Die Another Day (2002)

Posted: October 18, 2020 in James Bond
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The first Bond film of the 21st Century, Pierce Brosnan’s last outing as 007 and, if the vast majority of fans are to be believed, the worst Bond film of all time…

Cards on the table here, in my opinion it’s not the worst Bond film, not remotely. Is it good, no, but it’s fun at least, in places.

The film opens in North Korea, with Bond and some allies infiltrating the world’s most secretive nation via…er surf boards (on the upside at least they don’t play the Beachboys!)

Bond replaces a diamond trader and meets with Colonel Moon who wants to trade weapons for conflict diamonds. Bond’s placed plastic explosive in the case of diamonds though, and obviously plans to set it off once he’s safely out of the way. Unfortunately for Bond, Moon’s right-hand man, Zao, is tipped off that 007 is, well, 007! His allies are killed, and Bond is set to be executed.

Lucky he has that plastic explosive, eh? In the chaos following the explosion Bond hijacks a hovercraft and chases Moon down. Eventually they end up fighting atop Moon’s hovercraft. The vehicle goes over a cliff, along with Moon, while Bond is saved by the bell.

And then Bond’s captured, thrown in a North Korean prison and tortured.

Wait, what now?

Let’s be honest, even as someone who kinda likes DAD, I accept it’s incredibly flawed, which is all the more annoying when it does things like this. Bond captured, not something we’ve seen before, certainly  not for the length of time he’s held here (fourteen months), which is surprising given this has happened to Bond in the books (between You Only Live Twice and The Man With the Golden Gun.)

Eventually Bond is released as part of a prisoner exchange that sees Zao, still sporting the diamonds blown into his face, go the other way. It’s a great scene, reminiscent more of John le Carré than Fleming. There’s no hero’s welcome waiting for him, there’s a familiar face in Charles Robinson but an unfriendly welcome as he’s drugged.

He wakes up under guard, and M arrives to tell him the reason for his release was because they believed he was haemorrhaging information. Bond says he’s been set up, but M’s not convinced. What’s a 00 to do? Bond escapes and swims to Hong Kong, after a run in with Chinese secret service he’s off to Cuba on the trail of Zao. There he’ll meet an intriguing young woman named Jinx. Eventually the trail leads back to England and a mysterious entrepreneur named Gustav Graves. What is Graves’ link to Zao, and where does his sun focusing satellite fit in? One thing’s for sure, Bond will need his wits about him, and an invisible car…

Okay let’s get the car out of the way from the off. Is it silly, undoubtedly, is it based on theoretical technology, well yup. I mean silly is Bond’s middle name, and is an invisible car any less believable than a hollowed-out volcano or a space station?

This is a film of two halves though, and the first is really rather good. I think some people just focus on the second half and forget the good stuff that’s gone before.

The pre-title sequence feels a little like a rehash of Tomorrow Never Dies, but is still good, and the ending, segueing into the titles where we see Bond tortured is, as said, great stuff, even if you can’t imagine Bond would really keep schtum for 14 months. I don’t care who you are, they’d have likely broken him in a matter of weeks.

The scene on the bridge is wonderfully eerie, and there’s some nice acting from Pierce because Bond clearly thinks this is it, he’s about to be executed.

Bond’s newfound ability to simulate death comes out of nowhere, but I guess he had a lot of time on his hands in North Korea, but his escape is fun. Nowhere near as joyous as a soaking wet, bearded and bedraggled Bond in pyjamas swanning into a luxury hotel like he owns the place and asking for his usual suite. With the Bond theme playing over the top this is one of my all-time favourite Bond moments.

Soon he’s groomed and back to his old self, just in time to rumble Chinese intelligence’s plot to film him having sex with a woman. (On a side note here why do foreign intelligence services imagine that having compromising film of 007 In flagrante would be, well, compromising? Shagging is what he does, no one’s going to be surprised at him making love to a beautiful woman).

That aside the interplay between him and Mr Chang is lovely.

Then off to Cuba, and a nice bit of espionage as Bond reawakens a sleeper agent, the owner of a cigar factory. Nice reference to the bird watching book Fleming got the name James Bond from.

Things dip somewhat when Halle Berry comes out of the water. The seduction scene between Bond and Jinx is painfully clunky, but not as painful as the sex scene that follows.

Things perk up as Bond and Jinx, unbeknownst to one another, infiltrate the Isla de Los Organos, where evil Cuban doctors are using gene therapy to provide the ultimate makeovers (again something less believable than an invisible car but nobody bats an eyelid).

Bond finds Zao, who looks to be on the verge of being turned into a copy of Gustav Graves (though I’m pretty sure they’re completely different hights.) They fight but Zao escapes after Jinx blows up the building. She then escapes by jumping off the cliff—the first, but sadly not the last bit of ropey CGI we’re going to have to put up with.

