“Die Another Day made good money, delivered on spectacle, but didn’t resonate.” — 007 historian John Cork
The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 15th anniversary of the release of Die Another Day, the twentieth official cinematic James Bond adventure and which featured Pierce Brosnan’s fourth and final performance as Agent 007.
Our previous celebratory 007 articles include Dr. No, The Living Daylights, The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, Casino Royale, For Your Eyes Only, Thunderball, GoldenEye, A View to a Kill, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Goldfinger, and 007… Fifty Years Strong.
The Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship continue the series with this retrospective featuring a Q&A with an esteemed group of James Bond scholars, documentarians and historians, who discuss the virtues, shortcomings and legacy of… Die Another Day. [Read on here...]
The participants (in alphabetical order)…
Neil S. Bulk is a music editor and soundtrack producer. He co-produced Star Trek: The Original Series Soundtrack Collection and has been involved with over 150 other CD soundtrack/original score releases including Titanic, Total Recall, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and a 3-CD collection of music from the 1970s Wonder Woman television show. He recently produced with composer David Arnold, the newly expanded 2-CD release of Die Another Day for La-La Land Records.
Robert A. Caplen is an attorney and the author of Shaken & Stirred: The Feminism of James Bond (Xlibris, 2010).
John Cork is the author (with Collin Stutz) of James Bond Encyclopedia (DK, 2007) and (with Bruce Scivally) of James Bond: The Legacy (Abrams, 2002) and (with Maryam d’Abo) Bond Girls Are Forever: The Women of James Bond (Abrams, 2003). He is the president of Cloverland, a multi-media production company, producing documentaries and value added material for movies on DVD and Blu-ray, including material for many of the James Bond and Pink Panther titles as well as Chariots of Fire and The Hustler. Cork also wrote the screenplay to The Long Walk Home (1990), starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek. He wrote and directed the feature documentary You Belong to Me: Sex, Race and Murder on the Suwannee River for producers Jude Hagin and Hillary Saltzman (daughter of original Bond producer, Harry Saltzman). He has recently contributed articles on the literary history of James Bond for ianfleming.com and The Book Collector.
Lisa Funnell is the author (with Klaus Dodds) of The Geographies, Genders, and Geopolitics of James Bond (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and editor of For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond (Wallflower, 2015). She is Assistant Professor, Women’s and Gender Studies Program and Affiliate Faculty, Film and Media Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma. Her other books include Warrior Women: Gender, Race, and the Transnational Chinese Action Star (State University of New York, 2014), (with Man-Fung Yip) American and Chinese-Language Cinemas: Examining Cultural Flows (Routledge, 2015) and (with Philippa Gates) Transnational Asian Identities in Pan-Pacific Cinemas: The Reel Asian Exchange (Routledge, 2012).
Lee Pfeiffer is the author (with Dave Worrall) of The Essential Bond: The Authorized Guide to the World of 007 (Boxtree, 1998/Harper Collins, 1999) and (with Philip Lisa) The Incredible World of 007: An Authorized Celebration of James Bond (Citadel, 1992) and The Films of Sean Connery (Citadel, 2001). Lee was a producer on the Goldfinger and Thunderball Special Edition LaserDisc sets and is the founder (with Dave Worrall) and Editor-in-Chief of Cinema Retro magazine, which celebrates films of the 1960s and 1970s and is “the Essential Guide to Cult and Classic Movies.”
The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.
And now that the participants have been introduced, might I suggest preparing a martini (shaken, not stirred, of course) and cueing up the soundtrack album to Die Another Day, and then enjoy the conversation with these James Bond authorities.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way is Die Another Day worthy of celebration on its 15th anniversary?
Neil S. Bulk: Die Another Day was the twentieth Bond film released in forty years and it represents a culmination of the entire series to that point and it marks the end of an era. The Bond films followed a formula established in the 60s and after this film the series was rebooted and hasn’t quite gotten back to that formula yet. Die Another Day diverged from the formula a little (for instance the opening gun barrel, a series mainstay, was tweaked to include a bullet, and the opening credits advanced the narrative) but for the most part it followed a pattern that the series was known for and incredibly successful using. For that reason, Die Another Day is an indispensable part of the Bond canon and it could be why we’re still talking about it fifteen years later.
