Friday, August 23, 2013

Die Another Day (2002)

So the year 2002 marked the fortieth anniversary of James Bond. As such the creators decided that the film they delivered that year would be a celebration of all things 007. It would look back at the previous 19 films and point toward the future of the franchise. It would be the first James Bond film of the new millennium, and it would be one to remember. The thing is, most people remember this movie as one of the worst of the franchises long history. What happened?

Britain’s best secret agent James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is sent on a dangerous mission to kill the unstable North Korean Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee). He succeeds, but only after blowing up half an airbase and then getting himself captured. 14 months later Bond is freed during a prisoner exchange, but he’s a little grumpy that his cover was blown in the first place. M (Judi Dench) revokes his license to kill, but that doesn’t stop Bond. He’s off and running on the trail of traitor.

The trail takes him to Cuba where he meets agent Jinx Johnson (Halle Berry) who is tracking down the diabolical Zao (Rick Yune). The two agents tangle for a bit, but Zao gets away, but not before leaving a clue. Somehow, he is tied to the rising superstar of the industrial world Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens). The more Bond and Jinx dig the more they discover that Graves hides a deadly secret, one that could threaten the world. It comes down to a car battle in an ice palace, a fencing battle from hell, a man with diamonds on his face, an invisible car and some of the worst sexual innuendo I’ve heard in a long time. Can James Bond survive this mess to Die Another Day?

Good Points:
  • The first half of the film works as a solid bit of entertainment
  • Rosamund Pike makes for an excellent femme fatale
  • David Arnold’s score is a fun mix of techno and orchestra

Bad Points:
  • The second half of the film spirals into a mess of excess
  • Halle Berry is lost without a map
  • Special effects take over the film, much to its detriment

The 20th James Bond film tries so hard to please. It attempts to be everything to all kinds of fans of the franchise. But it is such a tangled mess of conflicting styles, concepts, goals and execution that the final product is honestly a train wreck. It is never boring, but it never gels either. There is a bit of fun in playing the “spot the previous film reference” game, but this is easily the weakest film of the Brosnan era.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 2
Sound: 5
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 2
Total:  2

In Depth Review
Graves and Bond have their very own Duel of the Fates.
Expectations are really a killer when it comes to films. When audiences come to the theater expecting something and they don’t get it, well the negative word of mouth can really harm the film. You can end up with disillusioned fans and a franchise that starts looking too long in the tooth. Just ask George Lucas about The Phantom Menace. But James Bond has walked that road before. Usually he’s been able to shift with the times, and even when the films take a misstep, things get corrected (and sometimes overcorrected) for the next outing. It happened with Licence to Kill in 1989 and previously in 1969 with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. James Bond survived both times.

But Die Another Day may represent the first time that the expectations the studio put on itself ended up scuttling the film before it got a chance to evolve. First you had the 40th anniversary of the franchise looming. Next you had the fact that this was the first Bond film of the new millennium and the first post 9/11 Bond film. Then you had the fact that the previous Bond film, The World is Not Enough did not live up to audience expectations. Then you had the idea that the new Halle Berry character, Jinx, could be ripe for a spin off franchise. Add to this the fact that 2002 was a year packed with some serious box office power. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Star Trek: Nemesis were all fighting for the piece of the megaplex pie. Those three films were going to have huge special effects extravaganzas. And since The Phantom Menace and The Matrix had raised the bar for visual effects and action in 1999, the James Bond franchise didn’t want to look old.

The pre-credit hovercraft chase is one of the best action
scenes in the film.
All that was coming down on this one movie. There was probably no way this could end well.

I’m going to focus on the good points first, because the bad points are all tied to the fact that the expectations ended up forging the move in it’s bad direction. The good points managed to shine through, but just barely.

My highest score was for the sound, something that has been top notch in all the Brosnan films. With all the over the top visuals, explosions and gunfire, the sound crew had plenty to work with. The soundwork is exciting, supports the action perfectly and really rocks the subwoofer when it needs too.

Since Tomorrow Never Dies, David Arnold has been providing the James Bond film scores and he’s done a really solid job. His best scores tend to be the ones where he gets to work on the theme song and the incorporate them into the score, giving each film a unique musical identity. Both The World is Not Enough and Casino Royale are excellent scores because of the way he used the title songs as supporting themes. Unfortunately, Arnold had no input into the Madonna song for the film. He ended up crafting a nice love theme for Jinx, and used the James Bond theme in some creative ways (I love the Latin tinged adaptation of the Bond theme during the Cuba sequences). But the biggest element of the score is the fact that Arnold fused the techo/electronic sound he had been fleshing out in the previous two scores into the front of the mix. Nearly all the action scenes utilize electronics, stutter editing and synthetic warping of the orchestra. It is a fun experiment and one that I actually enjoy quite a bit. It took the Bond scores into a fresh and fun direction, very fitting the time. A lot of film music fans put this score near the bottom of Arnold’s output. I do have to say that of the five scores, this would rank as the fifth, it is still a really fun score. But do yourself a favor and seek out the extended version of the score that includes many excellent tracks that were left off the commercial release.

