Now that Skyfall is a critical and commerical success, why not revisit the one that killed all goodwill and ended Pierce Brosnan’s run as 007? Here’s Raffi Nakashian with another look at Die Another Day.
My first viewing of Die Another Day ten years ago was interrupted within the first few minutes during the “Surfin’ Pyongyang” opening sequence when the lights abruptly came on in the theater and the projectionist cut the movie short. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced cinemus interruptus, but it’s upsetting. Aside from one instance just last year in which the audience sat patiently in a quiet theater for fifteen minutes after the movie’s start time until I had to walk out and inform a manager that our projectionist had apparently fallen asleep at the reel, I haven’t experienced many cinematic anomalies like that one.
Puzzled, I looked around to see a man having an epileptic seizure in an aisle behind me. Thankfully, he seemed fine as he was led out by paramedics, but the real brain trauma was about to be endured by the people that remained in the theater.
The cheesy one-liners, the gadgets, the over-the-top villains – James Bond movies have never taken themselves seriously. You can’t expect a British operative to ever have to eject someone from his passenger seat in the real world, but Q decked an Aston Martin out with one anyhow, and damned if it didn’t come in handy when taking down an eccentric billionaire named Goldfinger who wanted to nuke Fort Knox and who kills his foes using a small, mute henchman named Oddjob who throws his hat/blade at people. That sentence is already so weird, and I didn’t even have to mention Pussy Galore. Pussy Galore for chrissake! And that’s one of the better movies!
For that reason, I can’t fault Die Another Day for being silly. I expected a fair amount of reality-bending going into this film, as I’ve been conditioned to by its predecessors. What I didn’t expect was to be baffled by what I was seeing on screen. The level of absurdity that this movie reaches is unparalleled in the series – and that is saying a lot. It gets so bad, that I think the studio finally took a hard look at itself afterwards and for the first time in forty years decided that they needed to reinvent James Bond and just start from scratch. They had finally gone too far.
Die Another Day looks so much worse rewatching it ten years later, after having seen the rebooted Daniel Craig series, especially the excellent Skyfall. There is a stronger emphasis on the human story and themes, and the action actually seems to be in service of the story, rather than the other way around. They’re more mature in terms of their storytelling and visual language, they make the films leading up to Casino Royale look so much more dated and embarrassing in comparison. Skyfall is The Dark Knight to Die Another Day’s Batman and Robin.
Right from the first second of the film, Die Another Day challenges your ability to suspend your disbelief and play along with what’s happening. Three figures spend a solid couple of minutes surfing a monster wave before landing on the shore of North Korea and revealing that one of the masked figures was a fifty-year-old British government employee. I don’t know what the surf scene is like in Britain, but I’m going to guess Bond doesn’t spend his weekends riding waves in Southampton. Right off the bat, I’m already wondering why surfing is the preferred method of infiltration for the British secret service, and we’re only two minutes into the movie. It usually takes a while to get to the weird stuff.
There’s explosions, gunfire, the usual action fare, and James Bond is captured by the North Koreans and tortured for 14 months. He sports a rugged beard reminiscent of his days as Robinson Crusoe.
James Bond is berated by M for surviving his hellish prison camp and then orchestrates an escape in his pajamas. He goes to Cuba where he turns the charm on Halle Berry’s character Jinx (“Born on Friday the 13th!” she announces gleefully) after a slow-motion shot of her emerging from the ocean that Baywatch would consider too gratuitous.
Since James Bond gives off some kind of pheromone that makes women have sex with him instantly, they get to it in no time. It’s not the usual sensual Bond movie sex either. It’s nasty, angry, O-face, Cinemax After Dark, Monster’s Ball-style movie sex. And it’s… uncomfortable. Bond is notorious for his ability to seduce women, but this one might be a record time. I was surprised, because they usually use the easy ones as the secondary girls. They turn out to be one of the bad guys, or get thrown out of a hotel window halfway through the film or something.
It turns out that she’s the main Bond girl, and an awful one at that. Her line deliveries are awkward, her character is undefined, her role in the plot is hard to pin down, and she’s one of the most overrated actresses of our generation. That last part is just my opinion. She might be the worst Bond girl of all time, though. Want to know who the best Bond girl of all time is? Jane Seymour as the psychic Solitaire from Live and Let Die. There’s a girl Bond can take home to mom. If he wasn’t orphaned as a child, that is.
