Die Another Day (United Kingdom/United States, 2002)
Imagine, if you will, the dispiriting experience of listening to an awful cover of one of your favorite songs. That's how I felt sitting through Die Another Day, the 20th official outing for Ian Fleming's super-spy. This is a train wreck of an action film – a stupefying attempt by the filmmakers to force-feed James Bond into the mindless XXX mold and throw 40 years of cinematic history down the toilet in favor of bright flashes and loud bangs. Since XXX is a Bond wannabe, that makes Die Another Day a second generation knock-off. What's missing from this movie? Any real sense that we're watching 007 rather than a generic spy in a tuxedo.
Every Bond has had a bad outing (except George Lazenby, who was only around for one movie). For Sean Connery, it was his swansong, Diamonds Are Forever. For Roger Moore, it was Live and Let Die. And for Timothy Dalton, it was The Living Daylights. One could argue that Die Another Day tops them all for sheer badness. The Bond movies have always skirted the edges of self-parody, but this one blatantly crosses the line. The film's abject silliness makes even Moore's fatuous outings look serious and intelligently plotted.
The need for action, action, and more action has reduced the plot to a minor footnote. Ditto for the characters – even Bond lacks his usual charisma. Brosnan's other 007 outings were admittedly cartoonish (that's the nature of the beast), but they were bright, lively, and vivid. Die Another Day has stick figures. The people are secondary to the stunts and pyrotechnics, which has never been the case before. It's disturbing to watch Die Another Day and realize that it's no better than any second-rate spy thriller, and even more disheartening to compare it to some of the great Bond movies of the past.
The film begins with an interesting enough, if decidedly un-Bond-like, scenario: 007 is captured during a mission to North Korea, then tortured and imprisoned for 14 months before being traded to the West in a prisoner exchange. His quest for revenge, which is initially not sanctioned by M (Judi Dench), takes him to Havana, where he meets an American secret agent named Jinx (Halle Berry). It appears that both of them are after the same people, albeit (possibly) for different reasons. Bond is pursuing a sadist named Zao (Rick Yune), and the trail leads to Iceland and the ice palace estate of billionaire Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens). To get closer to Graves, Bond tries romancing his assistant, Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), but learns that may not be the most fruitful route. Graves' goal has something to do with world domination, and the tool he intends to use is a giant space-based weapon that he controls and no one can stop.
For Die Another Day, some elements of the Bond formula are intact: the cool gadgets (including an invisible car, a glass-shattering ring, and an ice speeder), the attractive women (although, at least in the case of Jinx, she's more of a partner/rival than a mere love interest), the globe-trotting (from North Korea to Hong Kong to Havana to London to Iceland), and the martinis (shaken, not stirred). The villain, Graves, and his henchman, Zao, are unmemorable, and their inevitable comeuppances are hardly the kind of moments to get audiences cheering.
The opening theme is dreadful. It's a Madonna pop tune, not a Bond song, and its lack of musical consistency strikes a dissonant chord. (And, as "payment" for providing such an awful piece of music, Madonna gets to "act" in a cameo, which, unfortunately, allows her to speak a few lines of dialogue.) David Arnold's score, which makes liberal use of the "James Bond Theme," seems okay, although most of it is drowned out by the explosions.
Die Another Day features a few highlights: the usual tour of Q's lab (with the inventor now being played by John Cleese, who has the film's single best line), a scene in which Bond and Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) virtually have the hottest encounter in their lengthy relationship, and a high-energy sword fight between Bond and Graves. Other than that, however, Die Another Day is an exercise in loud explosions and excruciatingly bad special effects. The CGI work in this movie is an order of magnitude worse than anything I have seen in a major motion picture. Coupled with lousy production design, Die Another Day looks like it was done on the cheap.
It's hard to blame Brosnan for this debacle, although he's hardly at his most charismatic. The verve he displayed in his previous three outings is absent. This is an obligatory performance – the kind usually reserved for actors who have gotten tired of the role (Connery in Diamonds; Moore in Octopussy and A View to a Kill). Despite an energetic sex scene, Jinx and Bond lack chemistry. Halle Berry may be an Oscar winner, but that doesn't mean she can succeed as a Bond girl. Meanwhile, Judi Dench's M has lost her edge; now, she's just dour.
Director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors, The Edge) may be to blame. Even though this anniversary movie supposedly contains something from each of the previous 19 outings (many of which appear as props in Q's lab), one gets the sense that Tamahori either doesn't understand Bond or has miscalculated the nature of his appeal. It's not enough to throw all of the Bond elements together and hope that they somehow work. A little more precision and craftsmanship are necessary (and a better script wouldn't have hurt things). Let's hope this represents an aberrance, not a trend.
If there's one thing to recognize, it's that a single bad outing will not succeed where Blofeld and dozens of other maniacs have failed. Whether played by Pierce Brosnan or someone else, James Bond will return. Let's just hope that when he does, he's the 007 we have come to love and admire, not the impostor that inhabits Die Another Day.
Die Another Day (United Kingdom/United States, 2002)
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Toby Stephens, Rosamund Pike, Rick Yune, John Cleese, Judi Dench, Michael Madsen
Screenplay: Neal Purvis & Robert Wade
Cinematography: David Tattersall
Music: David Arnold
U.S. Distributor: MGM