The daftest James Bond film ever made? Why Die Another Day is no joke
“You must be joking,” said James Bond – then played by Pierce Brosnan – when presented with the daftest gadget in the Q Branch arsenal: an invisible car. Many fans shared the sentiment – you must be joking indeed – when Die Another Day hit cinemas 20 years ago. The film, Pierce Brosnan’s last outing as 007, steered Bond into the realms of science fiction – even further than Roger Moore going Carry On Up Uranus in Moonraker. Roger himself wasn’t sure about Die Another Day. “I thought it just went too far,” Moore wrote. “And that’s from me, the first Bond in space! Invisible cars and dodgy CGI footage? Please!”
The car (not strictly invisible, but camouflaged with a hi-tech combo of cameras and image projection) wasn’t science fiction; it was almost science fact, based on tech being developed by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. As Bond producer Barbara Broccoli later said: “It was the cutting edge of technology.”
Director Lee Tamahori often gets lumped with the blame for Die Another Day’s most wanton excesses – Tamahori delighted in making a “ridiculous” Bond film – but it was long-time Bond writers Robert Wade and Neal Purvis who suggested the car, having read about the tech while researching the script.
“When we suggested it originally, we weren’t sure anyone would go for it,” Robert Wade told Wired journalist Jason Barlow. “The idea is that in Iceland or in the desert, when there’s not much contrast in the background, it’s invisible, but in an urban environment you’d be able to see it.” Neal Purvis, being interviewed for the history-of-Bond-films book, Some Kind of Hero, admitted it was “a bit of a surprise” when the car rolled up in the finished film: definitely invisible.
“Scooby Doo would have laughed at such a corny idea,” wrote The Telegraph’s reviewer, Sukhdev Sandhu. “We laughed when we first read the script,” says the film’s executive producer, Anthony Waye. “You either take it tongue-in-cheek or you don’t.”
The invisible car has become shorthand for what Die Another Day represents in Bond lore: 007 gone too far; an out-of-step farce. There’s more, too: the sight of Brosnan kitesurfing on a CGI tsunami; a stinker of a theme from Madonna; a script made almost exclusively from cliches and puns; and a North Korean villain with a Face/Off-like makeover and electrifying robot armour.
But Die Another Day doesn’t entirely deserve its rep. It’s certainly significant – the twentieth film, released on the 40th anniversary of the Bond series – and, for the most part, no sillier than other Bond films. It also has thumping action, and the guts to venture into uncharted territory – a beardy, bleak Bond at one point. It was also the most successful Bond film so far, grossing $432 million worldwide.
Die Another Day was, arguably, a necessary folly – an exercise in self-parody that’s as crucial to the Bond formula as shaken-not-stirred vodka martinis, one-liners, and everyday sexism (not that Miss Moneypenny is complaining in Die Another Day – she sticks on a pair of Q’s futuristic computer goggles and smooches with a VR Bond).
Dubbed “Bond XX” behind the scenes, Die Another Day was a landmark blockbuster for 007. Bond’s Nineties revival, which began with 1995’s GoldenEye, had made Bond a tentpole name for MGM. “The premiere franchise,” says Chris McGurk, an MGM executive at the time. Lee Tamahori, speaking on a making of documentary, understood the weight of taking on Bond. “You can’t get into this without thinking, ‘Are you going to be the director that fails? [The one] that is going to make the bad Bond movie, or the one that’s a real turkey?’” Tamahori said.
The New Zealander knew he was an outside-of-the-box choice – the director of the (literally) hard-hitting Māori drama, Once Were Warriors. “I thought I’d have been the last person they asked,” he told Sight & Sound back in 2002. He explained one reason for taking the gig: “I thought of Bond as the great last gasp of British filmmaking and it’s the duty of a good ex-colonial to come and take the job of a local British director!”
For the story and villain, the producers and writers turned to North Korea. As detailed in Some Kind of Hero, Barbara Broccoli liked to begin the writing process by asking “What is the world worried about, now or in the next couple of years? And what is James Bond’s position in that arena?” Tensions over North Korea put Bond back in a Cold War-like environment – a real-world situation in which he could flex his swagger and save the day.