Shortly after the sex scene, we learn that the Korean bad guys are using gene therapy and a neon-colored face mask straight out of a B-rated sci-fi movie to morph their faces. Yes, they’re morphing their faces to look like white people. Is this movie getting too silly for you, yet? Don’t worry, we’re barely halfway through.
Also, out of nowhere, and for no particular reason: Madonna.
What follows Madonna’s cameo is the only thing I really enjoyed about this movie, and that is the sword fight between Bond and the villain, Graves. Unlike the rest of the action in Die Another Day, the fight features no green-screen, over-the-top explosions, or lasers. It’s just a well-choreographed fight scene between Bond and the bad guy. They break things, they tumble down stairs, they’re bruised and bloodied and breathing hard – it feels real. Unlike this:
Just when I thought I was starting to enjoy myself, Bond is back at headquarters and gets into a tense gun fight with armed intruders. After he shoots M, the scene disintegrates into a mess of green-screen special effects and it turns out that it was all some kind of virtual reality exercise in a fake environment like the Holodeck on Star Trek. This scene is completely pointless and continues to break the sense of immersion I’m desperately clinging to. It gets more difficult with each passing minute.
John Cleese makes his only contribution to the Bond series as Q (just promoted from R, Q’s assistant before Desmond Llewelyn passed away) for a brief two minutes or so before walking away from the role forever. Way to get their money’s worth out of the supremely talented John Cleese. Two minutes? Come on! They won’t let him be in the next one! His patented style of wit doesn’t work well against Daniel Craig’s stoic demeanor! It’s unfortunate that they used such a powerhouse to introduce the dumbest thing to ever be in a James Bond movie:
The invisible car.
I remember this being the thing that shut my brain down for the rest of the movie the first time around. I just can’t buy into this one, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Is it really the most ridiculous thing a Bond movie has ever tried to play on their audience? We’ve seen voodoo, laser fights on a space station, a villain being filled with helium and exploding, that time Sean Connery disguised himself as a Japanese man, a car chase in a moon buggy, a fight with a sumo wrestler, Bond swinging from a jungle vine while doing the Tarzan scream…
But most of those things are silly, not completely unrealistic. This is when that suspension of disbelief is really becoming an issue. It’s one thing for 007 to fight a sumo wrestler. It’s not very likely, and undoubtedly absurd, but such a thing is possible within the realm of reality. Bond playing a video game with VR glasses and 100% realistic graphics? Invisible cars? I thought this movie took place in this century. If it’s the year 2150, then they need to establish that before playing around with concepts that the audience is very aware isn’t even close to being a reality.
The absurdity is snowballing now, it’s coming at me faster and I don’t have time to process and forgive all the things it wants to show me that make no sense. Before long, Bond’s drinking martinis in an ice palace, then being chased by a laser beam from space in a rocket car that goes off the edge of a cliff before parachute surfing away from a tidal wave on a piece of scrap metal. Then Graves shows up dressed like this:
While Bond has always dabbled in the absurd, it was always grounded in some kind of reality because the effects had to be real. With the advent of CGI, they can place Bond against a green screen and put him in literally any scenario they can think of, and the effect is the complete and utter inability for the audience to suspend their disbelief and play along with what they’re seeing on screen because it just looks fake. Die Another Day is a cartoon. The era of Bond flicks that ended with Brosnan didn’t even feel like Bond anymore. They were more XXX than 007. Incidentally, the director of Die Another Day went on to direct XXX: State of the Union. You know; the worse of the two XXX movies; but exactly the kind of movie he’s well-suited to helm.
I’m sad that Pierce Brosnan had to end his run on such a goofy note. As I said, I love Goldeneye, it’s one of the better movies in the Bond saga. It had a great human story of friendship and betrayal, and explored the idea of loyalty and its cost. The action was exciting, even without the use of CGI special effects. Brosnan was great in it, too. I’ve always liked him as James Bond. He had a combination of Connery’s suaveness, Moore’s sense of humor, and Dalton’s physicality and seriousness.
I’m not sorry to have seen him go, though, now that the series has changed its tone dramatically. They actually feel like spy movies now. If I wanted to see a secret agent be extreme, then Vin Diesel is my guy, but I don’t like that kind of movie. I’m not a teenager anymore. I’ve matured. You know what? I can’t even sit through most of those old Bond movies anymore. Some of them are just downright awful, even without the use of CGI. There comes a time where you just realize you’ve outgrown the kind of movie where villains with three nipples hang out with Herve Vellechaize, or the love interest is an astronaut named Dr. Holly Goodhead. You could get away with that shit in the 70s, but it’s the 21st century, man. Grow up.