Bond is, in many ways, every “civilized” government’s wet dream: a nominal superman, possessed of knowledge, skill-sets, and technologies far beyond we mere mortals…with no attachment to humanity.
Die Another Day finds the Fifth Bond (Pierce Brosnan) visibly aged since his previous appearance on the world stage and sent to assassinate one Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) of the North Korean Army. Moon’s your usual evil hypocrite, having used his American education to get in good with international Conflict Diamond smugglers. As he tells Bond “I studied at Oxford and Harvard: majored in Western hypocrisy,” and it’s nice to see a fellow History Major on screen, even if only as a Bond Villain. So far, so good, but things will get bad very quickly.
Having stolen the identity of one such diamond smuggler, Bond infiltrates Moon’s base but…oh, snap, someone calls the Villains and tells them to run a picture of Bond’s face through….facial recognition software. Which, in a remarkable twist for this franchise, the Villains actually possess. In the first of several patches Die Another Day welds to the traditional Bond Formula, the software easily sees through Bond’s clever disguise (a pair of stolen sunglasses…which, for him, is the equivalent of a full ninja costume). The film paid for its marginal success at plugging franchise plot holes by alienating its core audience members. It seems to have known this, because it makes sure to rip off all its welds before the end credits in an attempt to please everyone.
So Die Another Day‘s director Lee Tamahori (who’d go on to direct xXx: State of the Union…damnit, that film just keeps haunting me) goes out of his way to nod toward the nineteen Bond films that came before. This is a cataclysmic mistake on everyone’s part since, instead of mining series cannon for a kick-ass story that tied Bond’s adventures together into some new and unexpected shape…something so brilliant and character-driven it would then drive everyone to look back on the series with fresh eyes…Die Another Day treats these nods like trashy fanservice.
In another break with convention, Bond does not end this Introductory Action Sequence escaping some great explosion…he escapes falling off a waterfall, but the North Korean army still captures him. So far, not so bad. I was starting to wonder what all the fuss was about, and why this film gained such a bad reputation, almost from the moment it premiered…then the credit sequence began.
Torture is bad, m’kay? Bad when normal people do it, bad when nation states do it, and it’s especially bad when hack directors do it to innocent people. Like the ones who popped into this film thinking, Well, it’s James Bond, so at least we know the opening credits’ll rock. Wrong, dogbreath. Instead of the usual “nekked-wimmin-dancing-in-silhouette” stuff, we get naked women dancing in CGI body-stockings…which I’d normally no problem with at all…but Tamahori had to go and layer them atop footage of Bond being tortured in a North Korean Army prison.
All backed by one of those painfully repetitive, Euro-trash-inspired pop songs Madonna loved to release in the early 2000s. A song so vapidly pretentious I can barely make out her nonsensical lyrics through the auto-tuned screeching that used to be her vocals and the canned, minimalist instrumentation that backs them. Then Madonna has to wave a red cape in my face with lines like,
Sigmund Freud. Analyze this.
Okay…but remember: this time, you’re literally asking for it, movie.
I’m gonna avoid the cliche
Really? Shit, don’t strain yourself on our account, Madonna. And if you’re speaking for the Bond series, well…you’re full of lies…
I’m gonna suspend my senses
I’m gonna delay my pleasure
I’m gonna close my body now
I guess I’ll die another day (x4)
The speaker is declaring her intentions to transcend the everyday veils of sense experience which, according to many Eastern philosophies (and many Western snake-oil sales pitches masquerading as such) is little more than a veil of tears, where Time and Death stalk like predators. By “closing” her body to such, the speaker hopes to reach Nirvana through sustained meditation and denying physical sensations. By reaching this state, she hopes transcend death, even if only temporarily, since the speaker admits she’s not trying to be a superwoman here. She’s not even making declarative statements. You “guess” you’ll die another day? Really? No shit? And here I thought knowledge of our own mortality defined us as a species.
After fourteen months of down-home, North Korean hospitality, Bond’s exchanged across the DMZ for a terrorist named Zao (Rick Yune) whom the South caught trying to blow up a conference with China. Instead of a hero’s welcome, Bond’s confined to a glassed-in hospital/airlock. Instead of the usual “get-a-mission-from-M” (Judi Dench) scene, the head of MI6 informs Bond he’s traded one prison for another. Everyone and their mom south of the 38th parallel believes he cracked under torture. The North’s recent execution of a top British agent in their ranks would seem to bear this out.