In the pre-titles sequence, Bond cruises into North Korea on a gadget-laden surfboard. He then dispatches a tykish despot, Colonel Moon, in a rollicking hovercraft chase.
Filmed off the coast of the Hawaiian island of Maui, the surfing was led by big wave surfer Laird Hamilton – on a notorious wave nicknamed “Jaws”. “We sat in a dinghy, right beside that wave,” recalls Anthony Waye. “It was enormous.”
The idea of Bond surfing into action seems frightfully naff now (is there an extreme sport in existence to which Bond can’t turn his hand?) though we’d accept such implausibility from Roger Moore – encourage it, even. See Roger (well, a stuntman) snowboarding to the sound of The Beach Boys in A View to a Kill.
What follows is Die Another Day’s most daring move, as Bond is held captive and tortured in North Korea for 14 months – long enough to grow a scraggly beard. Breaking down Bond’s rep as an unbeatable hero, it’s a dark development for Brosnan-era Bond – about two swings of the knotted rope away from Daniel Craig’s battered testicles in Casino Royale. Bond is put before a firing squad but traded back to MI6. The Americans, led by Michael Madsen’s Reservoir Dog-like NSA boss, thinks Bond has spilled secrets under duress, and Bond’s Double-O status is rescinded.
“You can see with Die Another Day the producers were trying to push the possibilities of what a Bond film could be,” says Matthew Field, co-author of Some Kind of Hero. “This is before Daniel Craig. The idea of killing Bond or even M would never have entered their minds. But you can see them gently playing with the formula… we had never seen James Bond like this before.”
Roger Wade said that Die Another Day was “fairly gritty” on the page. Brosnan had also wanted his films to get “a little more gritty” and “down and dirty”. But whatever grit may have existed is swiftly smoothed over: Bond deliberately slows down his heart to bring on a cardiac arrest, a ruse for escaping MI6 doctors, before heading to the nearest five-star hotel for a good shave and a glass of ’61 Bollinger.
From there, Bond pursues the diamond tycoon and all-round wrong ‘un, Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), and a diamond-faced henchman Zao (Rick Yune) – not quite Jaws’ metal teeth but still shiny – and frolics with American agent Jinx (Halle Berry) and traitorous British agent Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike).
Neal Purvis later said that a “more realistic version” of Die Another Day could be made, using the same story, but Tamahori had wanted to make “a more comic book type movie.” Tamahori confirmed as much, reflecting on the difference between his Bond and Daniel Craig. “The new James Bond formula follows the Bourne style of things and it’s a fine way to go, because it needed a revamp,” he told The Upcoming in 2016. “But I always wanted to make the death-laser-from-space James Bond film. I wanted to make the ridiculous James Bond film. The villain in the lair and all that.”
Graves, it turns out, is the previously-thought-dead Colonel Moon, who has undergone “gene therapy” to transform into a sneering westerner. Indeed, Toby Stephens’ Graves is deliciously smug – perhaps the smuggest Bond villain of them all. Bond must stop his Icarus weapon – a space laser mega-weapon – by way of Hong Kong, Cuba, and a stunning ice palace in Iceland. Graves’ ice palace (inspired by the real Icehotel in Sweden) was built on the 007 Stage in Pinewood Studios, using a newly developed fake ice. “The locations and sets on that film were really good,” says Anthony Waye. “It was a massive production – a manic film to get going.”
It was a fitting moment to ramp up the Bond-ness of it all: Bond’s 40th anniversary. Nodding to Bond history, Die Another Day is crammed with nostalgic references and background details: villains are sucked out of an aeroplane à la Goldfinger and Gustav drops into Buckingham Palace with The Spy Who Loved Me’s Union Jack parachute.
Bond even picks up a copy of the Field Guide of Birds of the West Indies – the book whose author, the ornithologist James Bond, inspired 007 creator Ian Fleming.
