Review: Die Another Day
James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) gets busted undercover in North Korea by Col. Tan-Sun Moon (Will Yun Lee), who keeps him prisoner and tortures him. Over a year later, a political prisoner swap sees him released, albeit not something the hardened M (Dame Judi Dench) would like to have done. M, who isn’t entirely sure that Bond didn’t crack and divulge information to the North Koreans, takes him off active duty. Of course, Bond being Bond, he goes off and tries to find the traitor who leaked his identity to the North Koreans anyway. Somehow this leads him to Cuba where he meets a mysterious woman named Jinx (Halle Berry), who is no mere tourist. He also encounters the North Korean Colonel’s henchman Zao (Rick Yune), whose face is now imbedded with diamonds due to a previous encounter with Bond. A Cuban scientific lab of some kind eventually leads Bond back to England and a sneering, showboating billionaire named Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), who owns a swanky hotel in Iceland, and is clearly up to no good whatsoever. Rosamund Pike turns up as Miranda Frost, a fencing-enthusiast/PR woman for Graves, who isn’t all she appears at first. Madonna plays a fencing instructor with an eye for the ladies, and Michael Madsen plays the American equivalent of M.
The fact that I think “GoldenEye” is the weakest Pierce Brosnan 007 film should’ve likely prepared you for this review: I actually rather like this 2002 final outing for Brosnan, directed by Lee Tamahori (“Once Were Warriors”, “Along Came a Spider”, “Next”). Yeah there’s quite a few lumps along the way including fairly ineffectual villains and at least one dopey vehicle, but on the whole this one’s at least lively and more consistently enjoyable. It’s probably a hair above the previous “The World is Not Enough”, but a bit lesser than “Tomorrow Never Dies”, though.
We start off with the best Brosnan gun barrel sequence since it uses the guitar theme, but WTF is with that drum machine? Ugh. None of that, thank you. Things get shaky with 2002’s least convincing projection work and the stupid drum machine/techno crap continues to spoil an otherwise good score by the usually reliable David Arnold. It’s the weakest of his Brosnan era scores (the only one he didn’t do was “GoldenEye”, which had an awful Eric Serra score), but certainly not awful as Arnold at least knows to include all your favourite stuff somewhere within the score. Villain Will Yun Lee simply doesn’t cut it from his first moment, but I’ll never complain about a Bond opener that gives us a fight on top of a train, flamethrowers, surfing, machine guns, and frigging hovercrafts. It’s fun stuff. Meanwhile, the titles design mixing scorpions, flames, and Bond being tortured are among the series’ best titles. Sadly, Madonna’s artless, tuneless monstrosity of a title song is a failure on every single level. Easily the worst Bond Song of all-time, it in no way fits into the Bond universe whatsoever. 1991-1996 era Madonna probably would’ve knocked a Bond song out of the park, but 2002 was pretty much the beginning of her idiotic experimental phase, a regrettable chapter in her enduring and pretty cleverly orchestrated career. I was bitterly disappointed in her here. I also disagree with the way Dame Judi Dench’s M has been written here, after being so well-written in the previous film “The World is Not Enough”. Here we’re back to M being a bitchy militant feminist and it’s too heavy-handed, despite Dench as an actress obviously being of a much higher standard of quality than anyone else to play the role. The character does get more palatable as the film goes on, however.
On the plus side, this is an extremely attractive film, aside from that projection work. The locales are gorgeous, and production designer Peter Lamont (“Octopussy”, “True Lies”, “The World is Not Enough”) gives us some of his best-ever work, with the sets being some of the series’ best too. Iceland in particular gives us not only interesting locales, but Lamont’s work is definitely on show with the ice hotel, which looks incredible (Sadly, Iceland is also where the projection work is at its worst, especially during Bond’s dopey surfing expedition), if seemingly based on Stromberg’s underwater lair design in “The Spy Who Loved Me”. In the Cuba section of the film we get a really nice 50s-era Ford Fairlane and a nice Cuban-esque rendition of the Bond theme from Arnold as well. It’s in the Cuba section we’re also introduced to one of our Bond Girls, and Oscar-winner Halle Berry is…OK as Jinx. One part Honey Rider and three parts whoever Carey Lowell played in “Licence to Kill”, she’ll be someone’s favourite Bond Girl I’m sure. She’s fine, to me she is no Honey Rider (despite the obvious bikini homage) or Wai Lin, but she’ll do all the same. Berry gets one brilliant bit where Bond claims to be an ornithologist and she replies ‘Now that’s a mouthful’. What’s brilliant about it? Her gaze suggests she’s not talking about linguistics. It’s a dirty joke, and a dose of reverse sexism at the same time. Now that’s how you do it, unlike the strident stuff with M and Miss Moneypenny in “GoldenEye”. It was a necessary change for the times, but keep it light-hearted, don’t make it too noticeable that it takes you out of the fun. Having said that, the early portion of the film set in North Korea is more indicative of the Timothy Dalton era in its grimness and…actually, it didn’t bother me. I gave no shits about Will Yun Lee’s villain nor did I much care for M’s cold-hearted attitude, but even on my first viewing I was struck by how current/topical it felt back then in 2002, with Bond getting captured on mission, tortured and potentially left hanging out to dry by his employers in a NK prison cell. Looking at it in 2018? Forget current, it was probably prescient actually and it’ll definitely be someone’s cup of tea. We even get a mention of conflict diamonds several years before “Blood Diamond”.
