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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (2002)

20. Die Another Day

Before starting this Series Report Card, I had seen every James Bond movie, even the unofficial ones, at least one. Except for “Die Another Day.” This wasn’t an intentional move on my behalf. Maybe it was my lack of interest in the Brosnan era. Maybe it was because I came into the franchise so late. However, the real reason was because “Die Another Day” was so badly received. The film is widely considered the worst entry in the series of all time. Considering the stinkers the franchise had birthed over the years, that’s saying something. Going into “Die Another Day,” I hoped the movie was better then its’ reputation. As the run time went on, my spirits sank lower and my eyes rolled harder. “Die Another Day” is, truly and without exaggeration, the worst James Bond movie ever made.

After an infiltration of a North Korean camp goes wrong, James Bond is captured by the Korean government. He’s tortured for over a year before the South Korean government trades him for Zao, a soldier that was brutally scarred by Bond. His mind and body trashed by his ordeal, MI-6 tells Bond he’s over. The agent doesn’t listen. He goes rogue, tracking Zao to Cuba. His investigation takes him further to Iceland, where he discovers Zao is working with industrialist Gustav Graves. Graves is not who he appears to be and his high-tech satellite is actually part of a villainous plot. Teaming up with an American NSA agent, Bond goes about stopping the madman and saving the day.

“Die Another Day” makes an interesting decision with its opening sequence. For the first time, the credits are incorporated into the story. While Bond is being tortured by the Koreans, he has visions of beautiful nude women made of fire and ice. The idea is fascinating. However, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Cutting between the day-glo fantasies and the harsh realities just makes the credits look more ridiculous. And then there are those CGI scorpions. Not helping matters is Madonna’s theme song. In addition to be being the worst James Bond movie, “Die Another Day” also has the worst Bond theme. Madonna’s techno styling, which includes the genre’s expected bleeping and blooping, is a poor fit for the series. Her lyrics are inane and seemingly unrelated to the film. The song also throws in some bizarre vocal effects, utterly out of place. Twenty years earlier, Madonna might have delivered a decent Bond theme. During her latter day, “striving to be relevant” era, she just embarrasses herself further.

“Die Another Day” begins with an interesting idea. The opening has the spy doing his usual thing, exploding an enemies’ base and killing quite a few people. However, instead of getting away, he is captured. 007 faces consequences for his actions for the first time. The first of many disappointments is that “Die Another Day” disposes of this after the opening credits. Bond goes against his boss’ orders, like in “Licence to Kill.” Brosnan continues in the angry mode he found in “The World is Not Enough.” However, before long, it’s business as usual. The film forgets the year of torture and degradation Bond faced and Brosnan is cracking cheesy one-liners like always.

“Die Another Day” was made during the five minute period when it looked North Korea was going to become Hollywood’s new go-to bad guys. The film goes for this with full force. Bond is captured by the Koreans. The villains are Korean. Their final plot involves destroying South Korea’s defense line with a giant fucking laser beam. In a further grasp for relevance, the movie also throws in a subplot about blood diamonds, another hot topic at the time. Unlike the last three movies, “Die Another Day” doesn’t do much with its real world subtext. It’s simply window-dressing.

There’s so much wrong with “Die Another Day.” However, it’s biggest problem is the film’s pathetic attempts to be "cool." Lee Tamahori’s direction is highly stylized. Characters often swish around in slow motion, making the simplest movements melodramatic. The best/worst example of this is Jinx dives off a cliff, the movement augmented with CGI. That’s another thing the movie does. “Die Another Day” makes heavy use of CGI. And, boy, is it shitty. Two scenes stick out the most. Bond races off an ice cliff in a snow mobile, which looks like a toy on a tiny set. Not long afterwards, he’s wind-surfing off a tsunami. It’s a ridiculous scene to begin with and the horrible special effects only emphasize the unlikely situation. The nadir of the film’s attempted sense of coolness is Madonna’s cameo. She contributes nothing to the film, showing up in a egregiously unnecessary scene. Even the movie’s repeated in-jokes, which range from Bond going undercover as an ornithologist to appearances from “Thunderball’s” jetpack, feel self-serving and overly winking.

And this is before the movie reveals itself to be a partial remake of “Diamonds are Forever.” Yep, both movies feature diamond smuggling and a satellite-mounted laser beam. Aside from its aggravating attempts at being “cool,” the biggest problem with “Die Another Day” is the sudden insertion of unbelievable sci-fi elements. Characters have their entire physical appearances changed with gene therapy. Zao’s surgery is interrupted, leaving him with oddly white skin. Bond trains in an immersive, photo-realistic virtual reality simulation. The main villain, for reasons that are never explained, doesn’t sleep. Instead, he spends an hour a day inside a “dream machine,” a flashing mask that goes over his face. Later, the villains tortured Jinx with an electrified Power Glove. The movie even pushes the idea of a satellite death ray further then is believable. And you thought “Moonraker” was ridiculous. Why is this shit in a James Bond movie?

