Die Another Day (2002) – Lee Tamahori

At the end of Die Another Day (2002), a movie that attempts the record for ribald double entendres in a Bond movie, the conquering heroes, British superspy Commander James Bond 007 (Pierce Brosnan) and his NSA ally Jinx (Halle Berry) are lying in bed together between bouts of love making. The bed is covered with diamonds apprehended on Bond’s latest mission to save the world. Bond and Jinx are incorporating the jewels into their sexual repertoire, which is kind of weird, but, hey, as long as everything’s consensual, I don’t like to judge. Jinx, enamored with the diamonds, pouts at the idea of having to return them. “Still the good guys, huh,” she begrudgingly recognizes. Bond, cheeky as ever, nibbles on her neck and teases, “I’m still not quite sure how good you are.” Jinx, playing along, coos, “I am so good,” and Bond retorts, “especially when you’re bad,” which is a little unnecessary but so are Bond movies. This exchange, which closes the movie, is indicative of all that precedes it. Like its final lines, Die Another Day is a little clumsy and obvious and doesn’t know exactly when to stop, but it also knows what it is and relishes in it. Here’s a silly, borderline stupid movie that’s also plenty entertaining because it’s good, especially when it’s bad.

Bond’s escapades this time begin in the Korean peninsula where the superspy is battling Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee), a mad man from the North who is curiously trading weaponry for African diamonds before Bond comes and busts up his operation. Although Bond dispatches Moon, he finds himself captured by the North Koreans and tortured in captivity for more than a year. Being Bond, he resists all efforts to beat information out of him and is eventually released when the British government trades a North Korean baddie they have in custody for Bond’s release. However, Bond’s superiors in the government, including boss M (Judi Dench), can’t believe that Bond was able to withstand such persecution without spilling a state secret or two and they suspend him. As he is apt to do, of course, Bond ignores this suspension and trails the man he was traded for, the imposing Zao (Rick Yune), who Bond believes will continue Moon’s work. Bond tracks him down to Cuba, where he also discovers Jinx, an apparent descendent of Athena, who emerges fully grown (though hardly fully clothed) out of the ocean. She’s in Havana for the same reason as Bond, investigating Zao, and their efforts lead them to Iceland in the stupendous ice castle of arrogant British billionaire Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), who’s wrapped up in the plot somehow. 

Bond movies are often only as strong as their villains and Die Another Day has a good one. The movie on the whole is fairly bereft of thought or deep meaning, but the character of Graves, a refined but coldly aloof and imperial gentleman with a constant sneer on his face, is a man who shares the other side of the coin with Bond. Graves’ snotty entitlement and reckless aggrandizement (he’s using diamonds to build a satellite to project a devastating beam of heat at Earth) aren’t too far removed from Bond’s behavior except, of course, Bond looks better and is reckless in the name of good. Brosnan and Stephens have fun jawing at each other and they are both experts at saying the most ridiculous things as if they are ordering a martini.

As it turns out, Graves is actually the assumed-dead Moon, made up to look British through surgery. When Bond puts this together, Graves sneers, “I was beginning to think you’d never guess.” The fact that Bond intuits at all that a man who appears to be English is in fact a North Korean operative that had his face genetically altered is remarkable enough; I think he alights upon it pretty quickly given the circumstances. The pair, both trained in fencing, compete in an impressively physical sword fight in a tony society club that becomes the highlight of the action in Die Another Day, which is otherwise underwhelming, or worse when special effects are called for. The sword fight is a beauty though, less a show of acrobatic choreography a la the soulless lightsaber fights of the newer Star Wars pictures than a gritty and muscular display of power that reminded me of a fist fight in a shower room in Eastern Promises (2007). It’s both exciting and humorous as the boys’ rambunctious brawling, using the paintings and china as obstacles, upsets the lilywhite ecosystem of the club.

This sword sequence is a welcome substantial island in a sea of abject silliness, and the action or the script won’t be anywhere as real again. This doesn’t doom the enterprise because the movie fully embraces its camp, preferring to wink at the audience for most of the running. It seems that the Bond franchise knew that it was due to swing back to ultra-realism (which it has [for the worse] with the Daniel Craig editions) and just cleaned out the old notebooks of campy one-liners because they didn’t know when they’d have another chance to use them. There’s one scene in particular in which there are four or five in succession, including a man who punches Bond and quips, “How’s that for a punch line?” The most indicative sequence in the movie is a set-piece that has Bond fighting a thug in a room in which lasers dissect the space as Bond and his opponent beat each other around them. The whole thing is crazy, pointless and inefficient, but it’s visually interesting, which appears to be the only criteria for making the final cut of Die Another Day. I’d take director Lee Tamahori more to task as the direction is cloying and uninspired and often amateurish, but it oddly results in a total effect that is remarkably positive, like a pageant by kindergartners in which there are cute planned and rehearsed flubs. The special effects don’t really convince, but they are in line with the exaggerated silliness of the whole enterprise. This is a movie in which the bulk of the action takes place in an ice palace that defies science and features an invisible car. If Bond wind surfing in the arctic ocean looks a little fake, it has company. Still, shots don’t match, and there’s not enough coverage to give the audience a firm grasp of what’s going on, which is a shame because a lot of the set-ups, especially a car chase inside the melting ice palace, could have been spectacular if competently executed.
So the direction keeps Die Another Day from being a great movie, but there’s reason to believe that it was never going to be a great movie, and since everyone in the production seemed to recognize that, they did their best to make it an entertaining one. As it turns out, their best is good enough.

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