Bond’s return to London and back to MI6 is nicely done, the scenes in the underground laying the groundwork for Skyfall onwards? Even Cleese isn’t that annoying here. The least said about the VR simulation the better though (it’s painful and again, more believable than an invisible car apparently?).

Die Another Day (2002) L to R: Toby Stephens, Rosamund Pike, Madonna and Pierce Brosnan

Bond’s first (or should that be second?) meeting with Graves is a doozy. Try and forget Madonna’s wooden acting and just marvel at the inventiveness of that sword fight. One of the best fights of the franchise for me, and while some are sniffy about Toby Stephens, for me he’s a good Bond villain, a chameleon switching from sneering villain to harmless posh boy in the blink of a eye, with that bubbling rage we saw in Moon always simmering beneath the surface.

I like the ice palace, but Mr Kil might be one of the feeblest henchmen names ever. Bond’s escape from Graves, once he finds out he’s Moon is good, and for the second film in a row a woman betrays him.

Not sure why he runs for the jet car, where’s he planning on going? And of course, this leads to the worst CGI of all, you’d think 1996’s Escape from LA might have convinced people that CGI surfing looks bloody awful, but apparently not. Thankfully this is made up for somewhat by a fun car chase between 007 and Zao, who has a car that’s every bit as tricked out as Bond’s—nice use of the ejector seat there James, and thanks to the invisible car he gets the upper hand.

Cue a drab finale aboard a transport plane, and much as I like Graves, putting him in that exo-suit is just plain silly, and why go up in a plane anyway? Doesn’t that make him more vulnerable to attack? Like many things in this film it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Nice fight between Jinx and Miranda Frost though.

And then the worst bit in a film full of worst bits, as Moneypenny shags Bond in VR. Forget for a moment that it doesn’t make a heap of sense; it devalues the character completely. Awful, awful moment.

I feel somewhat sorry for Brosnan, he got to make four Bond films but realistically only one of them is classic. Sorry, but beyond Goldeneye it’s like they didn’t quite know what to do with him. He was a good Bond and he deserved better.

As I said I think Tony Stephens is a great Bond villain, he just doesn’t always get the best material to work with.

I like Halle Berry (she’s great in John Wick 3) but she isn’t a great Bond girl. Jinx has no real character beyond ‘sassy’ so she doesn’t get much chance to shine. Still heck of a thing to point out that the Bond girls here include an Oscar winner and an Oscar nominee.

Rosamund Pike gets some stick, but I think she does perfectly well with what she’s given. Controversial maybe but I’d suggest she has a better character than Berry does. Plus, she’s gorgeous, especially in that final fight.

As Zao Rick Yune is good, if a little paper thin, though I like that he has good chemistry with both Stephens and Will Yun Lee who does a good job laying the groundwork as Colonel Moon in the pre-title sequence.

Dench gets some nice scenes as M but nothing like as good as she got in TWINE, and while I can see why they didn’t want to use Jack Wade as the connection to US intelligence, Michael Madsen seems hopelessly miscast as Falco. Nice to see Colin Salmon get some gunplay (albeit virtually) and Kenneth Tsang is good value as General Moon, showing genuine affection for his son, even when his son is clearly a raving lunatic.

Some complain that the film was a little homage heavy, but it was the 20th. There are lots of call-backs in Q’s lab of course, the birdwatching book, several less than subtle riffs on Diamonds are Forever, Graves’ using a Union Jack parachute, Berry doing Andress etc. And some subtle ones I hadn’t even realised; Roger Moore’s daughter is the air hostess who brings Bond his drink.

Lee Tamahori’s direction isn’t bad, and the film trots along at a decent pace, it might annoy but it never bores. The use of slow motion is odd and brings nothing to the table however.

A film that’s much more fun than people give it credit for, DAD is a film of two halves. When it’s good it’s very, very good; Bond’s capture, the prisoner exchange, Hong Kong, Cuba, the sword fight, Bond and M underground, Pike and Stephens.

But when it’s bad it’s bloody awful: Madonna’s cameo, Madonna’s song, the CGI surfing, the exo-suit.

Really though watching it again what brings it down is its reliance on the ridiculous. There’s a screenwriting rule that says people will believe one unbelievable thing in a movie, but this piles them one after another: Invisible car, sun focusing satellite, gene therapy, VR etc etc. In the end you stop caring.

So that’s it for Pierce, he bows out with a commercial hit but not a critical one, and unlike a certain someone he doesn’t get one final go to exit on a high. Where will the franchise go next? Let’s just hope they don’t cast someone blonde. If nothing else now Bond’s gone rogue I’m sure they won’t do that again for a while…

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