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Non-Review Review: Die Another Day

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

A new watch. Your twentieth, I believe.

How time flies.

- Q and Bond go all meta on us

I next joined Pierce and co at the premiere of Die Another Day in 2002, which marked the 40th anniversary of the series. When asked later what I thought of the film, I merely said “interesting”. In truth I thought it just went too far – and that’s from me, the first Bond in space! Invisible cars and dodgy CGI footage? Please! They gave the public what they wanted, though maybe they too realised there was only so far they could push it before Bond became a caricature of himself, and the funeral directors were called in.

- Sir Roger Moore, who seems like a lovely guy

Truth be told, Die Another Day doesn’t quite deserve the reputation that it has earned over the years. But, then again, I can appreciate A View to a Kill, so what do I know?

Close, but no cigar...

Die Another Day is a troubled film. It has several key problems – structural and fundamental. At their root, they all stem from the movie’s drive to be bigger, faster and stronger than the previous nineteen films – and, especially, the last three Pierce Brosnan films. There’s a ridiculous sense of escalation to the affair – I’m not talking necessarily about escalation in scale (after all, Bond has saved the planet itself in films like Moonraker and averted a Third World War too many times to count), but just in terms of what might be termed “Bond-ness”.

The action has to be more outrageous than ever before, the gadgets need to be more insane, the special effects have to be more over-the-top, the music needs to be louder, the set pieces need to be grander. Bond himself needs to somehow be bigger than he already is, more of an international presence or force for good in the world.

Was the movie Jinxed before it even began?

I’ve never bought into that argument with the franchise – the belief that expense or action equates to quality. While I’ll enjoy the “saving the world” antics of You Only Live Twice, I also respect the more intimate adventures like Licence to Kill or From Russia With Love or For Your Eyes Only. What frequently happens in the more forceful Bond films is that we lose sight of the characters amid the carnage, with Bond himself reduced to the complexity a cardboard cutout.

The problem with Die Another Day from a plotting standpoint is that it makes the assumption that Bond is somehow more of a player if he engages with realpolitik. In fairness to the film, it earns some early credit by actually calling out the Bond movies as the post-colonial fantasies that they are. “It’s pathetic,” Colonel Moon remarks to a captive Bond. “You British still believe you have the right to police the world.” His point is true – Britain isn’t a world power any longer. If secret agents like Bond are running around, they certainly aren’t working under the British flag.

The Koreans give Bond a cold reception...

From the original writings by Ian Fleming, Bond has been a fantasy of a dying empire played out. Julius No called him on it in the very first film, a spy with “the habits of empire.” If you take the time to examine some of the Bond plots closely, they reek of ridiculously self-important Britain. Stromberg’s plan in The Spy Who Loved Me is to kidnap British and Russian submarines to start a war, why? Surely he’d be better off hunting American and Russian craft? Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies wants the story of the century about a war between China and the UK? Surely Britain is a little out of their league, here? A cynical person might call that inflated sense of importance a delusion, but that misses the key part of the trick: Bond only works because the British Empire is gone.

Bond is allowed to run around, defending the world in the service of Great Britain, because the country isn’t really a superpower anymore – certainly not to the extent of America or China, for example. The character can save the planet without being overtly political, because British imperialism doesn’t exist anymore. No nation in the world fears unilateral British military action, so Bond becomes a cute fantasy. If he were American, the connotations would be entirely different – the movies would be derided as puff and propaganda.

Is Bond as sharp as he ever was?

Die Another Day acts as if Bond somehow becomes a greater character if he’s teamed up with the Americans. Bond has a long history of working with the Americans, but mostly in a supporting capacity. Here, they are pushed up in front as if they are equals. Not only do we get a leading American secret agent in the form of Jinx, but we also get Michael Madsen playing and American counterpart to M. The clear (if unspoken) implication is that the Americans somehow grant Bond legitimacy, rather than sapping it from him.

Putting James Bond constantly in frame with the Americans simply draws the audience’s attention to the fact that – even though his name is on the film – he should, by all logical accounts, be playing second fiddle. It’s easy to forget that there are bigger fish in the sea when we’re focusing solely on the MI6 agent, but it’s hard to miss when the bigger fish is standing right beside him in every shot. We’re not meant to treat Jinx in the same way as we treat similar spying comrades – Anya Amasova and Wai Lin, for example – as this isn’t a moment of intersection. We’re asked to treat Bond and Jinx as equals, which just draws attention to the fact that they’re not.

Watered down Bond?

“You think I’d leave this in the hands of the British?” a senior NSA official asks near the climax of the film, as an excuse to send in Jinx with Bond, but it just creates the atmosphere that Bond and MI6 are only really involved by the good graces of the Americans – the “true” world power. Sure, that would probably really be the case, but here it only serves to diminish Bond in some way.

Another aspect of the production which was clearly intended to make the movie seem larger and more impressive (but which ultimately undermines it) is the dependence on the movie on CGI effects. I understand the producers’ reasons for opting for the effects – CGI allows the series to complete stunts that would be otherwise impossible. However, it takes away from the rich history of practical effects in the films. Sure, the scale might be somewhat limited, but the vast majority of set pieces you saw in Bond movies were pulled off by real men and women, making them all the more impressive. Even coming into the nineties, that was a factor which marked the series apart from its competitors.

