At this point, you basically know what you're getting when you buy a ticket to see a James Bond movie. The franchise formula is so firmly established that many reviews of Bond films read like answers to the same decades-old questionnaire: “How impressive are the stunts? How alluring are the Bond girls? How coherent is the plot? How interesting is the villain? How memorable is the title song? How cool are the gadgets?” The tone may be kinda serious or exceptionally silly, but even the more ambitious entries stick to the established “rules” of the series. Most of the time, the series is a model of confidence, faithfully adhering to the conventions it created while continually making minor updates for the sake of making the franchise feel fresh and modern. Unfortunately, every now and then those updates feel less like sensible recalibration and more like sudden panic.
The most notable example of this is Moonraker, the film that sent James Bond into space. It was clearly a desperate bid to cash in on the popularity of Star Wars, and it managed to feel over-the-top and ridiculous even by the standards of a series that typically embraces all sorts of excesses. Lee Tamahori's Die Another Day feels similarly strained: it's as if the producers of the series suddenly convinced themselves that some people might regard the series as old-fashioned and uncool (especially after the good-natured ribbing offered up by the then-popular Austin Powers franchise). Alas, in seeking to create a cutting-edge Bond movie for the 21st century, the filmmakers wound up delivering one of the clunkiest films in the franchise's history.
Things begin on a promising note. Bond (Pierce Brosnan, The Matador) is on a secret mission in North Korea, but things go south and he is captured, imprisoned and tortured. A whopping fourteen months later, the British government arranges to have Bond released, but the move comes at a high price: they were required to release Zao (Rick Yune, The Man with the Iron Fists), the dangerous North Korean agent responsible for Bond's downfall. Bond (who has been relieved of his position with MI6) is convinced that he was set up by a double agent working within the British government, and he immediately begins a personal campaign to uncover the traitor's identity. Meanwhile, he also travels to Cuba in search of Zao in the hopes of redeeming himself in the eyes of his superiors.
This isn't the most original plot in the world – License to Kill did the whole “Bond goes off the grid on a mission of revenge” thing just thirteen years earlier – but it's an engaging enough starting point. Disappointingly, it doesn't take long for Bond's mission of justice and redemption to disappear in a sea of lame villains, terrible special effects and dopey storytelling.
Despite the early emphasis placed on Zao, the real villain here is Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens, Space Cowboys), a British billionaire who is preparing to unveil a powerful new solar energy system. Graves quickly proves a tedious adversary – a one-dimensional snot with a preposterous plan and an even more preposterous origin story (not revealed until near the film's conclusion, so I'm afraid I can't spoil it for you). Zao eventually re-emerges as Graves' sidekick, though he's now been turned into an albino as the result of a half-explained medical procedure. He also has a bunch of diamonds stuck in his face. Sure, okay.
Many of the actresses cast as Bond girls are hired for their looks rather than their acting abilities (see: Richards, Denise), but Die Another Day manages to secure the talents of two pros: Halle Berry (who had just won an Oscar for her work in Monster's Ball) and Rosamund Pike (who would earn an Oscar nomination twelve years later for Gone Girl). Unfortunately, neither actress is given a particularly interesting part. Berry plays Jinx, an NSA agent who ends up playing Catwoman to Bond's Batman – they're casual allies and/or competitors at various points, hopping into bed with each other along the way whenever there's a little downtime. Unfortunately, Berry and Brosnan don't generate much chemistry together, and their double entendre-laced banter is pretty dire (“Oh, leave it in, it's the perfect fit!” Jinx moans as 007 places a diamond in her belly button). Pike fares a little better as the rookie MI6 agent officially tasked with investigating Graves, but the script quickly finds a way to strip the character of her complexity.
Digital effects played a role in all three of Brosnan's previous Bond flicks, but those films still relied heavily on the sort of impressive practical effects that had defined the series. Die Another Day overcompensates for this by employing CGI at every possible opportunity. Many of these effects looked dodgy in 2002, but they look flat-out embarrassing now: the scene of Bond quasi-parasailing in front of a fully digital backdrop feels like the sort of thing a mid-budget sitcom doing a Bond-themed episode might try out. It's almost as if the film is calling attention to its fakery – it wants you to know that it's using swanky modern effects so that you know it's cool and modern.
Indeed, the film's setpieces and gadgets often feel borne out of a desire to incorporate elements that can only be easily created with CGI rather than a desire to create something genuinely cool. James Bond gets a dumb invisible car, the bad guy gets a massive laser beam that he controls with a glorified Nintendo Power Glove and a large chunk of the film's third act is set within the confines of a giant palace made entirely of ice (perhaps the least practical architectural achievement since Prince Pondicherry asked Willy Wonka to build a castle made of chocolate).
The soundtrack perfectly captures the film's desperate stab at modernity, as David Arnold buries his orchestral score (which contains some solid thematic ideas) under countless layers of drum loops and digital burps. Arnold's other Bond scores are exceptional, but this score is to Arnold's other work what the Tin Machine albums are to David Bowie's discography. However, the score isn't half as dire as Madonna's title song – a horrific piece of overproduced electronica that easily ranks as the worst tune ever written for one of these movies. A remixed version plays over the closing credits, demonstrating some overzealous producer's ability to make a bad song sound even worse.
Here's the really peculiar thing about Die Another Day: despite its constant efforts to look fresh and modern, it also leans heavier on cheap nostalgia than any other film in the series. The film was both the 20th installment in the series and marked the 40th anniversary of the franchise, so the filmmakers deemed it appropriate to stuff the movie with references to the Bond films of yesteryear. There are a few enjoyably subtle touches along these lines, but most of these shout-outs are overt and distracting: Berry emerges from the water in a bikini ala Ursula Andress in Dr. No, Q (John Cleese, making his second and final franchise appearance) keeps a few gadgets from the Connery flicks in his workshop, Jinx is tied down and threatened with a Goldfinger-style laser, etc. At times it feels as if these cutesy references were created first and the rest of the script was written around them.
It's a pity Brosnan's run had to end on such a sour note, because he once again does good work here no matter what silliness the film shoves him into. He's a fine Bond, but he rarely lands very high in the rankings due to the fact that he was never given a movie as terrific as From Russia with Love or Casino Royale. Despite a few fun moments and a decent first act, Die Another Day is an anticlimactic finish finish to the Brosnan era: a sorry attempt to make the franchise cool and a fairly pathetic, self-indulgent “celebration” of the franchise's history.
Die Another Day
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Year: 2002