Die Another Day. A step too far.

Spoilers ahead!!

When the 20th Bond movie, and fourth and final one of Pierce Brosnan’s tenure came out in November 2002 after a three-year hiatus, no one could have imagined the backlash it would create among fans, to the point of making the producers, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson consider rebooting the whole franchise in the next entry, Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006). For the record, no Bond fan worth their salt can seriously think that the cast and crew set out to make a bad movie which, by the way, Die Another Day isn’t by any stretch of the imagination. That being said, the way in which the producers, writers and director decided to go about the latest entry in the Bond series, (they are all partly to blame, some more than others), took the movie a step too far in the wrong direction. But how did this happen? And why was it that it was decided that was the way to go? Let’s find out, shall we?

Crafting the story

Why there would be such a problem for a team of writers to write a script for the next Bond movie having such a wealth of continuation novels to draw from, written firstly by Kingsley Amis, John Gardner and Raymond Benson to name just a few, is beyond me. But once again, the producers along with the duo of screenwriters who’d written the previous entry, Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, decided to put their heads together and come up with the blueprint for what would be Bond’s next adventure. Together they brainstormed, and after throwing some ideas around, came up with a story involving North Korea and the famous 38th Parallel, A.K.A the Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea, and a source of conflict in that area since the end of WWII. On this occasion Bond infiltrates North Korea to take out rogue North Korean Colonel Moon, who’s hell bent on creating a private army to invade the South using African conflict diamonds as currency. Bond succesfully completes his mission, but is captured and tortured by the enemy after having being betrayed. After 14 months of imprisonment, Bond is taken out of prison in exchange for one of Moon’s closest collaborators, Zao. Bond is thought to have betrayed his government under torture and revealed secret information which precipitated the exchange. Feeling betrayed by his own people, and in an attempt to seek revenge and clear his name at the same time, Bond escapes British custody, and following a series of clues provided by the Chinese Secret Service, he tracks Zao down to a private clinic in Cuba which utilizes a revolutionary kind of gene therapy designed to not only change the subject’s appearance, but also their whole genetic makeup. Bond destroys the clinic with the help of a, unbeknownst to him at the time, American NSA agent called Jinx, who’s also after Zao, but fails to capture him, not before finding clues that a recently emergent British diamond tycoon called Gustav Graves might be in cahoots in Zao. Bond confronts Gustav during a fencing match in a private club, and after having won the match is invited by Graves to go to a scientific demonstration he’s hosting the coming weekend in Iceland. Bond is approached by MI6, and asked to go to this demonstration and find out what Graves is up to. He’ll be aided by MI6 agent Amanda Frost, who’s been undercover in Graves’s organization for months without having been able to uncover a trace of evidence that suggests that Graves might be embroiled in some illegal activity. In Iceland, Bond runs into Jinx, but they both soon find out that there might be more to Zao than meets the eye.

The screenplay, as per usual, underwent a series of rewrites, with major contributions by his director, a left field choice to say the least, New Zealander Lee Tamahori. Tamahori’s biggest claim to fame was the film Once were Warriors (1994), which brought him international critical praise. He had also been steadily making his way into the Hollywood market with movies like The Edge and Mullholland Falls, (both released in 1996), and Along came a Spider (2001). The producers wanted at first for Michael Apted to come back into the fold, after succesfully working together on The World is not Enough (1999), but MGM wanted someone new at the reins. They felt that the previous Bond movie had been lacking in action, and wanted someone whose hyperactive visual style would breathe new life into the franchise, and Tamahori fit the bill perfectly. The filmmaker later admitted himself that he might not have been the best choice after all, and even leading man Pierce Brosnan was unsure about the wisdom of Broccoli and Wilson’s pick at first, but was convinced after witnessing the confidence with which Tamahori commanded the set. Having to helm a multi-million production, with several units shooting all over the world at the same time would be a daunting task for anyone, let alone someone who was barely getting used to the way big Hollywood productions work. He got into the swing of things fairly quickly, proving to be quite hands-on on the set, even when it came to the big action set pieces, wisely choosing however to delegate on Vic Armstrong, who was once again in charge of second unit to handle the bigger and more complicated set pieces. In that respect he proved to be a bigger asset to the producers than Michael Apted had been on the previous movie, not being as inexperienced shooting action as Apted had been.

