Die Another Day, and James Bond as his own worst enemy

Die Another Day
Share this Article:

2002’s Die Another Day is far from James Bond’s finest hour, but Pierce Brosnan’s final outing as 007 caps off a self-critical yet conservative era…

This feature contains moderate spoilers for Die Another Day, The World Is Not Enough, and GoldenEye.

“Well, the fun is about to come to a dead end.”


Try three issues of Film Stories magazine – for just £1: right here!

After 19 weeks of rambling about the franchise, it’s important to clarify that it’s all well and good when James Bond doesn’t take itself too seriously. The tongue-in-cheek quality is now expected from the grand-daddy of all action movie franchises, but for reasons of taste, we rarely see it go completely over the top as it does in Die Another Day.

The first five years of Bond movies were a succession of ever-expanding spectaculars, upping the budget and the over-the-top action on each repetition. 1967’s You Only Live Twice prompted the series’ first rethink, and the series has periodically calmed its tits every once in a while since then.

Accordingly, we’ve only really seen it in that expensive maximalist mode again twice – 1979’s Moonraker and this first Bond film of the 21st century. And frankly, when a film ranks second to Moonraker in any category, something has gone awry.

As well as marking Pierce Brosnan’s fourth and final outing as 007, Die Another Day is the 20th James Bond film, released 40 years on from Dr No. Though never intended as Brosnan’s swansong, it’s designed as both a jubilee of sorts and a studio-mandated course correction for the new age of VFX-driven blockbuster franchises. It doesn’t wear either hat particularly well.

What the film does have is strong story ideas, even where the execution is either lacking or lost in the spectacle. For instance, the customary pre-titles mission sees Bond captured in North Korea, after an unknown source sells him out. Just this once, 007 takes a hit.

After 14 months of torture (not my favourite title song, I admit) and a sudden spate of intelligence leaks, MI6 trades war criminal Zao (Rick Yune) to get their man back and Bond is not best pleased about the arrangement. Rampaging off, he joins forces with NSA agent Jinx Johnson (Halle Berry) and follows Zao’s trail to British billionaire Gustav Graves, (Toby Stephens) who appears to be profiting from the sale of re-badged conflict diamonds.

The Bond series’ financially troubled distributors MGM placed a lot of importance on the franchise – Brosnan observed around the time of The World Is Not Enough’s release that ‘all they have is us’ but also asserted that he didn’t want to make Bond 20 as quickly as he had jumped onto the previous two films.

And so, there would be a three-year wait for Die Another Day, and in that time, a lot of things came to pass that would affect the direction of the finished film. There’s so much to talk about with this one that we’ve probably covered it more than any other Bond film on the Film Stories website, from the thinking behind its invisible car to the story of its unmade Jinx spin-off, and of course, Simon’s taken a look at the production as a whole in a previous episode of the Film Stories podcast, which you’ll find below:

While there’s plenty of further reading on other subjects, this week’s Bondramble explores the film’s conflicts of story and spectacle and how the result both literally and figuratively makes James Bond his own worst enemy. It also continues and (unintentionally) concludes some of the key themes of this era.

If you’ve not seen Die Another Day, this is your last warning for SPOILERS, which will commence after the film’s trailer…

Also on Film Stories:
James Bond at 60 – where does 007 go from here?
No Time To Die, one year on – a James Bond finale
James Bond, Spectre, and the trouble with a retcon
Skyfall – resurrecting and retro-fitting James Bond
Quantum Of Solace – revisiting Daniel Craig’s difficult second James Bond film
Casino Royale, and the art of disarming and reloading James Bond
The World Is Not Enough and the “Bond girls” of the 1990s
Tomorrow Never Dies – a James Bond film ahead of its time?
GoldenEye and the “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” package
Licence To Kill and James Bond’s special relationship with America
The Living Daylights, and what Timothy Dalton brings to James Bond
A View To A Kill – what really makes a good James Bond movie?
Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, and 1983’s battle of the Bonds
The story of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score
Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and James Bond’s maddest mission
The Spy Who Loved Me – celebrating James Bond’s workplace romantic comedy
The Man With The Golden Gun – a James Bond film as good as its villain?
Live And Let Die and the making of Roger Moore’s James Bond
Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the curious case of George Lazenby’s James Bond 
You Only Live Twice and the rise of the James Bond parody
Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations
Goldfinger – how James Bond found his gadgets, girls, and groove
From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake
Dr No, and James Bond’s long road to the big screen

