The 007 Collective is a bi-monthly column in which I revisit every official feature in the James Bond franchise and review how they hold up today. Along with a review of each film, each article in this 10-month-long series will dive into the historical place and production of each film in question. It will also feature a dossier i.e. a fact sheet with superlatives, ratings, rankings, best, worsts and other fun stuff in line with the format you’ve seen in my annual Year in Superlatives articles. This project isn’t meant to be the final word on the Bond franchise. It’s merely my take on the series. For previous entries, click here.
In this week’s The 007 Collective, I review perhaps the most maligned of the modern era Bonds—Pierce Brosnan’s fourth and final turn as Bond: DIE ANOTHER DAY.
When Bond is captured in North Korea during a mission gone wrong, he suspects that he was betrayed by a double agent. When MI6 suspends his 00 status thinking that he revealed vital classified information under interrogation from the enemy, Bond takes it upon himself to unmask the double agent and find out the connection between an international assassin attached to the Korea mission and a debonair billionaire who made his fortune in diamonds.
Pierce Brosnan was an immensely popular and beloved actor who, in a span of eight years, took the 007 franchise from the brink of obscurity to arguably the peak of its popularity. To many fans of my generation, he was and still remains the quintessential James Bond. The fact that he still commands that reputation after the law of diminishing returns that plagued his tenure is a testament to his long-lasting appeal. Unfortunately, there’s only so much an actor can do to elevate the material he’s asked to work with. And while there was enough material for Brosnan to chew on in The World is Not Enough, his previous outing as Bond, no actor in the world… no, not even Daniel Day Lewis, could have survived the stench of idiocy, absurdity and dullness that permeates Die Another Day, Brosnan’s fourth and final outing as Bond.
After the campy aspects of The World is Not Enough were rightly lambasted (most of the criticism was directed at Denise Richards performance), producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson chose to rein in the humor and give fans a more serious-minded Bond film to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the series. Picking director Lee Tamahori, who was then best known for directing the dramas Once Were Warriors, Mulholland Falls and the adventure film The Edge, was a promising start. And for its first 20 minutes, Die Another Day lives up to that promise—it’s a solid, no-nonsense thriller that, while a bit dull, keeps things moving. It even manages to throw in a couple of surprises. For one, Bond is actually captured by the North Koreans at the beginning of the film (a first for a Bond film). He’s then brutally tortured in a prison camp for 11 months using methods like waterboarding, scorpions, dunking and electrocution. The fact that MI6 exchanges him for a North Korean terrorist only because they think he’s a leaking box of secrets is a surprising reveal too.
But after that, things quickly take a nosedive. A dash to a Cuban clinic that specializes in gene therapy (i.e. changing people’s races) is only the first cog in a chain of ludicrous scenarios that do more to establish the film as an Austin Powers-like parody of the franchise instead of a celebration. Among Die Another Day’s many preposterous additions to the franchise:
- A villain (played by Toby Stephens) whose world-domination scheme involves using a giant “freakin’ space laser beam to unite North and South Korea
- A castle made completely of ice
- A henchman (Rick Yune) with diamonds lodged in his face
- An invisible Aston Martin!
- A distracting “why the hell is she here?” cameo from Madonna
- A scene in which Bond outraces a heat ray from the sun!
- A scene where Bond reduces his heart beat in order to trick doctors into thinking he’s dead!
- A laughably inept NSA agent played by Halle Berry in a performance that marked the beginning of her career collapse
- A robotic suit that emits electricity
- A scene where Moneypenny programs a virtual sex fantasy involving Bond
- A “Yo’ Mama” joke. I repeat… a “Yo Momma” joke!
- And arguably, the single worst moment in a Bond movie—Bond para-surfing a terrible CGI tsunami wave full of CGI icebergs.
