Double-0 Christmas - Die Another Day

James Bond

It's nearly Christmas so there's bound to be a James Bond film on TV somewhere. This week, we're looking back at Stuart Mulrain and Barnaby Eaton-Jones' series of articles on the 007 films. Here, Barnaby Eaton-Jones remembers Die Another Day...

“Well, the fun is about to come to a dead end.”

There’s a line uttered, in extreme exasperation, by Steve Coogan as his most famous creation Alan Partridge, when the character spends an entire episode of I’m Alan Partridge trying to watch his collection of James Bond films. When he finally sits down to watch The Spy Who Loved Me, and finds the video has been taped over, he has to recreate the beginning of the film by mime, mouth and music alone. When someone tries to correct his vision, he shouts: “No! Stop getting Bond WRONG!!”

It applies here.

The 40th anniversary of the 007 franchise is a landmark in cinema history, falling – as it did – in the year of the release of the last film of the Pierce Brosnan era. Unfortunately, Die Another Day is a landmark in the Nuclear Power Plant sense. It’s stands out for all the wrong reasons and is somewhat of an eyesore. The title alone is terrible. After this mess of a movie, Brosnan was expecting to do a gritty version of Casino Royale, which Quentin Tarantino had thrown his hat towards the hatstand and said he’d be happy to direct. Brosnan wanted a back-to-basics Bond, stripped of all the blockbuster needs of the franchise. Sadly, he was never granted that right and he was unceremoniously dismissed as if the blame for the failure of Die Another Day fell on his shoulders. This is, of course, untrue.

It starts very promisingly, with the infiltration of a North Korean army base in the pre-title sequence. It’s gritty, violent, explosive and sets up the rest of the movie brilliantly. Bond kills the rogue Colonel Tan-Sun Moon (who is trading illegal diamonds for weapons), the beloved son of a General, and is subsequently thrown in a cell and brutally tortured. Sadly, even though Brosnan wanted the torture to be shown and the effects to be visible (both physically and mentally), everything gets shoehorned into the Titles and, although we see it happening, the appallingly insipid main song by Madonna just ruins any chance of taking it seriously. When the hair extensions and false beard are added to Pierce Brosnan (and a few rips to his clothing), to show he’s spent 14 months in the cell, all sense of reality flies out of the window. The worst offender is the unnecessary adding of a CGI bullet in the iconic gunbarrel sequence. Bearing in mind the gunbarrel appears to be that of a sniper a good way away from 007, the fact that our superspy turns and shoots (cue red blood) his would-be assassin showcases his good instincts and ability to hit a target. Bond now turns, shoots and his bullet travels exactly down the tiny gunbarrel of our would-be assassin, which is genuinely miraculous and, frankly, ridiculous.

So, bearded Bond is traded for Zao, who was Colonel Moon’s assistant, and so begins the story of revenge. Bond claims he’s been set-up and sets about finding out why, ditching his beard and gaining a bouffant in the process (Brosnan’s hair appears to get taller with every movie). The story gets more ludicrous with the introduction of a process of people having their faces altered via DNA restructuring and doing without sleep and ice palaces and solar-powered satellites and invisible cars and CGI surfing and Madonna as a Fencing Instructor and Halle Berry as a credible assassin… and… and… well… Basil Fawlty masquerading as a gadgets expert. Nothing holds up properly, especially the main twist that our sneering, English, smarmy bastard of a villain – Sir Gustav Graves – turns out to be not the man you think he is. If you’ll beg my indulgence, myself and Ron Brunwin once wrote a full-length stage spoof of the entire James Bond movie canon (squashed into 100 minutes, to celebrate the centenary of Ian Fleming) and this was our version of the exchange between Graves and Bond during their initial meeting in a fencing club, in a heated bit of rapier-blocking…

SCREEN BACKDROP PICTURE: FENCING CLUB

(BROSNAN/BOND appears in white outfit and sword and approaches Fencing instructor MADONNA, complete with ice-cream cone 'cups' in her ‘Vogue’ phase)

BROSNAN/BOND: Excuse me, the name's Bond. James Bond. I'm here for the lesson. (They cross swords teasingly. She scores a touch) Touche!

MADONNA: Do you have much experience in fencing?

BROSNAN/BOND: No. It’s my first time. I'm...

MADONNA: Like a virgin.

BROSNAN/BOND: Like a virgin?

MADONNA: Touche-ed for the very first time! I see you handle your weapon well.

BROSNAN/BOND: I see your acting hasn't improved any.

MADONNA: I see you're looking a little old for the part.

BROSNAN/BOND: I see you've not looked in the mirror recently.

MADONNA: Allow me to introduce you to Mr Gustav Graves.

(Enter GUSTAV GRAVES)

GUSTAV GRAVES: Mr...?

BROSNAN/BOND: Bond. James Bond.

GUSTAV GRAVES: Have we met before?

BROSNAN/BOND: Oh, I think I'd remember.

GUSTAV GRAVES: Of course you would. My mistake.

BROSNAN/BOND: But, then again, you do remind me of a Korean Colonel who plunged to his apparent death 14 months ago.

GUSTAV GRAVES: Not me. I'm white. And English.

BROSNAN/BOND: Of course not. That would be ridiculous!

GUSTAV GRAVES: Wouldn't it!

