It’s become fashionable in Bond fandom to wear one’s contempt for Pierce Brosnan’s 007 swan song as a snarky badge of honour; to attempt to one-up other anonymous keyboard wielders with profanity-laden schadenfreude at the movie’s expense. Yes, it’s over the top, yes, it’s dabbling in the dreaded science fiction arena again, yes, the special effects are dodgy and we’re not sure that what Madonna’s doing in it can be charitably called “acting.” But the way professed fans go after this movie with raging hate-ons about everything from the CGI bullet flying through the opening gunbarrel to the villain’s robo-suit does little to diminish the perception of fandom as the proverbial bunch of spoiled virgins squatting in their parents’ basements on a diet of Doritos and Mountain Dew, so thoroughly jaded as to be unimpressed by anything. It has its faults, but it’s simply not that bad a movie. Most of the criticisms levelled at The World is Not Enough (those that did not solely blame Denise Richards) accused it of being too low-key and having a confusing plot (i.e., one that isn’t explained on a blackboard for the slower members of the audience). In preparing Die Another Day, the filmmakers wanted to streamline the story and bring back the notion of Bond movies feeling big. In that, I believe they succeeded. But let’s delve deeper, shall we?
The story begins with 007 undercover inside North Korea on a mission to assassinate the rogue Colonel Tan-Sun Moon (Will Yun Lee), who has been trading illegal African conflict diamonds for arms. A rogue MI6 operative exposes Bond to Moon’s henchman Zao (Rick Yune), and following a hovercraft chase through the Korean DMZ in which Moon is apparently killed, Bond is captured, imprisoned and tortured for fourteen months. He is eventually released, traded back to the West in exchange for Zao, stripped of 00-status and about to be packaged off for rehabilitation. But Bond, who believes he’s been set up, escapes British custody and with the aid of Chinese intelligence finds his way to Cuba, where Zao is undergoing a peculiar form of DNA-replacement therapy designed to transform his appearance. It’s here that Bond first encounters NSA agent Giacinta “Jinx” Johnson (Halle Berry), who’s also hunting down the resourceful Korean. It seems Zao is paying for his “makeover” with African conflict diamonds bearing the laser signature of Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), which leads Bond back to Britain and eventually to Graves’ ice hotel in Iceland, where the diamond magnate is demonstrating his Icarus satellite, which can redirect solar energy anywhere on earth. With Jinx’s help, Bond discovers that Graves is in fact the presumed-dead Colonel Moon, having undergone DNA-replacement therapy to take on a new identity, and that Icarus is actually a destructive solar laser. And Bond finally meets his betrayer – MI6 agent Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), who has been assisting Graves/Moon in his master plan to use Icarus to detonate the minefield in the DMZ and give North Korea’s million-man army a clear path to invade the South. Everything comes to a head in the skies above Korea as the two countries teeter on the brink of war.
Die Another Day was the first Bond movie to be made after 9/11, when the idea of the hero shifted away from the wry smirk of the testosterone-jacked Uzi-sprayer to the self-sacrifice of the first responder and the common man finding bravery in his darkest moments. It also came out in a time when Jason Bourne was first carving his cinematic mark, and when the makers of the Vin Diesel vehicle XXX were bragging publicly about wanting to take down the Bond franchise with their hyperactive, video game-inspired knockoff, accusing 007 of being a spy movie for grandfathers. Despite ever-escalating box office numbers, Bond was again in danger of irrelevance. The solution was to stage the next movie as a celebration that would remind audiences why they loved Bond in the first place. Director Lee Tamahori was clearly interested in giving a much larger scale and faster pace to this 40th anniversary outing, and he and writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade packed the screen with sly references to almost every Bond movie that had come before (diehards claim there is indeed a reference to every preceding Bond movie, but some of them are probably just wishful thinking applied to coincidences). Octopussy’s Acrostar jet, Rosa Klebb’s spike-toed shoe and Thunderball’s jetpack are just a few of the toys on display in Q’s lab this time around. The plot borrows an unused element from the Fleming novel Moonraker in the shaping of its villain, a man who appears to have gone from nothing to a highly-respected member of British society in a short amount of time but is in fact a foreigner bent on destruction. Some of these homages do come off as recycling, especially in the space-based weapon angle we just saw in Goldeneye a few movies ago. But Die Another Day is essentially a greatest hits package, and in between the familiar and the winks to Bond’s past we do see some terrific individual scenes, and an attempt to do the same old things in a stylistically different way. And some people just didn’t like that very much.