Robert Caplen: Given current events on the Korean peninsula, it is fitting that we are revisiting Die Another Day now. As farcical as the film’s plot may have seemed fifteen years ago with an Icarus satellite designed to sweep across the DMZ, it offers a tame alternative to the real threat that emanates from Pyongyang today.
Unfortunately, we have no real-life North Korean General Moon, who at least advocated (albeit unsuccessfully) for pragmatism and the prevention of nuclear war. Instead, we face the specter of a North Korean ICBM striking anywhere in the world. For better or worse, Die Another Day is relevant once again, an unlikely beneficiary of the greatest nuclear threat since the end of the Cold War. But even in the absence of a current North Korean threat, Pierce Brosnan’s final mission as 007 deserves renewed focus and attention. As the final film before the Daniel Craig reboot, Die Another Day represented the end of certain stylistic elements that pervaded the films for years. It also served as the first film in what I term the “Revisionist Bond Girl Era.”
John Cork: Die Another Day marked the end of the Pierce Brosnan era, which isn’t necessarily something to celebrate. I enjoyed Brosnan as Bond. The film marked a strange turning point for the series, and it seemed to encapsulate the best and worst of the 1990s Bond. It was a big, brash, and in many ways, incoherent spectacle. At the time, Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli thought audiences wanted a movie in the vein of The Spy Who Loved Me. It felt like the mood of 1977 (the year TSWLM and Star Wars were released). The Phantom Menace had been released during the summer before The World Is Not Enough, and Attack of the Clones was scheduled to be released during the summer before Die Another Day. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had dominated the box office the previous year, and the second Potter film was due to be released during 2002. These films were being made in the UK with many Bond alumni. Over at Sony, there was tremendous heat on Spider-man, also due in 2002. In short, CGI-laden fantasy and spectacle were back. The lesson of their huge success was simple: dream big and make it pretty in post-production. This was clearly the direction that the studio thought was right for Bond.
Unfortunately, this was not the style that came naturally for the creative team working on the film. Like trying to get Eminem to record a country music album, Lee Tamahori, Purvis and Wade, and Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli found themselves making a film that I believe none of them truly knew how to embrace. Cubby Broccoli, Christopher Wood, Tom Mankiewicz (who worked uncredited on Spy), Richard Maibaum, and Lewis Gilbert could dance a beautiful waltz with the absurd. They could grill up a Bond story with extra-cheese and make it taste like caviar.
The weak link in the chain turned out to be Lee Tamahori who made a brilliant film in his native New Zealand about the Maori population, Once Were Warriors (1994). Tamahori is an immensely talented, intelligent, but quirky filmmaker (with, admittedly, some personal issues that came up after Die Another Day). He turned out not to have an ear for the softer edge performances need in a Bond film. In scenes where subtlety was needed, he directed talented actors to go bigger and brasher. Too many lines are yelled. Fun double-entendres fall like bricks onto glass (Jinx’s line about Bond’s “big bang theory” comes to mind). He makes big mistakes. For example, the film opens with Bond surfing on a monster wave. That was done for real. Then, later, a CGI Bond again surfs (or kite-surfs to be exact) on a CGI wave during a CGI icefall into the ocean. CGI Bond didn’t look great, but since the filmmakers had gone to great lengths to show us Bond surfing some of the largest real waves in the world in the same film, it looked horrible. The right director knows one of those two scenes needs to go.
So what is there to celebrate? Those cars sliding across the ice give us an incredibly cool chase scene. John Cleese as Q makes me wish I could have seen him in half-a-dozen more Bond films. The “can you catch it” references to the glorious legacy of the Bond films (and novels) makes the film a fantastic puzzle for 007 buffs. Only Bond could pull off a hovercraft chase through a minefield. We have swordplay, amazing sets, brutal fights, and, occasional flashes of brilliance. And, of course, a great David Arnold score which, on this anniversary, is now being re-released as a deluxe double CD set by La-La Land records with tons of music never before available. That alone is completely worthy of celebration.
