful, MTV generation directing – all slow-motion, jump edits, desperate to appear cool and keep the audience’s intention. It’s not only completely embarrassing compared with the slick Craig movies, it’s a blight against all the previous films too. Even the worst Bond’s from the Moore era stayed away from these kind of visual crutches.3

Die Another Day has a lot in common with the worst excesses of the Moore movies. The plot is not only ludicrous – something about a Korean villain who gets a new, white face and a giant, sun-beam harnessing death ray – it’s also boring, and campy in all the wrong ways. Noticeably, this film came out post Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, which did a great job lampooning the Bond movies; Die Another Day seems utterly unaware of the world around it, and post Powers, feels more than ever like a self-parody. On the whole, Die Another Day is structured like a bad video game. There’s too many gadgets, all of which are stupid – the invisible car is often considered a series lowpoint, for good reason, and the virtual reality simulator is cheap and nonsensical, leading to one of the franchise’s worst moments; Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) using the machine to fulfil her Bond desires. This scene serves as a great microcosm for the movie – it makes no sense and clearly no thought went into it. The idea is to fool the audience into thinking what we’re seeing is really happening, so we’re given an establishing shot of Mi6 HQ in London to introduce the scene. But if the scene is fake, how did that shot get there? Did Moneypenny program in an establishing shot? Who’s viewpoint is this from? Does Moneypenny know she’s in a film? Why does Q’s virtual reality machine allow people to have sex? Did he program it for that? Does Moneypenny know how to code complex computer programs? It may seem like nit-picking, but it’s a scene highlighting just how lazy the movie is. The amount of product placement also is excessive – there’s something like twenty different companies pushing their wares throughout this film. Yes, modern Bonds are funded by product placement (the late greats Casino Royale and Skyfall push Omega and Heineken, and not even suitably) but with twenty companies on show, it all feels like you’re watching one long, badly edited advert.4

It’s a bad Bond for Bond himself too. Brosnan was a great Bond let down by weak material. Goldeneye was great, whilst Tomorrow Never Dies was below-average, and The World is not Enough okay. By Die Another Day however, Brosnan feels really past his prime. Brosnan was 42 when he starred in 1995’s Goldeneye, but looked much younger, with an attractive and boyish charm. By Die Another Day in 2002, Brosnan was 49, and those few years made a huge difference. He looks noticeably older, a little flabbier, and no longer really convinces in the role; he just looks like someone’s dad at this point. Connery got older too, but had the advantage of starting at 32, which meant for the majority of his run he remained fairly fresh-faced, Lazenby and Dalton left really before they could age, which aligns Brosnan sadly with Roger Moore, who was old when he started and inexplicably reached 57 by his finish. Watching the 60 year old Moore charm women half his age became a little embarrassing, and though Brosnan isn’t that bad, you can see the pattern starting to repeat; another movie would have been too much. The producers clearly picked up on this and dropped Brosnan rather unceremoniously for Casino Royale, much to the actor’s very public chagrin. The sad thing is that Brosnan was a revelation when he appeared, and really captured the essence of the character – but Die Another Day is such a weak movie and he’s so awkward in it, it completely kills his Bond. and when he goes, you don’t miss him. It’s a poor send off.5

He’s not helped by the villains and girls either; this is a bad Bond for both. Toby Stephens’s Graves could have worked in a better movie – he basically plays the role like Bond, but without the heroism, suggesting that when you get down to it, Bond is a bit of a dick. But Graves is saddled with a senseless Korean Face Off backstory, which is all kinds of silly, and raises numerous questions – how did Graves become such a successful entrepreneur in fourteen months? How did the press not question where he’d been for the last forty years? Sadly, Graves gets some poor dialogue and spends the later part of the movie in a stupid robotic suit which literally fires electricity. Judi Dench has nothing to do, John Cleese feels miscast as Q – a fact the producers must have picked up on, as he’s dropped straight away, and Rosamund Pike, recently famous for her great turn in Gone Girl, gives an amateurish performance here and is forgettable. Rick Yune’s Zao seems to have been created with a generic Bond henchman generator. Worst of all is Halle Berry, who stands alongside Jill St John and Tanya Roberts as one of the weakest Bond girls in the series. There was a time when Halle Berry was the biggest actress in the world, though in retrospect, and despite that 2002 Oscar, she was always a very wooden actress. Jinx is a weak and unlikable character, and Berry plays her with no charisma. Even the character’s sex appeal (which is the focus) comes across as cold and awkward – the ‘diamond innuendo’ scene which ends the movie is one of the most clunky and painful saucy exchanges in the whole franchise, and that’s saying something. Incomprehensibly, the producers began working on a Jinx spinoff, which MGM eventually shot down to focus on Casino Royale. Had Jinx have happened, it’s hard to think how the series would have survived.7

Die Another Day exists in an odd place. At the time of its release, it was the highest grossing Bond movie of all time, which by studio logic, suggests it was the template for future films to follow. Instead, however, the film was so bad it lead to the producers dusting off their early 80s idea to reboot the franchise with a young Bond. The Bond franchise has always worked on highs and lows, and Die Another Day is perhaps the lowest point.



6 thoughts on “James Bond Retrospective: Die Another Day

  1. I just rewatched this recently as my friend gave me her old dvd. I agree it’s an abomination and easily the WORST of all Brosnan’s Bond flicks. I’m a huge fan of Toby Stephens who managed to somehow elevated his preposterous role of Gustav, but no matter how good an actor is, he could only be as good as how the role was written. But he’s not even the worst part of the movie, that’d have to go to the lousy script & Tamahori’s direction. I hated Brosnan here, whom I’ve never been a fan of anyway, and Berry is simply annoying. The only fun part is the fencing scene, which makes Brosnan look even more senile compared to the younger and much-fitter Toby.

    • I caught it on TV yesterday – remembered it being bad but nowhere near as bad as this, it’s definitely my least favourite in the whole series. I like Toby Stephens too and with better material he could have done wonders as an anti-Bond, it’s a shame the direction they go with him, and well, everything else in the film. Thanks for the comment!

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