Film Reviews

Die Another Day: James and the Giant Ice Palace

When the final cut of Die Another Day – Pierce Brosnan’s 4th Bond film and the franchise’s 20th overall – was finished, MGM and Eon Productions converted The Royal Albert Hall into an ice palace for the royal world premiere. The Queen and Prince Phillip attended, marking the first Bond premiere to feature the royals as guests since You Only Live Twice in 1967.

It was a big deal. The Bond film franchise was celebrating its 40th anniversary, and Die Another Day had attracted some A-listers. Recent Oscar winner Halle Berry starred as the first African-American Bond girl, and Madonna not only contributed the title song but also appeared in the actual film. (“If I reach out now, I can touch Madonna!” Rosamund Pike later explained about her own fangirl experience on the Die Another Day set.) Everyone was excited to see the movie. Cast and crew were there. Same goes for Bond alumni like Richard Kiel, Lois Chiles, Maud Adams, Maryam D’abo, and Fiona Fullerton.

What Pierce Brosnan remembers most about that night, however, is the time he spent with George Lazenby, Sir Roger Moore, and Timothy Dalton – all former Bonds, all invited to attend. “I remember standing on the side of the stage with all the guys and joking and laughing,” Brosnan told the authors of Some Kind of Hero. “I mean, Roger was as gracious as ever. Tim was fantastic.”

Sounds like a truly lovely evening. Ah, memories.

The love fest didn’t last.

Bond Burns Bond

“I thought it went too far – and that’s from me, the first Bond in space!” Roger Moore later told The London Times when asked his opinion of Die Another Day. “Invisible cars and dodgy CGI footage? Please!”

Sick burn, Sir Bond.

In this case, however, Moore speaks for nearly all of us – Die Another Day goes way, way too far. It’s just 133 minutes of “gawd, the people of 2002 were awfully forgiving.” There’s bullet time – with no bullets! (Technically, it’s just a bunch of speed ramps with no reason for being there.) A British man plays a North Korean! Bond paraglides down a CGI tsunami and it looks about as convincing as Gidget on her surfboard in the 50s! Halle Berry spits out god-awful dialogue (Sample: “Aw, ornithologist, huh? Wow. Now there’s a mouthful.”) with alternating boredom/gusto! And we visit an ice palace straight out of Batman & Robin!

Plus – in words sure to fire up the blood of any longstanding Bond fan – there’s…an…invisible…car!

“I know everyone laughs at the invisible car but it’s based on an idea that is still being developed and works today. We just pushed it to the limit and it became a slightly more ludicrous idea,” explains director Lee Tamahori.

All these years later, even Brosnan concedes Die Another Day is “so ridiculous.” Chris McGurk, the MGM executive who oversaw the Bond franchise along with the Broccoli family at the time, admits, “Lee [Tamahori, the director] was more focused on the spectacle. We were caught up in this idea that Bond had to be competitive with these other big event movies in terms of action and CGI. We were probably all guilty of that.”

Indeed, event movies increasingly ruled the day. Die Another Day arrived at a time when the box office was dominated by the first two Harry Potter flicks, first two Lord of the Rings installments, The Mummy Returns, Jurassic Park III, Pearl Harbor, Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones, Men in Black II, and Spider-Man. Beyond that, not one but two Austin Powers movies had already hit the market. Both Matt Damon (The Bourne Identity) and Vin Diesel (xXx) had just launched their own bids at spy movie franchise stardom, and thanks to 24, Kiefer Sutherland was in the middle of redefining the spy genre for TV. The entire world was laughing at Bond and eyeing his presumptive replacements.

Yet, here was Bond leaning harder into camp than he had in decades, the producers caught guilty of thinking a fresh paint of CGI would be all the update needed to keep up with the times.

Look how far we haven’t come.

We’re all Stinkin’ Rich!

For a moment, though, it seemed to work. The reviews were generally positive. (Ebert declared:Die Another Day is still utterly absurd from one end to the other, of course, but in a slightly more understated way.”) The film enjoyed the biggest opening weekend in franchise history and went on to set a Bond record for worldwide gross, pulling in $431 million, besting the prior title holder by at least $40m. Encouraged by the results, the producers kept the film’s screenwriters – Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – around to pen a spinoff adventure about Berry’s NSA agent Jinx Johnson. It was in development for a full year. A pre-The Queen Stephen Frears was going to direct!

