Die Another Day Review
Die Another Day is the twentieth outing for James Bond in the lucrative film franchise, was Pierce Brosnan’s fourth, and final, appearance as the lead and had a timed released to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of Bond’s screen debut. It was also the one that many felt went a step too far with regard to its gadgets and suffered greatly with poorly rendered CGI and preposterous ideas, so that even though it was a massive box office success it is regarded by many to be one of the worst in the franchise – even Roger Moore decried its unbelievability, and he went into space! However, even though there is plenty to deride the film about, it is based on a solid premise and is based on Fleming’s original writings (something that hadn’t happened since Licence to Kill) – it also paved the way for the franchise re-boot with Casino Royale and that alone should be cause for its celebration. So, ladies and gentlemen, strap on your parachute, step into your makeshift surfboard and let’s ride the ice berg laden wave into tonight’s feature presentation: Die Another Day.
The opening scene sees Bond and two other (presumably) ‘00’ agents surfing into land (never mind that North Korea doesn’t have a coast line that develops such waves, the fact that Bond can surf building high tides will be useful information for later). They run to a field and use transmission equipment hidden in their surf boards to divert a helicopter to their location so they can replace its occupants. With that first part accomplished the team fly the chopper into a North Korean military base posing as diamond merchants with millions of dollars of conflict diamonds to be used as payment for state of the art weapons. It is here that we are introduced to our two main protagonists, the spiteful and arrogant Colonel Tan-Sun Moon and his equally sadistic henchman Zao. Moon is an Oxford educated (must be something about Oxford that they produce so many villains in Bond) North Korean national, son to a well respected General in the army, but one with a huge chip on his shoulder; as well as illegally dealing in conflict diamonds for weaponry, he has grander designs to take South Korea, and possibly even further to extend his lands and rule through fear. During this part of the film Moon is played by Will Yun Lee, who is mostly known for his TV work, but he has such a short amount of screen time all we can really gauge is his ambition and disregard for tradition and human life. Zao is confidant to Moon, indeed they could be brothers, equal in vision if not in stature. Rick Yune plays the part of Zao with pure evil relish, but has since disappeared into DTV hell. Together they make a formidable opponent, equal parts brains and brawn.
Bond, in these early scenes is the picture of efficiency and coolness. Lacing the diamond filled briefcase with enough C4 to level a building (never mind that the resulting explosion goes off like a damp squib) and priming it with the detonator hidden in his watch, he sits cool, calm and collected waiting to land. His mission is to assassinate Colonel Moon for his illegal activities, illegal within his own lands as well as internationally. Unfortunately for him Zao uses technology and an informant within MI6 to discover his true identity and this causes a mass shoot out with death and destruction on a typical Bond scale, complete with huge explosions, bullets galore and all to the fanfare of the James Bond Theme. So far, so formulaic. Then something quite different happens – instead of escaping by some secret gadgetry, Bond is actually captured. Now he’s been captured before, but there’s always been some window of escape, but here, in North Korea surrounded by an entire army, his outlook is suitably bleak. Indeed we go into the titles watching Bond being tortured with fire, ice and scorpion venom (a first for the franchise). You know how I said Sheryl Crow’s theme for Tomorrow Never Dies was the worst song I’d heard for a Bond film because it didn’t fit the mood nor the remaining score of the film. Well Madonna’s theme here is even worse! Simultaneously being nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and also for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Original Song of 2002, the song simply does not fit the subject matter being shown, nor does it fit with the film as a whole as Dave Arnold never uses any cues from it in his, somewhat unmemorable score. Personally I think Madonna financed some of the picture and insisted on having one of her songs as the theme, as well as ‘acting’ in a cameo. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true as this film, at the time, broke records for the amount of product placement and merchandising used to finance the film. The opening song is so long it takes fourteen months to get to the end of the credits.
