Like many who grew up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, some of my earliest cinematic memories involved Pierce Brosnan, thanks to a mother in a major Brosnan phase that was, at the time, very embarrassing to her teenage daughter. Brosnan’s Bond films really didn’t grab me as anything particularly memorable, but they were also some of the biggest movies coming out at the time. So, by default, they became a family event. I don’t even remember my impression going into the last Bond film of his career, but I do remember the one I had as I left.
On the surface, 2002’s Die Another Day probably isn’t anything to write home about. It’s no less absurd than some of the franchise’s previous films, but its nonsensical action coupled with an oppressive parade of bad puns would be enough to turn anybody off, and I wouldn’t really blame them. I might have been among those were it not for one or two key factors.
Die Another Day has an interesting enough start, putting James Bond in a position that he can’t charm or shoot his way out of for once. He makes a mistake. A story that starts out with their hero fucking up already has my attention, and this is no small fuckup. After his cover is blown in front of the North Korean army and the death of Colonel Tan-Sun Moon (Will Yun Lee) following a brief car chase that ended badly for both, 007 is captured and thrown in a Korean prison where, over something like 14 months, he grows an impressively scraggly wizard’s beard. The title sequence is a series of images of Bond being interrogated and tortured set to an equally aggressively upbeat Madonna song; I also mostly ignored this as too cheesy back in the day, but on revisiting it, it may actually be a banger? Maybe it’s just the simple fact that it’s set to a montage torture scene that makes it slap.
Instead of a daring escape, Bond only sees freedom when his government bothers to negotiate for his release out of fear that he was leaking MI6 secrets under the persuasion of drugs. He’s traded for Zao (Rick Yune), the film’s second-tier bad guy whom the British had managed to apprehend after Bond’s imprisonment. It’s a trade that came at too high of a price, and M (Judi Dench) makes sure to let James know she would have made good on her promise all the way back in 1995’s GoldenEye and left him there to rot had she any other choice. James is abruptly faced with the realization of just how disposable these agents are, even him. The notorious James Bond, just as expendable as any other agent, until now left to rot indefinitely in a Korean prison. (Ten years later, Javier Bardem in Skyfall would like a word.)
For the second time in the first hour, James is deliberately isolated — first by being a prisoner behind enemy lines, and then by getting his license to kill revoked once he’s been rescued. So what does he do? He fakes a heart attack somehow and skips town, now a fugitive on the run from his own government. No longer licensed to kill, maybe, but he still has his killer instinct. (What? I can make bad puns. too.) And, as Bond claims later on in the film, it’s only a number.
Like many 007 plots before and after, Bond suddenly finds himself on his own, going rogue to track down Zao in order to even the score. His encounter in Hong Kong with Mr. Chang (Ho Yi) and the Chinese intelligence is a fun detour that gives us a peek into an espionage underworld hidden in plain sight, something that the John Wick movies spend a lot of time building. Once Bond catches up to Zao in a gene-therapy clinic, things start to really kick into high gear with just the smallest taste of the sheer wackiness about to ensue. Oh, and Zao has diamonds permanently embedded in his face after their explosive standoff in North Korea. Bond villains with eccentric facial scarrings is a time-honored tradition, and I’ll confess to being a sucker for it. Zao’s face bling is admittedly more for aesthetic purposes and less for functional use like Jaws with his steel-capped teeth from the likes of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. He’s an all-timer. (Talk about chewing the scenery.)
One major criticism of Die Another Day is its problem with tone or lack thereof. Probably valid, and something I might argue more seriously if the film took itself seriously at all. After Bond’s initially grim-looking fate at the beginning and hospital-room jailbreak, we find ourselves in London — watching a man parachute into Buckingham Palace to the on-the-nose tune of the Clash’s “London Calling.” This is an upfront warning to not take anything from that point on too seriously and with good reason. The biggest surprise that Die Another Day is not the movie promised by its more straightforward, hard-hitting 40 minutes is not the sudden introduction of an ice palace. Or a giant space laser powered by a world-killing robot suit.
