Pierce Brosnan makes his final appearance in the 20th entry of the venerable spy franchise. But is it as bad as you remember?
The James Bond franchise celebrated its fortieth birthday with the release of 2002’s Die Another Day, which is also the twentieth motion picture in the long-running series. Unfortunately, a lot had changed since 1962; whereas Dr. No and Goldfinger were edgy spy thrillers, Die Another Day is an absurd cartoon which, ironically, feels more like a lifeless Bond imitator. Artistically bankrupt and often strangely incompetent, the movie tries to bring Bond into the 21st Century digital realm, with CGI and colour-correction replacing grit and old-school special effects. Admittedly, the picture’s first half contains a handful of entertaining set-pieces, but it eventually devolves into a joyless CGI demo reel with a script bordering dangerously close to self-parody. It is arguably the worst 007 adventure since Moonraker.
When a dangerous mission into North Korea goes wrong, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is captured and held prisoner, condemned to be tortured on a daily basis for over a year. MI6 eventually negotiate Bond’s release, but M (Judi Dench) immediately strips him of his Double-O status and detains him. On a vendetta to find who set him up in Korea, Bond escapes captivity and goes on the run from Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond soon crosses paths with Korean anarchist Zao (Rick Yune) and rich industrialist Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), who plan to take the nations hostage using a powerful space-based weapon capable of emitting a devastating laser. On his mission, Bond also meets NSA agent Jinx (Halle Berry), and undercover British agent Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike) who has infiltrated Graves’ villainous organisation.
To its credit, Die Another Day does try to shake up the formula a bit, with 007 being disowned by the British government under suspicion that he spilled national secrets under interrogation. We thus get a renegade James Bond in the vein of Licence to Kill, but the concept was far edgier and more engaging in the 1989 picture. Die Another Day just fails to do anything worthwhile with the idea, and Bond actually winds up returning to MI6 halfway through the film anyway. The script here was written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who had a hand in writing The World Is Not Enough with Bruce Feirstein (who wrote GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies). But Feirstein was unfortunately jettisoned for Die Another Day, and it is very noticeable indeed. Dialogue is often unremarkable, and the one-liners and humorous moments do not possess the usual 007 wit. Even John Cleese struggles to be funny as the newly-appointed Q.
Die Another Day asks for an unreasonable suspension of disbelief. Bond films are always silly, to be sure, but the ludicrousness of Die Another Day leaves Moonraker looking positively realistic. Following the silly opening hover-craft chase, things only grow worse, with the infamous invisible car and a woeful scene spotlighting Bond as he kite surfs a large wave in icy waters. Bond movies often overcome their preposterous nature by selling the stupidity through dangerous stunt-work, impressively-detailed models and vast sets that afford a veneer of grit, making it actually look real. Die Another Day, on the other hand, leans heavily on incredibly shoddy digital effects which do the script no favours – everything looks too phoney. We never feel that Bond is in any real danger inside this CGI-heavy world, detracting thrills and the sense of pure excitement that the best Bond films delivered in spades. The result is closer to xXx than Ian Fleming. (Ironically, director Lee Tamahori went on to helm the sequel to xXx.) The 007 franchise was never meant to be a CGI-heavy spectacle, period. Even Roger Moore hated the film, exclaiming:
“I thought it just went too far – and that’s from me, the first Bond in space! Invisible cars and dodgy CGI footage? Please!”
There’s no denying the skill of Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors from back in the early 90s, but his direction is pedestrian at best here. Die Another Day is a sloppily-constructed action film; mise-en-scène is slipshod and editing is astonishingly harsh. It is often leaden when it should be fluid and involving, and the action scenes are somewhat sluggish. Although the film looks attractive as one would expect considering the $140 million budget, Tamahori was way out of his league in charge of a film of such scope, displaying an inability to generate much in the way of tension, suspense or excitement. The only real saving grace is David Arnold’s superlative score. Rousing and well-judged, Arnold’s music is the only thing keeping Die Another Day afloat during its action scenes. On the other hand, however, Madonna’s title song is just… awful; a mindless, grating pop tune which gets on one’s nerves very easily.
One has to feel sorry for Brosnan. The star loved the notion of playing Bond, and his debut, GoldenEye, was one of the franchise’s strongest entries. Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough confirmed Brosnan’s status as the best 007 since Sean Connery in many people’s eyes, and he was on his way to becoming the definitive Bond, yet his final film as the iconic superspy had to be this tragic clusterfuck. Unsurprisingly, Brosnan is still a watchable Bond here, suitably charming and physically capable, but he’s simply not given enough to do and eventually seems to run out of enthusaism; there’s even a scene where his Irish accent creeps through. In prior films, he had the chance to show his range and play Bond with some emotional depth, but he’s strictly one-note here. As the proverbial villains, Stephens and Yune are admittedly quite good, and Pike is one of the most beautiful Bond girls in the series. On the other hand, then-recent Oscar-winner Berry is disappointing as failed spin-off bait Jinx. She is sassy and beautiful, especially in the below tribute to Ursula Andress, but her performance seems half-hearted and underwritten.
As bad as it is, Die Another Day is not a complete bust. At its best, the film is an entertaining diversion with fun to be had from time to time. At worst, it is a cringe-worthy embarrassment to the James Bond franchise, tarnishing the brand name and reinforcing that the series needed a fresh new start. It’s a shame, too, because GoldenEye was terrific series revivification and it only took three films for the producers to fuck it up! And although it was the script which let him down, Pierce Brosnan ended up being fired in the film’s aftermath. I guess the only fortunate thing about the film is that it led to the exceptional Casino Royale.
- The book that 007 picks up from the Cuban sleeper along with a revolver, is A Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies, written by James Bond. Ian Fleming, an avid birdwatcher, named Bond after the author.
- After the release of this movie, Pierce Brosnan was approached by a man in a Dublin bar who asked to shake his hand. Brosnan complied and then cracked up when the man quipped, “That’s the closest my hand will ever get to Halle Berry’s arse.”
- A spin-off was planned, featuring Berry’s character Jinx as the lead. Neal Purvis and Robert Wade wrote for two months and even a director was hired (Stephen Frears). However, after the failure of other female character-driven action films like Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003) and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003), MGM pulled the plug on the project. Halle Berry has said that she would love to return as Jinx in another Bond movie. She has allegedly said that she would like to do it so much she would do the role for free.
- Roger Moore, George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan all attended the film’s premiere, because it was the series’ 40th anniversary. Sean Connery claimed he could not be there due to filming commitments. His film, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), was filmed 28 June 2002 through 24 November 2002.