Q Branch (Q is now played by John Cleese) is also stocked with gadgets from yesteryear: the dagger-tipped shoe seen in From Russia with Love; the rocket pack from Thunderball; and Roger Moore’s crocodile submarine from Octopussy. A nostalgic indulgence, certainly; but also a reminder to let Die Another Day off the hook a bit – its invisible car is only a few notches higher on the Bond-o-meter of ridiculousness. Admit it: Sean Connery’s rocket pack is rubbish.
Tamahori lobbied producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson for the ultimate cameo: Connery himself. “It was one of the few ideas that was rejected,” said Tamahori in a 2002 interview. “They thought if we put Connery in it with Brosnan… [audiences] were going to get too confused.” Tamahori’s idea was that James Bond was “just a prefix and a code name” given to a lineage of spies. The idea has since gained traction as a fan theory – a way to explain Bond’s ever-changing face. “Some caution and some wisdom prevailed on that one,” said Tamahori.
The most obvious homage is the bikini-clad Halle Berry emerging from the sea – a call back to Ursula Andress in Dr No. Playing NSA agent Giacinta 'Jinx' Johnson, Berry joined the long list of actresses who claimed that she was a different type of Bond girl – “an equal match to Bond” (something that didn’t really happen until Lashana Lynch took the 007 mantle in No Time to Die). “I forgot to act,” said Pierce Brosnan about seeing Halle Berry in her bikini. “But that does happen from time to time.”
Tamahori was looking forward, however. He recalled pleading to the producers: “When it comes to the girls, can they please not be appendages and handbags to Bond? Let's make them smart. Let's have good actors in there and let's beef their characters up so they're really something I can be proud of rather than be ashamed of, to just have some old chicks in there that are just there for Bond to bonk.”
Jinx manhandles Bond in bed, and she’s a step ahead of him at first. But the film chickens out: Jinx soon needs 007 to save her and fights a barely-dressed Rosamund Pike – over Bond’s affections as much as preventing world annihilation.
Fresh off an Oscar-winning performance in Monster’s Ball (she won the award during the Die Another Day production) Halle Berry was unusually A-list for a Bond actress. “We thought we’d won the jackpot when she won the Oscar,” says Chris McGurk. “I think she added tens of millions of dollars to the box office.” There were also plans for a Jinx spin-off. “I killed that,” confesses McGurk. “There had been other attempts to get a female-driven action effects movie off the ground that failed. My point was, it’s a good idea in theory but if it fails, you’re going to damage the whole franchise.”
The franchise was indeed crucial. When Bond had made his Pierce Brosnan-shaped return in GoldenEye, the context of his existence had changed. The Cold War, the backdrop to most of Bond’s adventures, had ended – hence Judi Dench’s M calling Bond “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War”. By 2002, Bond faced a different real-world enemy: a new generation of CGI-powered action blockbusters – the Star Wars prequels, The Matrix, X-Men, Spider-Man, and The Lord of the Rings.
Tamahori admitted that he was a fan of the amped-up Vin Diesel actioner xXx, one of Hollywood’s many attempts at creating an Americanised Bond. “I loved it,” Tamahori said. “I thought it was a brilliant movie… of course it's the competition now.”
In hindsight, Die Another Day’s biggest folly was trying to match those films. Tamahori persuaded Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson to include the sequence in which Bond kite surfs on a CGI tidal wave. It flew in the face of Bond’s great tradition of practical stunts. “They had to question whether we were betraying a fundamental part of the Bond myth,” Tamahori told Sight & Sound. “But my argument is that CG is just another tool and you’ll have to embrace it sooner or later or you’ll be overtaken by other action movies.” Brosnan admitted that he felt “foolish” filming the scene, “hanging on wires or attempting to do some kind of stunt which just seems absolutely ludicrous, and, of course, consequently turns out to be rather silly.”