Whatever the case, Bond’s under MI6 confinement until M learns the truth. But this is Bond, so he and we both know he sure as hell didn’t crack. Bond’s teeth aren’t even cracked after fourteen months on a steady diet of prison food, scorpion venom, and his captor’s fists. He’s still the same, well-muscled gentlemen he’s been for the last four movies, so escaping MI6’s prison presents no real problem. All he has to do is fake out the machines by stopping his heart for a second, bringing the doctors running, and escaping through the door they idiotically leave open behind them.
MI6’s secure facility turns out to be a battleship…floating right off of Hong Kong…which Bond easily swims to…and some of you Bond fans have the gall to call our superheros “unbelievable”? Along with feeding him a balanced diet, I guess the Northerners let him hit the gym between torture sessions. Because feeding your torture subjects, and allowing them to get plenty of exercise, leaves you with just that much more to torture in the long run…am I right, guys?
In Hong Kong – after a proper, English shower and shave, of course – James hooks up with Chinese Intelligence agent Chang (Ho Yi), who tells him Zao’s fled to Cuba, where all is happy. (“If you find him, say ‘goodbye’ from us.”) No-longer-007 arrives and awakens an old sleeper agent, Raoul (Emilio Echevarría), to track Zao down a bit further. I liked Raoul a lot as a character, and thanks to all the Daughters of the Revolution scattered through the background, I’m finally getting into this flick. Here we have the modern Bond, alone and devoid of any resource he can’t squeeze out of his “colleagues” in the Spy Game, on a personal quest for vengeance.
Like License to Kill. But if you’ll remember, that film centered on Bond’s quest to avenge his long-time drinking buddy, Felix. This time, he’s avenging himself. A man alone, betrayed by the country he loved…And I’m thinking, Great, we get to see how this Bond handles stuff on the cheap, with no armies waiting to catch him or deal with collateral damage. The dancing CGI women from the credits assure him there must be a traitor in MI6 and the traitor must’ve been working with Zao and Moon. Will Bond uncover said traitor before the traitor uncovers him? How will he deal with all this? Hey, if Bond can’t trust his naked phantom dancers he truly is alone.
Unfortunately (a word I don’t get to type enough) he handles this the same damn way he handles every situation: by finding the nearest beachfront bar and hitting the booze hard. This allows him to catch Jinx (Hallie Barry) emerging form the water in homage to Ursula Andress’ intro from Dr. No. And whoa boy…was Halle Berry ever miscast.
Don’t give me that crap about her just being a bad actress. Watch Monsters Ball and Bulworth again. If you haven’t seen them, fix that. Now. See what she can do when she has more to work with than bad double entendres. Like the fact she and Jason Voorhees share a birthday…which, apart from being stupid, serves as Jinx’s one and only definite piece of backstory.
Bond tracks Zao to a hospital run by the shady Dr. Alverez (Simón Andreu), who took a course in bedside manners from Dr. Hugo Strange. Alverez is one of the world’s leading gene therapist, specializing in what I might as well call “ethic reassignment surgery,” though he calls it “DNA replacement therapy,” because that sounds cooler and makes even less sense. Through a combination of cutting edge pseudo-science and good old fashioned bullshit, Alverez’s therapy can transform anyone into any ethnicity they please…for a price, of course.
I mention this only to spoil the plot and set up the Big Reveal speeding towards us like a freight train. Jinx kills Alverez soon after, revealing to us that she’s in the Game with James…as we all suspected from the moment we heard Halle Berry would play the latest Bond Girl. Just like we knew she would be the Good One, though the film tries to fake us out by having Bond meet (and shag) her first.
He and Jinx basically destroy the hospital, but we’re not even halfway in, so everyone manages to escape everyone else. Jinx even takes a header off what looks like a two hundred foot cliff thanks to the greenscreeniest greenscreen shot I’ve ever seen in my life. And I’ve scrutinized every frame of all three Star Wars prequels…probably more often than any sane man should.