Lisa Funnell: Die Another Day marks the 40th anniversary of the James Bond film franchise. The film was highly referential of previous Bond films from an homage to the first Bond Girl Honey Ryder in Dr. No (1962), to the use of diamonds to create a “sun gun” like in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), to the showcasing of previous spy gadgets like the jet pack in Thunderball (1965) and the crocodile submarine in Octopussy (1983). It offers an interesting reflection on the series before the franchise moves into a different direction narratively, thematically, and stylistically.
Lee Pfeiffer: The film is primarily notable only because it marked Pierce Brosnan’s final Bond film after a very successful seven year run. There’s not too much else to recommend about it. The movie is generally regarded as a misfire among most hardcore Bond enthusiasts, though there is no denying the general public came out in droves for it and it grossed over a half billion dollars.
Coate: Can you describe what it was like seeing Die Another Day for the first time?
Bulk: Complete excitement. I’m always excited when a new Bond movie comes out. For Die Another Day, I was excited when they announced the start of filming (on Good Morning America here in the US). I was excited when I saw the first teaser (in front of Attack of the Clones). And, of course, I was excited on opening day when I got to see it. My recollection is that I saw it four times on its initial release.
Caplen: I saw Die Another Day in theaters the day after its US release. I recall being excited to watch another Pierce Brosnan installment and hopeful that some of the gimmicks from The World Is Not Enough (i.e. Renard’s traveling bullet that made him impervious to pain, the annual frequency of Christmas) would be toned down. The title sequence stood out to me as arguably the most graphic (and disturbing) in the franchise. I also recall disappointment in the poor CGI quality, though I quickly forgave producers when the Vanquish went incognito.
Cork: I was in deep at the time. I was in the midst of the publicity tour for the official 40th Anniversary 007 book, James Bond: The Legacy, which I had co-authored with Bruce Scivally. I was doing a minor task for the Special Edition DVD release, writing a trivia track for the film. I had visited the set, been in Eon’s offices during production, talked with key members of the production team. Just before I saw the film for the first time, I had been invited to co-author Bond Girls Are Forever with the wonderful Maryam d’Abo. I was living, eating, drinking Bond pretty much 24/7.
I saw the film for the first time at the premiere at the Royal Albert Hall, which was a glorious affair. There is really nothing like it. The party was held across the street in a massive tent. I spent a lot of time with Guy Hamilton, who only a few recognized. He didn’t much care for the film, but I took him around and introduced him to a lot of the more recent generations of the Bond family, and he so enjoyed meeting them, and they loved meeting him.
At the time, I was oddly disassociated with the movie. I couldn’t rationally judge it. I was having this amazing experience that only existed because this film existed. Yet, 9/11 had happened just over a year earlier. A long, ugly war was coming, and I very honestly wondered how Bond would adapt to this strange conflict which was brewing. Something told me that this big film which was giving me such great experiences was not the right tone for the moment.
Funnell: Honestly, I had mixed feelings about the film then and still do now. There are some elements that I enjoy [see comments above] and others that I find problematic [see comments below]. I remember thinking, where do we go from here?
Pfeiffer: I was invited by the producers to the Royal Premiere in London. It was the first time a movie was ever shown at the Royal Albert Hall. The venue wasn’t equipped to do so and the studio spent a fortune putting in the proper equipment and technical aspects just for this single showing. The release of the film marked the 40th anniversary of the Bond film franchise so there was quite a lot of hoopla that went with the publicity campaign. Queen Elizabeth was in attendance and her arrival was broadcast by closed circuit on the big screen so you could watch her go through the customary greeting with the cast and key crew members. Producer Michael Wilson introduced to her each person in turn. When she entered the auditorium it was to fanfare played by her royal guardsmen. Topping things off was the presence on stage of previous Bond actors Roger Moore, George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton. Only Sean Connery couldn’t be induced to attend. The Albert Hall premiere was spectacular. Only the British can seem to pull off the kind of old world, spectacular movie premieres any more. The film set a precedent in one regard, as other Bond premieres have been held there since. The producer’s party afterward was also surrealistic in its grandeur with props from the ice palace set imported to serve as set designs for the venue and servers carrying around trays of seemingly limitless champagne, a hallmark of every Bond after-party.
