Jhere is a scene in the 20th Bond movie, die another daywhen Pierce Brosnan’s 007 strolls through the black marble lobby of a posh Hong Kong hotel, having – in just 27 minutes – already surfed North Korea, hijacked an arms dealer’s helicopter, crossed DMZ aboard a hovercraft, was captured and tortured for 14 months, returned to MI6 in a prisoner exchange, suffered a heart attack and jumped from a boat in the South China Sea.
The usually groomed secret agent is disheveled, with long hair and a beard, his luxuriously hairy chest exposed by the open shirt of his soaking blue pajamas. He asks for his usual suite and a bottle of ’61 Bollinger. The club manager asks if he has been busy. “Survive”, replies Bond, “just survive”.
This arching juxtaposition of rags and riches exemplifies the broader tonal inconsistency of a film that, for all of Bond’s talk of survival, nearly killed the franchise. Often derided as one of the series’ worst, resulting in a Daniel Craig revamp with 2006’s Casino Royale, Die Another Day has a lot to answer for: the invisible car, gliding like clear jelly through a misty ice palace ; Madonna’s horribly jerky theme song; Madonna, again, as a corseted fencing instructor; a race-changing villain; another whose face is speckled with diamonds; around $70m (£59m) spent on product placement; John Cleese.
And yet, as the much-maligned first Bond film of this century turns 20, its deranged atonality deserves a second look. It was not badly received upon release, grossing $430m (£365m) worldwide, making it the highest-grossing Bond film at the time. Reviews were lukewarm, although Michael Gove called in with approval Rosamund pike a “tangy citrus sorbet”. Die Another Day was released just over a year after 9/11 and sits uncomfortably between two eras of action movies: the suave glamor and brilliant heroism of earlier Bonds and the gritty seriousness and complex geopolitics of the next generation. He’s the most anxious of all the Bonds, and for that, I adore him.
On September 11, 2001, the Die Another Day creative team was in a script meeting at 138 Piccadilly when they heard about the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, director Lee Tamahori recalls. The film’s New York finale was quickly canceled and the explosive ending was moved to Korea’s DMZ. The film’s only veiled reference to 9/11 is M’s charged comment to Bond after his 14-month absence: “While you were away, the world changed.”
Die Another Day is both new world and old. In post-9/11 action movies, the heroes were cynical and fallible. They bore emotional and physical scars, often explored in origin stories (Batman Begins and, of course, Casino Royale). Government agencies weren’t always the good guys (the Bourne movies). There are elements of this ambivalence in Die Another Day – in the film’s surprisingly dark opening, the villain, Colonel Moon, drawls that he “specialized in Western hypocrisy” to Oxford and Harvard. Bond is an “assassin”, while a North Korean general is portrayed as a loving, wronged father with a strong moral compass. Bond is betrayed, imprisoned and tortured – scenes horribly marrying the writhing girls of fire and ice from the opening credits – before a dark, Dostoevskian moment when a sorry Bond thinks he’s going to be executed. His American savior scoffs, “You’d think he was some kind of hero.”
So far, so intricate, but then the film goes backwards – around the time Bond walks into this hotel. Minutes later, after disarming the masseuse, Peaceful Fountains of Desire, finding his Brioni and Bollinger shirts, Bond leaves for Cuba, where he meets Jinx in a Halle Berry bikini, who emerges in a tribute to Ursula Andress from Dr. No du sea, squirming with pleasure in slow motion. It’s one of many self-referential nods, ranging from cheeky throwbacks, like Rosa Klebb’s shoe in Q’s lab, to a metatextual commentary on the increasing obsolescence of the Bond universe with a villain who models the sneering pomposity of his white alter ego on 007 himself.
The 20th Bond movie jokes about being irrelevant, but it’s also very, very worried about being irrelevant. Die Another Day doubles down on the Bond formula — lasers, diamonds, an improbably situated final bonk — while lassoing in the incongruous characteristics of the film’s perceived competition. In an effort to deal with the dual threat of The Matrix and video games, Tamahori insisted, in an early Bond film, on the use of CGI – resulting in a truly dismal kitesurfing sequence widely criticized by The critics. More bizarre is the film’s humor – like Jinx’s embarrassing crack “Your momma” (written by Berry herself) – whose awkwardness is more Austin Powers than james bondperhaps due to fears that the Bond parody would rob the audience of Bond proper.
And then there’s more intriguing climate anxiety. It’s a gag: “Global warming is a terrible thing,” sneers Colonel Moon (Toby Stephens), as he blasts Iceland’s frozen landscape with a space laser, causing the collapse of an ice cap into the sea. The laser is named Icarus, a sly reference to the tragic consequences of man’s attempt to conquer nature. In Die Another Day – and in previous Bond films – elemental destruction is collateral damage in man’s larger scheme for money and power.
The thing about Bond is that times change, but Bond, by design, should stay the same. So, on its 20th anniversary, in such anxious times, spare a thought for this hopeless case of a Bond movie: in the face of cultural, social and geopolitical shifts, 007 has gotten a bit lost. Unable to commit to recreating Roger Moorean’s high camp of films of yore or paving the way for the salty darkness of the future, Die Another Day attempted a version of both, its insecurities all too apparent – despite the car invisible.