Not making Zao the main villain was a missed opportunity.
As for Madonna’s song, well I don’t hate it as much as most Bond fans and film music fans do. It’s a fun bit of pop music, but when you place it along side the surrounding James Bond theme songs it really stands out, and not in a good way. In the attempt to take the series in a more modern direction, this song ends up looking completely out of left field. The odd thing is, Madonna could have sung something perfect in the James Bond mold. By this time she had trained her voice and could really carry a full-blown tune. But to go with the techno-pop approach just doesn’t work. It’s a shame really.

It’s hard to talk about the acting, which has some good points, without touching on some of the less than stellar points of the film, so I might as well dive in. No one had a clue about the actual movie they wanted to make. This is one of the messiest James Bond films to actually hit theaters (and be from the “official” studio as well). That’s saying something, because Octopussy is still looming out there. But Die Another Day tries to do too much and just can’t manage any of it well.

Never argue with a woman wearing a tank top and
wielding a sword... just some good advice.
At some point it was decided that this film was going to be much more over the top and “fun” than the previous film. A lot of people were disappointed with how the plot between Elektra and Bond played out in The World is Not Enough, and found it too dark. On top of that, the shadow of 9/11 was still looming large over the film industry. The decision was made to indulge in fantasy instead of the grim reality around the audience. In this vein, the creators looked to the Bond films of the 1970s and how they transported the viewers away from the gas crisis, international terrorism and the general malaise of the Carter years. The biggest Bond film of the decade, money-wise, was Moonraker. So that was the type of fantastical direction the writers took, to create a Moonraker for the modern audience.

Right there, you’ll know where you stand, because Moonraker is certainly one of the most polarizing of the James Bond films. I think that if the film had been more focused on bringing on the large-scale amusements and humor, it might have worked, but things get muddled quickly. The first half of the film deals with Bond getting captured, tortured and then treated roughly by MI6 when they get him back. It’s a very dark turn for the series, and one that bothered a lot of viewers. I thought it was an interesting development and could have yielded something really interesting (like the similar sequence in Casino Royale), but Die Another Day glosses over the torture and soon heads into the fantastical with lasers blasting from satellites and enemies using gene therapy to change their entire bodies. This 180 creates a real disconnect and no matter how good the acting is, there is little that can be done to salvage the film.

Robinson Caruso... I mean James Bond confronts M.
Brosnan is pretty good here. The first half of the film offers the best material and he really runs with it. Brosnan had commented that he really wanted to dig deeper into the character of Bond, and I’m guessing that he wanted to make the most of these early scenes. His interaction with Berry in Cuba works well too, and those scenes are pretty much the last of the good moments in the film. After that Brosnan doesn’t do much but deliver some really bad sexual innuendo (some of the worst of the franchise, and that is saying something), and work in front of blue screen during the special effects scenes. As good as Brosnan is, his easy charm just can’t pull the movie out of the funk it gets into. But I don’t blame him too much; Moore had the same struggles with Live and Let Die and Octopussy.

Rick Yune is actually a really good villain, and he gives Zao a real sense of menace. Even when he’s covered in diamonds and pale with blue eyes, the actor is able to make the character work. The creators really missed the boat by not going with Zao as the main villain and have him battle against Bond at the end. But maybe having two bald main villains in back to back movies was too much to ask.

When your villain ends up in a dorky looking Power
Ranger suit, the movie may have gone awry.
Instead we get Toby Stephens as Graves. Stephens doesn’t show up until about halfway into Die Another Day, and he fits right into the over the top nature of that section. His best scenes are actually the fun sword duel sequence, but after that he just starts gnawing at the scenery. His final scenes are so grandiose and hilarious that you can’t help but laugh. I know he’s supposed to be unbalanced, but he’s so cheerful about it that he doesn’t come across as too much of a threat. I think he did the best he could with the part. Too bad it was such a cheesy role to begin with.

Faring a bit better is Rosamund Pike as the traitorous Miranda Frost. She makes for a solid femme fatale, and her interplay with Brosnan has some good moments. The script ends up failing her and creating a character that just doesn’t seem to fit in this movie. Her final duel with Jinx is pretty good, but I’m always disappointed when Frost dies. I really wanted her to bump off our leading lady.