Britannia waives the rules

Returning screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade set out to write a 1960s-style espionage plot this time, more like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold than The Spy Who Loved Me. Their story reimagines the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea as the modern answer to the Iron Curtain and also stress-tests 007’s effectiveness with the capture plotline.

As they have periodically done for the subsequent Bond scripts they’ve worked on, Purvis and Wade also looked to as-yet-unfilmed aspects of Ian Fleming’s novels for inspiration. Funnily enough, Moonraker’s villain, British industrialist Hugo Drax, was the starting point for Gustav Graves, and early drafts of Bond 20 featured the novel’s undercover Special Branch agent, Gala Brand.

However, from these beginnings, the script changed significantly, starting with MGM’s input. All of the Brosnan films had been commercially successful and generally well received, and producers Barbara Broccoli were set to reteam with Purvis and Wade and The World Is Not Enough director Michael Apted for the next instalment.

But the studio, and specifically incoming executive Chris McGurk, wanted more action and spectacle than romance and intrigue, and was prepared to put up a $100m+ budget for it. For better or worse, the series had come a long way from GoldenEye, which had to come in at a relatively low $60m.

With Apted out of the running, MGM was angling for John Woo, Tony Scott, and Brett Ratner (one of those names is not like the other!) while Brosnan suggested John McTiernan, Ang Lee, and even Martin Scorsese. Meanwhile, Eon favoured directors like Martin Campbell who could handle the story while their production machine took the action in hand. They duly settled on another New Zealander, Lee Tamahori, who was then best known for the 1994 drama Once Were Warriors and had his own ideas about developing the script.

Moreover, there are various accounts of the script being changed throughout production, whether it was Tamahori suggesting the airborne finale as a replacement for a skirmish in Graves’ Icelandic garden lair, or the producers beefing up Jinx’s role after Berry won a Best Actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball during filming.

Another factor that affected the 2002 blockbuster landscape at large was the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The film’s timeline has Bond out of action at the point where the attacks would have taken place, neatly deferring the question of how this traditional hero could combat terrorism on such an unthinkable scale, but also invents an amped-up version of the NSA that effectively overrules MI6 in the intelligence side of things. Led by Berry’s no-nonsense agent, US intelligence is more competent here than in any other Bond film while still allowing 007 to save the day.

This is coupled with a recurring scepticism about the series’ essential British exceptionalism, (“You’re no use to anyone any more”, Judi Dench’s M coolly tells Bond as she revokes his 00 status) which also runs through all of the Brosnan era. Granted, the film’s formula and pacing allow very little time to explore the idea of Bond being affected by his time in captivity – with a shave and a new suit, it’s more or less business as usual.

And so, as usual, this critique is expressed through the baddies instead. Unlike the largely European characters of classic Bond villainy, the ideologues, the anarchists, and the would-be global dictators, this era’s antagonists are specifically English and have predominantly capitalistic aims. It’s an interesting trend that starts occurring adjacent to Brosnan being the first Irish actor to play 007, but perhaps owes more to the prevailing trend of action movie villains at the time.

The only thing that sets Graves apart from the sociopathic set of Alec Trevelyan, Elliot Carver, and Elektra King is that in a big plot twist, he’s not English. While Zao’s transformative gene therapy is continually thwarted by Bond and Jinx throughout the film, it transpires that his North Korean boss Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) survived his brush with 007 in the opening and has spent the last 14 months reinventing himself as a white, privileged British nit.

