SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists.
I’ve often been quite down on Die Another Day. I maintain that it does have some significant shortcomings, but I did really enjoy seeing it again. The film rattles along entertainingly, and the plotting is a very smartly done. It has a more-complex-than-usual story and a repeat viewing is great fun: as David Frost would say, the clues are there. For the first time, the title sequence forms part of the story: it’s a visually stunning, part-literal, part-abstract dramatisation of Bond’s 14 months of torture, interrogation and imprisonment. The stuff set in Cuba (actually shot in Spain and at Pinewood) is a smorgasbord of exotic locations, stylish production design and textured, lived-in sets. The Q scene is wonderful, Rosamund Pike graces every scene she’s in, and there are lots of nice anniversary nods to the series’s heritage. However, like a football team who have lots of possession but then shoot wildly over the crossbar, the film loses its way in the final third. As the outlandishness increases, the enjoyment lessens. For a kick-off, it becomes far too sci-fi for my Bond tastes. We get DNA manipulation, an invisible car (!), space lasers targeted at planet Earth, and the bad guy in a cyberpunk armoured suit. Also, there’s too much CGI – or more crucially, piss-poor CGI. The series has usually prided itself on a ‘do it for real’ attitude to stunts and spectacle, but fails big time here. An example: there are two scenes that involve surfing. The first is shot with stuntmen in Hawaii and looks great. The second, with Pierce Brosnan matted into computer-game graphics, is *risible*. Die Another Day came out within a month of The Two Towers: while Gollum was raising the bar for movie special effects, James Bond was looking amateurish. Eight cameos from Madonna out of 10.
Bond: He gets locked up for over a year in a North Korean prison – a bold move, said by some (implausibly, I think) to be the producers’ attempt to explain what Bond was doing on 9/11. That event is referenced – “While you were away, the world changed,” M says to Bond – but surely the film’s complex storyline had been decided upon three months before filming began. When he’s released, 007 has straggly hair, a Robinson Crusoe beard and a hoarse voice. We’ve not seen this in a Bond movie before. This is, of course, Pierce Brosnan’s final run out in the role. He’s been excellent: light and breezy when required, but able to give the whole thing weight too.
Villains: Rick Yune plays featured heavy Zao, who gets diamonds embedded in his face after an explosion (a nice heightened touch, but why doesn’t he remove them?). There’s also General Moon and his unnamed female torturer. The lead bad guy is one of the most interesting in any Bond film… He’s first presented to us as North Korean loon Colonel Moon, played by Will Yun Lee, who beats up his anger therapist and rumbles an undercover Bond. He’s seemingly killed before the titles. We later meet cocky businessman Sir Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), who’s a dynamo of smarmy charm and playful menace. When you watch the film knowing these two men are the same person – who underwent DNA-replacement therapy to change his appearance – Stephens’s performance is even better. He often hints at the truth, amusing himself that Bond hasn’t twigged yet. Graves has a couple of henchmen: tough guy Mr Kill (“There’s a name to die for,” quips Bond) and nervous Euro-geek Vlad. Gorgeous posh totty Rosamund Pike plays the icy-cool Miranda Frost, Graves’s PA who we later discover is an MI6 agent. In the movie’s other wonderful plot twist, it’s then further revealed that she’s actually been in league with Graves all the time.
Girls: One of the MI6 medical team is a real cutie (“Thanks for the kiss of life,” Bond says to her as he walks out). There’s a hotel masseuse called Peaceful Fountains of Desire. Halle Berry plays Giacinta ‘Jinx’ Johnson, an NSA operative who’s introduced with a purposefully iconic shot: standing up out of the water in slow motion. It’s a confident performance – perhaps too confident. A bit like Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies, the fact she’s a kick-ass secret agent means she has no ‘journey’ or character depth. (Her unlucky nickname is just a gag – “Born on Friday the 13th!” – and doesn’t go anywhere.) Roger Moore’s daughter briefly plays an air stewardess. Madonna has an excruciating cameo as fencing teacher Verity.
