What Die Another Day did better than the Daniel Craig movies
Ice palace, sun laser, invisible car, "some weird psychedelic light mask," sex for dinner, death for breakfast, swords. When secret agent James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and secret double agent Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike) get comfortable, their bed is a swan. He brings his gun to bed and she empties his clip. Always expect a sex pun in Die Another Day, the last unabashedly horny 007 movie, released at the height of mainstream sleaze two decades ago this week.
Jinx Johnson (Halle Berry) looks at Bond's crotch, and when she says "That's a mouthful" she is only technically referring to the word ornithologist. "I see you handle your weapon well," says Madonna, playing a character who I would argue is Madonna. "Sigmund Freud, analyze this!" she sings in the techno-junk title song. Freud would enjoy diamond tycoon Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) fencing Bond, a scene that not one but two YouTube madwizards have turned into a lightsaber duel. That is honest analysis. Moonraker is the more obvious wannabe Star Wars, but Die Another Day's baddie has robo-armor, a space weapon, and electro-shock fingers.
The 2002 film has a bad reputation. It hangs low on any list. When the renowned film podcast Screen Drafts assembled an expert-enthusiast roundtable to create the definitive James Bond movie ranking, Die Another Day landed second-to-last. Yahoo's expert-fan ranking promoted it to third-to-last. Some setpieces are shorthand for excess. Director Lee Tamahori sounds apologetic about the CGI surfing. In The James Bond Archives — the kind of hagiography where nobody needs to acknowledge negative feedback — the writers still seem to dress criticism about the Aston Martin Vanish. "It's a camouflage, not a cloaking device," says Neal Purvis protests. You're in a tight spot if you're explaining why your spy thriller isn't as Klingon as people say.
In the same oral history, Brosnan discusses how the prologue vanquishes Bond to 14 months of North Korean scorpion torture. "Are the audience supposed to believe that James Bond is still the same old guy… Or are they to believe, on the other hand, that perhaps the torture really did affect him and that some sort of Manchurian Candidate scenario is possible?" This certainly sounds like a movie nobody made. Instead, Bond exits prison with long hair and back scars, then finds his way to some '61 Bollinger in the Presidential Suite. The future knocks, nobody answers. Bond won't brood just yet.
I like Die Another Day for mostly silly reasons. Berry won her Oscar mid-production, and she glows victoriously as a gorgeous badass doing gorgeous nothing. She remains the only 007 heroine to swordfight a femme fatale on a crashing plane. A more coherent script might've made them two points on a Jamesian love triangle. But nobody has chemistry, which works a different way. It means Jinx and Bond come off like each other's side pieces, boinking for the same reason climbers climb mountains: They're there.
The villain is more interesting — both of him. Will Yun Lee shines as Colonel Moon, a renegade princeling with hovercrafts and rage issues. He is a totalitarian militarist and an Ivy League prick, straight off (no joke) the Harvard fencing team. Lee fits a whole movie into his one scene, blasting "western hypocrisy" when he isn't blasting holes in a helicopter. And then the Colonel becomes billionaire Gustav Graves, played by Stephens with a snarly grin and a solar ray.
"It's nonsense and I like it" is a rough defense, but Die Another Day has an accelerating madness. For a while, Bond's just in Cuba admiring cigars and bikinis. Then the ice hotel starts melting around the car chase. Tamahori was known for Once Were Warriors, a stunning family drama set in unglamorous Auckland. Today, the Bond producers would hire a director like that to smudge Bond up a bit, maybe spray some of that freeway-overpass graffiti around the product-placement espionage. Nobody involved in Die Another Day was masking spectacle with realism.
To be clear, 2006's Casino Royale is way better, probably the best. But the Daniel Craig movies have their own issues. Laid out on a slab, they tell the story of a wealthy orphan whose mother figure is his boss, whose foster brother is the world's most powerful villain, and whose daughter is the granddaughter of the other powerful villain who killed Bond's girlfriend's mother's killer's parents. This Time It's Personal, to the extreme. That notion lingered around James Bond ever since Tracy bought it. Brosnan fought an old friend in Goldeneye and avenged an old flame in Tomorrow Never Dies.
But I always thought there was an edge of defensiveness in the later Craigs, a feeling that the only way to justify these ridiculous expensive adventures was for M to quote Tennyson or for Bond to finally, canonically, not wear protection. The final act was fully religious, with one end-credit sequence separating self-sacrifice from the promise "James Bond Will Return." Die Another Day's best parts are never so heavy. The Bond-Graves swordfight starts funny and gets funnier. Rick Yune is almost doing a Dick Tracy villain. Brosnan pronounces "mojito" like it rhymes with "moo" twice. Miranda Frost is an Olympic gold medalist. Jinx, in a falling helicopter, seeing some diamonds in back: "'Least we're gonna die rich!"
You spot the beginnings of Casino Royale in the scuzzy torments of Die Another Day's first act. Was there a similar prophecy in last year's No Time to Die? In a film rather weighed down with tragic let's-kill-Felix purpose, Bond went to Cuba to meet Paloma (Ana de Armas), a cheerful rookie with a zest for glam gunnery. Their cocktail-shook action scene looked like most fun Craig ever allowed himself. I wonder if that's the right peppy instinct for what comes next — and I wonder if the ribald spectacle of Die Another Day will form a secret foundation text. There are good ways to write bad puns. Palaces and high-tech cars and psychedelic light masks are all fun things. A James Bond film that successfully embraced the ridiculous possibility of a beautiful spy fantasy? What a mouthful that would be.
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