“The movie was pivotal,” says McGurk. “Not just because it was Pierce’s last movie. It shows the conflict going on – particularly with the producers and what they wanted Bond to be in future. On one hand, they always talked about revisiting Bond as the tough, tortured soul, which ultimately happened with Daniel Craig. On the other hand, they’d talk about upping the special effects game with invisible cars and riding tsunamis – ‘We have to be competitive with all the other event movies and CGI.’”
McGurk recalls seeing the kite surfing sequence at an early screening. “I said to Barbara and Michael, ‘It looks like Gidget Goes to Hawaii,” he laughs. “We pumped more money into it, to at least get it looking better than it was.”
Die Another Day has great Bond moments, too. See the gentlemanly fencing duel between Bond and Graves, which turns into a riotous sword fight, smashing up a fencing school that’s inexplicably run by Madonna (“I see you handle your weapon well,” she says about Bond’s swordsmanship. “I have been known to keep my tip up,” he replies). Also, the big car chase – across a frozen lagoon and through Graves’s ice palace – is undeniably thrilling: invisible Aston Martin vs. a Jaguar XKR equipped with rockets and Robot Wars-like ramming spikes. “The invisible car was a bit cheeky,” says Anthony Waye. “But the chase was tremendous.”
The car chase was Tamahori’s idea, set on a magnificent ice lagoon in Iceland, surrounded by glistening, colourful icebergs. Ahead of the shoot, the ice on the lagoon wasn’t thick enough to support the cars, and production was looking to relocate to Alaska. But the Iceland lagoon froze sufficiently at the last minute.
“I was driven in an Aston Martin at high speed across that ice,” recalls Waye. “Believe me, it’s frightening! All the crew had to wear crampons to get a grip and survival suits in case the ice caved in. The suit would give you about two minutes’ survival. We used to drill the ice every day to test the thickness. The crew, the equipment, and the vehicles weighed several tons – it was a lot of weight on that ice. So, we didn’t stand too close together!”
Die Another Day premiered at the Royal Albert Hall on November 18 2002. The critical reaction was mixed. The Independent’s Demetrios Matheou thought that all the nods to Bond’s past “might please Bond fans, but it does not make for a good movie”. Michael Gove, however, writing for The Times, liked it. “A superbly executed celebration of a great British tradition… pantomime, circus, and firework display.”
Bond’s 20th adventure made huge money – the most successful Bond film ever at the time. So why, 20 years on, does Die Another Day rank among Bond’s least popular films?
After Bond’s release from North Korea, Judi Dench’s M tells him, “While you were away, the world changed.” “Not for me,” replies Bond. M is referring, of course, to 9/11, but she could have been talking about the cinematic landscape: bombastic, computerised blockbusters; Austin Powers taking the proverbial; and the first Bourne film, which dealt the genre a swift punch to the face.
The Bond formula – the ridiculousness and cheese, a widely accepted part and parcel of previous Bonds – was old hat in the context of the early 2000s. “It’s as if Austin Powers never happened,” wrote The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. Just as before, Bond was a relic.
Despite its success, the film ultimately saw Brosnan dropped. “You’ve got to hand it to [Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson],” says McGurk. “Even though there were issues, they could easily have said, ‘Hey, why screw with the formula?’”
“The gamble they took by abandoning Brosnan and this highly successful formula shows they know more about James Bond than anyone else,” says Matthew Field.
Gustav Graves, though tossed into an aeroplane turbine, had the measure of Bond at that time. “That unjustifiable swagger, the crass quips,” Graves sneered. “A defence mechanism concealing such inadequacy.” To keep up with the pace, Bond needed a harder edge – something of more substance. Cue Daniel Craig crashing through the wall in Casino Royale.
Few Bonds have been able to resist veering into the fantastical as their tenure rolls on. Connery did it in You Only Live Twice; Roger did it in Moonraker; even Daniel Craig has done it with No Time to Die. Bond demands a film like Die Another Day every few years: an invisible car-led race into self-parody; always a prelude to reining himself back in. “If you look at it in the context of what the future of Bond would be,” says McGurk, “it’s an important movie.”