MGM eventually put an end to all that, though. Die Another Day set franchise records, sure, but it was still not even a top-10 presence on the year-end box office and actually made considerably less in the States than Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Plus, once you go invisible car, where else is there?

Die Another Moonraker

Looking back on it now, longtime Bond producer Michael G. Wilson sees a historical parallel. “The same thing happened with Moonraker [the first Bond film Wilson executive produced]. We stuck with Roger [for 2 more movies], but we just couldn’t keep going with that. We had to change direction, because it was getting ridiculous. So we had to change, but Moonraker was the most successful picture, and the next pictures weren’t as successful. But it was important to change.”

The Bond producers and Pierce Brosnan suffered through a rather messy divorce. He says they disinvited him from the franchise even though he wanted to do at least two more; they say his newly-hired agent asked for $40 million a picture. Truth. Middle.

In a nod toward the franchise’s 40th anniversary, Die Another Day is packed full of Easter Eggs. Same are a little more obvious than others.

So if Die Another Day did nothing else for humanity beyond inspire a serious spike in orange, two-piece bikini sales, at least it gave us Daniel Craig and Casino Royale.

(Kinda) Defending Die Another Day

Yet, there are those who defend Die Another Day. Matt Gourley, co-host of the James Bonding podcast, admits, “I’ve started to like Die Another Day more, and people can’t understand it. I’m like, well, it’s because it goes so far in one direction. At least it’s almost consistent. It’s almost in the A View to a Kill category for me, where I like watching it because it’s so bonkers.”

The funny thing is when you start Die Another Day you have no clue how crazy the movie is going to get. It’s not like Batman & Robin where from frame one you can tell the inmates – or toy companies – are running the asylum. On the contrary, Die Another Day actually starts with a considerable degree of promise.

Surfing a giant wave in the cover of night – an effect accomplished with actual footage captured in Maui with a black-clad Laird Hamilton doubling for Brosnan – 007 and two other agents infiltrate the DMZ separating North and South Korea. Their mission is to interrupt a complicated arms deal involving Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee), son to a powerful North Korean General (Kenneth Tsang), and African conflict diamonds. When an unseen traitor blows Bond’s cover, his fellow agents are killed and he’s forced into quick action. Shit blows up real nice. We get a chase scene involving a hoverboard, and 007 and the bad guy duke it out while careening toward a steep waterfall.

It’s not exactly a Spectre-level opener, but it’s enjoyable enough, particularly because of how it ends: Bond gets captured! Just when you think he might bust out a secret Thunderball jetpack and fly away, he merely puts his hands up as directed by the North Korean militia and walks with his new captors. Then, as Madonna’s electronically-altered voice kicks into “Die Another Day,” we watch as Bond is tortured in a damp concrete cell. They waterboard him, stab him with red-hot irons, chain him to a ceiling by his wrists, and use scorpion venom to repeatedly push him to the brink of death before administering the antidote.

After 40 years and 19 prior movies, we’re actually witnessing a Bond first: an opening title sequence that actually advances the story rather than merely distract with visuals. Tamahori explained, “I wanted to pursue the story through the titles, rather than to stop dead and have a flashy sequence.”

It probably works a little better in theory than execution – Bond’s pain is so unbearable he starts to hallucinate little women made entirely of fire – but it’s far better than expected from the Bond film regularly ranked at or near the bottom.

When you get on the other side of the opening and learn the now-bearded Bond has been held prisoner for 18 months, you’re ready to settle in for Brosnan in Timothy Dalton mode. Finally, this is going to be the darker Bond movie Brosnan repeatedly advocated for. Hell, at one point he chatted up Martin Scorsese on an airplane about directing a Bond picture and was even open to the suggestion that Tarantino could write the screenplay. (Neither long shot advanced past idle chatter.) With Die Another Day, Brosnan had to settle for Lee Tamahori, a New Zealand filmmaker most known for Once Were Warriors and the returning The World is Not Enough screenwriters, but together they just might have made something special.

Hold on to that hope, true believer, because it doesn’t last much longer.

After an admirably tense prisoner exchange sequence, Bond ends up back in MI6 care. “If I had my way, you’d still be in North Korea,” Judi Dench’s M sneers in her best disappointed-mom voice. “Your freedom came at too high a price. Double-O status rescinded. You’re no use to anyone now.”

Perfect. A rogue, PTSD-suffering 007 in search of answers. This – this is Brosnan’s Quantum of Solace! His License to Kill! His…

“Do you have a credit card? Or even any luggage, sir?”

