Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002)

Praise for an unloved Bond

Generally, Die Another Day is seen as one of the lesser Bond movies. An apex of the hollow, CGI-stocked Brosnan efforts that typified the late nineties and early naughts. I think the film gets an unfairly bad treatment though, and here’s why:

1. The opening bit is for once very relevant to the plot, rather than being Bond porn. It breaks with tradition: Bond is captured and endures 14 months of grueling torture. When he emerges he is helpless and broken. This is the first in a few key ways in which expectations are bent in an interesting fashion.

2. At the half point there’s a riveting sword fight in London. It’s exactly what a fight should be: tangible, real, dangerous. James Bond and villain Gustav Graves are hacking away at each other with pure desperation. Far from the clean ripostes and lunges of a fencing match; this is what a sword fight looks like when two people go all in, perhaps a little too brusquely. So many fights both in other films and later on in Die Another Day itself are tiresome, special effects-laden, Matrix supersizing.

3. The film has a surprisingly nifty, subtle spy plot that neatly clicks together and is exciting from the first to final scene. Admittedly, Die Another Day gets a little childish in the Iceland sequence where no less than four ridiculous stunts follow each other in an attempt to melt away any credibility (to wit: the horrendous fight with the lasers, Bond’s parachute surfing adventure, the melting of the ice palace and the Aston Martin figure skating act.) I believe this is the reason many felt the film jumped the shark. But look beyond this ill-conceived part and you see a Bond that excels.

4. The villain of the story is pleasantly tragic and his trappings are reminiscent of classic French literature. Gustav Graves (and his secret past) echo the face-changing and double identities (not to mention plots of revenge) of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask. His goal is a gesture to the world. It is a plan doomed to fail (hinging on a single orbiting satellite), but rich in personal meaning. What ultimately drives Graves is not the ambition to conquer the world, but a restless desire to shake loose the chains of perceived oppression – by clearing a million land mines shutting off his country.

5. As if it felt the coming of Daniel Craig’s new, revisionist Bond, Die Another Day is more than usually morose, befitting this dark tale of espionage and torture. Bond is not on a jolly romp here, he’s meaning to take back his life and get even. Everything he does is tainted by a spark of anger. Bond off the autopilot.

6. Halle Berry’s Jinx is a fun character that more than matches Bond in daring and ability. Even a skeptic would have to accede she’s not there merely to appease the female audience, but a genuine feminist force. For the longest time she leaves Bond playing catch-up, and only in disastrous Iceland requires his assistance. Curious that the Jinx spinoff never happened, despite the obvious desire of some of the top people behind the franchise to make it.

Die Another Day isn’t perfect, and hardly a Bond classic. But look beyond its flashy stunts and you find a thriller with more weight than expected and both a hero and villain who are driven in interesting ways.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

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