Is Die Another Day Really the Worst James Bond Movie?

It's the invisible car one! We take a close look at Pierce Brosnan's final outing as James Bond, Die Another Day...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This is a bit harsh: Die Another Day doesn’t deserve the opprobrium heaped upon it. Not to say it’s good; just not utterly irredeemable. It’s practically a curse for some, and now a contender for Worst James Bond Movie Ever. 

Perhaps its greatest problem is tonal. For a while it seems we might get the hard-hitting Bond that Pierce Brosnan so deserved; then suddenly we’re in an ice palace and Bond’s borrowed a car from Harry Potter. The second half of the film is utterly ludicrous but fun if you go along for the (invisible) ride. Alas, the first half promised something far more intriguing. It wouldn’t be completely accurate to say it begins as License To Kill and ends as Moonraker, but nor is it totally unfair.

The Villain: Probably the weakest baddie of the Brosnan era – although Brosnan villains come high quality. A sneering, swaggering knight of the realm named Gustav Graves who happens to be Korean. Best not worry about that too much. Instead, appreciate the permanently curled lip and gimlet eye of Toby Stephens, clearly relishing the joys of being bad. His scheme is shamelessly ripped off from Blofeld but the ice palace is a perfectly acceptable lair and Graves has some of the better quips. Rather a crudely drawn antagonist but better than many.

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The Girl: Casting an Oscar winner – the only such Bond girl – normally means business but Halle Berry has had more challenging roles. The remit here? Wave a gun and wisecrack – which in fairness she does very nicely. I’m being a little unfair to Jinx; she really is a lot of fun, and Berry shines as the American female Bond. But after Pam Bouvier and Wai Lin, the third fiery spy love interest in five outings lacks novelty. Of the Brosnan heroines, only Natalia and Paris felt like proper characters.

The first third of Die Another Day is a damn good Bond film. North Korea makes for a great pre-title sequence as Bond’s assassination mission goes up in flames. Colonel Moon is an intriguing foe, dangerous yet childishly petulant, determined to conquer South Korea but still scared of his old dad. A shame the actor Will Yun Lee must exit along with his hovercraft as he’s very good: charismatic and menacing.

The absence of non-Caucasians in large roles has been dwelt upon before; but when Toby Stephens is playing a North Korean I feel we’re beyond parody. Even Ricky Yun as Zao is sidelined and offed before the climax for Stephens and Rosamund Pike. Everybody rallies around the Idris Elba banner wanting to make some kind of big statement, yet the fact that a white British actor was cast as the Korean villain in 2002 somehow gets overlooked. And yes, obviously the script explains the whitewashing, even makes it part of the plot; but count up the main Bond villains who aren’t white. You get one. In a series renowned for hopping all around the planet. Now tell me that doesn’t stink a bit.

Got a bit sidetracked there. Where was I? Oh lord – the title song. I’ll say this for Madonna: after the bland efforts of Garbage and Sheryl Crow, at least she offers something a bit different. And, let’s face it, she could have channelled the best of Shirley Bassey and Duran Duran and people would still have slated her just because she’s Madonna. But fair to say nobody needs to use her Madonna-ness as an excuse to knock this song: it really is a stinker. However it gets points for sheer lunacy: I’d rather listen to this than, say, the truly dirgelike License To Kill (Sample “Die Another Day” lyric: “Sigmund Freud. Analyze this, analyze this, analyze this.” Huh?). And I love the torture shots interspersed with the credits. A metaphor for the audience? Seems unlikely but it’s a nice thought.

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Having just praised the first third I’ve now written two fairly negative paragraphs. Let’s redress the balance. By locking Bond in a North Korean jail for 14 months, and letting him grow the type of beard normally associated with men who shout at pigeons, the film goes further off piste than any since License To Kill. Brosnan clearly loves this. He loves grotting up, and wearily stating his innocence to Colonel Moon, and the terse argument with M. This is the Bond he always wanted to play: gritty, beleaguered, unbowed. It’s nice in his final outing Pierce gets this chance; shame it doesn’t last long.

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Tracking down Zao is a throwback to Bonds of old. Mr. Chang and Raoul are the type of eccentric cameos beloved of the Connery and Moore eras. Both, in their way, add to the sense of a world of espionage hidden from sight, a world Bond must tap into in order to hunt his target. 

Then Jinx appears. Like Wai Lin, Jinx was apparently considered for her own spin-off movie; proof of the paucity of female action heroes that every time a Bond girl shoots someone, Hollywood wants to start a franchise. Personally, I prefer Jinx to Wai Lin. She’s barely more fleshed out as a character but Halle Berry has a sparky charm and she does a lot of actual spy-stuff. Jinx has some great moments – I particularly like her eyebrow raise to Bond before falling off the battlements into the sea – but also some shocking lines. The “read this – bitch!” to Miranda is just a bit schoolyard but pales in comparison to her response when interrogated by Zao. “Who sent you?” “Your momma.” Somewhere Gert Frobe turns in his grave.