More pointedly, his unctuous bravado, complete with Union Jack parachute and naff quips, are just part of a more outlandish and abstract assault on the very idea of Bond, James Bond, TM. And when Bond rumbles him, Graves/Moon hits back with this:

‘We only met briefly, but you left a lasting impression. You see, when your intervention forced me to present the world with a new face, I chose to model the disgusting Gustav Graves on you. Oh, just in the details – that unjustifiable swagger, the crass quips, the self-defence mechanism concealing such inadequacy…’

Wearing a tuxedo and a sneer, Toby Stephens looks the part of a more generic Bond than Brosnan or any of the screen versions of the character – explicitly a parody of the perennial post-empire agent. And looking back, there’s an extra, unintended layer of irony in that Stephens has gone onto voice 007 himself in BBC Radio 4’s adaptations of Fleming’s books from 2010 to 2020.

It chimes with GoldenEye loudly decrying the formula while hitting all the notes perfectly, but Die Another Day delves into new wrinkles in this self-critique. It lampoons a society that could admit this barely veiled psychopath and grant him influence in such a short time because he has wealth. The script doubles down on the theme with MI6 mole Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), a replacement for Gala Brand when Purvis and Wade felt the story was travelling too far away from her character. Revealing her as a traitor summarily waves some of her objections about Bond away, but she’s another agent whose allegiances aren’t examined too closely by the British establishment.

As an escalation of previous English baddies though, “Graves” is styled as an impersonation of both Bond and British exceptionalism, and not a flattering one. Like Superman III before it, the film is too busy to really interrogate the idea of Bond defeating his darker self. Nevertheless, it’s an oddly fitting end to this era’s preoccupation with the identity of a modern 007, which still leaves more than enough for the next man to chew on.

The trouble with the movie is that this two-headed reveal of Moon and Frost more or less marks the end of the story. With about an hour left, it devolves into a découpage of action sequences that more or less fit in the right order, and that’s the impression it leaves. Purvis and Wade started out wanting to make a film more like Moonraker the novel than Moonraker the movie, but Die Another Day inexorably slides into science-fiction territory as well…

Avoid the cliché?

In the 12 months before this Bond film arrived in cinemas, blockbusting instalments of Harry Potter, The Lord Of The Rings, and Spider-Man dominated multiplexes, and apparently, that’s the sort of film that MGM felt Bond had to compete with. Looking back, it’s laughable to imagine this was supposed to stand up to any of them.

Like the first run at adapting Moonraker, this picked up some sort of Star Wars derangement syndrome (from the prequel trilogy, this time) and practically brings an X-Wing to a gun fight with its overuse of visual effects. Heck, you rarely see this sort of “race-cars, lasers, aeroplanes” complement outside of DuckTales.

Despite the longer break, the film was still turned around relatively quickly and thus doesn’t seem to anticipate that developments in the spy genre might pose more of an upset. To different extents, Jason Bourne and Xander Cage are both pitched as counterprogramming to the familiarity of Bond in their respective franchise-starters, while new instalments of the Austin Powers and Spy Kids franchises merrily made fun of the same expectations. All of these movies arrived in summer 2002, ahead of Die Another Day’s November release.

Tamahori recalled seeing The Bourne Identity during post-production and alerting Broccoli and Wilson to its radically different approach, but then he’s also copped to pushing for more CGI in the action. He was also the main proponent of the now infamous sequence where Bond outruns an outer-space sun-gun(!) and then kitesurfs on a tidal wave after the beam saws a bit of ice shelf off(!!)

For context, Pixar was working on Finding Nemo at this time, having only just developed convincing water dynamics in a CG-animated context. Out in cinemas six months earlier, Die Another Day was never the film that was going to achieve it in live-action.

