Light Bondage: “Die Another Day”

Bond, James Bond. For fifty years that has been the cinematic calling card of one of films most enduring heroes. Sure, Bond was born in books, but it was through film that he became a household name and one of the movies’ most enduring legends. He is a character so archetypal that he is bigger than the half dozen men who have played him across nearly two dozen films, and that kind of longevity is both unheard of and a little bit magical.

Light Bondage is my attempt to rewatch the series and try to recapture some of what made these movies worthwhile. I might not always succeed (I’m looking at you, Roger Moore!) but in this biweekly series of articles we’re going to take a ride through the time capsule of the last half century with the world’s most famous spy/action star.

Die Another Day (2002)

It’s on this, Bond’s 50 year anniversary, that we get the chance to reflect on Bond’s 40th anniversary. You see, back in the heady times of 2002, Brosnan was still doing big business and Bond was still casting about in search of a proper direction that wasn’t just ‘generic action film’. In the case of Die Another Day, it seems like the decision was made to go in the direction of being a terrible action film.

And it’s not like it doesn’t start out with a lot of promise. Bond is betrayed/botches a mission to North Korea and ends up a captive for 14 months, where he manages to look like shit and grow a hobo beard before being sprung under suspicion of having talked under torture. M benches him, unsure he can still be trusted, thrust into a political situation that requires a subtler hand than 007’s. Bond disagrees, breaks out of MI6, and decides to do some investigating of his own.

This leads him to Cuba, which is a nice not-particularly-subtle nod to Dr. Nowhere this all began. In fact, the movie is rife with references to the entire history of Bond, to the point where Bond specifically refers to things that happened 30 or 40 years ago. Which just underlines the secret truth of James Bond: he’s a time lord. It’s so obvious, I can’t believe it’s not more widely known.

James Bond: CAPTURED? That unfortunate beard thankfully is abandoned as quickly as this potential plot point.

But no, that’s not actually what we discover. Instead, Bond discovers Halle Berry (well, her name is Jinx, but at no time is she given a character beyond ‘Hey I’m Halle Berry’ so…) in a bikini and the two of them hook up before he blows up a clinic because third world health care is eeeeeevil. And then he chases after a North Korean he didn’t kill in the opening of the movie, a scary-looking guy who has diamonds embedded in his face because of a bomb Bond set off way back in the beginning. Anyway, Diamond Face gets away, leaving Bond little more than a traceable diamond to try to track down … whatever is … happening? Look, the plot isn’t particularly clear why, outside of this guy being an evil bad guy North Korean, he’s worth all this effort. Especially since Bond is technically a fugitive at this point.

Eventually Bond and Jinx end up at some sort of Icelandic ice palace, where a diamond magnate named Gustav Graves is revealing some sort of mysterious new technology. That technology is a giant space mirror called Icarus, which focuses the sun from space into warm sunny days anywhere on the planet. Suspicious of what the real game is, because giant farming mirrors are dumb, Bond and Jinx discover that Icarus is actually a giant space laser and Gustav Graves is actually the evil Korean colonel Bond supposedly killed in the opening five minutes of the movie, but with a face transplant and a plan to use the space laser to unite Korea.

The bad guy. Because distinguishing scars are lame and old.

Look, it’s a stupid plan, and it results in a lot of really stupid uses. You see, Graves turns Icarus on the ice palace and the glacier it’s sitting on in order to stop Bond, who races off in a rocket car that is conveniently around, then drives it off a cliff and uses a part of it and the drag chute to parasurf away from danger. And then comes back in order to save Jinx so the two of them can go fight Graves and stop his plan before he starts an outright war.

The problem with all of this is in the execution. It’s not a terrible Bond plot, as far as these things go, even if it meanders and doesn’t seem too worried about why everyone is doing what they’re doing. But it’s rife with bad dialog and poor choices. Of all the Bond films, this is the only one that’s CG heavy, with entire sequences taking place digitally. It feels egregious and unnecessary, especially when the movie goes so far out of its way to top the rocket car/death beam/surfing sequence that the finale involves giving your villain electric powersin order to fight Bond. Yep, he gets a crazy super suit, in addition to an orbital laser, and so the finale involves him going full Emperor Palpatine on Bond while Jinx flies the plane they’re on right through the beam, so everything is taking place on a burning, crashing plane.

This movie has a fucking space laser sequence. I don’t need to say anything else.

If that sounds like a lot to take in, that’s because it is. And for all the potential spectacle, all of it feels really pedestrian due to how half-baked all the effects are. The end result is a movie that feels soggy and directionless, even when there are clear motivations like escape the burning plane! How you mess that up is beyond me, but Die Another Day manages to take Brosnan’s turn as Bond and crash it so hard it makes Roger Moore look palatable. 

I can’t believe I just said that. Look what you’ve done to me, Die Another Day!

The Theme Song/Opening Title:
Madonna takes a turn at a Bond theme, and I have to admit while I don’t hate the song it seems really inappropriate for a Bond theme song. I don’t know quite what I would expect from her, admittedly, but it doesn’t really have any sort of mystery to it. It’s just a pop song. Madonna’s two minute cameo in the movie itself is far more interesting than her musical contribution.

On top of that, there’s apparently a new, one-time paradigm for title sequences: use the abstraction of naked ladies made of fire and ice to tell the story of Bond’s torture at the hands of the North Koreans. It’s an interesting idea, but I feel like it doesn’t really work, turning an event that could have significant character impact into something that just happens in a music video.

Most Ridiculous Gadget:
The only real winner here is the car, the usual Aston Martin (this time a Vanquish) with some crazy adaptive camouflage. What’s even crazier is that in the ten years since this movie came out, someone actually took the concept and made that camouflage. It’s not quite as convincing, but all the more impressive for being real. So I’m going to just show you that, and marvel at how even the most ridiculous things might not be so ridiculous forever.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:
Here’s the part where I talk about Halle Berry. I don’t want to be too mean, because her career has kind of landed into the truth of it, but let’s face facts: she’s not very good. This movie came out the year after she won her Oscar, making her by far the most lauded Bond girl the series had seen to date (and might ever see). Even here, though, you can see the bad choices and poor acting that put her into Catwomanin a short two years.

Someone thought this was a good idea. We’ve learned a lot as a society.

It’s painfully obvious that she’s ill-equipped for the role. Jinx is the NSA equivalent to Bond, and is given as many action sequences and even an M of her own (played by a hilariously out-of-place Michael Madsen squinting his way through the movie). It’s obvious that Jinx was being groomed to be a Big Goddamn Deal, so it was no surprise to learn MGM was planning to spin Jinx off into a movie of her own. Too bad, because that might have tipped everyone off to just how unconvincing Berry’s badass act was, preventing Catwoman from ever happening.

Even worse, Rosamund Pike plays the other woman in the movie, an MI6 agent who Bond works with until she turns to the other side. She’s far more convincing, being menacing and calculating and fun in a way Berry’s smirking deadpan delivery can only hope to accomplish. I know Pike wasn’t nearly as accomplished, but she manages to make far more of an impression with a fraction of the screen time. Just one more on the list of Die Another Day‘s heap of problems.

Best Bondickery:
After several films with a very restrained Bond there’s all sorts of really awful things that happen in this one. To Bond’s credit, he’s not to blame for two of them, but I feel like mentioning them anyway. So in order of escalating douchebaggery:

Bond escaping from MI6. Never mind that M just wanted to help. Bond meditates or something until he calms his heart into reading that he’s dead, and when his fellow British government operatives, this time doctors, rush in to save them he attacks them. With the defibrilator. The one they were rushing in to save his life with. That’s right: generosity receives lethal retaliation.

Jinx saves the day. Jinx and Bond are fighting a giant thug named Mr. Kil, who is tossing them both around like rag dolls. Jinx decides the best way to take care of him is to use one of the many mining lasers to burn a hole through his head. Like straight through, searing laser, in through the back of the head and out through his mouth. Then she proceeds to use the same laser to lop off his arm to get through a hand scanner. And I thought Bond was bad.

Much of the movie takes place, inexplicably, on the set of Batman & Robin.

The long suffering of Moneypenny. I like Moneypenny, in all her incarnations. It’s no secret, but M’s eternal right hand woman and the only person Bond never tries to get with has always been written as being torn between flirting with 007 and being smartly better than he is. Until, that is, this movie writes in a joke at the end where Moneypenny uses Q’s virtual reality goggles to live out a fantasy of her and Bond having wild office sex.

It’s a sad choice, considering I’m pretty sure this is the last time the character appears, and she was always portrayed as being cleverer than just falling over for Bond. Sure, there was sexual tension, but she knew that was far more fulfilling than ever getting with Bond. And by the time of GoldenEye she was openly expressing having other interests than being hot for hero. So this gag is not only kind of lame, but super regressive, and goes against almost everything the character stands for. Not Bond’s fault, but an example of Bondickery that I lay at the series’ feet.

JAMES BOND will return in CASINO ROYALE

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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