Granted, this wasn’t the first time the series had dipped into self-parody. Moonraker (to highlight just one of Roger Moore’s movies) did it 23 years earlier with its space station plot, gondola hovercrafts and pigeon double takes. But even with its absurdity, at least Moonraker’s attempts at humor were sincere and done with tongue lodged firmly in cheek. Everything in Die Another Day is played with the seriousness of a Michael Haneke film. Yes, the puns are still here to lighten things up but they’re neither funny nor clever. They’re there for the sake of fulfilling a contractual obligation—just like Brosnan.
To be fair, Brosnan isn’t bad—he’s confident and suave in the dramatic scenes, comfortable and believable in the action scenes. But watching the film, I sensed that he was tiring of the inane shenanigans he had to put up with. Like in The World is Not Enough, he rarely looks as energized as he was in his first two outings. He’s best when working opposite an actor of his caliber or better (Judi Dench, John Cleese). Berry, who entered production as the first Oscar-winning actress to play a Bond girl, suffers a worse fate—playing a character conceptualized as a feminist equal to Bond but executed as a frivolous character who serves no purpose other than to look good in a bikini. Then there’s Toby Stephens and Rick Yune whose performances are so mind-numbingly dull that that they just might be the least charismatic and most forgettable pair of villains in the entire series. Even A View to a Kill, the nadir of the franchise, had Christopher Walken and Grace Jones to liven things up. Perhaps the only person who survives the movie unscathed is future Gone Girl and Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike. Die Another Day was her feature debut and she brought shades of ambiguity and intrigue to her layered characterization of MI6 undercover agent Miranda Frost.
Die Another Day is when the James Bond franchise stopped being the “James Bond” franchise. Some might argue otherwise but to me this was it. Gone were the practical sets and stunt work that the series built its name on. Along with went the cheeky humor, the espionage and even the fun. In its place were poorly-rendered CGI-laden set-pieces and nonsensical crap targeted towards the Fast and the Furious crowd. Bond films have always been cartoonish and a male fantasy but this is when the series actually entered the realm of science fiction. And this is a series that shot Roger Moore into space! It’s hard to pinpoint one culprit. Was it the brainchild of Tamahori, who went to direct things like XXX: State of the Union? Or was it the result of its screenwriters (franchise regulars Neil Purvis and Robert Wade)? Who knows, maybe it was Broccoli and Wilson all along. All we know is that Brosnan got the boot. It was a sad time for many fans but in a post 9/11 world where heroes were named Jason Bourne, it was a necessary sacrifice. It was time for Bond to either reinvent himself or risk extinction.
The cold opens of Pierce Brosnan’s first three films were among the most lavish and outrageous sequences of the franchise. Considering the excesses seen in the rest of Die Another Day, it’s kind of surprising that this sequence isn’t as outrageous as it should be. It starts off with Bond and a pair of South Korean commandos surfing onto the beaches of North Korean territory in order to infiltrate an arms deal with a rogue North Korean Colonel Moon. Disguising himself as a diamond smuggler, Bond nearly gets away with assassinating the Colonel before his cover is surprisingly blown thanks to the information provided by a mysterious double agent. Bond being Bond, he escapes, wrecks havoc and chases the Colonel down a minefield on a hovercraft. Instead of being tense as it should be, the sequence is somewhat poorly executed, without much stakes at hand. After Bond kills the Colonel, the sequence ends anti-climactically with Bond giving himself up to the General who proceeds to torture him over the film’s title credits sequence.
Title Designer: Daniel Kleinmann
Title Song: “Die Another Day” by Madonna
Famous Quote: “I guess, die another day. I guess I’ll die another day”
You see that gem of a quote up there? Yea, that’s about the best nugget of writing in Madonna’s four-minute ode to noise. There have been some clunkers in the series’ 50-year history but I doubt anything tops the pop legend’s techno-electronic “whatever it is.” I distinctly remember hearing the track for the first time and scoffing at it, thinking it were a fake. Imagine my horror when she released an accompanying music video for it. Faring a lot better than Madonna was designer Daniel Kleinmann’s icy title sequence which, for the first time in the series history, served to extend the plot. The sequence, while dominated by images of scorpions, ice and the requisite female silhouettes also featured footage of Bond being tortured and beaten to near-death.