And then there’s the invisible car. Of all of “Die Another Day’s” excesses, the fucking invisible car might be the most heavily criticized. John Cleese’s R has graduated to being the new Q, Cleese doing much better then last time. He gives Bond a pretty cool watch and a glass-shattering ring. He also gifts the agent with a car that turn invisible. That car is absurd and utterly unbelievable. The vehicle plays a major role in a chase through the villain’s ice palace. The worst part? The chase is actually pretty cool. The car’s other features, like its ejector seat and front-mounted shotguns, are fairly neat. The chase is decently constructed, the villain’s car also being outfitted with a machine gun. The conclusion, however, is ridiculous. How does Bond beat the bad guy? He moves out of the way, driving up the wall with ice-spikes, the bad guy plunging to his death. Lame. The whole thing is dumb.

At first, “Die Another Day” presents Zao as being the film’s main villain. At first a handsome Korean soldier, he later gets a suitcase of diamonds exploded in his face. The diamonds are embedded in his face. His grotesque appearance is further affected by the gene therapy. Rick Yune is intimidating in the part and is probably one of the best things about the film. Turns out though, Zao is the henchman, not the primary villain. Instead, he’s working for Gustave Graves, a British billionaire. In an incredibly absurd plot twist, Graves is actually a Korean Colonel, who underwent gene therapy of his own to change his appearance. His final goal is to destroy South Korea with his space laser, all a ploy to regain his father’s respect. Toby Stephens is whiny and unappealing in the part, making for an obnoxious bad guy further damaged by a ridiculous plot line.

The aspects about the film that received the most press before its release was the casting of Halle Berry as a Bond girl. Berry was right off an Oscar win for “Monster’s Ball” and the hype surrounding her was huge. She plays Jinx, a NSA agent helping Bond on his mission. Like everything else in the film, Jinx is designed to be as “cool” as possible. The character gets nearly as much action as Bond. She sets off bombs, pulls a knife on the guy, and makes a daring escape. There’s a big problem though. Berry is terrible in the part. Every line is read as flatly as possible. She seems utterly lost, like a child pretending to be a grown-up. Jinx is also nowhere as cool as the film thinks she is. Bond has to rescue her from a goofy death trap, when the ice palace is melted. The film’s second Bond girl is Miranda Frost, played by Rosamund Pike. Frost is a double agent for MI-6, having infiltrating Graves’ operation. At first, Frost takes none of Bond’s shit, treating him like a sexist pig. She still ends falling in bed with him but the character’s personality, and Pike’s performance, makes her interesting. Naturally, she turns out to be evil.

So does “Die Another Day” at least function as an action movie? Not really. The action scenes have the same problem the rest of the movie does. They mistake overblown theatrics for “coolness.” The opening hovercraft chase is okay, once you get pass the ridiculousness of a hovercraft chase. There’s lots of explosions and machine gun murder. There’s not much to recommend beyond that. A fight scene in the clinic with Zao features some ridiculous slow motion and inaccurate treatment of a CAT scan machine. Graves is introduced during a fencing sequence which escalates into an overblown sword fight. That’s neat, at first, but the scene goes hugely over the top. A later fight has Bond and Jinx diving around erratic laser beams, which is also ridiculous. Really, the only action scene I like is when Bond uses the glass-breaking ring to make a quick escape of the villain’s lair.

In it’s final act, “Die Another Day” is consumed by ridiculousness. Bond and Jinx sneak aboard Graves’ airplane. Graves slips on an electro robot suit for no particular reason. He reveals his true identity and his plan goes in to overdrive. Bond explodes a window, probably a reference to “Goldfinger,” and gets to dueling the bad guy. The most absurd moment comes when Graves starts to electrocute 007, a hilarious sight. Meanwhile, Jinx has a ridiculous duel with Frost. The two leap through the air in slow motion, both picking up inexplicable swords. There’s gasping, slicing, and slow-motion kicking. It’s awful. For the final insult, the plane goes up in a cloud of CGI debris.

Not even a cameo from Michael Madsen can save “Die Another Day.” Despite receiving noxious reviews, “Die Another Day” still went on to become the highest grossing Bond movie up to that point. There was even a plan for a Jinx spin-off series which, thankfully, never materialized. Ultimately, the awful excesses of “Die Another Day” was proof that the Bond series needed a serious recalibration if it was to survive into the new millennium. CGI tomfoolery, stupid direction, and uninteresting villains would not stand. Pierce Brosnan’s hugely uneven tenure as Bond would end on a serious down note. “Die Another Day” is the lowest point in the franchise’s long history, the worst James Bond movie ever made. [Grade: D]


[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

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