Production on the 20th (Official) James Bond film was delayed for a year so that the release would line up with the 40th anniversary of “Dr. No” and give the franchise an opportunity to highlight and celebrate its enduring legacy. On something of a roll, the franchise’s confidence was at an all-time high as Neal Purvis and Robert Wade returned for scripting duties. As with “The World Is Not Enough”, they tried to bring some fresh ideas into the Bond milieu, not least of all the idea that some of Bond’s missions might end very badly indeed for our favourite secret agent…
Mistrusted by MI6, Bond sets out to track down a North Korean terrorist in the hope of identifying a double agent at the heart of British Intelligence and stumbles on a scheme to use a space based weapon to reunite the Korean peninsula under the control of the North.
From the moment you hear David Arnold’s drum’n’bass-lite remix of the Bond theme accompanying the gun barrel sequence, you get the sense that this is a conflicted movie; proud of its 40 year heritage but acutely conscious of the need to remain young, hip and relevant. The addition of a bullet flying towards the camera as part of the gun barrel sequence is the first of a number of CGI blunders the film will make and makes little sense in any case. Are we to understand Bond has fired his bullet down the barrel of his assailant’s gun? How tiny is Bond’s bullet?
In any event, we move swiftly on to a deadly serious incursion into North Korea via surfboard (no jolly rendition of ‘California Girls’ for Brosnan) as Bond seeks to disrupt rogue North Korean Colonel Moon trading North Korean weapons for African conflict diamonds (what terrorist organisation is so desperate for equipment that they’re buying North Korean technology?). Bond’s plan almost works but he is betrayed by a mole in MI6 and ends up pursued by Colonel Moon in an entertainingly explosive hovercraft chase across a minefield, culminating in Moon’s apparent death by waterfall and Bond’s capture by the North Korean army. There’s no Union Jack-adorned escape for Bond this time and he is thrown in prison and tortured for information. The torture takes the form of having to appear in the title sequence and therefore experience the abomination that is Madonna’s title song. Daniel Kleinman does his usual sterling work with the title sequence, relishing the opportunity to actually advance the plot with his clever visuals but there’s just no getting away from the electronic travesty that is the theme song. It sounds more like a gimmicky dance sampling of an actual Bond theme than a song intended to represent the film itself and establishes the all-time low for Bond music to date.
As the film proper opens, we learn Bond has been held captive for 14 months but he is released when the North Korean government exchanges him for Colonel Moon’s former henchman Zao. Mistrusted by his own Government, Bond escapes from MI6 custody and makes his way to Hong Kong where he strikes a deal with the Chinese Secret Service to go after Zao.
“Die Another Day” certainly zips along at a fair old clip, and it’s fun to see Bond relying on his wits and old contacts while he works tacitly outside of MI6’s control. The scenes in Havana are great, especially seeing Bond activating a long dormant sleeper agent to get the information and equipment he needs. Halle Berry’s Jinx – introduced in a direct lift from homage to Ursula Andress’ first appearance in “Dr. No” – is a winningly assertive Bond ‘girl’, choosing to bed Bond as much as he pursues her and completely comfortable with leaving him the next morning to pursue her own mission. Although the destruction of the gene therapy clinic allows Zao to escape with a newly pale yet still diamond-encrusted pallor Bond uncovers a clue which leads him to Cool-Britannia-man-of-the-moment Gustav Graves (played with a cavalier relish by Toby Stephens, channelling his very best impression of Rick Mayall’s Alan B’Stard), an egregiously gregarious billionaire diamond mine owner and current darling of the British establishment.
Certainly it’s the most aggressive meeting between Bond and the primary villain in the history of the franchise as they take chunks out of the hallowed halls of the Blades club in an increasingly violent and decreasingly credible ‘friendly duel’. Unfortunately this is all overshadowed by Madonna’s relentlessly awful cameo as the Blades’ fencing mistress Verity. Her acting is atrocious: worse than her song. There’s a point where she stops in the middle of a line like she’s forgotten what to say and the entire movie grinds to a halt until she finally delivers the line ‘I don’t like cock fights’ with all the comic timing of a whoopee cushion at a funeral.
Despite that, everything that happens up to then makes for a pretty good Bond film. Jinx is an appealing Bond girl, Rosamund Pike’s Miranda Frost is an intriguingly ambiguous presence and Toby Stephens makes for a decent villain even if his prancing, sneering persona is a bit over the top. Once the action moves to the ice palace in Iceland, though, “Die Another Day” starts to believe its own hype. There’s a smugness that haunts the film, aided by the numerous cute call-backs to previous Bond movies, and an overconfidence that causes its reach to extend its grasp. Having drifted further and further away from the more grounded, realistic tone “Die Another Day” sees Bond move firmly into the sci-fi fantasy arena and not just because of the ‘invisible car’. The very notion of the DNA reconstruction is pure science fantasy and with each narrative leap, the film just feels less and less credible. Even in its own world of scientific implausibility, the film is wildly inconsistent: the Icarus laser which can slice a glacier in half in a matter of seconds takes an eternity to melt a little bit of the ice palace which we’re told required a precise temperature balance just to remain standing.
The film gets more fatuous stupider as it goes on and the action sequences are too reliant on gadgets and gimmicks to be interesting or exciting. Add to this the terrible CGI – not just during the execrable glacier parasailing sequence, the unusually shoddy model work and Lee Tamahori’s ineptly gimmicky and contrived direction and it adds up to a film which is not only less than the sum of its parts but much, much less than the sum of its predecessors. Despite its modern styling, “Die Another Day” feels like a huge step backwards for the franchise. Silly instead of humorous and stupid instead of spectacular, in the effort to pull out all the stops to mark the milestone and anniversary, the producers and writers went too far rehashing the plot from “Diamonds Are Forever” into a Korean border skirmish which, while interesting, still feels a little irrelevant to the interests Bond usually fights to protect and based on the hopelessly naïve notion that the only thing preventing a complete takeover by North Korea is the presence of land mines separating the two nations.
Thus Brosnan’s time as Bond ends on a bit of a bum note, which is a real shame because his take on the iconic spy was a really good one. He did his best but seemed cursed that there was always some other element beyond his influence that undermined his Bond movies. Of course, “Die Another Day” was still a big success at the box office but what has always marked Eon Production’s shepherding of the franchise is a deep appreciation of the real values of their audience. Producers Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli and screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade subsequently acknowledged they completely misjudged what the fans wanted from the series and accepted the outlandish tone of the film was a mistake. That acknowledgement would have far-reaching consequences for the franchise.