"Ice to meet you, Mr. Bond..."

However, I can assume that CGI was chosen specifically so the film could compete against movies like xXx. The problem is that the Bond films can’t beat those sorts of films on their own playing field. The computer-rendered special effects here look pretty dodgy, even by the standards of the time – at their very best, they were only ever going to bring the Bond series into the middle of the “generic action movie” pack. Sure, the scale on the individual stunts can be bigger, but the audience really loses any sense of investment watching a bunch of polygons get knocked around. Greatly reducing the practical effects was too high a price to compete in the standard action movie market.

What makes it worse is how absolutely unnecessary most of the CGI was. I don’t need to see a fake bullet in the opening gun barrel sequence, I doubt anybody did. The fake Hong Kong backdrop as Bond climbs out of the ocean looks like it came from a dodgy cartoon. The laser effects actually somehow look worse than they did back in Goldfinger. That shot of Jinx falling into the water undermined the entire clinic sequence. Bond swimming under the ice could have just as easily been accomplished with practical effects. The tidal wave sequence is particularly painful – the start of the movie demonstrated the crew had stunt performers who could surf, so a smaller-scale practical stunt could have easily been used instead.

Bond is a (hover)crafty old bugger...

From all this, you’d think I hate the film, but I don’t. I actually hate relatively few Bond films, and I don’t really dislike this film – it just feels like such a waste. The first half of the plot – just about everything up until the Iceland sequences – holds together reasonably well, if not spectacularly. The movie gains points for daring to examine Bond as the root cause of many of the problems he attempts to solve. Bond is captured on a mission to assassinate the arms-dealing North Korean Colonel Moon. The young man’s father, General Moon, points out that Bond’s arrival has done more to destabilise the country than to help it. “It’s proved the hardliners correct,” General Moon explains, “that we cannot trust the west.”

A twentieth instalment is perhaps the perfect place to indulge such introspection – to ask if Bond, as a concept, is outdated and inherently destructive. Of course, this being a Bond movie, we’d expect the film to acknowledge those flaws – and then firmly rebuke them. However, the movie never directly tackles the accusations made, just letting them simmer away under the surface.

Putting the matter to bed...

The movie opens in Korea, a country divided by the major world powers in a 1953 armistice. Some might argue that this was the defining moment of the second half of the twenty-first century, the first time in decades that the west faced a war that they couldn’t necessarily win. That same year, a British writer by the name of Ian Fleming published a book called Casino Royale featuring a suave and sophisticated secret agent by the name James Bond. The movie does well to tie Bond’s creation to the perpetual stalemate in North Korea, but I’m not sure that framing the movie around such a hot political topic was necessarily a good idea. Both halves of the Korean peninsula famously decried the film and – to be honest – a James Bond film was hardly the proper vehicle to explore a deep-rooted social and political issue.

What follows is a series of plot developments which reference or call to mind any number of classic Bond films, as something of an homage to the series on its fortieth anniversary. However, I do have to question the two Bond movies which have the strongest influence on the plot. I am certain that there could be far better models for the producers to pattern the film on than from Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker. Indeed, Gustav Graves acknowledges the ties to the former, actually saying, Diamonds are for everyone.” It might be excusable if they returned to the original Fleming source novels (as both were rather “loose” adaptations), but the crazy camp elements are as well.

Does this baddie pose a Graves risk to national security?

I am also somewhat confused by the necessity to have Bond captured and brutally tortured at the start of the film. Bond doesn’t necessarily emerge from his captivity a darker character (in fact, this is perhaps the lightest of Brosnan’s Bonds) and we don’t learn anything about him from it. It does provoke a revenge plot which doesn’t really go anywhere and is promptly forgotten once billionaire Gustav Graves enters the picture.

It also makes for a strange opening sequence. I’m not sure I want to watch Bond being tortured to a catchy Madonna beat, thank you. The fact that you’re overlaying it with CGI scorpions and the requisite beautiful silhouettes makes it even creepier – particularly if you subscribe to the rather brilliant theory that we are watching Bond’s hallucinations under torture. However, as tough as the sequence is to watch, it’s somewhat undermined by the way the anonymous lab technicians make quips about Bond’s badly damaged liver while he’s recovering.

Where will Bond be stationed next?

The only reason to include the sequence, that I can think of, is in homage to Sean Connery. I remember reading a rumour that director Lee Tamahori wanted to film a Sean Connery cameo, which would have confirmed that the James Bond name was just an alias passed down from character to character (thus explaining how each actor can be so different in the role) – but he was ultimately overruled. One of my favourite film theories is that Sean Connery’s character in The Rock is actually his version of James Bond – before Roger Moore’s iteration of the character took over, Bond was imprisoned without trial for stealing American secrets. Brosnan’s appearance after being released from captivity, coupled with the way that General Moon insists that his very existence has been denied, calls to mind Sean Connery’s role in The Rock and might be a very subtle nod to that particular fan theory.