The Big Bad: North Korean Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) who uses gene therapy to transform himself into the arrogant and pompous Sir Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), a recently-knighted British billionaire who made his fortune when stumbling upon a diamond mine in Iceland of all places. Graves has many of the quirks of a prototypical Bond villain—he’s a megalomaniac, has a twisted sense of humor, excels in thrill-seeking sports, suffers from insomnia (a side-effect of his gene therapy)—but Stephens’ gratingly smug performance and lack of charisma renders the character DOA from the start.
Henchman: Zao (Rick Yune), a cold and ruthless global terrorist whose distinctive features include diamonds lodged in his face and skin rendered translucent after a failed gene therapy operation. Both physical attributes were engineered by Bond.
Organization: North Korea, Graves Diamonds
World Domination Plan: Gustav Graves plans on using the money he attained from his conflict diamond smuggling ring to build a giant space laser/heat ray he dubs “Icarus.” He plans on using Icarus to destroy South Korea and as a bargaining tool to threaten England, the United States and their allies. Apparently he never read the ending of the story of Icarus.
Primary: NSA agent Giacinta “Jinx” Johnson (Halle Berry) whose expertise includes weapons, martial arts and killing nearly more bad guys than Bond himself. Although the character was described a female James Bond, she spends the majority of the film either falling for Bond’s charms or needing him to rescue her. During the movie’s publicity rounds, there was a lot of talk surrounding the studio’s desire to build a spinoff film around Jinx. Thankfully that never materialized.
Others: MI6 undercover agent Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike) and former Olympic Gold medalist fencer who succumbs to the charms of Gustav Graves after he uncovers her weakness for winning at all cost. Pike’s performance is best in show. Plus she gets all the good lines. It’s too bad the film does nothing with her… other than of course, throw her into a skimpy outfit and get into a girl-on-girl fight with Halle Berry.
M (Judi Dench)
After her expanded role in The World is Not Enough, Judi Dench’s M returns to the sidelines once again for her role here.
Q (John Cleese)
After Desmond Llewelyn untimely passing in 1999, the role of Q went to John Cleese who had appeared in The World is Not Enough as Q’s future successor. Although introduced as a bumbling buffoon, the slapstick is reined in this time with Q taking Bond through an arsenal of 007’s greatest gadgets (including Little Nellie from You Only Live Twice, the Jetpack from Thunderball and the booby trap-filled suitcase in From Russia With Love).
Damian Falco (Michael Madsen)
An arrogant NSA agent whose sole purpose in this film is to make Americans look like foul and arrogant scumbags. He frequently argues with M.
Miss Moneypenny (Samantha Bond)
Save for one ridiculous scene at the film’s climax, Moneypenny’s role is once again reduced to a cameo.
Charles Robinson (Colin Salmon)
An MI6 agent and all-around decent chap who provided Brosnan’s Bond with support in his second, third and final outings as Bond.
Hidden compartment includes space for C4, 007’s Omega watch, his gun and communication devices
Special features include a bomb fuse, a remote control detonator, a laser and, presumably, the ability to tell the time.
Aston Martin “Vanquish”
Special features include the ability an invisibility cloak, ejector seats, machine guns, and griping devices in its tires
Ultra High Frequency Ring that can break any glass it touches
ODDS & ENDS
[James and Q banter at the MI6 headquarters]
James Bond: You know, you’re cleverer than you look.
Q: Still, better than looking cleverer than you are.
Most Memorable Moment:
In a movie populated with one ridiculous thing after another, it’s hard to find something memorable for the right reasons. With that said, I’d have to award this title to the outrageous and utterly pointless fencing match (see what I did there) between Bond and Graves that goes from a gentleman’s duel to deadly in the span of two minutes. Despite its silliness, it still manages to be completely riveting and enjoyable. Perhaps because it might be the only action scene in the film that doesn’t depend on CGI.
