AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 133 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
James Bond is captured after infiltrating a North Korean military base where Colonel Tan-Sun Moon is illegally trading weapons for African conflict diamonds, and imprisoned by the Colonel’s father, General Moon. After 14 months of captivity and torture, Bond is traded for Moon’s assistant Zao in a prisoner exchange, sedated and taken to meet M, who informs him that his status as a 00 Agent is suspended under suspicion of having leaked information under duress. Bond, convinced that he’s been set up by a double agent in the British government, escapes and locates Zao in Cuba, inside a gene therapy clinic where patients can have their appearances altered through DNA restructuring.…
The reception to Die Another Day, about which Roger Moore said: “I thought it just went too far – and that’s from me, the first Bond in space! Invisible cars and dodgy CGI footage? Please!”, reminded me of the response to The Phantom Menace. There was considerable excitement about the 40th anniversary Bond film, and people seemed to really like it the first few days it was in cinemas, but after that it seemed to be disliked more and more and it wasn’t long before many were calling it the worst 007 film ever. In direct contrast to the proceeding series entry The World Is Not Enough, I recall virtually loving it at the cinema, but its many flaws did become increasingly obvious with successive viewings. I still wouldn’t call it the worst of the series – it’s too damn fun to be that – and it does possess a pop culture swagger that the series hadn’t had for a great many years. Much of the action has the inventiveness that marks the best Bond films and there are certainly some great moments and ideas scattered amidst all the bad ones. But there’s no doubt that it suffers greatly from its nonsensical plot which barely hangs together even when it’s copying earlier storylines, reams of shoddy dialogue 50 % of which consists of groan-worthy sexual innuendos and puns, its depressing but possibly inevitable move from real towards digital action, and a Bond who just blunders through it all and rarely figures anything out. And if you watch the opening and closing 15 minutes, if you didn’t know different you’d think you were watching parts of two different films instead of one which begins fairly seriously and gets progressively dafter.
Pierce Brosnan lobbied for Brett Ratner to direct this, but the producers went for Lee Tamahori who insisted on script changes such as the climax to take place on a plane instead of an indoor beach resort in Japan. Neal Purvis and Robert Wade’s script also originally had Wai Lin [Michelle Yeoh] of Tomorrow Never Dies aid Bond in Hong Kong, but no arrangement could be worked out and she was replaced by Chang. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kelly Brook, and dancer Jean Butler were considered for the female lead. Filming took place in Pinewood London, the Eden Project Cornwall, RAF Odiham Hampshire, Maui Hawaii for the opening, Cadiz Spain doubling for Cuba, Svalbard Norway, and Jökulsárlón Iceland for the car chase on the ice where they had trouble getting the lake to freeze properly, so they dammed the river that links the lake to the sea. Brosnan injured his knee whilst filming the opening, causing production to stop shooting for seven days, while Halle Berry choked on a fig filming her sex scene, requiring Brosnan to perform the Heimlich Maneuver. Tamahori cut dialogue implying an attraction between Miranda Frost and Verite, and had to reshoot two originallly raunchier scenes, though the MPAA still cut seven seconds from the love scene. Despite its success, it was controversial in North and especially South Korea where it was boycotted. An American officer issuing orders to the South Korean army, and a lovemaking scene near a statue of the Buddha, caused particular offence. A spin-off was planned featuring Berry’s character Jinx, but MGM pulled the plug due to several recent female-led action films flopping.
The opening bit of Bond and two others surfing the waves looks for the all the world like CGI, but was apparently done for real. The hovercraft chase on land and water that follows is good stuff, fairly original yet providing us with some of the beats we’ve come to expect. Then we get the title sequence which is – quite frankly – brilliant. The nastiness of 007 being tortured in various ways is diffused and made genuinely artistic by the way Daniel Kleinman plays with the images, from fire brands turning into people to some action being viewed through ice. What a shame that placed over it this one of the worst Bond theme songs ever, or at least one of the most ill-fitting, Madonna’s tuneless techno-ish effort [co-written and co-produced by Mirwais Ahmadzai] with pathetic lyrics seeming like she barely even tried. Bond looks surprisingly well fed when he’s released, but Brosnan acts quite convincingly in this section of the film. 007 goes rogue as in Licence To Kill, having a brief stay in Hong Kong before he learns that his quarry Zao is in Cuba – and the film gets its first real bad moment when Bond meets Jinx, coming out of the water like Dr No’s Honey Rider. No “pick-up” I’ve ever seen in the movies has such excruciating dialogue as can be heard here, with Bond’s crap about predators waiting for their prey to drink and Jinx’s glance down at Bond’s crotch saying: “Wow, that’s quite a mouthful”. But then the whole movie from here on in is full of such exchanges, almost making it feel like we’re watching an attempt to make a Carry On film but lacking the likes of Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Barbara Windsor who could usually pull this kind of thing off.