Casting

Having the semblance of a script, and a director firmly in place, the producers went about casting their ensemble. When it came to the villains, the producers went for the new blood approach, looking far and wide for fresh faces to play the trio of new villains. For the part of Colonel Moon they chose Korean American actor Will Yun Lee. Lee, along with fellow actor Rick Yune (chosen to play the role of Zao), were both from Korean descent but had been born in the US. Both actors had recently started making an appearance in the Hollywood scene with Yune having already participated on a big Hollywood blockbuster movie, The Fast & The Furious (Rob Cohen, 2001). Having been a martial arts champion in his youth, courtesy of his father being a champion himself and owning several Dojos, also came in handy when Lee was picked to play the role of Colonel Moon. To complete this duo the producers went with two relatively new and inexperienced actors (at least in the case of one of them), to play the roles of villainous Gustav Graves, and rogue MI6 agent Miranda Frost.

Toby Stephens was already an experienced stage actor when he was cast as Gustav Graves. The son of two giant stage and screen British actors Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith, he had made some small appearances on movies such as Cousin Bette (Des McAnuff, 1998), and Space Cowboys (Clint Eastwood, 2000), but had never participated in a movie of this size before. Neither was newcomer Rosamund Pike, who was to portray the double-crossing MI-6 agent Miranda Frost, fresh off University and who was thrusted into the limelight courtesy of her agent who got her a screen test for the new Bond movie, as the producers were said to be on the lookout for new faces. Another big star actress coming to the Eon fold was Halle Berry playing the part of American NSA agent Jacinta ‘Jinx’ Johnson. Berry’s participation was kept a secret until the very last moment, even though news of her casting were leaked to the press. Berry’s billing in the movie would be equal to that of Brosnan’s, to the ire of most Bond fans who considered that Brosnan’s Bond suffered as a consequence. This had almost happened on the previous movie when during the screenwriting process, the director and writers had tried to give more protagonism to the characters of M and Elektra King, to the chagrin of Brosnan, who felt that his character was being short changed. After some discussion, the situation was remedied, but this time around was not so, and even though Berry’s presence was not so detrimental to Brosnan, it was, and still remains a major point of contention for the fans, and one of the main reasons for them ranking Die Another Day as one of the worst entries in the series. The casting was completed with an interesting and culturally varied crop of international actors like Kenneth Tsang who plays General Moon, Mexican actor Emilio Echevarria, who plays Raúl, Bond’s MI6 contact in Cuba, Spanish actor Simón Andreu, who plays the devious Dr Álvarez, Russian actor Mikhail Gorevoy who plays Vlad, Graves’ tech wizard and assistant and New Zealender Lawrence Makoare who plays Mr Kil, Graves’ henchman. The rest of the cast was completed by the usual suspects with Judy Dench, Samantha Bond, Colin Salmon and John Cleese reprising their roles of M, Miss Moneypenny, Charles Robinson and Q respectively, with one interesting addition, Michael Madsen. Madsen was a neighbour and a personal friend of Brosnan’s at the time who was cast as Falco, the head of NSA. Roger Moore’s daughter, Deborah made an interesting cameo as an air hostess as well.

Shooting

Shooting started on the coast of Maui, Hawaii for the scenes in which Bond, with two fellow agents infiltrates the coast of North Korea by surfing their way in. The stunt was performed by expert surfer Laird Hamilton and his team of waves daredevils, and it was shot in a place called Jaws, so called because of the size of the waves that could eat anything in their path. Getting onto them, however, was the trickiest part as they would have to be towed by a speedboat into position, and let go of the line attaching them to the boats once they’d gained enough speed and momentum to ride the waves. It also didn’t help that the surfers had to wear special goggles as a requirement of the scene that severely limited their vision. After a few frustratingly fruitless attempts, the stunt was finally achieved. Most of the action set pieces were thought out well in advance, even before the scripting process was over, and extensively storyboarded by the in-house artist Martin Ashbury, who’d also been responsible for the storyboards for all previous Brosnan/Bond movies. This sequence in particular was shot two months before Principal Photography even started, with additional footage completing the scene shot on the coast of Cornwall and Pinewood, with Brosnan performing most of his scenes from the pre-credits sequence on the Pinewood backlot, and its soundstages.