Coate: In what way was Toby Stephens’ Gustav Graves (or Will Yun Lee’s Colonel Tan-Sun Moon) a memorable villain?
Bulk: He’s effective because he’s a physical match to Bond, which he tells us is by design. This makes him more of a menace than the usual megalomaniac in a Bond film. Typically Bond villains have a menacing henchman to deal with Bond, but Gustav Graves gets into several fights with Bond, and while Bond defeats him every time (maybe he’s not that effective after all) it’s always a pretty close fight.
Caplen: Gustav Graves is another clever iteration of the Janus-like villain that defined the Pierce Brosnan era. Whereas the theme of treachery is primarily ideological or political in GoldenEye (Alec Travelyan’s Cossack betrayal of MI6), Tomorrow Never Dies (Elliot Carver’s seemingly impartial news conglomerate that, in fact, manipulates the global affairs it covers to Carver’s advantage), and The World Is Not Enough (Elektra King’s betrayal of M to exact revenge for her father’s death), Colonel Moon takes it to the next level by literally altering his identity and transforming into the Anglo Graves. The permeation of this theme is not surprising given the strong influence of writer Bruce Feirstein, who wrote or co-wrote GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, and The World Is Not Enough. In the latter film, Feirstein collaborated with Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who both took over the reins for Die Another Day and added their own twist to the Janus theme.
Graves/Moon is the epitome of Janus, torn between two worlds: West against East; “civilized” (fencing) against rogue (arms smuggler); creation (the vast wealth of the Graves Foundation) against destruction (annihilating South Korea). And yet, he is not very memorable, especially when compared to his diamond-deformed henchman Zao.
Cork: It is funny, but Gustav Graves becomes yet another attempt to put Hugo Drax from the novel Moonraker in a film. In the novel, Drax is a badly wounded German soldier in World War II whose command of English allows him to take on a false British identity, become a wealthy industrialist and build a rocket to destroy London. This had been Michael France’s inspiration for the Alec Trevelyan in GoldenEye, so a lot of Graves and his plot felt strangely familiar. This was the third film out of the previous four to have its plot turn on a satellite, and the sun-ray was an intentional nod, of course, to Diamonds Are Forever. All this undercuts Graves. Additionally, the fascinating subtext of a character literally changing his race (something Bond does in You Only Live Twice) gets brushed aside. Watching the manic Graves quickly becomes exhausting. Additionally, Richard Branson who somewhat inspired the grinning showmanship of Graves (and who shows up as an extra in the next Bond film) is such a likable fellow that the performance quickly veers into caricature. For this I blame Tamahori, who seemed to be directing with commands of “bigger, faster, louder, wilder!” Toby Stephens is a fine actor, and I feel that with the right director, he could have delivered a menacing, tortured, nuanced performance. I can see Graves with a smooth, understated delivery that only briefly reveals the tension and anger lurking beneath his calculating mask. But that wasn’t the performance that ended up on screen.
Funnell: I have mixed feelings about the villain and particularly his racial transformation. While it provides an unexpected “a-ha” moment, it perpetuates role stratification based on race/ethnicity that is (still) all too common in Hollywood and has been historically employed in the James Bond franchise. Will Yun Lee’s Tan-Sun Moon would have the first Asian arch-villain in a James Bond film since Dr. No who was played by Len Wiseman depicted through the racist convention of yellowface. But once again, the Asian villain is being “modified” in some way and this is deeply troubling.
Pfeiffer: Unfortunately, the film is memorable in mostly the wrong ways. The story starts off promisingly but devolves into confusion and absurdities. Having said that, the first half hour is pretty good — and I must say that Brosnan is in top form. Also, the fencing sequence, which was partially filmed in London’s legendary Reform Club, is one of the best action scenes in any Bond movie. If only the rest of the film held up as well.