BROSNAN/BOND: 14 months is a very short space of time in which to become white and English!

GUSTAV GRAVES: And build a phoney Icelandic diamond mine.

BROSNAN/BOND: And be knighted by the Queen.

GUSTAV GRAVES: And develop an advanced space programme that utilizes the power of the sun.

BROSNAN/BOND: And build an elaborate Ice Palace.

GUSTAV GRAVES: And an immaculate high-profile reputation throughout the world as a reputable and charismatic businessman.

MADONNA: With a keen aptitude for competitive fencing.

GUSTAV GRAVES: It's unlikely.

BROSNAN/BOND: It's preposterous.

GUSTAV GRAVES: Tell me, Mr Bond - Are you a gambling man?

BROSNAN/BOND: If the stakes are right.

GUSTAV GRAVES: Care to place a bet, Madge?

MADONNA: I bet this movie makes Moonraker look like Citizen Kane!(GRAVES and BROSNAN/BOND adopt their dueling stances)

BROSNAN/BOND + GUSTAVE GRAVES: So be it!

(A comedy sword fight ensues... cries of ‘Touche’, ‘Threeche’, ‘Fourche’... before BROSNAN/BOND scores the winning hit)

BROSNAN/BOND: Victory is mine. (He goes to hand SWORD to MADONNA) I believe that concludes my lesson today...

GUSTAV GRAVES: No! Colonel Sun-Moon always triumphs! Have at you! (GRAVES lunges, BOND parries)

BROSNAN/BOND: Did you just call yourself Colonel Sun-Moon?

GUSTAV GRAVES: No.

BROSNAN/BOND: Yes, you did.

GUSTAV GRAVES: Alright. We'll call it a draw.

Sorry about that.

Anyway, let’s get serious. Why are Neal Purvis and Robert Wade STILL scripting Bond films?! After this debacle, with dreadful ‘jokes’, dialogue, plotting and failing to give any of their characters credibility (they change with whatever the scene requires), they should have been locked in a North Korean cell for 14 months and tortured. The fact they’ve written the two awful Johnny English moves, starring Rowan Atkinson as an inept spy (in which both films actually appear to be just another of their Bond films with hardly any more humour), should have alerted producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli to the danger in having them back again. They’ve had their scripts ‘polished’ on subsequent films, by Oscar-winning and more intelligent writers; which is proof they don’t have the writing chops to deliver anything unique, original or interesting. They add the ‘flesh wound’ line in the scene with John Cleese’s only appearance as head of Q branch (ask any Monty Python fan about the genesis of this line) like sniggering students of the craft who think they’re much more clever than the audience watching.

Acting-wise, everyone either seems to be coasting or over-the-top with only two people giving seemingly naturalistic performances; Rosamund Pike as Miranda Frost has had a post-Bond career that has been a lot more interesting than most and Rick Yune as Zao shows that models who turn to acting can, on this rare occasion, actually act. Toby Stephens, as Gustav Graves, is playing a sort of flip-side to Bond. He’s a good actor and, in an alternate universe, would have made a rather good ‘60s James Bond, but his performance is too arch and over-acted to generate much more than irritation whenever he appears on screen. Miss Moneypenny (my personal favourite version, played by Samantha Bond) finally gets to share a screen kiss with Bond, even if it is in a Virtual Reality simulation. Judi Dench, Michael Madson and John Cleese seem somehow uncomfortable in the roles as M, Falco and Q respectively – maybe sniffing the smell coming from the script. I’d like to gloss over Halle Berry as American agent Jinx. For all the talk of a spin-off movie for this character, she can’t deliver one line convincingly or look credible in the physical aspects of the role (aside from an ability to fill out a bikini). And we’re left with our lead actor; Pierce Brosnan in his last movie as 007. He gives a performance of two halves. In the first half of the film, he’s on cracking form as James Bond. When the film starts to get ludicrous, and action set-pieces seem to be squeezed in for the sake of it, he appears to start sleep-walking. It’s not the exit he deserved. As much as I’m not a great fan, due to his ability to layer a certain smugness over his version of Bond, he kept the series alive and got bigger and better box office with each film. So, he deserves credit for a role that he obviously genuinely loved and craved to play.

Production-wise, director Lee Tamahori and editor Christian Wagner chop and change the film so much that there’s no coherent style and don’t seem to work together well as a team. The production design is the stand-out, by Peter Lamont, who’s work veers from the perfectly realistic in Cuba to the Ken Adams-style glory of the ice palace in Iceland. David Arnold brings a solid score to the film, with his usual blend of modern to retro, and you wonder whether he was sat in the edit suite wondering how he was going to score something so ludicrously over-the-top!

So, as a 40th anniversary celebration, in 2002, Die Another Day tries too hard to ape the other films in the series – either by reference, visuals or plot points. By bringing in too many elements and with the weight of expectation pressing too hard on its shoulders, Die Another Day delivers the best box office of the series until Bond is Bourne Again (spelling intended!) for the Casino Royale reboot with Daniel Craig. Unfortunately, Die Another Day also delivers a lot less in terms of actual movie-making than many of the previous 007 films. Whilst it’s not the worst in the series to date, it’s hanging on by CGI fingernails to avoid the bottom spot.

Image - IMDb.