The film is also apparently meant to be 40th anniversary of Bond, as “Dr. No” was released in 1962. Thus the film is full of references (including a musical cue from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” during a car chase), though a lot of them are dumped into Bond’s requisite scene with gadget man Q (John Cleese). Cleese had settled nicely into the role at this point, so it’s a shame the series went the reboot direction afterwards. For me the most priceless reference in the scene is the stupid fucking alligator submarine thing Roger Moore used in “Octopussy” (A film I otherwise enjoyed). I mean, I hated that stupid alligator when I saw “Octopussy”, but I almost felt a tinge of nostalgia for it or something here.
Although I’m a bit mild on Halle Berry’s Jinx, Rosamund Pike’s Miranda Frost is definitely a solid Bond Girl. A little Pussy Galore-ish in her sexual preference it would appear, she’s a perfect ice queen and one of the best things about the film. I’ve previously underrated her, she’s easily the third best Brosnan era Bond Girl behind Michelle Yeoh and Sophie Marceau. The only unfortunate thing is that her character causes both M and Bond to look like complete idiots. After “GoldenEye” and particularly “The World is Not Enough”, they shouldn’t be so gullible. Hell, the screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade probably should’ve known better, too. As for the cameo by Madonna as a lesbian fencing instructor, she’s good enough in the role to make you wish she were in the film a lot more. Unfortunately, the villains here are nowhere near good enough. In addition to the mediocre Will Yun Lee, Toby Stephens’ Richard Branson meets Hugh Grant with a sneer is a truly weak Bond villain. He’s a dud even before you get to the twist involving the character. In a film that has at least one truly stupid piece of technology on show (more on that later), the whole DNA/plastic surgery thing here is relatively fine. Awfully stupid, but not to the point that it bothered me exactly. Hell, even the big criminal scheme at the centre of the film I can’t hate because it’s essentially “You Only Live Twice” for the global warming generation, and I loved that movie. No, for me the problem is the performances by Will Yun Lee and Toby Stephens and the boring characters they’re playing. I don’t think either guy was up to the task of playing a Bond villain, nor can they come close to making the whole deal with their characters work. Rick Yune’s diamond-encrusted henchman Zhou isn’t bad in the Mr. Stamper mould, though he is a bit underused I think. Meanwhile, I have some time for Michael Madsen as an actor, but his pitiful excuse for a role suggests he just really wanted to be in a James Bond movie no matter the part.
As for our hero, this is probably Pierce Brosnan’s least committed turn in the role. He’s at his best in the early stages being all tortured (literally) and brooding. Otherwise, he’s fine enough I guess but…seemingly lacking in interest. A disinterested Brosnan is still preferable to any Daniel Craig, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, or George Lazenby, though. Samantha Bond’s Moneypenny doesn’t get anything to do or say until the end of the film, but it’s worth the wait. The cars are a mixed bag, with Zhou’s green, rocket-projecting BMW is particularly cool if you ask me. Seen in a car chase with Bond on ice, the scene is let down by Bond’s vehicle, an invisible car designed by Q/R. Yep, a camouflaged car, and next to the gondola speedboat idiocy of “Moonraker”, it’s the worst Bond vehicle ever. I mean, just think about it for one second. It’s not even possible. It’s absurd, even for Bond (Though I think it was a bit rich for the late Sir Roger Moore to have apparently spoken out against it. You gave us a Tarzan yell, a gondola speedboat, and a slide whistle, Roger. Maybe shut the fuck up, yeah?). On the plus side, the film’s diamond, glass, and ice motif is super-cool. I loved that attention to detail.
An underrated, super slick-looking Bond film, aside from some terrible projection work. However, of all the Brosnan Bond films this one’s the most like a Roger Moore movie in terms of ridiculousness, save for some Dalton-esque grit at the outset. That’s going to alienate a sizeable portion of the audience. It also lacks memorable villains (both are tied for the third-worst in the series behind Michael Lonsdale in “Moonraker” and Charles Gray in “Diamonds Are Forever” in #1 and #2 position), and Madonna’s title song is an horrific crime for which she should be prevented from ever performing songs for any film ever again. Very watchable and marginally better than the overrated “GoldenEye”, but not my favourite of Brosnan’s run. Rosamund Pike sure makes a strong film debut here, the invisible car...not so much.