Countdown to Spectre: Die Another Day Revisited

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The Bond: Pierce Brosnan one last time. We’re in an anti-Brosnan moment, but despite being given some truly asinine material–in this film especially–you have to admire the way he always commits to the material.

The Release: Tomorrow Never Dies is, technically, the first post-9/11 Bond film, but the bulk of the story was conceived well before September 2001. Filming didn’t begin until early 2002 and some modifications were made to the overall story to reflect the political climate. However, writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade and producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson decided on North Korea as the villains early and it became topical choice when, a few months before the film’s release, George W. Bush included North Korea in his Axis of Evil.

In any case, the film hit theaters on November 20, 2002 in the UK and two days later in the US. It did even better than its predecessor, grossing nearly $161 million domestically and just under $432 million worldwide.

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The Girl: Die Another Day maintains the two-girl structure favored by recent Bond films, with one good and the other bad. The good girl is Jinx Johnson, played by Halle Berry. She won the Best Actress Oscar for Monsters Ball (beating Bond co-star Judi Dench) during filming and this character makes a strong argument for the existence of the post-Oscar curse. Jinx seems to only speak in innuendo, but Berry gamely proceeds as if everything she says isn’t desperately unfunny. As for the character herself, despite some promising spy work at the beginning, she gets damsel-in-distressed for much of the third act

The bad girl is Miranda Frost, played by Rosamund Pike. The writers double down on the thing that worked best about the last film and initially set her character up as Bond’s ally only to reveal that she’s been working with the enemy the whole time. Pike nails the character’s steely aloofness and fares better than Berry with the terrible comedy. In fact, she often outperforms her in their few brief scenes together, though Berry has better chemistry with Brosnan.

The Villain: While there are two main villains, three actors play them. The first begins as Colonel Moon played by Will Yun Lee and, thanks to some ridiculous gene therapy subplot, turns into Gustav Graves, played by Toby Stephens. Lee does fine with his limited screentime, but Stephens nearly steals the movie. He has to walk a fine line between hinting at the truth of the character’s identity and acting like just an arrogant businessman and like Christopher Lee in The Man with the Golden Gun, he’s having so much fun that he elevates the whole movie.

The second villain is Moon/Graves’s second-in-command, Zao, played by Rick Yune. Because Bond blows up a suitcase of diamonds in the opening set piece, the character has gems embedded in his face. It looks even sillier than it sounds.

 

The Gadgets: Bond’s Aston Martin Vanquish, because it’s one of the reasons this movie is so bad. This marks the return of the carmaker to the franchise and while it’s a good-looking vehicle, the invisibility feature ruins everything. In theory, it’s a cool bit of tech, but it’s symptomatic of the film’s over reliance on CGI. The general outlines of the car stay visible and Bond spends a good deal of the film in a snowy climate where the tire tracks are visible anyway. Admittedly, the car is involved in one of the film’s best action sequences, a car chase on the frozen lake in Hofn, Iceland, but that has more to do with the location than the car.

The Song: “Die Another Day” by Madonna. Listen, I’ve always liked this song, so I’m a little biased. I love the electronic influence and the lyrics and Madonna’s voice. Is it a proper Bond song? No, but it’s fun. The real downside is that for whatever reason, Madge appears in the film as Graves and Frost’s fencing instructor. It is so awkward.

The Book: Miranda Frost was inspired by–and even originally called–Gala Brand from Moonraker, but morphed into a more villainous figure during the pre-production process. All she keeps from the character is the undercover agent set up and a coldness toward Bond’s charm. The only other connection to Fleming’s Bond is a rather esoteric moment when Bond picks up a book about ornithology. The author picked out the name “James Bond” after seeing it on the cover of the book Birds of the West Indies and thinking it’s blandness was perfect for a spy.

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The film actually owes a lot to the franchise itself. Die Another Day was not only the 20th Bond (official) film, but marked the 40th anniversary of Dr. No‘s release in 1962. So, the producers filled the film with references to the character’s past. Jinx’s emergence from the water clad in an orange bikini and a belt with a hunting knife recalls Ursula Andress in No. Jinx strapped to a table with a laser moving slowly toward her and the ejector seat Bond uses to flip his car during the car chase recall Goldfinger. The knife shoe from Russia with Love and the jetpack from Thunderball appear in Q’s workshop and he mentions that the new watch he hands Bond is his “twentieth.” And to top it all off, Roger Moore’s daughter plays a stewardess.

The Movie: Die Another Day is often–and rightfully–cited as one of the worst Bond films. It gets off to a rough start when Bond and two fellow agents surf into North Korea. The scene (filmed at the Jaws surf break in Maui and coordinated by surf legend Laird Hamilton) is already a ridiculous concept, but it’s made worse by the painfully obvious day-for-night technique overlaid on the images. In fact, many of the ridiculous things that happen in the film are made worse by the terrible CGI, with the water effects in the scene where Bond goes para-surfing probably being the worst. However, as is evident from that example, the movie needs no help in looking ridiculous.

It has two of the most asinine creations ever put in a Bond film: a satellite that turns the sun’s rays into a giant laser and an ice hotel. Admittedly, the latter is based off an actual ice hotel in Sweden, but that doesn’t make it any less absurd. The structure is so clearly made of plastic in the indoor scenes that it looks like a giant toy. The sun laser–called Icarus–is even worse. The giant yellow beam is so poorly rendered that it’s almost impossible to not be either embarrassed for the movie or laugh. It also doesn’t help that the device is operated by a weird suit of armor that shoots electricity at people in a way that somehow looks even less visually sophisticated than the similar effect in the original Star Wars trilogy.

Die Another Day is–almost from top to bottom–a ridiculous and unattractive movie. Moreover, it feels especially slight post-9/11. It’s almost eerie how little the new global political climate affects the film and even the special features are almost shockingly devoid of references to it, with only a passing mention about how difficult it was to get clearance to film parachuters dropping down in front of Buckingham Palace. More than even the bad CGI, the franchise’s insistence on pretending that Bond can still be a carefree womanizer in the new millennium makes it feel painfully outdated. The franchise seriously needed a huge change in tone to survive and by the time it returned four years later, it did just that.