Good thing I’m insane. So, apparently, is everyone in England. They’ve accepted a disgraced North Korean arms and diamond smuggler right into their midst, just because he went through Dr. Alverez’s little Dream Machine. We first meet him parachuting out of an airplane (to the tune of “London Calling” and may the Clash help Lee Tamahori’s soul for using this song to introduce Our Villain) so he can accept a title! From like, the Queen and stuff.
Yes, it’s Colonel Moon, cleverly disguised as an Icelandic “adventurer” and diamond magnate named Gustav Graves (now played by Toby Stephens). I’m not sure how one goes from falling off a Korean waterfall to being an international playboy millionaire with your own ice palace…all in just over a year…but Moon’s managed it through the power of plot contrivance.
Despite paying self-conscious homage to every previous film in the franchise, Die Another Day rips its Villainous Plot whole and bleeding from one of the series’ worst: Diamonds Are Forever. Instead of retiring into Anglosized anonymity, Moon/Graves uses his pile of Conflict Diamonds (laser branded with the Gustave Graves trademark to avoid casual suspicion) to fund Project Icarus…a satellite dish with a giant mirror, meant to reflect sunlight. Turning up the gain transforms Icarus to a good ol’ fashioned Death Ray, which Moon hopes to…um…
Yeah, that’s part of the problem. Blofeld’s original diamonds-to-money-to-space-laser plan didn’t exactly make sense either…but at least he had the whole Evil Mastermind thing going on. Moon’s just another random nobody with daddy issues, filling in for all the other Random Nobodies and baldfaced satires that Bond’s fought ever since SPECTRE ceased to exist. With another rewrite, focusing on whatever parallels might or might not exist between them, Moon could’ve easily been a memorable Bond Villain. Instead, he gets lines like,
“It’s only by being on the edge that we know who we really are [dramatic pause] under the skin.”
that make you want to slam your palm through your forehead, reach into the hole, and scoop out your own brain. As if we didn’t already know! As if the film hadn’t already shown its trump card by segueing to Dr. Alverez’s DNA Therapy Clinic, wasting ten minutes on setting the damn place up. I kept waiting for another shoe to drop, for these characters to get at least some development. Like Sean Connery before me, I waited in vain and kept having to remind myself this movie’s only two hours long. It only feels like seven years pass. Spoiler alert: Bond wins.
I haven’t been pleasantly surprised by a Bond movie since the end of The Spy Who Loved Me. For me, Karl Stromberg was the logical end of the classic Bond Villain: an omnicidal maniac with intelligence and resources to rival Lex Luthor, Norman Osborne, or any other Silver Age comic book antagonist. Believe it or not, the same ethos that saved superheros from complete cultural oblivion also created James Bond. And like his spandex-clad brethren, Bond’s ultimately defined by the villains he fights. That’s why they filmed the sixth book in the Bond series first. That, and almost all of Dr. No takes place in one, budget-conscious location.
This, on the other hand, flits form Korea to China to Cuba to Iceland, with a brief stop-over in London so we can eject the License to Kill subplot. M never doubted Bond’s loyalty. Hell, it’s implied she left the door open for his escape, so that whole first act was just the film teasing us. Hey, remember License to Kill? Didn’t that kick ass? Yeah, we don’t have near the amount of balls we’d need to be that cool…but, hey, did’ja hear? Halle Berry has breasts! Yeah. TWO of ’em! I know! I almost didn’t believe it either! And I saw Monster’s Ball more than once!
Here’s the part where I’m supposed to complain about the over-reliance on dumb gadgets and crappy CGI. Except all but two of Bond’s toys are pale imitations of previous gadgets. Sure, the car has Predator camouflage now and, yes, after it’s flipped over during the Obligatory Car Chase, Bond uses the passenger ejector seat from Goldfinger to flip himself upright. I agree that’s all head-slappingly stupid…but is it any crazier than the previous crazy gadgets of this franchise?
