Review: Die Another Day

Welcome to my (much delayed) review of Die Another Day, the twentieth part of my challenge to review all of the James Bond films. I’m watching each film in turn and trying to figure out which one is my favourite. For more information, see my introduction here. You can read my review of the previous film, The World Is Not Enough, here. Spoilers follow.

Die Another Day
(dir. Lee Tamahori, 2002)

Die Another Day trailerI remember watching Die Another Day at the cinema, and coming out thinking that the Bond franchise had hit an all-time low.

Of course, this was before I saw Moonraker, so perhaps this was unfair of me. Die Another Day is nowhere near as bad as Roger Moore’s trip into space. In fact, when I first started watching the film this time around, I even started to think it was a pretty good film—at least, I did after James Bond stopped surfing. James Bond doesn’t surf, you see—not in my opinion. He is a suave, sophisticated spy who likes gambling and fast cars. Yes, he parachutes; yes, he climbs mountains; yes, he even jumps off man-made constructions with bungee cord tied round his legs. He does not—should never—catch waves.

The problem, of course, is that Die Another Day came out in 2002, which was the same year another spy was introduced into the world: xXx, starring Vin Diesel,  was billed as a Bond-beater, with a central character who partakes in extreme sports. xXx turned out to be terrible—but clearly the Die Another Day filmmakers felt they had some competition.

Anyway, I started to watch Die Another Day, and aside from some curiously bad decisions (the aforementioned surfing and the credits music as performed by a computer called Madonna being the most heinous examples), I started—against all expectations—to enjoy myself.

Bond is sent into North Korea, where he is to assassinate Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) with a bomb hidden in a briefcase full of diamonds. The mission seems to succeed, but Bond is captured and tortured by the North Koreans until the CIA panics and persuades M (Judi Dench) at MI6 to relent and exchange a captured North Korean terrorist, Zao (Rick Yune), for Bond. Bond escapes MI6, once more becoming a rogue agent, and goes hunting for Zao.

Pierce Brosnan plays the capture of Bond perfectly straight, and the sight of a dirty, bearded, exhausted Bond being sent over a foggy bridge at gunpoint is chilling to watch. The first half an hour of film contains some of the best ideas we’ve seen in the series so far. And then Halle Berry turns up.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Berry; she’s done some decent films and deserves much of the respect that she gets. However, she is terrible in Die Another Day, although it’s unclear whether it’s Berry’s acting at fault or the writing and character she’s been lumped with. Jinx is an NSA operative who we’re told is on the same level as Bond, but actually she serves throughout the film as The Load; a woman to be rescued by Bond at every available opportunity. When she’s not being rescued, she’s getting in Bond’s way, and when she’s not doing that she’s making terrible jokes with her tongue literally held in her cheek. Apparently, the filmmakers designed Jinx to appeal to an American audience because they wanted her to become a spin-off character, and the greatest proof I’ve seen of any kind of God in this universe is that this never came to pass.

Unfortunately, after Jinx turns up, the whole film falls apart. While you can blame this on silly decisions—the main Bond gadget is an invisible car, there’s a weird swordfight in London that tries too hard to be awesome, and Madonna shows up in a cameo—the real problem is that the film is trying to do something that is just never going to work: it’s trying to reference all of the other Bond films. 2002, you see, was the fortieth anniversary of James Bond in cinema, and to add to that Die Another Day is the twentieth film in the series.

What we end up with is a mess of a plot, largely taken from Diamonds Are Forever (great choice there!) and stuffed with references that don’t make any sense. To add to this, the filmmakers decided that they would use computer animations in the action sequences, but apparently neglected to bother making CGI that looked even halfway real.

For example, the obvious reference to Goldfinger is when Jinx—not Bond, because obviously he has to rescue her—is strapped to a table and threatened with a laser cutter. The villain here—the obnoxiously named Mr Kil (Lawrence Makoare), who is only called this so that an obnoxious pun can be horribly shoehorned into proceedings—has none of the threat or charisma of Auric Goldfinger, and frankly by this point I wanted Jinx’s head to be cut off. But then it turns out that the laser and the table on which Jinx is strapped to can move freely and unrealistically in any direction, and thus a terrible fight can be held with the combatants dodging bad CGI lasers.