…his producer-mandated shirtless scene with Oliver Queen wig and beard? In the middle of a five-star Hong Kong hotel? Oh, bollocks. We’re not even to the half hour mark yet and this movie is already turning into something else, isn’t it?

How Could a Movie with Such a Promising Beginning Go So Far Off the Rails?

For the record, Bond’s post-escape, shirtless stroll through Hong Kong’s finest got a genuine laugh out of me, but, in retrospect, it’s the beginning of the end for a film that turns toward camp with complete abanon. A meet-cute with Jinx in Cuba is seriously weighed down by wannabe-screwball-comedy dialogue. A blow-em-up in an underground gene therapy institute capably reintroduces the film’s henchman Zao (Rick Yune) – first seen in the opening – but ultimately gives way to bad CGI. Main villain Gustav Graves (stage actor Toby Stephens aka Dame Maggie Smith’s son) literally parachutes into the film like he’s Richard Branson (“You only get one shot at life. Why waste it on sleep?”) and is still somehow upstaged by Madonna’s cameo as a fencing instructor.

Madonna insisted on having her own people write her dialogue. “I didn’t want to be there because it was all rather embarrassing,” recalls co-screenwriter Robert Wade. “She had a guy who’d done album notes or something.”

Then, like the Raiders of the Lost Ark boulder rolling downhill, all of the film’s little sins and imperfection seem to gain speed. Before you know it, Bond’s driving an invisible Aston Martin, Graves is revealed to actually be a still-alive Colonel Moon – his North Korean features radically transformed through gene therapy – and Bond and undercover MI6 agent Miranda Frost (a fresh-from-Oxford Rosamund Pike in her film debut) have sex on a swan-shaped block of ice inside a Batman & Robin-esque ice palace….in Iceland.

Hey, remember the part where Bond was waterboarded? Because I don’t. That was a totally different movie, right? Also, I could have sworn there was going to be something about Bond and PTSD and trying to piece together what secrets he might have divulged during those 18 months in a North Korean gulag. At the very least, he’s super determined to discover who betrayed him, right? How did most of that fall to the floor in favor of a villain using a video game suit to control a space laser?

So Much for That Vaunted Bond Franchise Quality Control

It’s better if you don’t know the context.

The people who made the movie don’t have a great answer. McGurk laments, “If people criticize the movie that it becomes too cartoony, it wasn’t meant to be.” They picked North Korea because Bill Clinton once described the DMZ as “the scariest place on Earth” and it struck them as the world’s “last Iron Curtain.” Tamahori’s stated goal was to craft a down-and-dirty B grade spy thriller in the tradition of From Russia With Love. Brosnan regularly visited the writer’s room to remind them to honor the Fleming spirit. Jinx was originally written as a Latin spitfire – Selma Hayek auditioned – but landing Halle Berry right before she won an Oscar was viewed as a huge win. The ice palace was longtime franchise art director/production designer Peter Lamont’s most daunting – albeit rather welcome – challenge in decades.

It seemed like it would all work itself out because it always does on these pictures. “I’m often asked how we keep the series going. We have over 300 people out there shooting the movie – that’s what keeps it going,” Barbara Broccoli once said as explanation for how the franchise keeps going while avoiding any serious embarrassments. “My father started making the films in the sixties, and we have a really dedicated crew of people; generations of people who care about their work and James Bond.”

On Die Another Day, the quality control system went pear-shaped. Good ideas got exaggerated into bad ones. Groaners like “How’s that for a punchline?” and “Hello. My name is Mr. Kill” made it into the script. The original Japan-set finale was dropped four weeks into production and an entirely new set had to be constructed. Tamahori dragged the Broccoli family kicking and screaming into the new world of CGI and the results left everyone seriously underwhelmed. (At least one effects company responsible for the work has since moved on to blockbusters like Inception, and you will not find Die Another Day listed among the credits on their company website.) The result: Die Another Day starts impressively gritty and ends astonishingly campy.

There’s something poetic about that, though. For the franchise’s 40th anniversary, MGM, Eon, and the assembled cast and crew managed to make a film that condenses the entirety of James Bond film history into one movie. There’s the grit and vigor of an early Connery or Dalton picture in the first 25 minutes, but if that’s not your thing the rest of the Die Another Day takes its cues straight from Roger Moore’s campy corner of the world where Bond might as well be a comic book character. The problem is those two halves really, really shouldn’t co-exist in a single movie.

