Timely -- and as demographically savvy as ever -- James Bond enters his new adventure off the coast of North Korea with some fast and furious surfing designed to show the "XXX" generation that the 007 dude still has the stuff. The waves and silhouetted figures riding the massive curls inspire a shiver of delight along with a tremor of hope that the world's coolest franchise has finally ditched his blockbuster bloat and just maybe the Dry Look in order to power-surf into the new millennium. It's about then, as the waves and our hopes crest, that "Die Another Day" cuts to one of the surfers pulling off his mask to reveal the untroubled face of Pierce Brosnan, whose glazed implacability suggests a man who rarely gets shaken, much less stirred.
Launched with "Dr. No," the Bond franchise began 40 years ago with Her Majesty's sexiest spy thwarting a plot to destroy the American space program while swanning about Jamaica, a setting that lent an undeniable frisson to the film's premiere during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The latest Bond opens against a similarly providential geopolitical backdrop on the North Korean side of the demilitarized zone. The communist nation is such a freakish, unsexy locale (no purring Pussy Galore here) that once 007 lands you want him to surf right out again. Instead, he squares off against a colonel (Will Yun Lee) who's trafficking in diamonds mined in horror spots such as Sierre Leone, only to have his cover blown.
The botch leads to a Hovercraft chase, followed by 14 months of Bond bondage, torture and beard growth that, bizarrely, unfolds to the techno thump of Madonna's cheerless title song and under the usual opening-credit nudie cuties. Once freed and faced with charges that he gave up other agents while imprisoned, Bond spends the remainder of the story shaking off the film's dank opening as he clears his name and traces blood diamonds to Iceland by way of London and a snarky magnate, Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens). Among the other players the agent encounters as he hopscotches continents are one of colonel's henchmen, Zao (Rick Yune), an arm accessory named Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike) and an enigma in a hot bikini, Jinx, played by Halle Berry, Bond's newest love interest and Brosnan's highly visible partner in advertising.
Berry brings about as much conviction as you might expect to a role that, essentially, is the bodacious equivalent of a hit of Viagra. First seen rising up from the Caribbean waters as Ursula Andress did in "Dr. No," a knife strapped to the belt slung over her hips, the Academy Award-winner has been brought in to jump-start Bond's engine and as a consequence she never fully transcends the standard Bond girl limitations. She looks fabulous running after bad guys while brandishing a gun, her sundress lashing her bare thighs, but she's also about as persuasive an operative as Beyonce Knowles was in the last Austin Powers lollapalooza. It isn't only that Berry lacks the ferocious determination that turned Carrie-Anne Moss into a cult with the release of "The Matrix"; it's that the Bond movie she's signed onto lacks it as well.
Perched uneasily between lingering self-parody and the filmmakers' clear desire for a Bond vehicle to be taken seriously as an action movie, "Die Another Day" remains caught somewhere in between. There are times when it feels like two separate, at times warring movies. The first stars Brosnan, a very fit 49-year-old actor who's nonetheless 49, and whose callow appeal has been best put to use in films that bring out his vaguely louche hauteur, as John Boorman did in his underrated spy movie, "The Tailor of Panama." The second Bond film, in turn, features younger actors such as Berry and Rick Yune ("The Fast and the Furious"), whose sleek black clothes and martial-arts poses offer continued evidence that "The Matrix" is the type of defining movie that doesn't just cast long shadows, it reconfigures the very genre.
The Bond films have almost always been primarily feats of engineering, and directing them has often seemed better suited to technicians rather than to artists or craftsmen: Their real auteurs have always been the star, the producers, the composers and opening-credit guru Maurice Binder. Yet we expect more out of our action movies than we did in the early 1960s (we expect John Woo or "The Matrix"), which is why the Bond producers have in recent years tried to elevate the filmmaking by bringing in something of a name director. The gambit to class up "The World Is Not Enough" didn't pan out, however, and director Michael Apted's contribution remains an undistinguished blur made conspicuous only by the insanely silly casting of the pneumatically endowed Denise Richards as a "Doctor of Atomic Physics."
There's a better payoff this time with Lee Tamahori. A director with a facility for putting a high sheen on pulp, the New Zealander honed his action chops on "The Edge," a thriller in which he simultaneously wrangled Alec Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins and a grizzly bear. Tamahori springs a few surprises in "Die Another Day" -- including a nimbly choreographed swordfight between Bond and the magnate -- but given the requisite din of artillery, gadgets and plot complications, it's impossible to gauge where the director leaves off and the rest of the production crew kicks in. As is usually the case with Bond, the big action has been left to others and here it's executive producer Anthony Waye who earns kudos for the surf sequence while second unit director Vic Armstrong, who did most of the action last time, gets credit for an ice-bound car chase.
"Die Another Day" is only intermittently entertaining but it's hard not to be a sucker for its charms, or perhaps it's just impossible not to feel nostalgia for movies you grew up with. The franchise has been thrashing about in a prolonged middle-aged crisis since Sean Connery tossed his hat onto Moneypenny's rack for the final time but, still, there's something about it that remains irresistible. If nothing else, "Die Another Day" is a wittily self-knowing title for a money machine that has consistently managed to sputter to life again and again despite a surfeit of hack writing and interminably logy action. Triumphant in spite of its flubs, the series has even survived miscalculations that would have killed off a less robust formula, including the onetime casting of George Lazenby in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and the slide into buffoonery during the years with Roger Moore.
The franchise's decline has often been blamed on the loss of Connery, but even his last official Bond outings ("You Only Live Twice" and "Diamonds Are Forever") don't have a patch on the first three. "Dr. No," "From Russia With Love" and "Goldfinger" are lean in plot, mean in attitude and come in under two hours. They're also the movies in which the star wears the best toupees. Even now, the shock of Connery's flattened coif in the opening brawl of "Thunderball," the fourth installment, comes across as a sign of bad things to come, an omen born out by the lugubrious story. The 1965 hit is the first Bond feature to creep past the two-hour mark, with much of the creeping done underwater with seemingly endless scenes of Bond and Co. swimming, faces obscured by masks and bubbles.
Still, if James Bond no longer resonates as the character did in the early 1960s, it's principally because the romance of the secret agent is itself a thing of the past. Ian Fleming's creation was an attractive myth, the roguishly handsome face of an otherwise obscured world. These days, though, when we think about spies our image is that of faceless operatives executing covert, at times illegal missions or equally faceless bureaucrats sitting at their desks while they sell out their colleagues. The allure of the suave secret agent endures, but what now keeps us engaged aren't the affinities between the screen and the real world but the differences. There is, after all, something comforting in the idea that all it takes to save us is a supercilious accent and a tuxedo. It's no wonder that FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen, who surely knew better, was a Bond fan.
'Die Another Day'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for action violence and sexuality.
Times guidelines: This one seems less gratuitously sadistic than many of the later Bond films. There's some suggestive adult sexuality but no frontal nudity.
Pierce Brosnan...James Bond
Toby Stephens...Gustav Graves
Rosamund Pike...Miranda Frost
Albert R. Broccoli's Eon Productions presents Pierce Brosnan as Ian Fleming's James Bond 007, released by MGM Pictures. Director Lee Tamahori. Writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli. Costume designer Lindy Hemming. Music David Arnold. Editor Christian Wagner. Director of photography David Tattersall. Production designer Peter Lamont. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
In general release.