For me, this kind of thing is just…boring. I’m sorry, but I stayed forty minutes ahead of the film for its entire length. I actually perked up when Graves unveiled Icarus, even as I laughed at the prevalence of space-based Death Rays. They’re like weeds in this universe, and they have all the usual targeting sensor bugs. They can annihilate anything and everything in their path except Bond. Graves even drops a glacier on him…kinda like the novel Moonraker…which was nothing like the movie Moonraker…but a lot like this movie, actually, if you tilt your head and squint past Halle (and her breasts). Except this ends with Moon/Graves dressing up in a faux-Iron Man outfit (though at the time everyone called it “the Robocop suit”), supposedly so he can look competent in the Climactic Fist Fight with Bond. Instead, he ends up looking…well, pretty damn dumb. But is he any dumber than your average villain?
I’m sure all these ideas looked brilliant on paper…but, like naming your death ray “Icarus,” Die Another Day tempts fate. Q (now played by John Cleese, Desmond Llewelyn having died in a car accident between films) even rubs this in our face by declaring “It’s the future Get used to it.” Screw you, R. Go voice a butler in an RPG video game so my best friend can “Squee!” over you in fangirlish delight.
After Cuba, all the film’s little annoyances pile up into one big, shitty mess. It starts when we’re introduce to our Bad Bond Girl, Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike). She describes Our Hero truthfully, as “a blunt instrument” and “a danger to himself and others.” So, since she’s not the Oscar Winning Actress in this Bond film, we know right off that Miss Frost is The Traitor. Graves bought her a gold medal at the Olympics, so she volunteered to take his case, shielding him from MI6 and…blah, blah, blah. You’re just here to give Halle someone to fight, aren’t you, Rosamund?
M’s fed up with her lack of progress, so she sends the reactivated Bond out to Grave’s ice palace…built on top of a lake…in Iceland. Graves says, “You have no idea how Icarus is going to change your world,” but I would think James could smell an Orbital Death Ray by this point. Hard to tell what Bond’s thinking, since Brosnan’s so self-conscious about his place in the role, and in the greater Bond franchise, that he comes off as a robotic version of his GoldenEye self.
Anyway, Jinx is at the Ice Palace too, though she gives a different name to Miss Frost, just before she tells Bond, “I’ll always be a Jinx to you.” Truer words have never been spoken. Tamahori spends so much time cutting between Bond and Jinx I suspect someone wanted to use this as a backdoor pilot. A chance for Halle Berry to be the next Angelina Jolie. Jinx even winds up in a version of the laser trap from Goldfinger. Would you be surprised to learn James rescues her? After fighting a henchman? Well, guess who gets to kill that henchman (even though she’s tied up)? Guess who gets placed in the Villainous Trap of the Week, when Graves abandons his Ice Palace and gives the whole place a (slow-acting) sunbath? You’d think she’d be able to free herself, since the action scenes go out of their way to set Jinx up as just as much of a bad-ass assassin as James. But we need a low point in the third act, where it looks like all hope is lost, so Bond has to rescue Jinx and bring her back from the dead. And I don’t care!
The film’s numerous problems come from a rushed script that covers its lazy ass with self-referential nods to other Bond movies and considers the whole dance “clever.” It’s the Bond movie Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich might make when they’re reincarnated into the next generation of crappy “popcorn movie” makers. It’s the Scream of Bond films, the last desperate flailing of a franchise in the throes of its post-Austin Powers Death by A Thousand Satirical Cuts.
An hour and a half in, Zao hops into his own super-Jag – complete with Gatling guns, rockets, and steel spikes – so he and Bond can rip-off The Fast and the Furious. With Gatling guns, rockets and steel spikes. Which is what The Fast and the Furious should’ve been in the first fucking place…! But whatever. James kills Zao, rescues Jinx, and the two of them kill Gustave/Moon and Miss Frost, respectively. The End.
Some people think the 90s sucked, and they did. But I’d argue they had nothing on the Turn of the New Millennium. Those three-or-so years on either side of 9/11 sucked the big one, and they especially sucked for movie geeks the world over. Star Trek, Batman and Godzilla fans know what I’m talking about. With this film, Bond fans learned how it was, and is, for us.
Die Another Day‘s the kind of movie I’m glad I ignored in theaters. I’m especially proud to say I helped The Two Towers kick its ass. Boring, tired, dull, plodding and stupid, it’s the perfect example of why people who don’t like Bond’s movies fucking hate Bond’s movies. No need to guess, Madonna. This film died in utero. All that’s left to do is to put it in a shoe box, take it out back and bury it.