The most unexpected gem of Die Another Day? It’s Toby Stephens as Gustav Graves (best villain name ever).
Coming as a shock to probably no one, I am usually and unapologetically in the villain camp. They’re just more interesting and they make the heroes more interesting in the process. Without someone to fight against, what do they even do with themselves all day? And it’s clear from Graves’ very first introduction, with that careless charm and effortless swagger, that he’s going to be the real challenge to Bond in this film. The Graves storyline also really goes off the rails, in ways that might never work outside of the 007 franchise and only barely work here. But leave it to Toby Stephens to really sell it, even after we learn he is, in fact, the previously assumed-dead Colonel Moon — who has just gone through some very weird DNA swap.
James Bond has always had a racism problem. How outrageous it is really depends on the film and era in which it takes place. Consider 1967’s You Only Live Twice, one of two previous Bond films by which Die Another Day seems most influenced in one way or another. On the one hand, the latter does have its main villain presenting as a white man replacing a Korean actor by way of an extreme science-fiction face transplant — a very eccentric form of whitewashing. DNA-swapping plot points are probably the most James Bond thing ever and the whitewashing of a Korean actor is still a bit cringe, even for the sake of an extreme villain makeover. On the other hand, there’s possibly no more cringe-worthy scene than in You Only Live Twice when they “make Bond Japanese.” In these enlightened and slightly more progressive times, Sean Connery’s Bond films, mostly hailing from the 1960s, undoubtedly feel especially out of touch at best or downright offensive at worst. It could be argued that Die Another Day manages to do a little better while also managing to do a little worse, simply because by the early 2000s, we should have probably known better.
Lee’s all-too-brief performance sticks out in my mind as a missed opportunity, not just because we first meet him using his anger therapist as an actual punching bag. As undeniably charismatic as Toby Stephens always is, it’s hard not to wonder what the original Colonel Moon would have done with more screen time, gracing the screen briefly with a mixture of cruelty and petulance. Graves does later confess, mid-villain monologue, that in choosing his new face, he deliberately and specifically modeled himself after Bond. It’s a personal diss at James, implying that beneath all of that double-agent bravado, he’s just a smarmy asshole, while maybe also a clever way of suggesting that modeling yourself after a confident white man is the only way to really get ahead in the world. He did, after all, major in Western hypocrisy.
But back to Toby Stephens.
Graves is a sneering playboy with a flair for the dramatic who parachutes into our hearts and loins, whisking us off to a palace made of ice with promises to change the world when he really only wants to destroy it. Going from a diamond-hoarding colonel to a global-warming megalomaniac with a fencing hobby, he and Bond first meet at opposing ends of the sword in a duel almost as homoerotic as Gustav’s perfectly exaggerated lip curl. This man’s chaotic gay energy cannot be understated or replicated. Toby Stephens plays a great villain, be it flamboyant or menacing or both. Years before he would captivate us as the morally gray Captain Flint in the Starz series Black Sails, his time as Prince John in the BBC’s Robin Hood feels like the natural progression of his role here. In all things, Toby Stephens is the blueprint. He plays Graves like the walking, talking personification of “if villain bad, why sexy?,” who also hooks himself up to a glowy dream machine at night because the gene therapy makes it hard for him to sleep. This makes Gustav Graves the hottest insomniac in the business, who takes some of the worst puns in the film and turns them into Shakespeare. This may be a James Bond movie, but it can’t be overstated that Graves steals every scene he has. It’s his world and James is just living in it.
There’s no way they would have let Toby Stephens be Brosnan’s Bond Girl, but it’s the role he deserved. He possesses all of the natural charisma in the art of seduction that feels kind of forced between James and this film’s main Bond Girl. He has sexual chemistry with the closest lampshade, more than capable of seducing the pants off the straightest Double-0, and he would have been right to do it.