Most Cringe-Worthy Moment:
[Zao torturing Jinx]
Zao: Who sent you?
Jinx: Yo’ mama. And she told me to tell you she’s really disappointed in you.
REALLY? You’re being tortured to death and your best comeback is a Yo’ Mama joke?
[James to Miranda upon finding out he has just been invited by Graves to attend the unveiling of his next project in Iceland]
James Bond: Can I expect the pleasure of you in Iceland?
Miranda Frost: I’m afraid you’ll never have that pleasure, Mr. Bond.
Most Shocking/Outrageous Moment:
You didn’t think I’d leave Bond para-surfing for the Most Cringe-Worthy Moment category, did you? There are enough cringe-worthy scenes in Die Another Day to populate an entire Top 10 list of Worst Bond moments but as stated previously, nothing tops the sequence in which Bond para-surfs a gigantic CGI tsunami wave, dodging CGI-icebergs. Its absurdity is trumped by its poor execution. It might even be the scene guiltiest of killing Brosnan’s tenure as Bond.
Best Pun/Double Entendre:
[Miranda Frost walks in on Bond and Jinx’s conversation]
Miranda Frost: Mr. Bond. And Miss…?
Jinx: Swift, “Space and Technology” magazine.
Miranda Frost: Really? I take it Mr. Bond’s been explaining his Big Bang theory?
Jinx: Oh yeah, I think I got the thrust of it.
Worst Pun/Double Entendre:
[Madonna sees Bond practicing with his fencing weapon]
Verity: I see you handle your weapon well.
James Bond: I have been known to keep my tip up.
Who wrote this movie, a pair of children who’ve just discovered puns?
Best Stunt/Action Scene:
Although I like the fencing sequence best, it’s not technically an action sequence so the film’s best action sequence has to be the Aston Martin-Jaguar car chase over the frozen lake and then into the ice palace hotel. It’s one of film’s few scenes that’s energetic, fun and exciting.
Most Dated Reference:
Number of Times Bond Has Sex: 3 (twice with Jinx, once with Miranda)
Number of people Bond kills: 12
Bond’s Best Kill: Finishing off Graves on the airplane. As Graves is ready exit the plane in a parachute, leaving Bond to die on the crashing plane, he arrogantly states, “You can’t kill my dreams. But my dreams can kill you. Time to face destiny.” Bond retorts by pulling Grave’s rip-cord, thus deploying the parachute, leaving the villain hanging on for dear life in order to avoid being sucked into the aircraft’s engine. Bond coolly walks up to Graves and says, “Time to face gravity” before shooting a blast of voltage into him, causing Graves to let go and zip right into the aircraft’s engine.
Locations visited (In order of appearance): North Korea, Hong Kong, Cuba, London, Iceland, and South Korea
Misogyny Meter: 5/10
The Pierce Brosnan films were generally good at undoing at lot of the shameless sexism and misogyny at work in the earlier Bond films. Despite this, instances of casual sexism still came into play. The most glaring example is the scene of Halle Berry’s slow-motion ascent from the ocean. I understand that the scene is homage to the iconic scene in Dr. No but it still rings weird. Additionally, Jinx was written as a feminist, female version of Bond but once again, she rarely helps him and often needs his help. There’s also the girl-on-girl fight at the end which finds both women fighting it out in revealing tank tops.
Homophobia Meter: 0/10
Racism Rating: 3/10
The gene therapy subplot resurrects an age-old misconception that other racial groups are obsessed with being white. Good thing there’s not else made of it.
Box Office: $160.9 million ($225 million adjusted for inflation—sixth highest grossing Bond film to date)
007 Chronological Listing: 20/24
Running time: 133 minutes
Companies: MGM, Eon Productions
Rating: PG-13 for action violence and sexuality
The 007 Collective will return in:
QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008)
Previous entries in The 007 Collective: