In defense of 'Die Another Day': Thirteen reasons why Pierce Brosnan's last Bond film is better, weirder, and more wonderful than you remember
Ten years after Pierce Brosnan’s final turn as 007, the reputation of his whole James Bond era has suffered considerably. Conventional wisdom holds that Brosnan came out the gate strongly (Goldeneye, Xenia Onatopp, “For England, James?”) but then went off the rails. His films trended silly (Tomorrow Never Dies, Evil Rupert Murdoch, “You always were a cunning linguist”) and sillier (The World Is Not Enough, the guy from Full Monty playing an invincible Russian, “I thought Christmas only comes once a year.”) When Casino Royale hit theaters in 2006, it was praised for its realism, its serious tone, its resolute unwillingness to fall victim to Bond cliché. It was a complete refutation of what had come before. And what it was refuting, nominally, was Die Another Day. An exercise in pure blockbuster decadence, Die Another Day has become synonymous with a certain kind of overstuffed travesty. It features an invisible car, an ice palace, a sun laser, and a cameo from Madonna; it’s hard to know which of those things is more ridiculous.
But I don’t think Die Another Day deserves its toxic reputation. Viewed today, it looks almost ancient in some ways; and yet, in other ways, it seems to anticipate a whole host of action movie tropes that would come to define the ensuing decade. In hindsight, it looks a little bit like the franchise’s attempt at a superhero movie, in the same sense that Moonraker was an attempt at science-fiction and Licence to Kill was a stealth Miami Vice adaptation. It is an insane, helplessly silly movie; and yet, in its own way, it forms an essential companion piece to this weekend’s Skyfall. Forthwith, some important points to consider when we talk about Die Another Day:
1. Before we get too heavy here, the most important thing to keep in mind when you’re regarding Die Another Day is that the film is fast. It moves so quickly that it’s impossible to ever get bored; plot points are introduced, twisted, reach fruition, and then immediately discarded. A typical sequence: Bond walks into a hotel in Hong Kong. He just escaped from MI6 and swam across the river, but that’s not important. The concierge, Chang, recognizes him, gives him the presidential suite, and recommends he order the lobster with quail eggs and seaweed. CUT TO: Bond, upstairs, freshly shaven. A woman knocks on his door. “I’m Peaceful Fountains of Desire,” she says, “The Masseuse.” (Check that: Her name is “Peaceful Fountains of Desire.”) Bond appears to flirt with her, then grabs a tiny gun from her inner thigh, and shatters a nearby mirror. Behind the mirror, Chang and a couple other guys are filming the whole thing. “You didn’t think I knew that you were always Chinese intelligence, Chang?” asks Bond. Then Bond forgives him, and Chang sends Bond to Cuba. This takes maybe like three minutes of screentime.
2. Ever since roughly the mid-70s, when it suddenly dawned on the Bond producers that their film series could be read as, well, a teensy bit misogynist, there have always been attempts to redefine the Bond Girl archetype into something like an actual equal. Past female Bonds include Barbara Bach in The Spy Who Love Me, Carey Lowell in Licence to Kill, and Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies. Halle Berry’s Jinx is the rare attempt to make a female Bond who actually feels like Bond’s equal. This is because, in a weird way, Jinx seems to be in a completely different movie: A parallel spin-off, where she has her own adventures and occasionally overlaps with Bond. Her first appearance — appearing out of the waves in an orange bikini — is simultaneously a reference to and a complete hyperbolizing of Ursula Andress’ appearance in Dr. No. Then she walks up to Bond, and they have an entire conversation constructed out of the kind of sexy laughlines that were the pre-Craig era’s stock-in-trade. At one point, Berry actually says the line: “Ornithologist, huh? That’s a mouthful.” They have sex immediately. (The film actually features another female Bond, Miranda Frost played by Rosamund Pike as a buttoned-up professional — the precise opposite of Jinx.)
3. And not to get weird here, but their first sex scene is actually quite interesting. Jinx is explicitly set up as the aggressor: She aggressively flirts with Bond, while Brosnan stares out at the waves and seems to be thinking about quail’s eggs. Next thing you know, she’s on top of him. Six years earlier, Xenia Onatopp was basically a nightmare vision of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, killing men by having sex with them. Now, just six years post-Goldeneye, that same Basic Instinct persona is intrinsically seen as positive. (Jinx even pulls out a knife mid-love scene, just to mess around.) Halle Berry remains the only actress in history to play a Bond love interest after winning an Oscar. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Die Another Day is her best performance as a movie star. Indeed, it’s the whole encapsulation of the Halle Berry persona: Fun, flirty, strong, ridiculously sexy.
4. Early in the movie, there’s a hovercraft chase scene. This seemed stupid at the time, because hovercrafts are the stupidest vehicles ever made, but it plays out as a farce now — especially because at one point, someone on one hovercraft uses a flamethrower to hit the other hovercraft. The flames hit some puddles in the road, and — this is important — the flamethrower appears to set the water on fire.
5. Another limb I’m going to go out on here: Gustav Graves, the film’s villain, is one of the six or seven best Bond villains in history. He’s introduced as a kind of anti-Bond; he skydives into London with a Union Jack parachute, an explicit reference to The Spy Who Loved Me which has gained added resonance since the stunt was recently recreated by the bloody Queen of England. He’s basically a demon version of Richard Branson, and he’s played by Toby Stephens — aka the son of Maggie Smith — with the greatest perpetual sneer in recent movie history. He likes fast cars and hot women. He’s a lot like Bond, a fact which is underscored when — SPOILER ALERT — it turns out that Graves is actually the prologue villain, South Korean Colonel Tan-Sun Moon. “I chose to model the disgusting Gustav Graves on you. The unjustifiable swagger. Your crass quips, a defense mechanism masking such inadequacy.” In case you’ve lost track, that makes four versions of Bond in this movie: Jinx-as-female-Bond, Miranda-as-female-Bond, Graves-as-anti-Bond, and Bond-as-actual-Bond. The revelation that Graves is actually Tan-Sun Moon leads to the impossibly outlandish endgame, when Graves — dressed in a Doctor Doom outfit — kills his own father.
6. Now, listen: The idea that a South Korean guy could get turned into a white British man is quite possibly one of the silliest plot points in any James Bond movie ever. But when you watch the movie, the idea actually has a surprising amount of thematic resonance. When we first meet Tan-Sun Moon, he takes the time to point out that he is a Westernized individual: “I studied at Oxford and Harvard,” he says. “Majored in Western Hypocrisy.” That’s a line that is kind of stupid and also a line that would sound really funny if it were in Igby Goes Down. The character’s whole purpose is to conquer The West. The irony of ironies, of course, is that by the end, he has become the perfect vision of Imperial-era West: White, British, Wealthy. It’s an almost Greek-Tragic character arc. Actually, strike that, it’s fully Greek-Tragic: Like a demi-god, Gustav Graves winds up harnessing the power of the sun.
7. Yes, Madonna appears in this movie, and yes, she is a terrible actress. But her role in the film is important. She appears for about two seconds as fencing trainer named Verity, who basically gets one double entendre about “cockfights” and then disappears. Madonna also provided the theme song, which I maintain is a great song precisely because it’s so ridiculous: The chorus says “I guess I’ll Die Another Day,” which in context sounds like Madonna is basically admitting, “I guess I’ll do this song. Why not? I’m Madonna.” The presence of Madonna, though, can’t help but make you realize that Madonna has a lot in common with the Bond franchise. Note how she regularly refreshes the Madonna brand with younger, hipper people — a Justin Timberlake duet here, a Britney Spears kiss there. “Give Me All Your Luvin” is a terrible song, but it’s a great bizarro-portrait of What Music Is Now. Avowed political activist M.I.A. joins candy-femme Nicki Minaj — the sacred and the profane. M.I.A. even provided Madonna with the Madonna-esque scandal that Madonna herself can’t muster anymore. I put forth to you that Madonna in Die Another Day is yet another version of Bond — the fifth, if you’re keeping track.
8. In the first decade after 9/11, we preferred our entertainment to be serious, to grapple with significant and topical questions. Think Dark Knight, think Lord of the Rings, think The Bourne Identity. There’s an important question hovering over all these movies, though: Just how serious are they? You could point out that Dark Knight Rises vaguely explores topical issues using superheroes, but you could also point out that the movie simplifies those extremely complicated issues to the point of absurdity, until you can’t even tell what Batman is really fighting for. In a weird way, because Die Another Day so clearly has no social utility, it strikes me as a movie rife with meaning and subtext.
9. Example: The 9/11 thing. Die Another Day was the first Bond movie made after the World Trade Center attacks, but it doesn’t feel very much like a post-9/11 movie. Indeed, given how completely Jason Bourne has colonized our cinematic memory of onscreen espionage, it’s striking just how silly and untroubled Die Another Day is. But there is one striking exception: When M welcomes Bond back to MI6, she tells him: “While you were out, the world changed.” Bond is stalwart: “Not for me.” In the film, Bond is imprisoned for fourteen months. If you count backwards fourteen months from Die Another Day‘s release date, you would place Bond’s imprisonment during the entire first year post-9/11.
Viewed from this perspective, Die Another Day actually reads like a very anxious movie: An attempt to hold off the approach of modernity by retreating into the most ridiculous world possible. Indeed, considering that the movie begins with the relatively realistic geopolitical realities of North Korea, it almost feels like the film retreats further into fantasy as it goes along. Midway through, everyone goes to an ice palace, and no one seems to be very surprised that they are inside of an ice palace. Then Bond finds himself hanging off a glacier that is melting, and the way that he escapes is by hang-gliding. Then he has a car chase with a guy from The Fast and the Furious inside of a melting ice palace. In another movie, “Car chase inside of a melting ice palace” would be the climax. Here, it’s not even the craziest action sequence. If The Bourne Identity deigns to show us the “real world” of 2002, then Die Another Day holds an intriguing mirror up to what we wished the real world of 2002 was. It’s a document of geopolitical insanity.
10. The important thing to remember about Pierce Brosnan is that he was not hot. He was attractive, charming, charismatic, and handsome. But he was not hot. To consider just how radically different modern-day action heroes are, consider this: In Die Another Day, James Bond watches in awe as Halle Berry emerges from the surf. In Casino Royale, a mere four years later, someone else got their own emerging-from-the-surf moment…except this time, it was James Bond himself. My colleague Dennis Huynh mentioned that Craig’s first movie kicked off the whole trend of objectifying male bodies, an inversion of the female-gaze theory that reaches its apex with this year’s Magic Mike.
11. Which is another thing that looks great about Pierce Brosnan’s role in Die Another Day: Without even meaning to, he plays Bond as a man out of time, who looks at a changing world and tries desperately to adjust. There’s a very clear meta-reading of Die Another Day as a movie about an old man trying to wear cool new clothes. The movie gets more digital-effects heavy as it goes on, until the revelation of Graves’ satellite turns it into a full-on science-fiction movie. Jinx represents The Future: A woman who has sex like a man (shades of Sex and the City), a multi-ethnic world traveler, and most of all, a Badass Action Heroine. (Scarlett Johansson is basically playing Jinx in The Avengers now: The Black Widow of the movies is much wittier than the straight-edge Russian heroine of the comic books.) In this sense, Die Another Day feels like a perfect replication of what the Bond franchise itself was going through as it tried to modernize. Just because Casino Royale felt more modern doesn’t mean that it wasn’t also an example of an old man trying on new clothes. Indeed, to a certain extent, the entire Bond franchise is set in a bizarre Victorian retro-future where the British Empire never really lost its power and America is an irritant along the sidelines. (In Die Another Day, America is played by Michael Madsen.) The apparent badness of Die Another Day, then, actually complicates our understanding of the apparent goodness of Casino Royale and Skyfall. If this is the subtext of all the James Bond movies — a geopolitical fantasia where evil corporate guys are secretly North Korean gunrunners who are allied with traitorous British secret service agents and organ-donor plastic surgery islands off the coast of Cuba — then can we really take any of these movies seriously?
12. When Bond arrives at the ice palace, he’s introduced to a Bond Henchman. The Bond Henchman says: “I’m Mr. Kil.” Bond: “That’s a name to die for.” Hold on that for a second, because that isn’t just a self-parody of a funny Bond line: It feels like a complete deconstruction of the whole idea of a Bond line. It feels like the writers got to that point in the script and wrote this:
“I’m [funny Bond Henchman name]”.
“[Funny riff on the Bond Henchman’s funny name].”
This, in a nutshell, is what makes Die Another Day a treasure. It simultaneously reduces everything you love about James Bond to abstraction and then pumps it full of steroids into decadent comedy. The guy’s name is Mr. Kil, specifically spelled with only one L. Who the hell has a name like that? (Answer: No one.) It almost seems like that character’s whole purpose of existing was to provide Bond with an opportunity to say something funny, because he hadn’t had a laughline in about four minutes.
13. When Jinx kills Miranda Frost, she doesn’t just stab her. She stabs her through a copy of The Art of War. Then she says, “Read this. Bitch.”
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