For the first of several occasions Bond shows his lack of competence in a brief set-to in the mysterious gene therapy clinic, but at least most of the scenes in London are pretty good, such as Bond’s clandestine meeting with ‘M’ in a dis-used underground station beneath Tower Bridge. Some hate the use of virtual reality in two sequences, but I’ve always found the bit where Miss Moneypenny and Bond finally seem to get it on – only it’s not actually real – both clever and sweet. Then there’s a great variant on the typical scene where Bond and the bad guy meet and size each other up over a game which usually involves gambling, a diamond taking almost the exact place of that Faberge egg in Octopussy – but this time the two engage in a highly athletic sword fight all over the Blades Club. However, the introduction of the invisible car is just too absurd for words and things just get more and more ludicrous when Bond sets off for Iceland where Gustav Graves is testing out his new satellite. Say what you want about Moonraker, but it did have a proper plot and Bond even did some real sleuthing. Here, little fits together at all, and just think about this. Colonel Moon survives falling into a waterfall, goes to Iceland instead of rejoining his father, starts a diamond mine as a front, builds a doomsday satellite to help his country conquer South Korea, gets an advanced form of plastic surgery so he can’t be recognised, and pretends to be a millionaire called Gustav Graves about to be knighted by the queen – all in the space of a year! I mean for god’s sake, who writes this shit? Well, actually we do know who writes this shit, it’s Purvis and Wade!
Most of the final quarter is taken up with action and I have no problem with that. The climax is basically a more elaborate version of Goldfinger’s finale and the car chase/duel on the ice is truly cool because Bond’s opponent is also driving a car with optional extras. But just before it is the risible CGI scene of Bond parasurfing a tsunami which looked poor even back in 2002 and I can’t understand why they didn’t cut the scene and try to bridge its omission somehow. Of course the satellite with a deadly weapon is basically Diamonds Are Forever all over again [and of course diamonds feature largely too] – or is that Goldeneye, or the Moonraker novel? References to and variations on things from most of the previous 007 adventures fill this film [oh look, Graves has just appeared in a union jack parachute like the one in The Spy Who Loved Me], and I don’t tend to like this “nudge nudge wink wink” stuff very much, but I guess it can be partly forgiven as this was the 40th anniversary film, while it’s undeniably nice to see and hear some of the novels referenced too, and even the book ‘A Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies’, written by a certain James Bond, that provided Ian Fleming with his hero’s name. A fight amongst three Goldfinger-style lasers is very well done. But the film sinks whenever Jinx is on-screen, be it Berry’s continual pouting or the horrendous lines she has to deliver. She’s basically a sex-mad version of Wai Lin, while the other leading female character is clearly inspired by the fantastic Elektra King. Miranda Frost is just a pale shadow, and her sudden switch from ice maiden to willing submitter to Bond’s advances just beggars belief, but at least Rosamund Pike, who’s since become a very fine actress indeed, does her very best. I also like Toby Stephen’s Graves whom Zao models on Bond himself, and Rick Yune’s Zao who uncannily looks like he could be related to The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Brosnan looks tired and even bored. Tamahori has certainly made a very tight film and the oft-complained about slowing down and speeding up of action shots occurs so rarely it’s hardly worth getting annoyed about. For the first time since maybe Octopussy we get a Bond film that, except for the darkened early scenes, is rather lush and colourful. Graves’s ice palace looks fabulous and is a glorious conceit if totally ludicrous. David Arnold’s score with its frequent techno backing helps to propel things forward but it’s one of his weaker efforts. It’s very repetitious, continually relying on portions of the James Bond Theme, even his continuously quoted main theme often employing it in the background, while he constantly repeats the same two simple chord progressions. Two themes from The World Is Not Enough turn up, one at the end of the film, the lovely John Barry-like music feeling out of place having to accompany this finishing dialogue: “I still have no idea of how good you are”. “I’m so good”. “Only when you’re bad”. Even Roger Moore would have struggled with this kind of writing and Sean Connery may well have refused to speak it. Yep, there’s a lot that’s poor about Die Another Day which has become even more apparent in the course of me writing this review – and yet I’m still going to admit that I kind of like it and that I feel it does have its qualities. I’d still rather stick it on then Licence To Kill or my least favourite Bond film of all [we haven’t come to it yet] any day.