“Die Another Day” (2002) is among the most noteworthy of all of the James Bond films.
It was helmed by New Zealand’s Lee Tamahori, the director of “Once Were Warriors. The lead is popular Bond actor Pierce Brosnan, in his swan song as the character. The Bond girl du jour is recent Oscar winner Halle Berry.
Also, this 007 thriller starts as one of the strongest, grittiest entries in the entire series, then goes in the exact opposite direction.
It oddly begins on Maui, standing in for North Korea (!), as Bond is seen surfing like true wave god…and since Brosnan’s stunt double for this brief introduction was surfing legend Laird Hamilton. During the wild prolog, Bond manages to create chaos towards the North Korean military but, nonetheless, is captured and becomes their prisoner.
Bond is brutally tortured, a montage that plays over the opening credits. I believe it’s the first time an expectedly surreal 007 opening credits sequence connects with the storytelling, as the startling imagery (I love the “fire” and “ice” dancers and ample scorpions) plays into the grueling views of Bond’s harrowing endurance test.
It’s a knockout and most unexpected way to start things off.
Other firsts: here’s a 007 movie that uses The Clash’s “London Calling” and, much later, there’s a Moneypenny love scene that must be seen to be believed. It’s also the first 007 movie with a sex scene that actually appears like one and not actors carefully posing while kissing.
Bond repeatedly has run ins with an NSA agent named Jinx (Berry) and pursues a wealthy British celebrity named Gustav Graves (played by Toby Stephens as though Tony Blair and Steve Jobs were simultaneously portrayed by Hugh Grant), whose popularity stems from public stunts and a larger-than-life persona.
Grave’s assistant, Frost (Rosamund Pike, already akin to her “Gone Girl” character) intrigues Bond. So does the whereabouts as a killer named Zao (Rick Yune), and a fistful of diamonds.
Once John Cleese’s Q is showing Bond around and introducing him to the latest gadgets, the first hints surface that the film is about to run into trouble.
Since this is Brosnan’s final entry as the character, we get overt references to the prior Bond entries, a joke that worked in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969) but not here. The prop humor gives way to the reveal of Bond’s invisible car. Then we’re in the villain’s ice palace evil lair/ party palace, the last place on earth anyone would want to have a mixer.
There’s the ludicrous reveal of a villain’s true identity, the use of an electro suit and even a surfing scene that brings to mind Peter Fonda and Kurt Russell’s charming fake wave riding in “John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A.” (1997).
“Die Another Day” is astonishing and not for good reason.
Witnessing how this tough, refreshingly different kind of 007 thriller become a cartoon is a jaw-dropping experience. The grim nature of the opener and the absorbing rebirth of Bond after 14 months of torture are seemingly forgotten.
There’s a sword duel, presumably staged to the mother of all onscreen fencing battles, that is admittedly over the top but seems grounded and plausible compared to the bonkers third act. How on Earth did Brosnan wind up in half a movie, where one half is a crowning achievement as his signature role, while the other half is among the most embarrassing in the franchise’s history?
Audiences naturally flocked and turned this into, at the time, the top grossing of all the 007 films. The beginning of “Die Another Day” (in fact, the entire first hour) is so superb, I want to overlook how the painfully corny third act and wrap up seems like an entirely different movie hijacked a great one.
An aspect of “Die Another Day” that unquestionably holds up is the casting of Dame Judi Dench as M; neither her predecessor Bernard Lee nor subsequent Ralph Fiennes can hold the screen like Dench, whose casting in the role wasn’t just inspired but essential to the success of the Brosnan era.
Dench is so fierce in the role, it gives the film a center, even as it goes spectacularly off the rails.
Nevertheless, even the dramatic weight of Dench and the 100 watt charisma of Brosnan can’t counter how the third act embraces camp in a what-me-worry fashion. It’s like the first hour was written by Ian Fleming and the last hour was penned by Akiva Goldsman of “Batman & Robin” infamy.
Perhaps the idea was connect with the 007 movie lineage, though this is far more bonkers than anything in either “You Only Live Twice” (1967) or “Moonraker” (1979).
The ample CGI effects looked fake in 2002, with the electricity appearing as it does in “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace” (1987). If that sounds mean, just consider the quality of the visual effects in Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” released the same year, and compare it to this far more expensive movie.
Tamahori is a talented filmmaker, though some of his choices here questionable, like unnecessary use of slow motion and committing to a grand finale not too far removed from “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.”
Madonna’s controversial title song is another divisive element, though I find it much easier to defend than the film itself. Sounding like her “Music” but with calculated CD skips and spare lyrics suggesting the arrogant psyche of 007 (“Sigmund Freund, analyze this”), it’s a self-consciously strange and hypnotic track.
Madonna’s extended cameo appearance in the film may have been a bit much but her highly debated song is unorthodox and terrific.
The highs of “Die Another Day” are so good, it’s tempting to suggest viewing this for 70 minutes, then stopping. However, if you watched just the last 50 minutes of “Die Another Day” out of context, you’d ask why Brosnan was starring in a lavish toy commercial and wondering when Adam West and Burt Ward will show up.
Brosnan’s final stint as 007 is a strange beast: one half of the greatest Bond movie ever, the other half the absolute worst. At least the final closing title card didn’t lie: thankfully, the franchise did live up to its concluding promise:
“James Bond Will Return.”