The gene therapy clinic marks a turn into the weird. Let’s ignore the science: if we accept the plastic surgery in Thunderball or the brainwashing of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, we can’t really scorn the DNA restructuring here. Those ultraviolet masks are certainly trippy. The clinic is a far more interesting – and indeed horrifying – concept than yet another giant laser from the sky. A little more time spent there wouldn’t have gone amiss.

The fencing match marks the passing from the old gritty film into the new silly one. That being said, I really enjoy the fight. Verbal sparring between an undercover Bond and a supposedly philanthropic villain is always good fun: the obvious mutual dislike between Bond and Gustav Graves only adds to the enjoyment. The fight, in which swords quickly get upgraded and the club utterly trashed, is very Roger Moore but enjoyable Moore, not utterly stupid Moore. And as for the Madonna cameo: if you didn’t know she was Madonna, I doubt it would stand out. Big if.

The invisible car, though, is very odd. I frankly have no idea why it was included. I can imagine somebody lightheartedly raising the concept at an early script meeting and somehow it never quite being taken out. In The World Is Not Enough, I questioned Renard’s bullet in the head as being a needlessly silly addition to an otherwise complex character. Well, the invisible car is ten times as silly and even less necessary. If you insist on including an invisible car in your film, at least own the thing. At least let’s have a chase in which the car escapes destruction through being, you know, invisible (it feels stupid even typing these words out).

But the much maligned invisibility is barely used. Bond drives around the palace briefly and disappears from Zao during their car duel. That’s about it – nothing you couldn’t write around, nothing remotely integral or even particularly deranged. Deep down the film seems to realize how stupid the car is and hides it away for the most part; but nobody plucked up the courage to say, ‘screw this, let’s bin the car.’ Again – and I’ll bang this drum till my hands drop off – I get the impression the writers thought ‘we’ve got to have something big and barmy in there, because that’s what a Bond’s meant to have’ without considering how to fit the new toy into the film. Gimmicks come before story: never a great sign.

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Onto the ice palace and an utterly different film. The drastic shift in tone is the great problem with Die Another Day: the relative sharpness of the first half makes the silliness of the second so much more noticeable. We start out with Dalton and we end up with Moore. I don’t think the second half is particularly terrible, either. But anybody who enjoyed the early unexpected toughness will be disappointed of the reversion to type; while those who like their Bond fun and dumb may well have mentally checked out. As many a perceptive commentator has noted, the filmmakers tried to please everyone – an incredibly difficult accomplishment.

Shame, because the ice palace is perfectly enjoyable in a brainless sort of way. The sneering Graves is an adequately hissable villain; a far cry from the tortured Renard but he fits the new film well. Toby Stephens can certainly toss out a line – “plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead” – and his Etonian swagger has the arrogance of true megalomania. And my, can he sneer. Graves has a slightly pantomime quality about him but then so does the film itself. However, leaving aside the politics, the Korean twist really doesn’t work. Can anybody associate the preening toff with the Korean Colonel? It’s not I don’t believe Graves and Moon are the same person. I actually forget they are meant to be.

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Zao and Miranda Frost complete the pleasingly thorough “villain, henchman, femme fatale” triumvirate. Zao, as mentioned earlier, gets a little frozen out as the film goes on. Not in terms of screen time but importance: the first half of the film is focused on Zao only for his enmity with Bond to drop off. Shame, because with his diamond studded, ghoulish face, Zao makes a striking villain. The car duel is a nice spin on the normal chase – this car fires rockets back – but anyone could be driving. Zao’s death, especially, seems almost an afterthought: let’s get this out of the way.

Miranda waxes as Zao wanes. After the insanity of Xenia Onatopp, and the prominence of Elektra King, poor Miranda feels a little flat as a villainess. The good-girl-turned-bad was done more boldly in the previous film, and her haughtiness doesn’t imprint itself in the same manner as strangling people with your thighs. We know Miranda must be dodgy as Brosnan isn’t allowed two nice girls at once.

The aeroplane duel with Jinx half works but intercutting between two fights in which you already know the outcome isn’t the most thrilling. Would have been hilarious if Miranda killed Jinx. Wonder if anybody was tempted, just for the shock value?

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Once Bond escapes the ice palace, the film lurches from one set piece to another. The Icarus chase is pretty dull; why doesn’t Graves aim the beam slightly ahead of Bond? Plus the “surfing” is pretty cringeworthy: plenty of computer games boast better graphics. Shoddy CGI is an annoyance but I don’t think it ruins the film, anymore than the badly choreographed fisticuffs or bad special effects ruined the early Bonds (anybody remember the flashing red warheads from Diamonds Are Forever?). Yes, it feels a little like a Dad at a disco – “slow motion! aren’t I cool!” – but it’s frippery, nothing more. Not worth losing your mind over.

More than the CGI, I find the need to shoehorn a pun into every other line an increasingly irritating distraction. “Time to draw the line,” sneers Graves as he draws a line in the ice with Icarus. “I missed your sparkling personality,” Bond tells the diamond-faced Zao. “How’s that for a punchline,” retorts Zao, socking him. All three of those gems occur within a five minute period. And don’t get me started on the Bond – Q exchanges: quip, quip, quip. Let alone the meeting with Madonna: “I see you handle your weapon well.” Bond: “I’ve been known to keep my tip again.” If somebody revealed there was a quota of cheesy lines required for the script I wouldn’t be surprised.

