Ah, Halle's berries. Those golden globes are shifting loads of Hollywood product these days, the latest dose being Die Another Day, the twentieth official entry in the 40-year-old James Bond franchise. As svelte American operative Jinx, Berry busts her moves -- some facile, some fun -- alongside the ever-dapper Pierce Brosnan, returning for his fourth -- and most fantastic -- go-round as the English super-secret agent.
Bond is still the ultimate action hero, and the Irish Brosnan -- though sorely lacking Welshman Timothy Dalton's darker edge -- now fully owns the character. He smartly incorporates Scottish Sean Connery's muscle and veddy English Roger Moore's mischief to make women want him and men want to be him ... well, at least in author Ian Fleming's enduring and endearing Cold War fantasy world.
Although the enormous waves of this installment's opening surf sequence were shot by a second-unit crew, they reveal immediately that director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) and screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (The World Is Not Enough) have their fingers on the pulse of contemporary cool. When these guys are on -- which is often -- this means literally ice-cool; one of the film's primary setpieces is a massive frozen mutation of the Sydney Opera House, located in the Icelandic tundra. Even the opening credit sequence -- featuring Madonna's tinny, idiotic title song -- transforms the bump-and-grind of traditional Bond waifs into an S/M fetish fest wherein the feminine form becomes a primal and sometimes ghastly spirit (Lord of the Rings fans may see "Balrogettes") composed of fire and -- you guessed it -- ice. In any case, the introductory message is clear: This ain't your daddy's Bond.
Refreshingly, the plot this time is tight and smart, commencing with Bond landing on the Pukch'ong Coast of North Korea and intercepting a transfer of thousands of diamonds, which leads him into a grand exchange of ballistics with uppity young Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) and Moon's sinister henchman, Zao (Rick Yune), whose name seems to be Korean for "hot skillet!" Exactly one East-versus-West philosophical debate and one bang-up hovercraft chase later, Bond narrowly escapes -- natch -- and Moon meets his demise. However, the nasty lad's disillusioned general father (Kenneth Tsang) -- who sent the little colonel to Harvard to advance international relations -- tosses Bond in a cell to be tortured for the next fourteen months, until British intelligence leader M (Judi Dench) grudgingly swaps Bond for the captured Zao.
Early on, the dirty, twitchy, long-haired and bearded Bond will surprise many viewers (some perhaps presuming they're viewing outtakes of Brosnan's Robinson Crusoe), but beyond the cosmetics, the character's revision is significant. Once he escapes -- license revoked -- from his own government, he's a man without a country with a bitter glint in his eye (perhaps an emotion an Irishman can grok). On a quest to find the now-disfigured diamond-head Zao and discover why the rocks in the terrorist's noggin bear the mark of British entrepreneur Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens, youngest -- and least menacing -- Bond villain ever), Bond wends his way around the world, but it's clear that the sun has set on his Union Jack many times over.
Tamahori pumps a tremendous amount of energy into his Bond movie, and it's an electrifying ride. The stunt work in and around Graves' ice palace is stunning, and Bond's surfing and 'chuting skills are bound to impress the young'uns. It wasn't apparent in his Along Came a Spider, but the director also exhibits a healthy sense of dangerous fun, whether he's blasting the Clash's "London Calling" or depicting a roguish, violent swordfight between Bond and Graves (attended by a distracted-looking Madonna) or conducting a battle of bouncing boobs between Jinx and dubious agent Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike). It's as if Tamahori has taken the most playful elements of director John Glen's Bond oeuvre and retooled them for a faster, smarter, tougher world.
Quibbles are minimal. John Cleese ably replaces the woefully departed Desmond Llewelyn as gadget-master Q, but his appearances -- as in Harry Potter -- are but a flash. The shootouts could have been tightened up. Zao's green Jag is cooler than Bond's invisible Aston Martin. The main problem is that the über-villain -- who has some paternal issues -- doesn't have the good sense to name his flying solar-powered super-weapon after a less-doomed mythological figure than Icarus. If you're not too concerned about logic, though, and just want to watch Brosnan and Berry sexily kicking ass in exotic locales, you'll be more than satisfied by Tamahori's take on the formula.