If you ask anyone what the worst Bond film is, there is a relatively high chance that Die Another Day is in their bottom three. If you ask just about anyone what the worst Pierce Brosnan helmed Bond film is, there’s an even higher chance that it’ll come down to Die Another Day. It’s the first post-9/11 Bond film, and while in hindsight it seems that audiences wanted something a little grimmer and grittier – a sentiment shared with Bond himself – Die Another Day opened higher than any of the other Brosnan helmed films, taking in a solid $47 million in its opening weekend! That’s more than Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale almost four years later, though its total domestic gross would later surpass Die Another Day for the number four spot in the franchise. Still, critics were not kind to Brosnan’s final shaken martini, calling it “a train wreck of a movie”, and “The Batman & Robin of the Bond series”, giving Bond a “license to bore.” Audiences ultimately dismissed claims of it being more ‘James Bomb’ than Bond, flocking to theatres in droves to escape a world now darkened by an ever growing war on terrorism, but it seemed they now had something to hate almost as much as the political landscape of a Bush era presidency.
But is it really so bad?
Die Another Day starts off like any of the other 26 Bond films in the franchise, exploding onto the screen with a slam bang opener that acts as a mouthwatering hors d’oeuvre to our action entrée (sorry, no ’61 Bollinger to wash it down.) Bond night surfs onto the beaches of North, infiltrates a military compound disguised as a conflict diamond dealer, blows up an arsenal of sports cars that would make Jay Leno wince, and winds up battling it out on a moving hovercraft with Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee), a General’s son who represents western cultural assimilation. It’s one of the most ostentatious yet gloriously explosive openers since Goldeneye, and one that ranks right alongside Danial Craig’s rooftop train brawl in Skyfall, save for Roger Deakins’ visual eye. Literally everything explodes around Bond; cars, bunkers, barrels (oh so many barrels!) and helicopters. It goes beyond excess, but in an entry that tips its hat to 40 years of 00 shenanigans; it somehow feels fitting to say “to hell with it all!”
Soon, with Moon’s supposed death, Bond finds himself captured and tortured, all to the club beats of Madonna, which may or may not be the auditory equivalent of waterboarding. It’s one of the franchise’s worst themes, clashing with scenes of a battered and nearly broken Bond, as he’s prodded with hot pokers and stung by a dozen or so scorpions, while miniature fire women dance to what became the 8th hottest track on the US Billboard Hot 100. After all, these are dark times in the world, and not even Bond gets off that easy.
After Bond detonates his satchel in a failed escape attempt, he is traded to MI6 for Moon’s henchman Zao (Rick Yune), who stylishly wears blood diamonds in his face (take note Gucci Mane). Our 00 agent then finds himself stripped of his ranking and under Her Majesty’s lock and key, believed to have leaked information to the Koreans. Though as any ardent fan knows, nothing can tie James Bond down – except you, Helga Brandt – and after a cheeky pit-stop at a hotel in Hong Kong that essentially acts as The Continental from John Wick, our man of mystery is off to uncover MI6’s mole.
Changing from hospital garbs to haute couture, Bond finds himself in Cuba, where he meets Jinx (Halle Berry); the undercover agent whose introduction is framed through binoculars in a fitting tribute to Ursula Andress from Dr. No. After Jinx and James flirt and trade innuendos for what feels like an eternity, (“Aw, ornithologist, huh? Wow. Now there’s a mouthful.”), they get to rolling around the sheets in what may be one of the most passively aggressive PG-13 scenes of intimacy since Sidney Prescott flashed Billy Loomis in Scream. At one point, she threatens to cut Bond in a proclamation of her naughtiness, only to produce some sort of Mediterranean fruit from out of nowhere. It quickly becomes apparent that Jinx may well be one of the worst Bond girls in history, acting as an ammunition cache of zippy one liners rather than an independently strong seductress who may or may not be playing both sides. These are best broken down in bullets:
- [stabbing someone with a knife embedded in a book] “Read this….bitch!”
- [someone asking who sent her] “Yo’ mama. And she told me to tell you she’s really disappointed in you!”
- [someone asking who she’s trying to kill him] “I thought it was the humane thing to do.”
- [when lasers are about to cut her in half] “Switch them off, or I’ll be half the girl I use to be!”
- [telling Bond that they’re after the same thing] “World peace, unconditional love, and our little friend with the expensive acne (Zao).”
- [after being asked if Bond’s explained his Big Bang Theory, but also after they had sex] “Oh yeah, I think I got the thrust of it.”
