The name’s Johnson, Jinx Johnson – MGM was once keen on having Halle Berry’s character from Die Another Day front a 007 spin-off movie.

As the granddaddy of franchise cinema, the James Bond series has weathered some changes in the blockbuster movie market by not changing too much at all. Based on Ian Fleming’s male-oriented pulp paperbacks, the franchise started moving with the times during the genre knock-off Roger Moore era (which started with a blaxploitation movie and ended on a techno-thriller) right up to the more serialised and inter-connected Daniel Craig films, a linear product of the age of cinematic universes.

Through all of this, the essential Bond movie formula has long been codified in the cinematic landscape for almost 60 years and it seldom strays too far. While the soft reboot that began with 2006’s Casino Royale is the biggest upheaval of the series’ extremely loose continuity to date, it was immediately preceded by Die Another Day, a bumper 20th-anniversary old-tricks package, which we’ve covered in the latest episode of the Film Stories podcast.

But in between the last Pierce Brosnan film and the first Daniel Craig one, we almost got a more marked departure from that formula, in the shape of Jinx, a spin-off franchise-starter with Halle Berry reprising her role as Die Another Day’s NSA agent Giacinta ‘Jinx’ Johnson.

By all metrics, Berry was a coup for the franchise even before she won the Best Actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball, the same year as Die Another Day was released. Indeed, she was shooting her first scene in the film, a homage to Ursula Andress’ entrance in Dr No, when she found out she’d been nominated. This was before it became more commonplace to cast  Academy Award winners like Javier Bardem, Christoph Waltz, and Rami Malek in supporting roles, so the film lucked into some Oscar prestige.

Off the back of The World Is Not Enough, (a film more often lambasted for pin-up nuclear physicist Dr Christmas Jones than praised for Elektra King, the series’ only female arch-villain to date) the filmmakers were already setting Jinx up to be a more forward and equal female character than previous ‘Bond girls’, and by the time Die Another Day hit cinemas, MGM was looking to keep Berry in the business of 007 movies.

The spin-off film had Berry attached, along with writers and a director, but for various reasons, it never came to pass. Looking back, we have to wonder how it would have fared and how it might have changed a franchise that is still regarded in some quarters, in the words of its most prominent gender-flipped character, as a “misogynist dinosaur” of a property.

 

Beyond Bond

MGM and EON Productions had been down the road of a female-led Bond spin-off a few years earlier with Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin, the Chinese Secret Service agent who teamed with Brosnan’s 007 in 1997’s Tomorrow Never Die. Despite various rumours of a Wai Lin movie and a planned cameo role for Yeoh in the earliest drafts of Die Another Day, (during Bond’s escape from MI6 custody in Hong Kong) these plans fizzled out.

Instead, Die Another Day’s promotion focused on Jinx as the new character as much as, if not more than Bond. This even extended to the merchandising, which ranged from a Bond Barbie figure, with an outfit designed by Oscar-winning costume designer Lindy Hemming no less, to a range of Revlon lipsticks with names like Bond Black and Berry Avenger.

The idea of a Jinx spin-off was first mooted during the press tour for the film, with Berry telling E! Entertainment she “would do it in a heartbeat” if it were on the cards. Later reports said that MGM was looking for a ‘Winter Olympics’ equivalent series of films to run in alternate years alongside future James Bond films and duly set a target release date of winter 2004.

Pertinent to this development was the state of spy movies in 2002, because so many of them took the piss out of the Bond movies. The Austin Powers movies rolled on with releases uncannily scheduled in the same calendar years as Brosnan’s Bond outings, with Goldmember arriving earlier in the summer, and the Spy Kids movies were lightly ribbing the old 007 tropes too.

A more direct tongue-in-cheek attack came in the Vin Diesel vehicle xXx, which pointedly opens with a non-descript tuxedo-clad secret agent being killed off unceremoniously. This leaves a vacancy that only a modern spy like (checks notes) tattooed extreme sports enthusiast Xander Cage can fill.

However, for all the affectionate and less affectionate piss-takes, it was a dead-serious spy movie that changed the playing field. Sure, Die Another Day was released to warm reviews and strong box-office returns, but The Bourne Identity made it look somewhat silly and anachronistic by turning up a few months earlier and showing what the genre could do in the 21st century. Either way, the Bond franchise clearly needed to be shaken (and arguably stirred) at this point in its history.

