Cinema Signal:

James Bond: The Secret World of 007 by Alastair Dougall, Roger Stewart

. "Die Another Day"

The James Bond formula is back (with a few flourishes) and it works as well as ever for fans of action-adventure, high-concept, thrill-a-minute, high-risk, danger and sex, all mixed ever so sprightly. It's here, the knock-you-socks-off opening ending with a spectacular, never thought of before escape from certain capture or death, the three dimensional action toys that make boys slaver in envy, and always time for sexual innuendo, ending in a form of bliss to cap the escapist flair.

In this opening sequence, Bond (Pierce Brosnan) surfs into it through spectacular waves (and a beautifully shot sequence) but doesn't fare so well. In an attempted escape in hovercraft over the mine fields of the demilitarized zone between the Koreas, he appears to have put an end to the totally evil son of Korean Colonel Moon, seeing his enemy disappear over the ledge of a steep dam before he (Bond) is captured and tortured for months. He's finally released in a trade for the scabrously evil Zao (Rick Yune) who's face bears jeweled scars as though he was scratched by a fairy with bear's claws. Nice conceit.

The folks back at M6 headquarters, particularly M (Judi Dench), are none too happy that they got their boy back by losing one of their most dangerous captives, and 007 loses his 00 credentials. Yes, he is deprived of his numbers! What an idea.

But, that doesn't mean he won't be busy manipulating his weapons and skills in a private quest for those that are posing a threat to the planet. Only, what is the threat. The investigation leads us to the hugely wealthy Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) and his physically perfect sidekick Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike) who turns out to be a mole for the Brits, a fellow agent.

In any case, Graves is leaking news about his new invention and Bond wants to infiltrate. He accomplishes this by bettering Stephens in a joust that starts with fencing swords and escalates to more lethal cutlery. Graves' diabolical refusal to lose is aroused by his loss but he attempts to put it aside and briefs Bond on his satellite laser beam (my cannon is bigger than yours) without revealing its global threat.

Bond, however, is tracking down the man he was traded for: Zao, the released Korean operative. Little does he know that another agent, Jinx (Halle Berry), is on the same quest in a more official capacity. Since Zao is on an island off Cuba's mainland, what do you know, she appears in Bond's binoculars as he's scoping out the castle on the island. She's rising out of the surf and provoking a rise in Bond as well as all the males in the audience. But it's Bond who makes the contact, which appears a spontaneous hook-up between consenting adults before it turns into more action than he fantasized.

Turning up with info on Zao, however, appeals enough to M6 to reinstate the agent, and he's soon provisioned with the latest set of franchise devices by Q (John Cleese), starting with a car that's tricked out with invisibility, among its range of defensive and offensive attributes. Lucky man, this 007.

As Bond, Brosnan exploits his best manner of insouciance and class, attributes that not only become him but are him. While we may hold a special spot for Sean Connery as the true Bond, Brosnan is the cureent best choice for the many faceted role.

This is the first of Bond's assignments in which he works with a partner, and Halle Berry holds in her full talent potential to fit into the thinner scope of action fare. She does a fine and complete job of it, lending her physical finery to the enterprise. No doubt, though, this is where the money and the fame is, and we don't slight her for it even though it's something like putting a master chef in a MacDonald's kitchen.

Dame Judi Dench (seems PC to grant her her title) is deliciously unerring in her role as the fastidious M, Bond's ornery boss. Anytime you get to not like her for what she does and says, you can rest assured that she'll vindicate your esteem of her in the end.

Madonna appears as Verity, a thankless role for which no thanks should be asked for or given. We liked her more in "Dick Tracy". A cameo doesn't bring out her colors.

But, that's not the worst of the casting. Michael Madsen adds his unique stamp to the character of Damian Falco who appears to be a CIA ubermensch from some other movie. His part makes little sense and adds no fire power.

Into the added firepower department for the series steps Rosamund Pike as the haughty agent who serves up betrayal as though it was a ham sandwich. As this British beauty and Halle Berry come together in a life or death matchup, there's no question that these two "10s" have nothing to fear about physical gradings. Both are total winners. We see a big future for this stunner whose career seems only to have started.

As for the Bond franchise, its current setting may break no new ice in the literary department, but it fulfills its essential mission to entertain for 2 hours and 12 stunt-filled minutes in its patented, formulaic, satisfying way. We think it'll survive yet another day.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Pierce Brosnan: Bond on armed hovercraft attempting an escape

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