For three-quarters of its running time, Die Another Day (MGM) is bracingly true to its title: It keeps the James Bond franchise, which has often seemed in need of last rites, alive to rake in billions. The challenge for 007 writers and directors is always to find a middle ground between the habitual and the fresh. It's only the familiar Pavlovian triggers (beginning with the roving-gunsight prelude and Monty Norman's brassy secret-agent theme) that have kept viewers salivating through all the overproduced, under-plotted travelogues. But it's only the brutally unexpected that keeps Bond from edging into camp.
That this Bond will be smarter is clear from its title sequence, which leaves you both shaken and stirred. It's not just a montage of the usual leggy silhouettes straddling long gun barrels: It's also a stylized torture sequence, following Bond's capture by our "Axis of Evil" friends the North Koreans. The wriggling silhouettes are of women but also of scorpions as they're held against Bond's skin. Madonna's vocal on the techno-whoosh title track has a metallic jitter: For a change, the singer sounds expressively inexpressive, with an eerie lack of pity. When Judi Dench's M encounters Bond after his grueling, 18-month imprisonment, she hardly showers him with kisses. She seems vexed that he survived.
A coldness of tone marked the best Bonds (especially the first three), and that chill suffuses Die Another Day: Its most spectacular set is an Icelandic ice palace; and its most frightening baddie, a North Korean assassin named Zao (Rick Yune), has white diamonds embedded in his hard, hairless face from an explosive act of Bond-age. The New Zealand-born director, Lee Tamahori, made the shocking Once Were Warriors (1994), a study in working-class Maori squalor, alcoholism, and abuse of women. He brings a dash more realism than usual—and in Bond you don't want more than a dash. There are plenty of laughs and in-jokes, but they don't throw you out of the movie—well, they do, but irony is built into Bond movies, so you're always in and out of them anyway, laughing at their flagrant, mega-budget excesses. This one laughs with you, and then, when it jolts you with unanticipated sadism, at you.
There's even an oblique reference to 9/11—during which Bond was apparently shackled in that North Korean prison (or the World Trade Center would presumably still be standing). The top villain sneers that he was schooled in "Western hypocrisy" at Oxford and Harvard; and the audience is meant to feel quiet fury at hearing such Noam-Chomskyesque righteousness from the mouth of a fascist. This psychotic martinet makes fun of the British for believing they still have "the right to police the world"—and we can't let him get away with that, can we? When a fugitive Bond—bedraggled, bearded, sans shoes and wallet—strolls into the lobby of a plush Hong Kong hotel and nonchalantly asks for his usual suite, his tailor, some food, and a '61 Bollinger, more than comfort is at stake. Bond is an underdog now, and his natural white Anglo-Saxon male privilege must be restored.
Which doesn't rule out miscegenation. Die Another Day will also be known as the Halle Berry Bond picture—the first with a Bond girl who has an Oscar under her belt, and the first with a major African-American squeeze. (I know, Bond slept with the much blacker Grace Jones in A View to a Kill , but she was a villain.) You can't call the movie progressive, since the emphasis in the action climax—which features two gorgeous women in very tight tank tops having at each other with swords—is on the very tight tank tops, not the swords. And Berry isn't even especially good. Her banter is unusually cringe-worthy, and her voice is toneless. But her mocha-latte skin tones leap out of the blue-white screen. And she seems very soulful indeed beside the other Bond girl—a steely publicist called Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), who brings a chill irony to her inevitable coupling with 007.
Pierce Brosnan gets better and better. He injects a tiny bit of drama into the role—a tension between the classic persona, with its easy sense of entitlement, and an anxious awareness that it's no longer as easy as all that. He has to work for his triumphs. He's also the first Bond (other than George Lazenby) who doesn't look embarrassed to be there: He digs the legacy. Apart from that Hong Kong hotel scene, his best moments are with the new Q (John Cleese, in better—less broad—form than last time), who walks him past gizmos from many of the other 007 movies: the jet-pack from Thunderball (1965), the ejector-seat from Goldfinger (1964). Brosnan fingers them with a gratifying affection.
Die Another Day hits peak after peak: in North Korea; in Hong Kong; in Cuba (actually Spain, but convincing) with the great Emilio Echevarría as a crime boss/cigar-maker; in London, where Bond first crosses blades (literally) with the snooty uber-villain (Toby Stephens, son of Maggie Smith and the late Robert Stephens) in a furiously over-the-top swordfight. You know a director is in control when one of a movie's highlights is a low-key exchange with Madonna, who plays—very well!—a tart fencing instructor.
I was busily scribbling things like, "The best Bond since The Spy Who LovedMe!" when, 90 minutes in, Bond surfs an Icelandic tidal wave. These computer-generated effects look like the worst of Spider-Man wedded to the worst of a Frankie-and-Annette beach-party movie. Then there's an interminable, eardrum-buckling car chase through the ice palace, and a lousy comeuppance for Yune's Zao—who deserved something brutal but elegantly simple, like Oddjob's fate in Goldfinger. After an hour and a half of thinking the filmmakers' wit might be commensurate with their wallet, it's depressing to see them suddenly throwing around their money like smug little trust-funders. That's, like, so Roger Moore.