Not shockingly, if anyone is underused it’s the women in the film. Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike) is the fencing protege to Madonna’s Verity and the secret right hand of Gustav Graves. Her plot contribution is barely functional; she succeeds in distracting James long enough to get him into bed so she can take the bullets out of his gun (not without an obvious “Double-oh” reference pre-coitus; the sexual puns in this film are really at an 11). But beyond that, she’s mostly just window dressing. But she’s got ice in her veins, and we love a woman who speaks in alto. I would have liked to see more of her. The moment she rips off her fencing mask is as immediately captivating as Toby Stephens stripping off his jacket to duel Brosnan in a tight little white tank-top. Next to them, James is somehow the least hot person in
Then there’s Jinx (Halle Berry) as the main Bond Girl, winking at the screen that she’s more than meets the eye but always more of a harmless distraction than honest competition. She’s an American spy who, throughout most of the film, works independently and not in James’s shadow despite having to be saved by him twice. She has some of the worst line deliveries that are more a fault of the script than Berry’s work. (There’s a your-momma joke. Let us not speak anymore of such things.) But she often acts more like a one-note femme fatale than a fellow agent. It’s only frustrating because despite this being made in the early 2000s, the producers didn’t seem to do much better with her than other Bond girls of the same ilk. Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) in The Spy Who Loved Me was in some ways a more compelling version of the spy love interest, and that movie was made 25 years earlier. Still, between Miranda, Gustav and Jinx, this is arguably the most sexually charged James Bond in some time, and I’m here for it.
Once lines are drawn and the real villain of this story has been revealed, the remaining events begin a slow and steady meltdown. Literally. The ice palace melts down around Jinx thanks to Gustav’s sun-powered space laser that’s more or less a plot borrowed from the OG Blofeld, and Bond somehow manages to outrun its heat rays while being chased by it. It’s named Icarus because, you know, you shouldn’t get too close to it. Diamond-faced Zao also gets killed by an actual chandelier in true poetic fashion, and there’s a truly horrendous CGI avalanche that harkens back to the tech of Moore’s era, but I find that somewhat prehistorically charming. Some things aren’t meant to be updated.
While Lee Tamahori’s Die Another Day in many ways feels like a marriage of You Only Live Twice and Moonraker, its commitment to embracing the absurd as Roger Moore’s silliest entry once did truly makes the film. Invisible cars, over-the-top action and over-the-top jokes — the latter of which are hard to swallow sometimes but Brosnan’s Bond has always been cheesy, and his last film may as well be a parody of itself. It embraces just how ridiculous the action-hero spy genre can be and asks you to suspend your disbelief in favor of giving yourself over to it, and even more recent movies like Black Widow have paid homage to that. While Moonraker starts with a high-stakes airplane fight, Die Another Day ends with one. Roger Moore’s daughter, Deborah Moore, even has a small role as a flight attendant in the film, the sweetest of nods to another beloved Bond.
The climactic plane fight doesn’t exactly get your pulse racing, but does it matter? Jinx and Miranda get to have their own gay swordfight while Bond and Graves duke it out together, a fight that ends with Toby Stephens getting pushed out of the plane and told it’s time to face gravity. It seems that Gustav Graves flew too close to the sun — and right into the airplane’s jet engine.
Die Another Day has everything. It’s James Bond meets The Fast & the Furious, with homoerotic fencing between mortal enemies, villainous climate-change schemes and Bond basically outrunning the sun. Everyone is hot and unhinged. This movie was truly ahead of its time. People call this the Batman & Robin of the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies like that’s an insult when Batman & Robin was actually awesome. Their unwillingness to conform is what makes them utterly unique, great for what it is and not great for what it’s not, but you can’t say they’re forgettable. I don’t think Brosnan gets enough credit for just going along with this wild ride of a film that does nothing but embrace itself and make no apologies for it. Neither does Toby Stephens for essentially carrying the entire thing on his back. Why waste time giving this a more serious critique? It’s not like the film didn’t repeatedly warn us what it really was. As they say in fencing, and in the immortal words of most unforgettable Bond villain Gustav Graves, what’s the point?