When we next meet Bond he is a near broken man, dishevelled, bearded, and bedraggled but still able to be defiant to his captors and steadfastly refusing to give up any information. General Moon, with a weary sigh dismisses Bond and we, like him, think he is being lead to his death. Stood on a deserted bridge with a firing squad at his back Bond is set walking; it is, in fact, a prisoner exchange – the other prisoner none other than Zao, disfigured with diamond fragments embedded in his face. Waiting on the other side is M and Damian Falco, head of the NSA, both of whom are aghast at the state of Bond, though Falco in seeing his swagger describes Bond’s determination not to show weakness as arrogance in front of his superiors. In a first for the series Bond is shown defeated, he is shipped back to MI6 where he is held in a medical centre to assess his health and well being. Here are the seeds of what could have been a great little mind game, which ultimately, and sadly, came to nothing – has Bond been turned, is he still the man he was, does he have another agenda? Indeed when M comes to debrief him we are witness to one of the best scenes in the film. M is once again played by Judi Dench who is by now an old hand at this character, and here she gets to show even more mettle. She can spar with Bond on an equal footing and does so with such demeanour she wins every argument, even those that involve agents actions – “I don’t have the luxury of seeing things in black and white.” Once again M doesn't have very many scenes, though this outing does see her have a few more minutes screen time, and Dench uses them to her fullest, be it locking heads with Falco or deciding on Bond’s next course of action, she is firmly in the driving seat. Bond, on the other hand, during this debriefing scene is not quite as vengeful as he should have been. He admits to knowing the job and that if caught not to expect rescue, simply because of his covert nature and the deniability of the Government. Indeed it was the Americans' that brokered his release thinking he had cracked due to a number of operatives being discovered, leading Bond to assume that the mole in MI6 was still working. But even though M believes and trusts him, up to the point of entering his secure cell, she cannot condone his actions or sanction his release, even going so far as to rescind his 00 status, particularly as he wants to track down Zao and eliminate him. Since the makers have been down the revenge path before, and know how dark it can get, the decision was made to keep things far lighter – Bond would go after Zao, but not as a headstrong do-or-die attitude, but with more of the refinements that makes Bond, Bond. In the grand scheme of decision making with regard to this film, this one ranks pretty low in the chart of wildly unacceptable ideas and probably works to the films narrative more than a dark and desperate Bond – it was the fortieth anniversary of the filmic character and, as such, cause for celebrating the past, not to take it to new and unfathomable depths.
Of course Bond escapes and he walks wet, bedraggled, unshaven and filthy into a five star Chinese hotel and orders his usual suite – luckily he is recognised by the manager who allows him entrance and a few minutes later we see Bond back to his normal suave self, clean shaven and dapper. Brosnan was nearly fifty when making this film and this actually helped his look; Bond had been through fourteen months of torture and interrogation, he should look older and facially Brosnan fits well, he’s not as skinny and beaten as a real prisoner would have been but we can forgive that. After obtaining information from the Chinese secret service and them printing him documents and travel papers, Bond heads off to Havana to find Zao who is rumoured to be in a clinic in the region. Utilising some undercover contacts and posing as an ornithologist he makes his move to find the elusive Zao. Seems the clinic on a remote island off the coast line is home to gene therapy experimentation specialising in DNA replacement (oops, one of those preposterous ideas creeping in maybe?) and Zao is using the treatment to change his identity by changing his face; Bond finds and stops him, simultaneously destroying the clinic, but fortuitously gaining the bullet around Zao’s neck, which gives him his next clue – it's full of diamonds. One huge leap of faith later and Bond is hot on the trail of Gustav Graves a billionaire philanthropist diamond merchant, who until a few years back was completely unknown.
