Die Another Day on 20: Is the Bond movie worth a second look?

tHere’s a scene in the 20th Bond movie, Die Another Day, when the workers for Pierce Brosnan’s 007 team walk into the black marble lobby of a smart hotel in Hong Kong, after – in 27 short minutes – they’ve already surfed North Korea, hijacked an arms dealer’s helicopter, and blasted it across the territory. Disarmed on a hovercraft, they are captured and tortured for 14 months, returned to MI6 in a prisoner exchange, suffer a heart attack and jump from a boat into the South China Sea.

The secret agent is usually disheveled, with long hair and a beard, his hairy chest exposed with an open shirt of drenched blue pajamas. He orders his usual suite, and a bottle of Bollinger 61. He asks the club manager if he’s busy. “To survive,” Bond replies, “just to survive.”

This archetypal rags-to-riches juxtaposition captures the broader tonal contrast of a film that, for all its Bond talk of survival, almost kills the franchise. Often derided as one of the series’ worst, resulting in an overhaul that Daniel Craig faced with Casino Royale in 2006, Die Another Day has a lot to answer for: the invisible car, which glides like clear jelly through a hazy ice palace; Madonna’s horrible, apocalyptic song; Madonna, once again, plays the fencing coach. The villain who changes race. Another person smeared his face with diamonds. An estimated $70m (£59m) is spent on product placement; John Cleese.

However, with a year since the first Bond film of the century, which was so badly damaged, it deserves a second look. It was not poorly received when it was released, grossing $430m (£365m) worldwide, making it the highest-grossing film of its time. Critics were lukewarm, even if Michael Gove called Rosamund Pike a “pungent citrus sorbet.” Released just over a year after 9/11, Die Another Day floats uncomfortably between two eras of action movies: the gentle charm and glossy heroism of past Bonds and the earnest earnestness and complex geopolitics of the next generation. She’s the most anxious bond, and for that, I adore her.

On September 11, 2001, the creative team for Die Another Day were at a script meeting at 138 Piccadilly when they heard about the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, director Lee Tamahori recalled. The final film set in New York was quickly set up, and the explosive ending was moved to the Demilitarized Zone in Korea. The film’s only thinly veiled reference to 9/11 is M’s laden comment to Bond after his 14-month absence: “While you’ve been away, the world has changed.”

Die Another Day is both new and old world. In post-9/11 action films, the heroes are cynical and fallible. She bore emotional and physical scars, often explored in origin stories (Batman Begins, and of course, Casino Royale). Government agencies weren’t always the good guys (the Bourne movies). There are elements of this ambivalence in Die Another Day – in the film’s surprisingly dark opening, the villain, Colonel Moon, opines that he “majored in Western hypocrisy” at Oxford and Harvard. Bond is a “assassin”, while a North Korean general is portrayed as a loving, aggrieved father with a strong moral compass. Bond is betrayed, imprisoned, and tortured—scenes divide horrifically with the writhing fire and icy maiden of the opening credits—before a bleak, Dostoevsky moment when a desolate Bond believes he is going to be executed. His American rescuer quips, “You’d think he was some kind of hero.”

So far, it’s been pretty complicated, but then the movie turns in reverse – right around the time Bond enters this hotel. Minutes later, after disarming the masseuse, peaceful fountains of desire, reunited in his Briony shirts and Bollinger, Bond goes to Cuba, where he meets Halle Berry’s bikini-clad Jynx, who appears in a Dr. No tribute to Ursula Anders of the Sea, squirming in slow-motion delight. It’s one of a number of self-referential winks, which range from a sneaky throwback, like Rosa Klebb’s boot in Q Lab, to a meta-textual commentary on the growing obsolescence of the Bond universe with the villain portraying the ironic swagger of his whitewashed alter ego on 007 himself.

The 20th Bond movie jokes about its irrelevance, but it’s also very concerned about being irrelevant. Die Another Day doubles down on the Bond formula — lasers, diamonds, and the improbably fall bonk finale — while interspersing in mismatched features with the film’s perceived competition. Trying to keep up with the twin threats of The Matrix and the video games, Tamahori, in a Bond film first, insisted on the use of CGI – resulting in a truly dismal tidal wave kite-surfing series that was widely panned by critics. Most bizarre is the film’s humor – like the awkward crack of Jinx’s “Your momma” (coined by Perry herself) – more Austin Powers-than-James Bond awfulness, perhaps stemming from a fear that Bond parody might rob a proper Bond audience.

Pierce Brosnan and Rosamund Pike in a still. Photographs: Keith Hamsher/MGM/EON/Kopal/REX/Shutterstock

Then there’s the more interesting climate concern. It comes as a gag: “Global warming, it’s a terrible thing,” says Colonel Moon (Toby Stevens), as he blasts the frozen landscape of Iceland with space lasers, causing an ice sheet to collapse into the sea. The laser is called Icarus, a sly allusion to the tragic consequences of man’s attempt to conquer nature. In Die Another Day – and the previous Bond films – the initial destruction is collateral damage in man’s grander scheme for money and power.

The thing about Bond is that times change but Bond, by design, should stay the same. So, on his twentieth birthday, in anxious times, he avoided thinking about this poor state of the Bond movie: in the face of cultural, social, and geopolitical change, 007 is a bit lost. Unable to commit to recreating Roger Morian’s high camp of the old films or to paving the way for the salty darkness of the future, Die Another Day attempted a version of both, its insecurities all too palpable – the unseen vehicle notwithstanding.

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