Halle Berry does her best Ursula Andress.
That’s right, I’m not going to be too kind to Halle Berry. Now I think she would make a fine Bond girl. In the right role and right film, it all could have worked. In fact the idea of the character Jinx is a good one… but the execution here is just wrong. She really feels forced into the plot. Scenes showing off how tough she really is come across heavy-handed. Once you hear how the creators wanted to create a spin off with Jinx, you see all the tell tale flags trying to sell the viewers the character. All of this hurts the film in it’s pacing, its storytelling and in it’s entertainment. Berry also delivers some of the clumsiest lines in the film.  I know they wanted her to seem tough, but the lines just don’t sound natural. The worst being the “Read this.. bitch,” line when she kills Frost… just painful.

Speaking of ripe dialogue, Die Another Day is just swimming in bad puns, horrible innuendo and pathetic quips. I know the writers were going for their own version of Moonraker, but I’m not sure if they were making fun of the cheesy dialogue or just trying to come up with the worst of the worst. The line between witty and crass is crossed way too often. When I saw this movie in the theaters, I remember many audible groans as some of the lines were delivered.

When writing "James Bond gets chased by a giant laser
to the edge of an ice cliff", you should realize the film has
gone awry.
One of the major problems with the film is the reliance on huge special effects. James Bond has always included some of this. Some of the movies like You Only Live Twice and Moonraker pushed things pretty far into science fiction territory. But one of the keys to any James Bond film is the stuntwork during the action scenes. You get the sense that these are real stuntmen and women doing dangerous and crazy things on the screen. But Die Another Day loses the focus and goes for spectacle too many times. The second half of the film is jam packed with blue screen effects, and computer generated images. Now, all the Brosnan era films had some of this, but Die Another Day just goes overboard. James Bond becomes a puppet on the screen, and the thrills vanish as we watch him surf a tsunami, drive in a melting ice palace and fight a man in a Power Ranger suit on board an exploding plane. I believe that Bond works best when the thrill are palpable, and there is little of that in the movie, and none to be found in the second half. It was a horrible misstep, and one that took away from the fun and turned the movie in a parody of itself (something even Moonraker avoided).

Director Lee Tamahori does some odd things with the movie. Part of it is due to the muddled mess of a screenplay he had to work with. So I can’t put all the blame on him. But his use of slow motion, stutter edits and strange zooms don’t pull you into the action or add to the thrills. They just call attention to themselves. There are also moments in the film that have no transitions. Done correctly, this can work in favor of the film, creating tension and moving the movie along at a faster pace. But in Die Another Day the lack of transitions creates confusion at best and raises questions at worst. You start questioning the reality of the movie and it pulls you right out. Since the movie isn’t working in the first place, it really doesn’t take much to break that forth wall.

But he does manage to capture some wonderful vistas, the early scenes are filmed well, and I like how he worked with light and shadow in the Cuba love scene between Jinx and Bond.

Q's laboratory is filled with references to the older
Bond films.
Die Another Day has elements from the previous 19 James Bond films worked into it as a kind of game. It’s fun to try and spot them all (and some films have more than one reference. Thunderball has the jetpack in Q’s lab, but the moment where Bond steals a grape while he’s in the clinic also come from the older film). That spirit of celebration does come through, and if you look at it in that light, the movie isn’t so bad. It is reveling in the decadence that is the James Bond franchise. It is nothing but pure entertainment, and at some base level it does that. The movie never bores me, like some of the early 70s films. It just seems gratuitous.

That may be the reason why it never clicks for me. It tries so hard to please that it just can’t manage anything well. It is the weakest film of the Brosnan era, and for many fans were left with a very bad taste in their mouths. The ended up dismissing all four films from that actor. It’s a shame too, because I don’t think Brosnan got the James Bond script that really let him shine. He could have been one of the best actors to play the role, but time and again the films just never get the mixture quite right. And once we saw the Daniel Craig films, it became really apparent; Brosnan was the Moore of his decade.

Moneypenny finally gets her kiss.


  1. I remember almost nothing about this movie, which I suppose is a review in itself. I agree Pierce is better than his scripts. Actors are at the mercy of the scripts. Gore Vidal always argued that the writers (and the producers who give the green light) are the real auteurs, not the director who in old Hollywood was just "somebody's brother-in-law." The exceptions were the directors who also were writers (e.g. Stanley Kubrick or Woody Allen). Of course, Gore was a screenwriter in the 1950s, so perhaps he was prejudiced.

    As for not arguing with sword wielding tank-topped women, we all have to learn that the hard way.

    1. Yeah, these days I'm hearing more and more that the producers and committees of suits are in more and more control of the final product. Scripts get rewritten during the shooting, musical scores get rejected and new composers brought in all the time (usually due to someone thinking they have a wonderful gift for music and thinking the current score is all wrong). Directors end up feeling like they are guns for hire.

      I was going to argue that point with you, but realized all the examples I could think of were directors who helped write (or wrote) the screenplays as well - David Lynch, David Fincher, Satoshi Kon, Hayao Miyazaki, even J.J. Abrams. These gents all have very distinctive styles and themes and all of them are usually involved with the writing process.