 

Touch wood

And so, while Brosnan’s return to the Bond movies was under question, EON producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson started developing the Jinx spin-off in earnest. Completed in May 2003, the first draft of the screenplay was written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, whose tenure as lead screenwriters on Bond began with The World Is Not Enough and has continued all the way to the upcoming No Time To Die.

At the San Diego Comic Con in July 2003, Berry told Dark Horizons ‘I’m hoping, we just got the script last night, the first script and I hear its really, really good”.

On the tone, she added ‘I think it won’t be like Bond, it’s not supposed to be a female Bond, but it is very edgy and I think we’ll have some elements of humour that Bond has because Jinx has that in the Bond movie but it won’t be like Bond.’

Although the Jinx script has never emerged online for us to analyse further, we do know that it skewed less sensational than Die Another Day, with Wade describing it as “a very atmospheric, Euro-thriller, Bourne-style movie”. The script called for Michael Madsen to reprise his DAD role as Jinx’s NSA handler, Damian Falco, who would give her odd jobs in dangerous places rather than full-on missions. Additionally, Jinx would have a lover named Javier, who the producers hoped that future Bond villain Bardem would play.

With Purvis and Wade on screenwriting duties, EON signed Stephen Frears (then hot off High Fidelity and Dirty Pretty Things) to direct the film, and the production was set to press ahead with a budget in the $80–90 million range. It’s important to note that this was less than the CG-heavy Die Another Day’s reported $142m budget, which seems in keeping with the more grounded and edgy tone of the Jinx script.

But in October 2003, MGM pulled the plug on the project and instructed EON to concentrate on the then-untitled Bond 21 instead. In a 2004 interview, Purvis and Wade explained that the decision had come down from studio executives after the box-office underperformance of two big-budget franchise sequels led by women – Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle Of Life and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.

Broccoli and Wilson were said to be either “dismayed” or “furious” with this decision, depending on which source you asked, but they did press on with the film that would become Casino Royale. EON was free to take the project to other studios if the producers had wanted to, but it wasn’t to be.

 

Aftermath

Even though it didn’t come to pass, Jinx marks the last concrete attempt at a Bond spin-off to date. Berry went on to sign up for 2004’s Catwoman, the $100m Batman spin-off that Warner Bros hastily threw together after the original Batman Vs Superman project fell through (now there’s a story for another time) but as with many films like it around then, it wasn’t the female lead so much as the sub-par script and execution that sunk it.

It may have looked like the end of the road for Charlie’s Angels and Tomb Raider at the time, but both of those franchises have had modern reboots now that the blinkers are off when it comes to quality judgements on female-led films.

In a webchat on her fan site in 2005, Berry said of the spin-off  “I would have loved to, but that issue has been put to bed. Maybe someday I will do a cameo in a Bond movie as Jinx….we’ll see.”

With Brosnan being officially let go in 2004, the Bond series has veered away from the continuity in which Jinx’s unmade spin-off films would have taken place. To his credit, Craig signed up with the proviso that, among other updates, the female characters would no longer be relegated to set dressing or eye candy, but throughout his tenure, the female mortality rate has continued in the regrettable tradition of the films of yesteryear.

No Time To Die already looks set to buck that trend, not only by bringing back Lea Seydoux’s character from Spectre as Bond begins his latest adventure happily retired, but also introducing a female 00 agent in the form of Lashana Lynch’s Nomi.

“I always feel that Bond is a male character, that is just a fact,” Broccoli told Good Morning Britain. “We have to make movies about women and women’s stories, but we have to create female characters and not just for a gimmick turn a male character into a woman.”

Beneath all the gnashing of teeth in some quarters about the thus-far unconfirmed rumours that Lynch has taken on a certain 00 number, (which older readers may remember Bond has relinquished at this point in the continuity) Nomi is being positioned as a more human take on the female equal, just as Jinx was placed opposite Brosnan’s Bond as a tough, quip-happy agent who enjoys her work. And with franchises spinning off far more frequently nowadays, who’s to say she won’t be headlining her own non-Bond film a few years down the line?

With the parent franchise remaining intact over the last 20 years or so, it’s hard to imagine a Jinx spin-off would have revolutionised the Bond movies as comprehensively as the Bourne-influenced reboot we got in Casino Royale. For starters, in that film, it’s Craig who’s doing the Andress special, emerging from the sea in his blue trunks, rather than the female lead.

We’re only now back at the point where this sort of prospect might be considered at EON again, as Craig departs the series, but the previous attempt at a female-led spin-off obviously didn’t fail from lack of enthusiasm…

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