It’s Not My Time to Go: Die Another Day at 20

Movies Features James Bond
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It’s Not My Time to Go: Die Another Day at 20

Despite its 2002 release date, there are almost no mentions of or references to Twin Towers in the 20th James Bond film, Die Another Day. And while Die Another Day had other things on its mind in lieu of the War on Terror in a more literal sense—something that would change when the franchise would go back to basics with Casino Royale in 2006 and make it all textual—the film’s self-referentiality makes room for its own kind of twinning, albeit somewhat abstractly.

Die Another Day, with its much maligned invisible car and Easter eggs for other Bond movies, seemed to go out of its way to not be a post-9/11 Bond film. What allusion there is gets hidden in an ellipsis: After Bond is traded as a prisoner of war in North Korea, M (Judi Dench) tells him, “While you were away, the world has changed.” Paired with George W. Bush’s claim of North Korea belonging to the same “axis of evil” as Iraq, Iran and Syria, James Chapman, author of Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of James Bond asserts this is where Die Another Day stakes its bona fides as somewhere along a War on Terror timeline. Like all real-world geopolitics in the James Bond movies, it’s a storm cloud that hovers forebodingly, but it’s seldom the main forecast.

The shaken cocktail of proximity to actual international affairs—close enough to grant the movies stakes, but far enough away to grant audiences the freedom of fantasy—has been a hallmark of the James Bond franchise for much of its run. That the films have frequently engaged, even if somewhat delusionally, with the status of Britain’s place on the world stage, a context whose veracity at some point became negligible, allows even the most hermetically sealed of Bond movies to play a game of Her Majesty’s snake eating its own tail.

If the 20th Bond movie had been lambasted for its cartoonish reliance on CGI; for its sheepish zombification of another action movie of its era, XXX; and for its shameless product placement, what was Die Another Day if not a totem of what James Bond had become? Sure, Pierce Brosnan, still looked great in a tuxedo and, with a box office of $431.9 million, the Bond brand could still sparkle, but the temperature and attitude towards the series, once able to convey both the dream of a still-roving British Empire and the possibility of action filmmaking at its most competent, cooled considerably.

It was Brosnan’s fourth film, and the thing that has most stuck out to me about it, more than its fan service or even spiky femme fatale Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), was the grunt Brosnan lets out after being “saved by the bell” at the end of the pre-credits action scene. He hangs onto the bell’s tongue, with the son of North Korean general and conflict diamond trader Col. Tan-Sun Moon (Will Yun Lee) having driven over a dam to his death behind him, and when Bond releases and jumps to his feet, the squelch of stamina being squeezed from him is weighted down with the metatext of Brosnan’s real age betraying itself. The Irish actor was 49 at the time, younger than Roger Moore in his last outing as Bond in A View to a Kill in 1985, but the Bond films, like the world in which they ostensibly inhabited, had changed.

While the Bond films have always been a hodgepodge of adaptation and remixing, with Die Another Day taking elements from Moonraker (the wealthy impresario), The Man with the Golden Gun (the energy harnessing) and Kingsley Amis’ Colonel Sun (the villain’s name), it’s this very tradition that becomes a kind of working premise for the Bond film. For, if 9/11 wasn’t on the film’s mind, it was James Bond’s own longevity that was. The film’s release year was also an anniversary one, marking 40 years since Dr. No in 1962. In the gadget scene with Q (now John Cleese) alone, there are a dozen references to previous Bond films, from the poison-tipped shoe-blade from From Russia with Love to the alligator Bond uses as a stealth device in Live and Let Die. Die Another Day constantly asks itself how to manifest Bond’s legacy, and in moments it’s in objects, the tactile markers and signifiers of a secret agent whose iconography has become object d’art.

But if those pieces of the past populating the present are at risk of being lost, the film knows one thing that’s forever: diamonds. Die Another Day ties itself to diamonds in a manner that grants itself a little unpredictability. While it wishes to align the legacy of the franchise as permanent and shimmering and, ahem, lingering as those little “shards of heaven,” as diamond miner Gustav Graves says, it also acts as a means to fracture James Bond’s image. And it’s here that the film really stands out from the rest of the franchise, by making a mockery of Bond himself.

