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Bond's 40 but refuses to behave

November 22, 2002|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

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."

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