Or maybe it’s just a messy, poorly-executed plot element which never should have been included in the first place.

Ice, ice, baby!

I have to admit that I do enjoy the countless references to past adventures. In case you’re interested, I’ve compiled a list of the ones I could spot below. It’s a relatively tiny list, but I think I got a reference to all previous nineteen Bond movies. There’s also a rather cute nod towards the source of the Bond name – as a cover, Bond poses as a ornathologist. Ian Fleming famously picked the name “James Bond” from a book about birds.

The action and set pieces from the first half of the film are mostly okay – they aren’t exceptional, but they aren’t completely nuts, either. About halfway through, the film becomes completely undone. It’s about the time of the completely unnecessary virtual reality sequence – which seems only to exist for an inevitable video game tie-in. And then there’s the invisible car. Even Bond is a little stunned at that one. “You must be joking?” he remarks to Q, speaking for the audience. Sadly, Q isn’t joking.

Bond is bound...

After that, Bond is off to Iceland and things get a little nuts. For the first half of the film, director Lee Tamahori keeps his kinetic style in check. He uses long and graceful shots for the action sequences, refusing to indulge in the quick “chop-chop-chop” school of action movie cinematography. There are moments were the camera zooms awkwardly around an establishing shot – like the director is afraid the audience suffers for attention-deficit disorder – but these are mostly kept under control for the first hour.

Then things get crazy. During a big car chase, Tamahori starts cutting like he’s the lead in a slasher movie. I’ve never like that kenetic style, as it creates the impression that the production is attempting to hide something. Action speeds up and slows down, which is just incredibly irritating. The second half of the film feels very much like an attempt by the production crew to make a movie for a younger, hipper, easily-distracted audience. And, in doing so, a sense of class is just lost.

Talk about an icy reception...

And then there’s Gustav Graves. Being honest, I don’t think that there’s anything actor Toby Stephens could have really done differently, but the character is written as a spoilt brat. He’s not a threatening meglomaniac, but a whiny kid with daddy issues. The billionaire is clearly intended to be a deconstruction of Bond – which is a smart idea – but it seems the producers were too scared to play the character straight.

“We only met briefly,” Graves confesses to Bond, “but you left a lasting impression. You see, when your intervention forced me to present the world with a new face, I chose to model the disgusting Gustav Graves on you. I paid attention to details – that unjustifiable swagger, the crass quips, the self-defence mechanism concealing such inadequacy…” It sounds almost like the clever criticism that Alec levelled at Bond in GoldenEye, but here he’s rendered as parody – while we were meant to think about Alec’s comments and how much they really apply, we’re just meant to laugh off Graves’ observations as melodramatic mumbo jumbo.

I guess you have to admire Brosnan's Bond-less enthusiasm...

Being honest, I think that Toby Stephens makes a great counterpart to Bond, and – being honest – I could see him making a decent version of the character himself. Indeed, he’s appeared as Bond in some recent BBC radio adaptations of Fleming’s novels – including Dr. No and Goldfinger.

The camp also reaches ridiculous levels at this point. When Bond hijacks Graves’ motor sled, I could do without the mindless henchmen remarking, “Hey, boss, he beat your time.” By the time that Bond has made it to the final confrontation on Graves’ converted aircraft, it’s almost like the character is starring in a cartoon.

The action is explosive...

Indeed, the movie relies far too much on elements of science fantasy. I have no problems with gadgets and gizmos, but the movie relies to crazy sci-fi technology to an extent that would make even Roger Moore uncomfortable. The sight of Graves in his high-tech “battle suit” looks laughable instead of threatening, and the reliance on technology not necessary to the plot (3D simulator sunglasses, for example) just clutters the movie up a bit.

Die Another Day is a mess of a film. While it references all the previous films, it feels so different in mood and style from its predecessors that it doesn’t really feel like a fitting continuation to the franchise. It’s not entirely a waste though, but it falls apart under its own weight in the second hour. If anything, it demonstrates exactly why the series was in need of a reboot like Casino Royale.

It's a jungle in there...

For my own geeky satisfaction, I compiled a list of all the references that I could spot during the film. I think I got at least one to most Bond films, although I couldn’t spot one to Live And Let Die. Anyway, here’s my rough list.

We’ve got full reviews of all of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond films, if you want to check ‘em out:

The following bloggers have reviews of this film as part of James Bond January:


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4 Responses

  1. My favourite Graves meta-Bond moment was when diamond-face hooks Bond in the stomach and says “How’s that for a punchline?” – classic

    Loving the list too – way more than I could have fingered out in a oner. What I like is that not many of them seem too forced.

    I’m split down the middle with this one. Think it’s a great intro/set up/first hour. Then everything gets turned up to 11 and it doesn’t work / falls to bits. Those damn 2000’s kids and their ADD!!!

    • Yep, those were my thoughts exactly. I rewatched it there for the review. For the first hour I was like “this isn’t as bad as I remember, save for the dodgy CGI, I can’t rember why I…” …and then the second hour starts.

  2. Great list of refs daz. Yeah this has a great intro then turns to mush

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