It’s not just the CGI, though. One of the other references to the older films, apparently, is a return to the slight racism of You Only Live Twice, but a hundred times worse because, y’know, we’ve moved on now. I have no idea why the main villain—a resurrected Colonel Moon, proud of his North Korean heritage—would perform a Jackson and transform into a posh white guy. But he does, and as hard as Toby Stephens tries to ham up as diamond mogul Gustav Graves, the character remains bland and disappointing. Rosamund Pike’s turn as Miranda Frost, too, is uninspired. Supposedly, she’s a reference to 006 in Goldeneye, but her defection is obvious the moment we find out who she is. There’s also the fact that Frost isn’t a double-0 agent herself; she’s a secretary which some fencing skills; hardly the most dangerous foe Bond has ever faced.

Die Another Day represents a range of wasted good ideas, and I think that more than anything else is why the film is so disappointing. I can forgive—have forgiven to varying degrees in the other films—bad special effects and annoying characters and lacklustre jokes, but Die Another Day starts so strongly that I actually got angry when the plot came tumbling down. The fact that the Bond film franchise had been running for forty years and twenty films was definitely worth celebrating; it was just a shame that they chose to celebrate with this.

Title song: Madonna’s Die Another Day is terrible, at least when you compare it to past entries in the Bond song canon. It sort of fits the intro, but I can’t help wonder what it would have been like if a decent song had been used.

Greatest moment: CGI surfing aside, I enjoyed the first part of the film. The prisoner exchange of Bond and Zao is well handled, and Bond comes across as actually vulnerable at this point. Compare and contrast to Bond’s shoulder in The World Is Not Enough, when it is only injured when the plot requires it to be. 

Worst moment: Halle Berry’s delivery of any supposed double entendre is terrible, but the special prize must go either to the surfing at the beginning of the film or to the horrible kite-surfing off the side of a cliff later on. And why is all the virtual reality training gear usable by any MI6 secretary?

Best gadget: Stupid invisibility aside, the Aston Martin Vanquish does get a few decent moments during its battle with Zao’s prototype Jaguar XKR.

Best quote:
James Bond: You know, you’re cleverer than you look.
Q: Still, better than looking cleverer than you are.

Most obvious product placement: Lots of product placement as always, but Aston Martin get a decent sales pitch from Q. And Jaguar finally get one of their cars shown, too.

Verdict: Chatting to friends about this challenge, I was consistently told that Die Another Day was the worst film in the Bond franchise. They’re wrong: Moonraker is definitely worse. In fact, the first chunk of Die Another Day–usual CGI surfing caveat aside–is actually pretty good. Then Halle Berry shows up and the main villain turns from a halfway interesting North Korean to a smug white man, and suddenly we’re back in the plot of Diamonds Are Forever, which is, by the way, the only other Bond film that I’m placing lower on my league table.

  1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (dir. Peter Hunt, 1969)
  2. From Russia With Love (dir. Terence Young, 1963)
  3. Goldeneye (dir. Martin Campbell, 1995)
  4. The Spy Who Loved Me (dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1977)
  5. Goldfinger (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1964)
  6. Licence To Kill (dir. John Glen, 1989)
  7. The Living Daylights (dir. John Glen, 1987)
  8. Live And Let Die (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1973)
  9. Tomorrow Never Dies (dir. Roger Spottiswoode, 1997)
  10. For Your Eyes Only (dir. John Glen, 1981)
  11. Dr No (dir. Terence Young, 1962)
  12. You Only Live Twice (dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1967)
  13. The World Is Not Enough (dir. Michael Apted, 1999)
  14. The Man With The Golden Gun (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1974)
  15. Octopussy (dir. John Glen, 1983)
  16. Thunderball (dir. Terence Young, 1965)
  17. A View To A Kill (dir. John Glen, 1985)
  18. Die Another Day (dir. Lee Tamahori, 2002)
  19. Diamonds Are Forever (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1971)
  20. Moonraker (dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1979)

That’s it for Pierce Brosnan’s Bond era, and that was almost it for the Bond era as a whole–after all, where can a series go after invisible cars and CGI kite-surfing? Come back soon as the franchise returns to its roots with Daniel Craig and Casino Royale.