The first half of the movie is the tribute to Bond’s past, while pushing him into some interesting new directions. It’s a bold decision to show the unstoppable 007 suffering the brutal consequences of failing in his mission, and looking for the first half hour of the movie like a refugee from Cast Away. It being a PG-13 movie, we were never going to see the true horrors of torture, but Tamahori and director of photography David Tattersall incorporate black-and-white cinematography and different film speeds to make the audience uncomfortable. In addition, the image is slightly desaturated in the opening North Korean section of the movie to add, subconsciously, the feeling of a cold and bleak foreign land, in contrast to the warmer, richer colours of the Cuban portion of the movie. When Bond arrives back in England (to the strains of the Clash’s “London Calling,” another choice that upset a lot of fans for no apparent reason), Tamahori unleashes the finest action sequence of the entire film (once Madonna’s limp cameo is out of the way): the swordfight between Bond and Graves. Beginning with epees, the battle escalates with samurai swords and tears apart half the club before it’s stopped. Wisely, Tamahori never cuts away from the two characters as they duel – John Glen would have added all sorts of comic reaction shots of people diving out of the way, staring at their drinks in disbelief and so forth. We the audience then, never get a breath from this intense and memorable exchange – to our benefit. Like the best action beats, this scene works better because there is some emotional underpinning at work, even if it is, at heart, as Madonna describes, a “cockfight.”
Bond’s arrival in Iceland at Gustav Graves’ ice hotel begins the portion of the movie that fans had the most trouble with. They didn’t like Bond’s invisible car, the scene with Bond escaping (via CGI) from the collapsing ice wall, or the use of speed ramping in the editing of Bond’s high-speed chase with Zao. The invisible car actually isn’t that much of a flight of fancy, being an extrapolation of technology actually developed for military use. I’ll concede the point about the ice wall, not because the special effects and the use of a digital Bond in a series renowned for its real-person stunt work are suspect, but because the entire scene could be lopped out of the movie with no letup in the narrative. The speed ramping reminded too many people of The Matrix, I suppose, but when one considers the style contrast between the old-school spy movie of the 60’s at work in the movie’s first half and the leap ahead into the future in its second, it makes sense, and there’s enough energy at work here to keep the picture moving even through some of its saggier bits.
I do have issues with Die Another Day in a couple of areas. Firstly, the acting is a real step down from some of the impressive work done in The World is Not Enough. The relatively unknown Stephens, who would go on to play Bond in a series of BBC radio adaptations of the Fleming novels, is the best of the lot, punching above his weight to deliver a snarling performance that stands him in good stead against some of the more famous actors who’ve faced off against James Bond in the past. Some criticized Stephens’ interpretation as petulant, but again, it’s logical when considering the nature of the character, a young North Korean seemingly spoiled by an unfeeling father and a longing for the excesses of the West. John Cleese is a delightful (if short-lived, as it would turn out) successor to Desmond Llewelyn as Q. But other than that it’s verging a bit on amateur hour, U.S.A. Halle Berry would win an Oscar prior to appearing in this film, but she’s relying a little too much on sass to create a likeable character, forgetting that sass in and of itself doesn’t equal memorable. In fairness to her, she doesn’t have much to work with in yet another “Bond’s equal” female agent role – the played-out archetype Bond’s screenwriters resort to when they can’t think of a more logical reason to have a love interest in the movie. (A plan to give Jinx her own spinoff movie series was mercifully abandoned.) Rick Yune is kind of a non-factor, lowering his voice to sound menacing and skulking about in slow motion, and for a supposedly lethal killer, we never actually see him kill anyone. And Judi Dench goes terribly underused here after factoring so significantly into the action of the previous movie. Secondly, the dialogue is hammy, trading nuance and character for pun after pun. It hasn’t escaped notice that Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, now credited with co-writing their fifth consecutive Bond movie on Skyfall, are often rewritten by others, but here they are in full command of the script and one longs for the deft, literate touch that Paul Haggis would provide on the forthcoming movie.
But at the end of all that, much like Moonraker, I still give a thumbs up to Die Another Day. I appreciate the nods to Bond’s past, I like some of the riskier touches, I can even appreciate the ones that don’t work for the attempt alone – and when the classic Bond theme kicks in, I can’t help being pumped. Die Another Day is, as I said, Bond’s greatest hits, and much as you do often want the intellectual challenge of the more difficult concept album with its experimental tracks, sometimes it’s better to kick back and put on the party mix where you know every song is going to be one you love. Die Another Day is a movie full of flaws and miscalculations, but it succeeds on the question of entertainment, and those inclined to waste megabytes trashing it might want to just give it a rest – for the sake of their own sanity. There are much more important things in the world to get upset about.