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*Die Another Day (R)
Metro Goldwyn Mayer

Giant hovercrafts, politically topical locations and an Aston Martin that becomes invisible make up a few key ingredients in the meticulously constructed 20th installment to the longest-running film franchise ever.

James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) plants a fuse from a piece of his watch into a packet of "C4" explosive beneath a tray of diamonds that he will "exchange" for nuclear weapons in a meeting with a particularly dangerous group of North Koreans before the film's lush credit sequence even rolls. By the time Madonna's voice sings the film's title song, our Mr. Bond has already been captured and is shown suffering the worst tortures we've ever seen the double-0 agent endure.

As Pierce Brosnan has remarked in an interview, Die Another Day is like one-and-a-half Bond films in one. For fans of the incredibly lavish series, it is everything one could expect. For those new to the innumerable glories of James Bond, the movie is a gorgeous and exciting introduction to the stylized cinematic roller-coaster ride that audiences have savored for the past 40 years.

When a Cuban kingpin tells Bond that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," it comes as an overdue politically incorrect punchline to a materialist gag that finds America dropping bombs wherever oil is to be found under a pretext of global "security." Indeed the very fact that part of the film was shot in Cuba winks to the viewer that no holds are barred in the franchise's perpetual postmodern pokes at governments whose citizens can only be saved by one man. It's this shrewd attention to digging inside of ideological details that gives the series its ridiculing nerve and steely charm.

Far from the cold-war James Bond that Sean Connery represented so well starting with the series' debut in 1962 with Dr. No, Brosnan's Bond must spend 14 months in a solitary jail cell before being traded back to the Brits as a useless shell of his former self. It's only after Bond escapes from a secured hospital room and proves himself by going renegade against an amoral DNA-altering doctor in Cuba that he's let back into the fold of British Intelligence. By this time, Bond has had the pleasure of meeting and bedding his female American assassin equivalent Jinx (Halle Berry).

Fans of the Bond movies will have a fine time catching myriad references to past films, as when Bond first views Jinx rising from the Cuban shoreline la Honey Rider's (Ursula Andress) busty introduction in Dr. No -- knife belt included. We get an especially amusing stroll down memory lane when Q (played dutifully by John Cleese in the role enlivened by the late Desmond Llewelyn) walks Bond through a room containing relics from his predecessor's adventures before introducing Bond to his new fully-equipped Aston Martin, along with his 20th wristwatch.

The most concrete secret weapon in Die Another Day is Halle Berry, who has signed a three-movie spin-off deal for her character Jinx. It's easy to understand why when you see the way Berry purposefully wears costume designer Lindy Hemming's (Topsy-Turvy) eye-catching clothes while going head-to-head with Bond as a female force of nature to make all others stand down.

Apart from one disastrously defective special effects sequence, Die Another Day successfully raises the bar on a film series that continues to inspire imitators in an action genre that never quite equals its predecessor. This 20th installment is, indeed, something special.

-- Cole Smithey

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