Die Another Day is the 20th film in the James Bond series, and the last one starring Pierce Brosnan. It’s also the final film in the original timeline before Casino Royale and Daniel Craig rebooted the franchise. This time around Bond kills a rogue North Korean colonel, then is captured, imprisoned and tortured for over a year. After he’s released he discovers that someone in the British government betrayed him and his search for the culprit leads him to Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), a billionaire British businessman who, obviously, is not who he seems…
Die Another Day marked the 40th anniversary of the film series and for that reason references to every one of the preceding nineteen films are incorporated. Here are just a few (see Wikipedia for the full list): Jinx comes out of the sea a la Honey Ryder (Dr No); Gustav Graves comments that “diamonds are for everyone” (Diamonds are Forever); Bond loses his 00 status (Licence to Kill); and the gadgets in Q’s laboratory include Rosa Klebb’s shoe (From Russia with Love), the jet-pack and the underwater breathing device from Thunderball, and the alligator submarine from Octopussy. In addition, this is the first film since “Licence to Kill” which uses significant elements of Fleming’s books, a number of which are from the novel Moonraker (a villain adopting a new identity and creating a space device for evil ends, plus the name “Blades” – a card club in the novel and a fencing club in the film). You’d think that all this stuff would add up to a fanboy’s dream, but Die Another Day is a weird hotch-potch of good and bad, serious and tongue-in-cheek. Following the opening sequence, the film proper begins with a somewhat shocking torture sequence which promises a darker Bond. When he’s finally released, Bond feels let down by the government and M shows him her hard side, telling him that they should have left him in Korea. Later, as they run tests on him, the doctor remarks “Liver not too good – it’s definitely him then”. It’s this slightly uneven tone that mars what could have been a good film. The script and some of the acting (I’m talking to you, Madonna) lets it down further, and what is supposed to be a tribute often ends up looking like a spoof.
Character wise, it’s a mixed bag, but generally pretty good. Judi Dench as M is, as always, a joy to watch and it’s a shame she doesn’t have more screen time. John Cleese as Q just doesn’t really work and, despite his best efforts, looks slightly uncomfortable throughout. Rick Yune is Zao, a henchman who ends up with a face full of diamonds after an explosion and is pretty good as far as henchpeople go; his outlandish appearance adds to his air of menace. Rosamund Pike is the consummate ice queen as the treacherous Miranda Frost (she says of James Bond “sex for dinner, death for breakfast”), who looks like she could have been carved from the ice hotel she stays in with Bond. Randomly, Michael Madsen turns up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role as an NSA official – perhaps this was planned to be a recurring role prior to the reboot.
Halle Berry as Jinx, an NSA operative who’s investigating Graves, is a bit hit and miss. She’s from the Pussy Galore school of Bond girl, nifty with a gun and able to spar easily with Bond, but sadly, there’s something vaguely irritating about her and she ultimately fails to impress. Unlike Jinx and Bond, there is a pleasing chemistry between Bond and Toby Stephens as Gustav Graves, a man who never sleeps; Stephens snarls his way through his lines, hamming it up with obvious glee. There’s a stand-out fencing scene where the repartee is as sharp as the rapiers adorning the walls of the fencing club. Talking of the script, everyone’s in on the pun with the one liners zinging around from every direction, some of them pretty close to the bone; take the scene when Halle Berry looks straight at JB’s crotch and says “There’s a mouthful”.
Another place where Die Another Day falls down is its over reliance on (dodgy) CGI. There are two ridiculous surfing scenes, the second of which would have been better suited to Roger Moore had the special effects been available in his time. The invisible car seems vaguely silly as does the technology on which much of the film is based (SPOILER!); a surgical treatment that restructures DNA to completely alter a person’s appearance (and their voice, apparently). Set-piece wise though, it’s pretty good – this time around we get to spend time with Bond in South Korea, Cuba and finally in Iceland, where an ice hotel takes centre stage and we’re introduced to the obligatory space-based technology which will, of course, turn out to be a weapon. The hotel is a suitably glamorous location and provides a great setting for some serious car-based action on ice.
Music-wise, David Arnold again scored this film, in his third outing as Bond composer. “London Calling” by The Clash also appears, somewhat incongruously when placed next to the title song which was written and sung by Madonna (who has a cringey cameo as a fencing instructor). The song, like the film, is alright, but the title sequence is unique in that it continues the story by showing Bond being tortured (and growing a particularly bushy beard) whilst trying to hang onto his sanity. It’s an effective technique, but again seems a little out of place when juxtaposed with much of the rest of the film’s jokey tone.
Die Another Day is a hard one to write about as it’s so uneven throughout – it has some genuinely good bits and some genuinely bad bits. It’s like watching a weird pastiche of the Bond films, with Moore-like humour one second, then Connery/Dalton-esque cold brutality the next. Sadly, it’s never going to be the glorious tribute to Bond that the 20th film should be, but it’s not a hideous addition to the series.