Even if it could be achieved practically, it’s bananas. It’s burns a lot of goodwill on an expensive but cheap-looking effect and for what? It’s so far beyond even Austin Powers-levels of parody and closer to the Red Dwarf episode where Ace Rimmer fights space Nazis and surfs a crocodile out of an exploding aircraft.

Together with the crap CGI, it divests the film of the main attraction that usually saves a bad or weak Bond outing – the delivery of grand, visually impressive practical action sequences. Die Another Day doesn’t lack for stunts and in-camera stuff, once again ably overseen by second-unit director Vic Armstrong, but a lot of it gets lost in the computer-generated shuffle.

The example that jumps to mind is the car chase that starts out on the frozen lake and goes inside the superb ice palace set (long-serving production designer Peter Lamont’s crowning achievement). Uniquely, both Bond’s Aston Martin and Zao’s Jaguar XKR are tricked out with gadgets, but this never registers as the cracking series-first setpiece it should be, because it’s shot and edited like it should have Jeremy Clarkson belching “POWER” over the top of it.

Personally speaking, I don’t mind the invisible Aston Martin “Vanish” as much as the entirely redundant running gag with the virtual-reality simulations. It seems first designed to put Brosnan, the video-game Bond, into a similar dynamic on screen, and then rehashed for a cheap gag with Samantha Bond’s Moneypenny, who otherwise might have escaped this one scot-free.

There’s an inescapable air of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks, whether it’s surfing, fencing, or surfing again but stupider. It’s also very stylised for a Bond film, and not always for the better. The liberal use of slow-motion and speed-ramping here is to John Woo what Graves is to Bond – an unfavourable imitation.

Musically, composer David Arnold copes well under the circumstances by going with the grain and providing a reliably smooth score, but Madonna’s experimental electroclash title song suits the film in a different way – the emphatically random lyrics are enough without the vocals, which sound like a Cyberman in Vic Reeves’ club-singer style. Madge’s insistence that ‘James Bond needs to go techno’ in a 2002 interview with Larry King goes right to the heart of the misjudged modernisation of this one.

At least we can say Die Another Day is not a formulaic Bond film, but it fails early and often in the execution. It gives Bond a strong motivation in the story, only to cast it aside in the telling. It creates striking, familiar-but-new characters, but only gives them quips and token fan service to work with. It offers loads of audacious action set-pieces, but lathers them in CGI and assembles them in a haphazard, bottom-heavy edit.

Altogether, it’s cheeky-chops nonsense that was instantly outmoded not only by the geo-political and cinematic landscape of 2002 but by its own special effects. The franchise takes turning 40 terribly anyway, but the drive to keep topping what went before without fully refreshing the series would seem to lead here every ten films or so.

The filmmakers probably didn’t mean it when they first looked at Fleming’s Moonraker again, but history repeats itself in yielding an aggressively daft special-effects extravaganza – in this case, a nailed-on bottom-five contender in most rankings. Typically, it also went onto be the highest-grossing Bond movie up to this point.

And so, in closing, we go to Bond-for-all-seasons Pierce Brosnan and his infamous one-man commentary on the disc extras of Die Another Day, in which he offers his insight on the immediate future of the franchise:

‘I think the character should keep going in the same way it’s been going for the last twenty years,’ he says at the end of the film. ‘It would be great to get darker and more to the bone of what this guy is about, but I don’t think it would be as successful. But it’s really not up to me.’

With a $431m gross at the global box office, it might reasonably have gone on like this, but it’s telling that the producers attempted to salvage Berry for her own spin-off and then made damn sure Bond 21 was the furthest thing from it. Who knows what Die Another Day 2 might have looked like…

Die Another Day is screening in select Cineworld, Odeon, and VUE cinemas nationwide from Friday 26th August. UK readers can also watch it on ITV1 on Saturday 27th August at 8:00 p.m.

Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:

Follow Film Stories on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.

Become a Patron here.

Share this Article:

More like this