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A Bond to match Sean Connery

Die Another Day is the first James Bond adventure in years to leave viewers stirred into genuine excitement, not merely shaken by special effects and convenient gadgets.

The 20th "official" film assignment for Agent 007 _ Sean Connery's 1983 remake of Thunderball and the comedic Casino Royale don't count _ is one of the best ever.

The important frills remain, but director Lee Tamahori has created a Bond with an arresting cold-blooded streak that hasn't been around since Sean Connery handled the role. (Timothy Dalton's stint was simply cold.) It's time to consider Pierce Brosnan in the same league as Connery, dashing and deadly, committed to getting the dirty work done.

Brosnan displays the same grace under incredible pressure, yet without the smug invincibility that creeped into the role under Dalton's and Roger Moore's watch. This 007 could die any day, continually forced to think fast on his feet when a supposedly foolproof plan goes wrong. I can't recall any Bond since Connery taking so many lumps and returning them with such debonair force and controlled humor. Tamahori dodges most of the franchise's qualities that became so silly that Austin Powers is an icon for spoofing them.

Die Another Day begins, as usual, with a prologue action sequence, a chase among Hovercraft tanks that a rogue North Korean military officer named Col. Moon (Will Yun Lee) is dealing for diamonds. The mode of transportation, with its huge propellers, may remind viewers of the swamp boat chase in Live and Let Die, and it should. Tamahori drops in numerous references to past Bond flicks, from such faint reminders to a joke about 007's jet pack from You Only Live Twice. (My favorite is a bad pun, when the villain carefully declares: "Diamonds are for ever-yone.")

The North Korean incident leaves Moon presumed dead, his henchman Zao (Rick Yune) facially scarred with diamond shards and Bond captured as a spy before the opening credits. The traditional sexy, silhouetted women of that sequence, with its forgettable Madonna theme song, share the screen with Bond's torture in prison, an early indication that Tamahori isn't playing around.

It's rare to see Bond so helpless, relying upon a twist of fate rather than a daring escape to survive. He even loses his official license to kill, taken out of Her Majesty's service by M (Judi Dench), who believes he gave up vital security information in prison. Bond is on his own trying to prove his loyalty, take revenge on Zao and discover who offered those diamonds for weapons.

The next detour from convention is the introduction of a heroic woman every bit as dangerously sexy as 007. Halle Berry plays Jinx, a U.S. secret agent also on the diamond trail, and it's a sign of the times that she's on top during a bedroom romp with Bond. Berry isn't challenged by the role after her Oscar-winning work in Monster's Ball, but she cocks a gun with hardened elan. Producers are already considering a Jinx movie spinoff. That would be a pleasure to see, especially if they can work in Dench's royal authority and John Cleese's stuffy perfection as the gadget guru Q.

The villain, a headline-grabbing tycoon named Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), isn't up to early Bond standards, although his connection to Moon is a neat twist. Mostly his bank account is an excuse for the film's elaborate action sequences. Auric Goldfinger had only one laser beam at his disposal, but Graves has a roomful, a nifty setting for hand-to-hand combat. An ice castle hideaway in Iceland sets up a wild car chase _ Bond in an Aston Martin, of course _ before a death ray satellite makes a smashing impression.

Yet, the only action scene that earned applause from a preview screening audience didn't contain a single computer-generated effect. Bond meets Graves for the first time in a fencing academy, their immediate tension building through terse, well-written dialogue and an escalating duel with real swords. It's the kind of derring-do Connery would have done, Moore would have smirked through and Dalton would have run from. Tamahori senses what Bond fans have been missing. He and Brosnan deliver it with style, both deserving to try another day.

REVIEW

Die Another Day

Grade: B+

Director: Lee Tamahori

Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Rosamund Pike, Toby Stephens, Rick Yune, Judi Dench, John Cleese, Will Yun Lee, Michael Madsen

Screenplay: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade

Rating: PG-13; violence, sexual situations, mild profanity

Running time: 132 min.

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