“Die Another Day” (2002) is one of the most remarkable of all James Bond films.
It was directed by New Zealand’s Lee Tamahori, the director of “Once Were Warriors.” The lead role is popular Bond actor Pierce Brosnan in his swan song as the character. The Bond girl of the day is the recent Oscar winner Halle Berry.
Plus, this 007 thriller starts off as one of the strongest and most serious entries in the entire series, then goes in the exact opposite direction.
It begins eerily in Maui, standing in for North Korea (!), as Bond is seen as a true surfing god of the waves…and since Brosnan’s stunt double for that brief intro was surfing legend Laird Hamilton. During the wild prologue, Bond manages to create chaos towards the North Korean army but, nevertheless, is captured and becomes their prisoner.
Bond is brutally tortured, a montage that plays over the opening credits. I believe this is the first time a surreal 007 opening credits sequence has connected to the narration, as the startling images (I love the “fire” and “ice” dancers and the many scorpions) play in the grueling sights of Bond’s harrowing endurance test.
It’s a knockout and the 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 has to be seen to be believed. It’s also the first 007 film with a sex scene that looks like a scene and not actors carefully posing while kissing.
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Bond has repeatedly encountered an NSA agent named Jinx (Berry) and pursues a wealthy British celebrity named Gustav Graves (played by Toby Stephens as if Tony Blair and Steve Jobs were simultaneously played by Hugh Grant), whose popularity stems from public stunts and a larger-than-life character.
Grave’s assistant Frost (Rosamund Pike, already related to her “Gone Girl” character) intrigues Bond. The same goes for the whereabouts of a killer named Zao (Rick Yune) and a handful of diamonds.
After John Cleese’s Q shows Bond around and introduces him to the latest gadgets, the first clues point to the film being about to run into trouble.
Since this is Brosnan’s last entry as a character, we get obvious references to previous Bond entries, a joke that worked in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969) but not here. The humor of the props gives way to the reveal of Bond’s invisible car. Next, we’re in the evil lair of the Villain’s Ice Palace / Party Palace, the last place on earth anyone would want to have a blender.
There’s the ridiculous reveal of a villain’s true identity, the use of an electro suit, and even a surfing scene reminiscent of Peter Fonda and Kurt Russell’s charming fake wave in “John Carpenter’s Escape From LA” ( 1997).
“Die Another Day” is amazing and not for a good reason.
Watching this challenging and refreshing genre of 007 thriller become a cartoon is a jaw-dropping experience. The dark nature of the opening and Bond’s absorbing rebirth after 14 months of torture are seemingly forgotten.
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There’s a sword duel, presumably staged for the mother of all on-screen fencing battles, that’s admittedly over the top but feels grounded and plausible compared to the bonkers third act. How on earth did Brosnan end up in half of a movie, where one half is a crowning achievement for his signature role, while the other half is some of the most embarrassing in franchise history?
Audiences naturally flocked in and made it, at the time, the biggest hit of any 007 movie. how painfully cheesy the third act and conclusion feel like an entirely different film diverted from a great movie.
One aspect of “Die Another Day” that unquestionably holds its own is the casting of Dame Judi Dench as M; neither his predecessor Bernard Lee nor Ralph Fiennes can hold the screen like Dench, whose casting in the role was not only inspired but essential to the success of the Brosnan era.
Dench is so fierce in the role that he gives the film a focus, even if he goes off the rails dramatically.
Still, not even Dench’s dramatic weight and Brosnan’s 100-watt charisma can counter the way the third act embraces camp in a way that worries me. It’s as if the first hour was written by Ian Fleming and the last hour by Akiva Goldsman of “Batman & Robin” infamy.
Perhaps the idea had to do with the 007 movie lineage, though it was crazier than anything in “You Only Live Twice” (1967) or “Moonraker” (1979).
The many CGI effects looked fake in 2002, with electricity appearing like in “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace” (1987). If that sounds nasty, just consider the quality of the visual effects of Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” released the same year, and compare it to that much more expensive film.
Tamahori is a talented filmmaker, though some of his choices here are questionable, like the unnecessary use of slow motion and committing to a grand finale not too far off from “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.”
Madonna’s controversial title track is another divisive element, though I find it much easier to defend than the film itself. Sounding like his “Music” but with calculated CD skipping and alternate lyrics suggesting 007’s cocky psyche (“Sigmund Freund, analyze that”), it’s a self-consciously weird and hypnotic track.
Madonna’s extended appearance in the film may have been a bit too much, but her highly controversial song is unorthodox and terrific.
The highs of “Die Another Day” are so good that it’s tempting to suggest watching it for 70 minutes and then quitting. However, if you only watched the last 50 minutes of “Die Another Day” out of context, you’d wonder why Brosnan was starring in a lavish toy commercial and you’d wonder when Adam West and Burt Ward would show up.
Brosnan’s final stint as 007 is an odd beast: half the greatest Bond movie of all time, half the absolute worst. At least the final closing title card wasn’t lying: thankfully, the franchise delivered on its final promise:
“James Bond will return.”