It’s not like that’s what the Die Another Day people were going for, but it’s what they gave us – Bond on a personal mission turns into James and the giant ice palace. It’s the kind of a tonal turn you could maybe live with if at least the action was fun and villains enjoyably over-the-top. Sadly, no dice.

The Marathon Notes

  • Thoughts on the Bond Women: Controversial opinion, perhaps, but I’ve never found Halle Berry to be a completely convincing actress in blockbuster movies. This is no different, despite her obvious efforts to make Jinx a female Bond. Pike’s Miranda Frost feels too underwritten.
  • Ian Fleming Connection: Gustav Graves and Miranda Frost are loosely modeled on characters from the Moonraker novel and one brief action beat is lifted from The Man With the Golden Gun. Bond’s brief cover identity in Cuba as an ornithologist is a true deep cut – while writing Casino Royale, Fleming actually took the name “James Bond” from an American ornithologist.
  • Bond Song Ranking: #4. Like the shoddy CGI in the actual film, Madonna’s title track is fairly emblematic of the era, an artifact of her emerging love for techno. That version of Madonna hasn’t aged well, to my ears. Adele’s “Skyfall,” Sam Smith’s “The Writing’s On the Wall,” and Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” rank higher for me while Alicia Keys and Jack White’s Quantum of Solace collaboration ranks lower.
  • Coolest Scene: The death-by-firing squad that turns out to actually be a prisoner exchange.
  • Favorite line: Frost to Bond: I know all about you – sex for dinner, death for breakfast.
  • Little Known Fact: Roger Moore’s daughter Deborah cameos as the air hostess who serves Bond a martini.
  • Biggest regret: That Pierce Brosnan didn’t get a better exit.
  • Box Office: $431.9 million worldwide ($616.5m adjusted for inflation)

Sources: Nobody Does it Better, The Ultimate Guide to Bond, Some Kind of Hero, GQ

Tomorrow: The World is Not Enough

8 comments

  1. My fave thing about this flick is that you can abbreviate it to DAD. But dammit, Kelly — somehow you’ve made me want to rewatch DAD. Fantastically entertaining write-up!

    1. It’s funny you would use the “DAD” abbreviation, just the other day Juli and I were noticing how many of the Brosnan era Bond puns plays more like dad jokes today, but then the realization that we actually grew up with these movies made us feel so very old, well me anyway.

      As for Die Another Day, thanks for the compliment. I worked for far too long on this piece about such a regrettable film. It’s nice to hear the time wasn’t wasted. There’s still so much I had to leave out, like how Halle Berry won her Oscar while filming and coincidentally beat Judi Dench – who was nominated for Iris. Then on Berry’s first day back to set from her Oscars trip the scene they filmed featured her next to a control panel saying absolutely nothing. The writers scrambled to give her some – any! – dialogue because, dammit, they have an Oscar winner on set!

      As for re-watching the film, the first 30 or so minutes are fairly easy to recommend. Everything after falls more into the trainwreck-cinema category of filmwatching, which I can sometimes have a lot of fun with. Not so much with DAD. It’s the closets I’ve ever come during this Bond marathon to feeling like I was watching Batman & Robin.

  2. There is little I really love about the James Bond franchise. I am a very picking viewer. But what gets me glued to the screen every single time is the first half an hour of Die Another Day. It is just perfect! The whole chase scene over the bomb belt, Bond getting captured and for once not put into a swanky Luxus suit but tortured for information, the way they used the opening credits to express this torture without getting overly graphic, and yes, I will defend the damned song to my dying breath, you can basically feel the scorpions crawling over his skin, and then the whole start of him being disavowed and for once devoid of his usual gadgets…

    And then I turn the TV off, because I know that I won’t like what comes next. Personally I think this is why the movie gets so much ire. Not because the second half is so ridiculous, frankly, there have been ridiculous action scenes in Bond movies beforehand, too, but because the beginning was so damned promising. It looks like some truly brilliant mind has thought really hard about an unusual angle on the story and then we get…THAT.

    Still, I will always praise those first 30 minutes.

    1. You’ll get no argument from me. I said as much in the piece. The first 30 minutes – fab filmmaking and storytelling. The rest – oh, god, what were they thinking? Toby Stephens, who plays the baddie, now admits it was the type of film where you get brand new script pages slipped under your hotel room door in the night before you’re due to deliver a big monologue the next day. Some films ride such chaos to on-screen gold. Not Die Another Day. Not even close.

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