The bulk of the Second Unit shooting was handled once again by Vic Armstrong, whose first assignment was to shoot the Hovercraft chase for the pre-credits sequence. The whole of Colonel Moon’s North Korean military base was recreated by Peter Lamont on Pinewood’s backlot, with Chris Corbould handling the pyrotechnics once again. Due to the grey and rainy conditions in England, Pinewood proved to be a more than adequate fit for North Korea as the crew could not go and shoot in location for obvious reasons. The Hovercraft chase was a tricky proposition for all those involved as they were very difficult vehicles to maneuver, and Armstrong had a very hard time finding expert drivers who could handle the unwieldy craft. Weeks of preparation before cameras actually started rolling on the sequence were necessary to ensure that the sequence could be filmed safely and rapidly. The bulk of the chase was filmed on Aldershot, an army training ground on the outskirts of London. The facility was near an airport, and a deal had to be struck between all parties concerned to make sure that no planes were flying overhead when the explosions required for the action set piece started going off. A carefully planned schedule had to be drawn up, so the crew would have a certain amount of freedom to shoot their heavily charged pyrotechnic scenes. It was during the shooting of this sequence that an incident occurred that threatened to jeopardize the already tight filming schedule. During one of the early scenes in which Brosnan had to make a dash, and jump on one of the Hovercraft, the actor’s knee went. So badly that it required surgery, and a six-week resting period before the actor could go back to work. It was a testament to the actor’s commitment and professionalism that he was able to get back to work so quickly, and the scene could be completed. He also proved to be quite the trooper, and filmed most of his actions scenes on top of the hovercraft, with additional shots being done in the soundstage.

Next up the cast and crew moved to Cadiz, Spain to shoot the scenes that were supposed to take place in Cuba. The crew went on a location scouting trip to Cuba, but due to the political unrest on the island, it was decided it would be better to find a suitable location which, appropriately dressed by the art department, could pass off as Cuba. Such location was found on the southern port city of Cadiz. The art department did such a wonderful job dressing the city that the end result was indistinguishable from the real thing. It was here that one of the most recognizable scenes in the movie would be shot; Halle Berry dreamily coming out of the water to the tune of David Arnold’s beautiful score. The scene was clearly an homage to the one from Dr No (Terence Young, 1962), with Ursula Andress coming out of the water dressed in a white bikini. This would be just one of many such homages and call-backs to previous movies in the series, in a movie peppered with them, as the movie was set to come out 40 years from the release of Dr No. Unfortunately, and in spite of choosing this part of Spain mainly because of its sunny weather, the cast and crew hit one of the worst weathers in recent history, to the point that filming had to be halted, and there was even consideration at one point of going back to Pinewood to shoot the rest of the scenes. Luckily, the weather cleared up after a few days, and the crew was able to complete the work. However, due to the gloomy and grey looking footage that came out of the filming there due to the rainstorms, some digital tweaking would have to the applied to the images to make them look appropriately sunny. Color grading has also been a tool of the trade, heavily used by filmmakers to give their movies the final appropriate look and feel desired. On this occasion, even more so. Next up on the table was the fencing match between James Bond and Gustav Graves in the fictional fencing club called Blades. Blades was the name of a social club that figured prominently in one of Ian Fleming’s novels, Moonraker, and it was the scene of a confrontation between Bond and his archenemy, the Industrialist Hugo Drax, whom Bond discovered was cheating at bridge, and sets up a trap for him to reveal Drax’s true nature. The scene from the movie, once again a clear homage to Fleming, changed a game of bridge for a fencing match, but with the same end result. The scene was meant to have taken place very early on, on the shooting schedule but, as a result of Brosnan’s knee injury, it had to be postponed, and shot at a later date. This gave even more time to Toby Stephens and Rosamund Pike to train for the scene under the supervision of legendary swordmaster Bob Anderson. Anderson had been involved in many Hollywood movies, and had trained the likes of Antonio Banderas and Viggo Mortensen for their respective roles on The Mask of Zorro (Martin Campbell, 1998), and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003). What it also meant was that Brosnan had very little time to rehearse due to the delay on filming because of his injury. He demonstrated, however, to be more that up to the task, as he managed to learn most of the moves in a short period of time, which result in Stephens and him doing most of the fight without the use of doubles. This scene marked the appearance of Madonna making a surprise cameo as Verity, Miranda Frost’s fencing instructor.

