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movies: Gadgets, Girls and Globe-Hopping

"Die Another Day" is wild and fun but a bit too long even for Bond.

We expect (1) a stunning opening scene (a hovercraft chase through exploding mine fields); (2) a lively theme song (by Madonna); (3) a villain or two (Maggie Smith's dapper son, who wants to rule the Earth); (4) gadgets (a new car); (5) girls (Halle Berry in a bikini); and (6) globe-hopping (North Korea to Havana to London and Iceland).

New Zealand director Lee Tamahori continues his Americanization with the project. Bond still has twice the class and three times as much fun as upstarts like Vin Diesel who have recently tried to "modernize" his racket. Pierce Brosnan in his fourth outing as 007 seems to have grown into the role to the degree that he now can muster a rakish wink to let us know that, after all, we aren't supposed to take the whole thing seriously. He now can lay claim to the title of second-best Bond. (Sean Connery will always be the champ.)

"Die Another Day" does try the novel approach of actually putting Bond into danger. In the opening sequence, he is captured by the North Koreans and tortured. When the screen fades from the action into the musical opening titles, we are subjected to varied scenes of Bond being plunged into ice water and stung by scorpions. Whoa! This usually is a moment of celebration as the fans cheer the "new song" and the animated soft-core porn of the girls swimming about. (They're still there, but interrupted by Bond being tortured.) Madonna's title song is a melodyless drag. She's no Shirley Bassey!

To add to Bond's vulnerability, he soon faces the scariest of possibilities — Dame Judi Dench. As M, his supermacho boss, she accuses him of giving in to the torture and talking to the North Koreans subsequently stripping him of his license to kill. "You're no use to anyone now," she pronounces.

But you can bet that Bond will bounce back.

The action is terrific, with the exception of an opening surfing scene that looks as if it were computer enhanced. The windsurfing scene in the Icelandic sea also looks pretty phony. Come to think of it, so does the avalanche scene. The rest is great.

There's a super fencing scene, one of the best fights in the entire Bond 20-movie canon, between Brosnan and Toby Stephens. Stephens, as dapper as Bond, plays British billionaire Gustav Graves who, surprise, hopes to take over the world.

Madonna, maybe fretting because she never got to be a Bond girl, has an unbilled cameo as a fencing instructor.

There are a few delicious homages to past Bond films, such as Halle Berry emerging from the sea in a bikini identical to the one Ursula Andress wore in 1962's "Dr. No."

Berry, coming off an Oscar for "Monster's Ball," is primarily decorative. She plays Jinx, an undercover American agent who is no shrinking, easy date when it comes to Bond.

Rosamund Pike as Miranda Frost has the best line, though, as she introduces herself with "sex for dinner and death for breakfast." Pike has the kind of skin that makes her look like a moving Renaissance painting. On top of that, she's an Oxford grad.

Zao, played by Rick Yune, is the primary henchman villain, complete with a face embedded with diamonds. It's called "expensive acne."

John Cleese is droll for the lone scene in which he, as Q, bemoans the fact that Bond is likely to destroy all his lovely gadgets. But we miss the late Desmond Llewelyn in the role.

A major flaw is the length. Having wowed us, this movie doesn't know how to end. After several fake endings, it grinds on for 2 hours and 10 minutes — at least 30 minutes too long for its own good.

But no matter. As Gertrude Stein might have said: "A Bond is a Bond is a Bond." There's no one like him.

He may die another day, but not this one. S

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