The scene where Bond and Graves meet is, perhaps, one of the best action scenes in the film, being as it doesn’t involve gadgets and there is a real sense of danger. It also gives us an insight into Graves as a character and Bond’s reaction to it. Toby Stephens plays Graves; he was only thirty three at the time, making him one of the youngest Bond villains ever, and that youthful energy and exuberance comes across in his characterisation. When we first meet him he parachutes into London outside of Buckingham Palace (another preposterous idea) and he commands the press as they quiz him about his activities – this serves as a neat way for exposition: Graves has too much money, lives life on the edge and does not sleep, this gives him a desire to ‘live his dreams’. Our second encounter is at the fencing club where we are privy to another side of Graves’ nature. He likes to win – and by any means necessary, upping stakes to frighten away contenders or simply beating them into submission; this could be a spoilt child syndrome or other parental issues and when we discover exactly who Graves is, much of what drives him is made clear. Bond, of course, is just the man to pit against him – never afraid and always with a comeback the two spar verbally and then physically, first with rapiers then with sabres in a duel to cut first blood on the torso to deem the winner. It is an incredibly physical fight with both actors really going for broke and, for once, due to Bond’s already being captured and tortured, you do not know if he is going to win out. As the stakes get higher and the duel ever more vicious it seems that neither one will let up, indeed it looks like the only outcome will be one of their deaths. It is only a timely intervention of Graves’ assistant that prevents that outcome and which leads directly to Bond being invited to Iceland, and Graves’ Ice Palace for the demonstration of his satellite ‘Icarus’ – essentially a mirror in space that can reflect the sun to anywhere on the planet thus providing year long sustenance for crop growth. Whilst these opening scenes do well to involve the character as the film progresses Graves becomes ever more the spoilt child – and whilst that is within his character, it is to the detriment of the film despite the grandest attempts by the director and editor to add gravity to the father/son relationship.
Upon leaving the club Bond is handed a key that leads him to a disused tube station where he is given the go ahead to investigate Graves by M, albiet under the radar, in another tremendously electric scene between Brosnan and Dench. It is a shame that these two didn’t get to do more scenes together like this because they really do work well together; there is a strong argument to be made that this point of their relationship was a direct influence to how Dench and Craig would perform together, and furthermore may even have sown the seeds for Skyfall and M’s own back-story. Immediately after this scintillating scene things take a dramatic turn for the worse, as Bond heads into Q branch to collect his gadgets with perhaps the most outlandish of them all; in fact if you were to put all of his gadgets, from all the other films together, they would still not be a match for how outlandish his new car is. Hurray for the return of the Aston though, and in its best shape too! I’ll discuss the gadgets in more detail later, but an invisible car is just a little bit too far into the realms of science fiction. It’s not the most preposterous idea in the film though, that is to come.
Graves’ Ice Palace was built in Iceland next to a diamond mine as a venue to demonstrate his new satellite from. And here is where the most preposterous idea comes in. Diamonds cannot be found in Iceland, the country is too new, it doesn't have the depth and the conditions are totally against those needed to produce diamonds – it’s just utter nonsense. Also I’ve been to ice sculpture museums, to maintain their integrity the temperature of the building is well below freezing; you need warm clothing to admire them – so how is it that during the ball the ladies are wearing skimpy ball gowns? Also, also, a bed made from ice will still melt into water if you sleep on it, and thin fur blankets will no way be enough to keep you warm in melting ice. Shall we move on?
Graves’ true demonstration of Icarus is to a number of North Korean generals, for not only can it be used to provide sunlight for crops, but with extra concentration can be a heat ray used for destruction. His ultimate goal to destroy the de-militarised zone minefield dividing North and South Korea and then march unchallenged into the South and claim it for his own, using the protection of Icarus from any UN retaliation. As evil Bond villain plans go, I like this one. It’s motivated by personal greed and even though it has global implications is actually very direct in its intentions. Questions remain on how a privately funded satellite weapon could ever have been put into orbit in the first place, but as we’ve already seen this is small potatoes in the preposterous stakes. Of course it’s up to Bond to stop him and leads to two scenes that showcase both the highs and the lows of this film. Towards the end of the piece is a duel between Bond and Zao, both in equally equipped weaponised cars skating across ice blazing away at each other – its tense and exciting despite the open expanse area, and whilst it goes over the top with ejector seats used to flip a car over (Mythbuster conclusively busted that one), director Lee Tamahori made a clever decision to bring the chase inside the Ice Palace for its conclusion, closing in on the claustrophobic atmosphere and ramping up the tension even further. The low, unfortunately comes a few minutes earlier with Bond escaping the Icarus beam via rocket-sled then strapping part of the rocket craft to his feet as a makeshift snow/surfboard and using the parachute to surf/glide his way back on a building-sized tidal-wave/avalanche shown with such dodgy CGI that it stands out as preposterous in an already preposterous idea. The Icarus controlling suit that Graves wears with its inbuilt electric shock glove is plain stupid as well.