The entirety of the underground MI-6 training facility situated in an abandoned tube station were filmed at Pinewood. This would be the scene of Bond’s encounter with M, the laying out of his assignment, and the presentation of his new gadgets by Q. The filmmakers wanted to use this scenes as an excuse to homage Bond’s previous adventures by showing on-screen some of the gadgets that had been used by Bond on previous missions like the jet-pack from Thunderball, the suitcase used in From Russia with Love, or the mechanic crocodile the 00 agent had used in Octopussy to sneak onto Octopussy’s Island. It was also a scene that was a clear reflection of the outlandish direction in which the filmmakers wanted to take the movie; the replacement of the old fashioned shooting range by a virtual reality version of the same, and the presentation of the now infamous invisible car. The Aston Martin Vanquish was a thing of beauty but , by most fans’ standards, a step too far in the wrong direction. It was also a car so coveted by the movie’s main star, that Brosnan made it a part of his contract to get one of them as part of his fee for working on the film. Even though it was reiterated by most of those involved that the technology had a strong basis on reality, and that it was actually being developed by the US army, most people thought that it was too outlandish an idea even for the likes of James Bond. Like it or not, the car was the star in one of the most thrilling action set pieces of the entire film; the car chase between Bond’s Aston Martin and Zao’s equally gadget-laden Jaguar XKR. What brings us to the absolute set design masterpiece of the movie; the ice palace. The producers first heard of this on a trip to Iceland while scouting for locations. Production Designer Peter Lamont actually stayed at the hotel overnight to check the facilities. He was so impressed by what he saw that decided to take a page out of his mentor’s book, the legendary Production Designer Ken Adam, and go all out on this one. The set was so massive and the level of detail so intricate, that Tamahori decided it would be a waste to use the set for just a couple of establishing scenes, so he push for the interior of the set to be used as the ending for Bond and Zao’s car chase sequence. For this, the whole interior structure of the set had to be reinforced to withstand not only the weight of both cars, but also the heavy pyrotechnics that would be used within. But that was just one side of the problematic nature of the car chase sequence. When the crew went to Iceland to shoot the plates that would be used by the Visual Effects crew later on post-production, Tamahori was struck by the beauty of a frozen-over lake nearby that he thought would be the perfect setting to shoot the car chase sequence. Unfortunately, the ice in top of the lake wasn’t thick enough to withstand the weight of two racing vehicles and the shooting crew, so another possible locations like Alaska were considered. Luckily for the crew, the ice thickened enough at the last minute for the crew to be able to shoot the scene. In spite of all that, ice thickness tests had to be done periodically to ensure that it was safe for the crew to carry on filming. The cars were heavily modified by the special effects crew to make them less heavy, give the engines an extra boost, and too make room for the many gadgets required for the scene.

Unfortunately, the low temperatures wreaked havoc with the cars, with the crew having to constantly melt the ice that would form around the vehicles.

For the finale, Tamahori wanted to skip the traditional face-off in the villain’s base lair and give it an interesting twist by making it airborne. The chosen aircraft was an Antonov 124-cargo plane, with part of it recreated in a sounstage, and mounted on a gimbal to recreate to movements of an out-of-control, falling plane. The outside of the plane would be recreated with a mixture of practical effects, done by John Richardson’s miniature unit, and CGI for the more complicated shots. It was actually the heavy use of CGI on the movie that’s been one of the reasons of the movie ageing so badly over the years. Most of the CGI used in the film, like the scene in which, after Bond escapes being burned to a cinder by Icarus across the snowplains and ends up kite-surfing a massive wave with the remains of the jet he was riding, it’s one of the most egregious examples of bad CGI found across the movie. It was actually thanks to the outstanding job of series mainstays like Lamont, Richardson and Corbould that some artistry can be saved from the film. It is a pity indeed that the brilliant work of Richardson and his miniatures unit is buried under layers of bad CGI.

Post-production

Due to the hectic and difficult nature of the shooting, as mentioned before, some very heavy digital tweaking has to be applied to the movie’s Photography to have it all achieve the same look and match those scenes shot in location with those shot in soundstages and the back lot. Tamahori, with the help of Title Sequence Designer Daniel Kleinman, got really creative and involved in the design of the Title sequence. He made the unprecedented decision to film Bond’s incarceration and torture scene in a prison camp in North Korea, and include it as part of the title sequence achieving some very graphic and striking imagery. Unfortunately, this was to be musically accompanied by a techno track sang by Madonna that must be one of the worst choices for a Bond song ever. Not all was bad news however as David Arnold once again was chosen to compose the score for the movie which happens to be one of the best things about the movie. Not so was the heavy use of clearly untested CGI that ends up marring the final look of the film and makes it age badly. Some face was saved however due to the brilliant use of miniatures and practical effects courtesy of maestro John Richardson.

Financial and Critical Reception

The movie, as expected, was a massive box office success, garnering a total of $431,971,116 million worlwide, even though the reviews were mixed at best. This seems to be something of a contradiction, as despite the movie doing great at the box office, it has too overtime been as greatly riviled by the fans at large but, is this hate justified? And where does it rank as a Brosnan/Bond movie?

Personal thoughts

So, does the movie go a step too far? Yes, but let me elaborate. The movie starts off great. Action packed pre-title sequence that helps to kick off the plot, Bond is captured at the end of the pre-title sequence, imprisoned, and tortured ( snippets of which are shown throughout the title sequence brilliantly designed by Daniel Kleinman, as per usual), and later freed during a prisoner exchange with Zao once the main titles roll off. Up until this point, it is a solid start ( silly sequence of Bond surfing his way into North Korea notwithstanding). Bond escapes and with the help of the Chinese Secret Service, has to use his contacts and wits to find out where Zao is. Great location shooting in Cadiz doubling as Cuba, and the introduction of Jacinta “Jinx” Johnson. This is where things start taking getting weird. The whole set up with Dr Álvarez’s DNA replacement clinic seems like something out of the Ken Adam’s days, and as far fetched as it may be, it isn’t more outlandish than Bond going into outer space in Moonraker (Lewis Gilbert, 1979). Suspension of disbelief has to exist. I’d say it’s actually a pre-requisite when watching a Bond movie. Halle Berry’s presence doesn’t really bother me as much as it does other people, even though her acting is a bit iffy. And after Bond comes back to London, we have an action set piece which I absolutely adore; the fencing match between Bond and Graves at Blades. Energetically shot and tightly edited, it is by far one of the best action sequences in the movie. Same can be said about all the action sequences in which Vic Armstrong had a hand, mainly the hovercraft chase and the car scene sequence in Iceland ( an over-the-top sequence that’s nevertheless fun to watch, especially to take in Peter Lamont’s magnificent Ice Palace design. But enough with the niceties, or you’re gonna think I don’t have anything bad to say about the movie. The action bits are well shot, even though Tamahori’s style is all over the place. The inexplicable use of speed-ramps to slow down, and then speed up the action, profusely used during the chase sequence in Iceland, are jarring, and feel something out of place in a Bond movie. Some of the dialogue exchanges between Brosnan and Berry are cringy, the invisible car ( nice looking though it may be), is a clear representation of that step too far I was talking about earlier, and so is the virtual romantic exchange between Bond and Moneypenny at the end. The heavy use of yet undeveloped CGI at the time, only contributes to age the movie further, and give it a haphazard look. There’s always been the dodgy optical effect in the series, but this is even more noticeable due to the heavy use in almost every each action set piece that requires visual trickery. All in all, and despite the generally speaking good performances, it is a movie that only gets halfway there. A very ambitious and interesting idea marred by a badly scripted second and third acts, and awful CGI. It doesn’t help either that in an attempt to inject more action and gadgetry into the story, the writers, producers and director ended up stepping firmly, and might I add, unwisely into Sci-fi territory. But, in spite of all its flaws, it is still a very entertaining and enjoyable flick, best enjoyed if you turn your brain off. Where do I rank it? Dead last, which is unfortunate given that this was the last time ever that Brosnan played the character. Does it deserve all the vitriol from the fans? It doesn’t. It’s entertaining, has great production values, and Brosnan is his usual assured and charming self. This film would actually bring about the end of an era as the next film in the series would go in a far grittier and more grounded direction, so you could say this movie is the last Classic Bond movie.

Thanks for reading.

Published by flickgeeky

Love cinema and everything that has to do with it, from the screenwriting to the filmmaking process, acting, to its final presentation on the big screen and finally, to its home media release

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