Regulars: Charles Robinson appears again, collecting Bond from Korea and later helping out M. Michael Madsen plays NSA blowhard Falco – he was meant to be a new regular in the series, but never appeared again (perhaps because of the later reboot, perhaps because he’s rubbish). M has some excellent one-on-one scenes with Bond. Moneypenny has a tiny role, and sadly Samantha Bond’s final scene in the series is a ludicrous moment where she’s rumbled using a virtual-reality machine to have a wank. After being primed for the job in the last film, John Cleese is now officially Q. His lab is in a disused tube station with a secret entrance under Westminster Bridge. It’s Cleese’s best work since A Fish Called Wanda. He’s lost the buffoonery from The World is Not Enough and inherited the same weary impatience Desmond Llewelyn had for 007’s flippancy.
Action: The pre-titles sees Bond escape the bad guys on a hovercraft across the Korean DMZ minefield. The whole sequence, which ends with Moon’s apparent death and Bond being captured, is shot in a grim, muted colour scheme. Bond and Zao fight at the clinic. Jinx leaps off some battlements into the sea (another poor CGI shot). Graves parachutes down to just outside Buckingham Palace. Bond and Graves have an excellently choreographed fencing duel at Blades gentleman’s club. A scene of intruders inside MI6 HQ – presented as real, then revealed to be a virtual-reality training session – sees Moneypenny and Robinson ‘killed’ and is cleverly directed like a first-person shoot ’em up. Jinx breaks into Graves’s secret lab. Bond and Mr Kill fight while lasers beam randomly around them. Bond flees in Graves’s single-seat racer, so Graves aims his satellite laser at him. Bond ends up dangling from an ice cliff as the laser cuts away at the ice. We then get the CGI-heavy surfing – the single most embarrassing moment in any James Bond movie. Soon after, there’s a chase on a frozen lake – Bond and Zao each in gadget-loaded cars – which concludes inside the melting ice hotel, where Bond has to rescue Jinx from a flooded room. Bond and Jinx use ‘switchblades’ to drop into North Korea. The final sequence aboard Graves’s 747 – which rather implausibly keeps flying for ages after it’s been severely damaged – features punch-ups and knife throws; a depressurised cabin; Bond vs Graves; Miranda (in a *very* fetching sports bra) vs Jinx; and Graves being sucked into one of the aircraft’s engines.
Comedy: Bond is given the once-over by a high-tech medical team: “No biological agents in the prelim scan. He’s clean. Pulse 72, pressure 120 over 80. Indications of neuro-toxins, histamine, serotonin and enzyme inhibitors. Scorpion venom. Note also traces of a venom antiserum. They’d sting him then administer the antidote. Yet his internal organs seem unaffected. Liver not too good… It’s definitely him, then.” When recovered, Bond confidently strolls into a posh hotel, dripping wet and in his pyjamas: “My usual suite please,” he says to man on the desk. Bond and Jinks have plenty of flirty banter. To avoid the suspicion of some guards, Bond and Miranda pretend to be snogging lovers. “Are we still being watched?” she asks between kisses. “Oh, they left ages ago,” replies 007. Vlad gleefully tells Graves that Bond has beaten his land-speed record while fleeing the ice hotel. There’s a surfeit of callbacks to old Bond movies because this was the 20th film in the series and was also marking its 40th anniversary (“New watch,” says Q, passing it to Bond. “This’ll be your 20th, I believe.”)
Music: Another first-rate score from David Arnold. Madonna’s title song is liked by friends of mine – Joe Lidster, Sean McGhee, Davy Darlington and others – but to my ears it’s stilted, vocoder dross that has no place in a Bond film. (A dance remix, even worse, plays over the end credits.)
Personal connection: Having moved to London a few weeks earlier, I was back visiting Derby on Wednesday 27 November 2002. With an afternoon to kill, I went by myself to the 12.50 showing of Die Another Day at the UCI. In 2006, I was project editor on You’re Him, Aren’t You?, the autobiography of actor Paul Darrow. In it, he discusses his experience of working on the film: he played a doctor, but is barely even seen in the final cut. “The director, Lee Tamahori, was very pleasant, but clearly under pressure,” he wrote. Darrow also talked about working on The Saint and Roger Moore bursting into his dressing room with some champagne to announce he was the new James Bond. (I knew at the time that the dates maybe don’t add up – The Saint finished in 1969; Moore was cast as Bond in 1972 – but we left it in as an actor’s embellished anecdote.)