Though to be fair, she’s a Bond girl that is given liberties with her weapon (and her gun), as Bond awakens the next morning to an empty bed. And it’s Jinx’s gun we follow, as she moves in to take out the head doctor of a gene replacement program; one that has Zao disguising himself as a white man. But before Zao can even finish phase 1 of the procedure (which seems to reduce patients pigments, turning those that should have died into a ghostly white), Bond is dishing out a license to kill. Unfortunately for us, director Lee Tamahori (XXX: State of the Union) reminds us that it’s also a post-Matrix world, injecting a rather fluid fight scene with bursts of slow-mo. It’s visually distracting and comically absurd, with Zao at one point seeming to roar like the albino Siberian Tiger he is before escaping on a helicopter. Of course, it’s only half as absurd as witnessing Halle Berry smirk before green-screen diving off a ledge, bidding adieu to those in pursuit of her, while Bond makes his way to his home turf: London.
Here we are introduced to the WASPY megalomaniac and billionaire Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), who parachutes into a press junket to the tunes of ‘London Calling’ while using a Union Jack chute; a fitting tribute to The Spy Who Loved Me. It’s where we are also introduced to Miranda Frost, Graves assistant (and MI6 agent) played by a young Rosamund Pike, who rules every scene with an eager ferocity that further confirms we failed her after Gone Girl. She takes scraps she is given and commands, swatting down Bond’s sexual quips like a Spitfire. She even catches the attention of her fencing instructor (played by Madonna of course), who doesn’t like “cockfights”; a suggestive preamble to an ego-driven and revenge fuelled sword fight.
See, Gustav Graves isn’t simply another maniacal white man bent on world domination, but our Western-corrupted Colonel Moon, who is very much alive and thriving after cheating death and completing both phases of gene replacement. It’s a knowledge that adds fuel to the fire that erupts between our proverbial roosters, who strut their stuff with equal parts wit and steel. Their fight moves from rapier to sword and all throughout a posh club, slicing through paintings and newspapers as egos enflame to the size of double decker buses. It’s an endurance race between two men; one who seeks vengeance, and another who’s nearing 50 and quite possibly needs to prove his capabilities as a 00. It’s no Roy, Rob Roy, but its footing is surprisingly agile, thrilling, and as explosive as we’ll get without setting a fuse.
That is, until we enter a massive ice hotel that ends up being the film’s decadent focal point in its action extravaganza! It might be chilly, but it’s where Bond ultimately gets to be, above all else, Bond; heating things up with Miranda Frost before discovering that, well, she isn’t quite who she seems. It’s a reveal that comes after Bond takes her into an ice bed shaped like a swan (because why not?) and moments before Graves reveals his true intentions: to use an orbital satellite named Icarus to harvest its solar power as a weapon. Essentially, Graves plans on turning its energy into one giant solar flame thrower, destroying civilizations and making North Korea the reigning power, all ruled by a Korean-turned-white man.
If this all sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. At one point, Bond outruns the solar weapon using a rocket-powered vehicle, only to dangle off the precipice of a melting cliff before kite sailing onto mainland. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a high speed chase between a souped-up Jaguar and an invisible Aston Martin that makes even the most simplest of entrances look ludicrous. It’s a chase that feels like a high-end luxury car commercial, with one too many obnoxious quick zooms that would soon be used by the entire Saw franchise. None of it feels right. That is until, sliding upside down on the roof of his car, Bond ejects the passenger seat, vaulting his car upright and narrowly missing an oncoming rocket. All is good in the world. This is what espionage action romps were made for!
Once our icy lodge is sufficiently melted, Bond and Jinx (still alive and tearing through line deliveries with as much energy as a kitten on Ambien) make their way onto Graves’s plane, where he begins controlling the satellites firepower using a mechanised bodysuit. It’s a look that screams VR nerd, yet when worn by a Shakespearian actor such as Toby Stephens (who charmed his way into a Saturn Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor), it emanates palpable prowess that presents Graves as a larger than life figure. And what better way to match his megalomania than with a hi-tech suit of armour that puts the sir in sirvente?
Of course, with every challenge comes the obvious defeat, as Graves and Bond begin exchanging blows, which quickly dissolves into a physical power struggle. What audiences really deserve is to witness a royal beating between the two, one that pits western versus eastern traditions, man versus machine. What we get instead is mostly theatrics, carrying little substance, instead cutting between a sword fight against Jinx and Frost, rocking attire straight out of a hip-hop dance-wear magazine. It’s insatiably short, yet seeing Rosamund Pike utilised in more than a glossy fashion is invaluable, and proves that the future has plenty of room for her. Then Jinx stabs her with a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and calls her a bitch, revealing that even dreams can be murdered.
What follows is an ending that feels as tossed away as the beginning feels heaped on. An ill-fitted green screen flashes before our eyes as James regains control of a plummeting helicopter, all the while Jinx highlights her unfortunate name. “I told you I was a jinx!” It’s an ending that shows you fire, sweat, and chaos, yet never allows you to feel it, even in a comic-book inspired way, which the majority of Die Another Day manages to accomplish in its own fashion. As unbefitting as its climactic scene is, Die Another Day is a Bond entry that relishes the pomp and glory of its franchise, one that has seen its fair share of gadgets, misogyny and martinis, suggesting that when things get preposterous, perhaps we should simply enjoy the ride. After all, it really isn’t so bad.