Bond’s investigation into the person who betrayed him in North Korea, while also tracking down North Korean terrorist Zao (Rick Yune), who was traded for Bond’s life and set free, leads him to Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), a self-publicizing machine who, in a little over a year, has ascended exponentially in global celebrity and entrepreneurship. His official biography belies only the slickest brand-building (his diamonds have an initialed insignia, too): An orphan who found diamonds in Iceland and gave half to charity. His voice drips power, wealth and an Oxford education. He makes his entrance by parachuting with a Union Jack, a PR stunt that lampoons The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). At a fencing club, a violent duel proves Bond and Graves to be equally matched. But Graves, his contorted bottom lip turning every quip into a sneer, is built like the monstrous version of Bond. Or, perhaps that’s redundant.

The existential anxiety that pervades Die Another Day is also a political one; Bond’s globetrotting was always an indicator of who he was representing—what he was a synecdoche for. And here, wherever he turns, he’s met with the jaundiced and skeptical glance of another political power-player who’s aware that the Empire is not what it once was. “Hong Kong’s our turf now, Bond,” a Chinese Intelligence agent who moonlights as a hotel manager tells Bond. Before his death, Col. Moon rubs it in Bond’s face that he studied at Oxford and Harvard, majoring in “Western hypocrisy.”

Yet, Western hypocrisy has its appeal. It has the shine and the spectacle, the diamond-like sheen of the promise of power. It makes the reveal that Gustav Graves is actually Col. Sun-Tan Moon post-DNA replacement therapy both that much more shocking and believable. To clarify, the villain of Die Another Day is a North Korean colonel who, through medical and cosmetic means, turns white. On a literal level, it’s fascinating and unsettling, racialization inverting itself and whiteness becoming a snake eating its own tail: Graves tells Bond that he modeled his persona after him, with “unjustifiable swagger” and “crass quips,” a funhouse mirror of the man whose love only extends to Queen and country. To add to this meta-nesting doll effect, Stephens would go on to voice James Bond in BBC Radio 4’s radio drama adaptations of Fleming’s novels. Graves’, or Moon’s rather, adoption of Britain and Britishness as persona is also saddled with the compelling, uncomfortable, racist intertextual lineage of Bond villains’ frequently complex racial or colonial background: Doctor No is mixed Chinese/German and Le Chiffre is “racially…probably a mixture of Mediterranean with Prussian or Polish strains.” As Adrian Daub and Charles Kronengold assert in The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism, Ian Fleming’s fears of miscegenation are a stench within the books, with villains frequently being the product of British colonialism and their plots for world domination—set in (once) colonized territories—often targeting England herself in a form of “reverse colonialism.”

And then on a more metaphorical level, all this plastic surgery and gene replacement therapy makes for a clever stand-in for the Bond films themselves: Always reactive, pilfering and cribbing from whatever style of action filmmaking is popular at the time. Bond borrowed from blaxploitation for Live and Let Die (1972), Star Wars for Moonraker (1978), James Cameron and True Lies for GoldenEye, etc. Bond’s body was never, or at least rarely, his own body, but the amalgamation of other bodies…like the British Empire.

It’s then of interest that this racial and quasi-national mockery, or at least parody of Bond himself, gets sublimated into the form of Die Another Day: It is bigger and louder and more bombastic than a Bond film had been up to that point and, given its heavy usage of CGI, since. There is a mammoth ice hotel, a nod to Honey Ryder coming out from the sea so vigorous the head threatens to bob off, many lasers, and that invisible Aston Martin V12 Vanquish. The editing toggles between slow motion and being revved up, as close to getting chopped and screwed as Bond may ever get, with David Arnold mixing in some electronica. If you’ve seen it in an earlier 007 movie, it’s here, but manipulated or augmented or amped up to only resemble itself uncannily.

Other James Bond movies have dabbled in this kind of self-reflexivity, but Die Another Day is all but a proto-Skyfall in making James Bond, writ large, its primary preoccupation. But unlike the Sam Mendes film or the Daniel Craig cycle more broadly, it doesn’t do this through a serious interrogation of Bond via some kind of musty psychological realism, but arguably the opposite: Parody, self-effacement, mockery. Through repetition and recycling, the James Bond films, growing further and further from their Cold War origins, could really only get weirder, satirizing their own existence. As Madonna says on the title track, “Sigmund Freud, analyze this.”