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James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Twenty-Two: Die Another Day (2002)

“I have no desire to watch myself as James Bond, because it’s just never good enough – it’s a horrible feeling. …I felt I was caught in a time warp between Roger [Moore] and Sean [Connery]. It was a very hard one to grasp the meaning of, for me. The violence was never real, the brute force of the man was never palpable. It was quite tame, and the characterisation didn’t have a follow-through of reality, it was surface. But then that might have had to do with my own insecurities in playing him as well.” Pierce Brosnan, from an interview with The Telegraph, 2014

How did we get to this?  From a promising debut, and articles – around the millennium – suggesting Pierce Brosnan might just be irreplaceable as James Bond, to a tenure ending in a total reboot, a failing critical reputation, and the man himself questioning if he’d ever been capable in the part.  Well, simplistic as it may sound, much of this stems from 2002’s Die Another Day: a film that led to the scrapping of 40 years of continuity, and the replacing of a successful leading man.

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One of the limitations of big budget cinema is that it has to grow up in public.  CG is expensive – and is developed only over time and through repeated use – and studios such as EON don’t exactly get to practice on independent fare.  Often the end result is only known at, well, the end.  With the twentieth Bond film, EON turned to New Zealand director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors, Mulholland Falls).  Openly influenced by the success of Michael Bay, this production brought out all the worst instincts, both of studio and of director.  EON reached apex stunt casting with this entry: learning nothing from Teri Hatcher or the spectacular miscasting of Denise Richards, they went ahead and put Halle Berry in the film.  Berry was terrific in Monster’s Ball, and thoroughly deserving of her Academy Award, but she was wrong for this: she’s unconvincing as an agent and, once again for a leading lady of this era, has zero chemistry with Pierce Brosnan.  The director brought with him a desire to make greater use of CG, and a sensibility that, frankly, did not suit this series.  That Tamahori was a poor fit should have been clear to producers when they had to dissuade him from offering Sean Connery a cameo as… James Bond.  Tamahori wanted to make canon the theory that James Bond is a codename, and that the previous actors were all portraying different men.  Quite why Roger Moore would mourn George Lazenby’s wife is anyone’s guess!

Die Another Day begins with James Bond infiltrating a North Korean military base, where Colonel Moon is illegally trading weapons for South African conflict diamonds.  Discovering Bond to be a British agent, they capture and imprison him for the next 14 months.  Suspecting Bond is leaking intelligence from his jail cell, MI6 trade Moon’s assistant Zao (Rick Yune) for Bond, and take Bond off for treatment and questioning.

Suspecting he’s been set-up by a double agent, Bond escapes in Hong Kong and tracks Zao to Cuba.  Once in Havana, Bond meets NSA agent Giacinta ‘Jinx’ Johnson (Berry).  After a genuinely horribly shot sex scene – which, itself, follows a flirting scene containing some of the worst acting of the series, delivering some of the most cringe-inducing dialogue – Bond follows Jinx to a gene therapy clinic where Zao is undergoing treatment to turn him into a white man (yes, really).  Zao escapes, but Bond grabs a pendant from him containing a diamond bearing the crest of the company owned by British businessman Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens in one of worst performances of the series – all overblown sneers, and not even the slightest indication, at any time, that he might not be the villain).  Bond learns that the-about-to-be-knighted Graves has only been on the scene for around a year (because all knights of the realm achieve that honour inside twelve months, obviously), making his money from a seam of diamonds in Iceland.

After a truly ridiculous fight at the Blades club in London (because secret agents would totally swing swords around right by the heads of members of the general public), Bond follows Graves to Iceland for the unveiling of the latter’s Icarus project – effectively, a mirror in space that can focus the sun on a small area.  Learning that Graves’ assistant Miranda Frost (a-way-too-young-for-Brosnan Rosamund Pike) is actually a British agent who, suspiciously, has turned up nothing while undercover watching Gustav, Bond sleeps with Frost, but then learns she’s the double agent who set him up.  We then learn that…. sigh ….Graves has undergone the same gene therapy as Zao, and was actually the previously way shorter and slimmer Colonel Moon.  Icarus is to be used to cut through the demilitarised zone, allowing North Korea to invade the South and reunite the two nations.  Bond and Jinx (who disappeared from the film until Iceland) must work together to prevent Graves achieving his aims.  Or rather, Jinx must nearly drown, while an unconvincing digital double of Bond kite-surfs a tsunami created in what might be a Commodore 64.  Alongside this, Bond must battle Zao, with the aid of his invisible Aston Martin (because ‘invisible’ is a great selling point when you are leaving massive tyre marks in snow – literally any other environment, other than sand, would have been a better fit for this ill-thought through device).  Finally confronting Graves and Frost on the former’s private aircraft, Bond must battle Graves, while the latter cosplays as RoboCop, and Jinx must fight Frost whilst spouting dialogue written for a black American woman by middle class white British men of questionable talent.

Have we mentioned this film is crap?

Die Another Day is the natural endpoint of a series drunk on its own success: success that has become automatic, and doesn’t have to be thought about, or earned.  From the Q scene (John Cleese replacing Desmond Llewellyn as the main man this time), where 40 years’ worth of gadgets are just dumped in the middle of the room, to lazy recalls to previous entries (“Diamonds are for everyone!”), this is a series that has fallen in love with its own history and success.  Dialogue is uniformly abysmal and, worse than that, lazy.  When, as Icarus is burning through Korea, Graves utters the line “global warming is a terrible thing” it’s just obvious that this is a placeholder line that no one has bothered to get around to replacing.  In fact, if it’s not a placeholder, then writers Neil Purvis and Robert Wade are even less talented than we thought.

The plot makes no sense.  Performances are uniformly awful.  The visuals look false and lifeless.  The CG is cheap and immediately takes the viewer out of the film (funnily enough, the DVD extra where they demonstrated how they produced such mind-blowing effects has been dropped from later releases).  CG itself is fine as a tool, but this was not up to scratch.  The title song may be the worst in the series, and given Madonna used that song to leverage an ill-judged, distracting cameo, it seems she’s better at negotiating than EON Productions.  Even make-up and costuming is off this time: from Graves’ cyborg impression, to Brosnan’s hair being ludicrously bouffant when first encountering Jinx.  The only factor that keeps this film off the bottom of personal rankings is that such buffoonery is never boring – and at least two other entries in the series are dull.

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Off its $145 million budget, Die Another Day took $435 million worldwide: a record for the series at this time.  For once, however, money did not equal satisfaction.  Both producers have suggested that this film just left them with nowhere to go.  The James Bond series had reached the apex of bloat yet again – and probably the most exaggerated example of this since Moonraker, 20 years before.  Pierce Brosnan was about to hit 50 years of age and, more tellingly, the previous June had seen Matt Damon debut as Jason Bourne, in Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity.  Suddenly, only seven years on from its relaunch, the Bond series felt old.  Although still winning at the box office, the zeitgeist had been captured by post-911 grit and authentic looking stunts, anchored by a leading man doing as much of his own work as possible.  Barbara Broccoli had been taught by her father that when she found herself unsure of where to go next with Bond, she should go back to Fleming.  In a timely development, EON had just acquired the only Ian Fleming Bond novel yet to be adapted: Casino Royale.  James Bond was about to begin again.

The Road to Bond 25 will return with Casino Royale (2006).

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