The new James Bond movie reveals what may well be a universal truth (at least since Sean Connery hung up his tuxedo) — in general, Bond movies are far more cool to think about than to actually watch. Despite the best efforts of Pierce Brosnan, a man so devilishly handsome he really should come with a warning label, and the gorgeous Halle Berry, "Die Another Day" never quite finds real excitement or genuine wit.
Perhaps what the now 40-year-old franchise needs is a more energetic, hip directorial hand — someone like Doug Liman ("The Bourne Identity") or Sam Raimi ("Spider-Man"). Lee Tamahori ("Along Came a Spider") seems too weighed down by the heft of Bond history or by the longtime Bond producers. He strings together action sequences in the expected variety of exotic locations, but it mostly feels tired and anachronistic rather than charmingly retro.
Even Berry's first appearance, as she emerges from the sea in homage to Ursula Andress' Venus-like arrival in "Dr. No," lacks a certain something. It's not Berry's fault — she looks terrific, despite having been forced to accessorize her bikini with a white hip belt — that the moment seems random. Are there dozens of Halle Berry-like goddesses wading to shore on this particular beach, and Bond just happens to glance up from his drink and see this one?
Nonetheless, the Brosnan/Berry combination is a heady one — the two of them are such flawless specimens that the screen practically combusts when they're together, what with all those perfect teeth and bedroom eyes. And both, mercifully, have a light touch with the trademark heavy-as-lead Bond dialogue.
Berry plays Jinx ("born on Friday the 13th"), an American spy who teams with Bond against evil megalomaniac Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) and his equally nasty sidekick Zao (Rick Yune).
The plot involves a new high-tech catastrophic weapon, stolen diamonds, a mysterious gene-therapy clinic that looks like a '70s disco, and North Korea/South Korea tensions, but none of this really matters much.
More to the point, nifty cars are driven, cool chases unfold over mud (via hovercraft, like a big bumper-car rally) and ice, martinis are consumed, and PG-13 Bond sex happens.
"Die Another Day" has its moments: Samantha Bond has a charming scene as the ever-thwarted Miss Moneypenny; John Cleese (replacing longtime gadgetmaster Desmond Llewlyn, who died in 1999) has some too-brief, funny banter with Bond. "You're cleverer than you look," says Brosnan. "It's better than looking cleverer than you are," shoots back Cleese. And Madonna, as a dominatrix-like fencing instructor, acquits herself nicely in a brief, glamorous cameo.
So there's fun to be had here, even if some of the action sequences seem like too much CGI and too little peril, and even if the weirdly hallucinogenic opening credit sequence features an imprisoned Brosnan being tortured. (This, by the way, is supposed to be the new, fresh idea behind this movie — that Bond, arrested and stripped of his credentials, is operating outside the system — but really it doesn't make much difference at all, except that we briefly have to endure seeing him unshaven.)
For Bond 21 — keep Brosnan, keep Berry, and find a new director/screenwriting team capable of combining action with wit and style. Or, just re-release "Goldfinger," and leave it at that.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org.