Not all the lines are stinkers. Some are actually quite good. “I majored in Western hypocrisy,” for example, delivered by Colonel Moon. Or “find me a new anger therapist” after Moon has stuffed his current one in a punchbag and let loose. Or even Bond’s cheery “saved by the bell” after avoiding plunging over a waterfall by grabbing a large… you can probably guess. These three all occur in the pre-credits: make of that what you will. Okay, here’s one – Jinx’s retort to Zao’s “why do you want to kill me?” “Thought it was the humane thing to do.” Not bad. Immediately ruined by “yo momma” of course but at least it’s there.

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The plane climax is alright but a little obvious. There’s no intrigue because we know what must happen: Bond kills Graves, Jinx does for Frost. Or rather we know how it will happen as Bond fights Graves within a depressurised cabin while Jinx and Miranda have the swords out. Knowing the ultimate end of a Bond film is inevitable. (Villains die, Bond doesn’t.) It’s being able to work out the exact journey that kills the buzz. That being said, I really enjoy Graves’s gloating after he electrocutes Bond. “Parachutes for the both of us! Whoops – not any more.” And the “time to face gravity” line as Bond releases Graves into the aeroplane engine is rather inspired. You see? The script isn’t entirely terrible! It’s just terrible enough, often enough, to make you forget the times it isn’t.

The reappearance of General Moon feels very odd. Anybody remember when this film took itself vaguely seriously? His confrontation with his estranged-yet-alive son should be a moment of real emotion, but for some reason I struggle to believe Tony Stephens is related to Kenneth Tsang. Thus Graves shooting his father has precisely zero impact. A pity: the family of a Bond villain is more or less uncharted territory. And yet, post-Die Another Day, it remains so.

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Just time for an utterly ludicrous Moneypenny scene to undo all of Samantha Bond’s steely good work from previous films. Whatever, it’s there. I don’t like it, you don’t like it, but Moneypenny fantasising over Bond is hardly new. Blame those damn virtual reality glasses. The fake hostage crisis with M may be pointless but it gives you a shock on first watch. The Moneypenny coda just seeks a cheap, irrepeatable laugh. Still, worse ways for Samantha Bond to go out.

Poor Pierce, alas, gets saddled with his customary awful final line. A juvenile blue joke – Jinx seemingly referring to Bond’s penis only it’s actually diamonds, ha ha – plays out longer than it should. And then, after Jinx croons “I’m so good,” Brosnan must grit his teeth and mutter “especially when you’re bad” as the film – and the era – fades out. I hope if Pierce knew this would be his swansong he’d have refused to let such a stinker be his final line.

Pierce Brosnan will always be the “what if” Bond. What if his tenure had built on Goldeneye rather than fallen away from it? What if he was gifted a script such as License To Kill or Casino Royale, the two films that came immediately before and after him? What if Pierce was placed, just once, at the center of proceedings; rather than playing second fiddle to cars, action and gadgets. Pierce made one much loved film, Goldeneye – but every other Bond made a better one. Considering the talent of the man that’s a sobering thought.

But there exist many caveats. Brosnan carried his films in a way no other Bond has had to do. With a weak Bond, none of his films, including Goldeneye, are strong enough to work regardless – in the way On Her Majesty’s Secret Service transcends the game but miscast George Lazenby. Meanwhile both Dalton and Moore required scripts that played to their very different strengths. In some ways Brosnan was too good a fit. The writers could shun Bond the character and focus on the fripperies because they knew Brosnan would shine regardless. Perhaps this is merely the fanboy talking…

But while it’s easy to scorn all the whizzbang in the cold light of Craig, remember that Craig only exists due to Brosnan. All four of his films were huge box office – giving the franchise the creative freedom to experiment with Casino Royale. If Casino Royale failed, well, back we go to the gadgets. But if Goldeneye failed, after a six-year hiatus, after the commercial and critical failure of Dalton (posterity has been kind to Timothy, rightly, but it wasn’t always thus), nearly 30 years since the last genuine blockbuster that was The Spy Who Loved Me, if the first post-Cold War Bond fell flat on its ass – well, the future would have looked pretty bleak.

So farewell, Pierce. You gifted us one of the most loved Bond films of all. The other three films mixed qualified success and entertaining failure – in time I suspect we shall look more kindly on your era. As I hope will you and I hope you appreciate the massive contribution you made to the series you loved so much. You let Bond become the behemoth of today. If nothing else, you’ll always be my favorite Bond, my Bond. And all that’s left to say is thank you.

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Best Bit: The meeting with Raoul offers a glimpse of what might have been.

Worst Bit: The invisible car. Pick a moment, any moment.

Final Thought: Is Bond meant to fake his cardiac arrest? Or just recover very quickly? If it’s the former – how?