Directed By: Lee Tamahori
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Rosamund Pike
Tag line: "Events don't get any bigger than..."
Trivia: Roger Moore actively voiced his displeasure with the film, citing the invisible car and the weak CGI as being a low for the series
The first time I saw Die Another Day, the 20th entry in the James Bond franchise and the last to feature Pierce Brosnan, was on its opening night back in November of 2002. And I hated it. Absolutely hated it. To me, it was less like the Bond pictures I knew and loved and more like a modern action film, with a stylistic flair that felt entirely out of place. In fact, on a list I kept back in 2002 of the movies I saw theatrically that year. Die Another Day was at the very bottom, the worst of the bunch.
After this most recent viewing, I’d say that ranking was a bit harsh; Die Another Day is not a terrible movie. But compared to the rest of the series, it definitely misses the mark.
While on a mission in North Korea to assassinate Col. Moon (Will Yun Lee), a military leader with a keen interest in illegal South African diamonds, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan), despite using an assumed name, is identified as an enemy agent and thrown into prison. After 14 months of intense interrogation, Bond is released as part of a prisoner exchange, swapped for a man named Zao (Rick Yune), who had been Col. Moon’s closest advisor.
Part of the reason for the exchange is that the Americans, namely the NSA under the command of Damian Falco (Michael Madsen), are convinced Bond was passing information to the North (the top U.S. agent in North Korea was recently killed, and they believe Bond may have revealed his identity while being tortured). Pending an investigation, Bond’s 00-status is temporarily suspended by M (Judi Dench), but even she knows that won’t stop her top agent from trying to find out who was actually responsible for the info leak.
Ignoring his suspension, Bond hops on a plane bound for Havana, Cuba, where, according to his sources, Zao is trying to alter his appearance. Once there, 007 tracks down Zao, who manages to slip away and avoid capture. Fortunately, Bond also discovers, by way of specially marked diamonds, that Zao is somehow connected to Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), a wealthy jewel merchant / adventurer who was recently knighted by the queen.
Aided by American agent Jinx Johnson (Halle Berry) and Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), an MI6 operative working undercover (she's posing as Graves’ personal assistant), Bond heads to Iceland, where Graves is about to unveil his pet project: a satellite that can harness the sun’s powerful rays and turn them into a weapon of mass destruction.
How does Zao fit in with Graves? More importantly, who is the traitor from the west passing secrets to North Korea? As usual, 007 has very little time to answer these questions, but with the safety of the free world once again hanging in the balance, you can rest assured that James Bond is the right man for the job!
Though very few people would rank his four movies among the series’ best, Pierce Brosnan was terrific as Bond, and his performance in Die Another Day proves how well he had settled into the role, balancing humor with the character’s rugged determination while also handling the action scenes like a pro. Equally as good are Halle Berry and Rosamund Pike as the ladies in Bond’s life (Berry’s first appearance on-screen was clearly an homage to Ursula Andress and Dr. No).
As for the villains, Gustav Graves is a dashing, yet quite insane adversary, and Rick Yune’s Zao (whose previous encounter with Bond left him with several diamonds lodged in the right side of his face) is no slouch himself, crafty enough to escape capture and strong enough to put up a hell of a fight when needed. In addition, Judi Dench continues to impress as the often-humorless M, and John Cleese’s brief return as Q results in a few hearty laughs.
As for its story, I give the filmmakers credit for keeping things simple; after the complicated plotlines that plagued the series ever since Timothy’s Dalton’s debut in The Living Daylights, Die Another Day is refreshingly basic. I also liked the pre-title sequence (the mission that led to Bond’s capture and imprisonment); the exotic locales (especially the scenes set in Cuba); and, of course, the gadgets (Bond’s vehicle du jour, though admittedly a bit over-the-top, has one very cool feature). Even the theme song, sung by Madonna, has grown on me (there was a time when I despised it)!
Alas, what keeps Die Another Day from becoming a top-tier Bond picture is its general style. For one, it is very loud, with the sound cranked up as high as it can get in some scenes, and the film’s over-reliance on slow-motion (inserted at random moments throughout) is almost laughable. This, plus the quick cuts used to “spice up” several sequences, made it look as if director Lee Tamahori and his team were trying to emulate the action movies of that period (Vin Diesel’s xXx was a box-office hit that same year, and utilized many of the cinematic bells and whistles present in Die Another Day). As a result, what should have been some of the movie’s most exciting scenes (like the chase on the ice lake) were confusing and, even worse, kinda dull.
Sure, previous entries in the 007 franchise have relied on what at the time were state-of-the-art effects, stylistic tropes, and even the world’s political climate to “update” the series for a modern audience. Nut seeing as the standard look and feel of many action films in the early 2000’s annoyed the hell out of me, I was sad to see Die Another Day go down this same road.
Still, much like my recent experiences with The Man with the Golden Gun and Moonraker, Die Another Day is a better movie than I remember it being. With so many great elements in place, though, it should rank among the series’ best.
And it doesn’t. Not by a longshot.