So what of the gadgets? Well, I’ve already mentioned the one that this film is most notorious for, the invisible car. In fact the car itself contains plenty of gadgets seen in previous films, ejector seat, machine guns, missiles as well as being completely bullet proof and his watch has very similar uses that have all been seen before. Many feel that the car pushes the envelope of Bond too far, and I am inclined to agree, especially when it is first revealed and there is clearly nothing there. A word on Q; excluding Live and Let Die this is the first film since From Russia with Love not to have stalwart Desmond Llewelyn in the role. Sadly he had passed by the time filming began, and indeed he was too old to be in the previous film (fabulous though he was in it “Always have an escape route”), and so the makers cleverly thought to put in an assistant to ease the transition, R, and here he has been promoted to Q, the actor was John Cleese. Now I love Cleese and his work with this type of officious, overbearing buffoon being exactly the part he is known for, a kind of Basil Fawlty light – and I guess that is the worst aspect of his characterisation, it is Basil Fawlty light and adds, perhaps, too much of that comedic tone that such scenes with Llewelyn skirted with but were never overtly known for.
So what of the girls? Well, the largest part went to Oscar winner (though not at the time, she received the honour during filming this) Halle Berry playing NSA agent Jinx Johnson. Jinx is a very capable agent, with similar agenda and gadgets to Bond it is inevitable that the two join forces after their initial distrust of each other. The character was touted for a spin off series which luckily never came to fruition because a female Bond simply does not work. There are a number of reason why it never came to pass, though, not least of which is Berry’s portrayal of the character which is pretty much lame. Whilst I liked the idea of a ballsy female agent standing alongside Bond, she never comes across as much more than a plank of wood, even when being threatened by lasers! I did like the scenes when they first meet, both having their own agenda on what they want to get from the other person, equal footing between the sexes, so to speak but as soon as we know what she is up to her character just seems to fizzle away. And as for her escape from the Havana clinic ... I might have used the word once or twice already, preposterous. The second Bond girl is Rosamund Pike who plays Miranda Frost and whilst her motivations for being a turncoat are ridiculous, as a character her cool demeanour works as a great contrast to hot headed Bond. She plays the part well and has the delicious aspect of playing both sides – indeed both of these girls bed Bond, but both do it on their own terms, something unusual for the franchise. They do get to face off against each other and it is well handled, never coming off as ‘chick fight’ but two professionals tying to best each other.
So what of the competition? As mentioned in the opening paragraph 2002 was the fortieth anniversary of the franchise and the makers wanted to go all out with a celebration of what made Bond great by putting into it every element that the fans wanted to see. This was due to the fact that there were a number of films coming up that threatened the mighty Bond in terms of his relevance. There was xXx, which luckily was a mess and whilst it tried to aim for the younger demographic came over as just terrible to anyone that had an ounce of intelligence, and there was Bourne, which would become a far closer contender – luckily for Bond it was (and is) a very different franchise and thus the two don’t directly compete because Bourne was tight, tense and intelligent, something that this particular Bond outing lacked. But, in this instance, that is ok, the film was celebrating its heritage; there is a lot to enjoy and the film is packed with everything that makes Bond great. Yes it is hard to get past some of the preposterousness of some of the ideas, but the film is entertaining. The villain, whilst descending into a bit of a caricature towards the end is suitably evil and has a terrifically evil plan built on his own desires. And most of all, because it was so over the top, for the next chapter the makers were forced to go back to an idea that they had previously tried before: going back to basics and remove a great deal of the gadgetry and concentrate on the character, the story and the situation – Lazenby had On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Moore had For Your Eyes Only; this time, sadly, Brosnan was recast, but that recasting gave us Daniel Craig in what must be the definitive Bond and a film in Casino Royale that reinvigorated the franchise in a way not seen since Dalton in 1987. Personally in the echelons of Brosnan’s tenure it ranks equal second with The World is Not Enough, GoldenEye being last and Tomorrow Never dies just coming out on top. Bond is a lasting legacy and what a way to celebrate his forty (now fifty) years at the top with a film that unashamedly celebrates it as well; Die Another Day is far from the monster it is purported to be – outlandish but in all the right places.