A Dynamic, Sexy New Bond Team

It wouldn’t be a holiday season without James Bond, and with Die Another Day , the 20th installment, the Bond franchise continues unchallenged with new guns, gadgets and girls galore. After 40 years, 007 shows no shortness of breath, and after an endless array of violent, explosive and superhuman clashes with death, he still emerges with one Band-Aid and an undiminished sexual appetite. Talk about longevity: The world blows up in 20 time zones over a period of 40 years, and 007 just gets younger and more virile every time.

Die Another Day is the most thrilling, lavishly designed and imaginative Bond picture in years. It is also the most preposterous. Does anybody care? If you’re a fan, you’ve learned by now that the last thing to expect from one of these things is narrative coherence. So suspend your disbelief, watch the heroics, laugh at the invisible cars and jet-propelled snowmobiles, treat the whole experience like a day off with popcorn, and a good time is guaranteed. I can no longer tell one Bond movie from another, and I couldn’t relate one of the plots at gunpoint. But although Die Another Day defies description, I admit it kept me awake and amused for a running time of two hours and 15 minutes, and that’s more than I can say for most of the other films I’ve seen in the pre-Christmas countdown.

Pierce Brosnan, the suavest secret agent since Sean Connery, is back in Brioni tuxes and satin sheets, crunching bones and firing missiles with his tongue planted firmly in his handsome cheek. In the spectacular opening sequence, he surfboards onto the beaches of North Korea on colossal waves, tracks down a villainous colonel who is buying a fleet of high-tech atomic weapons with a fortune in diamonds in order to finance a war that threatens to destroy the world, blows up the demilitarized zone and blasts his way through a minefield-all before the opening credits even begin! Imprisoned and tortured with injections of scorpion poison for 14 months, he finds himself traded by Her Majesty’s government for Zao, the worst terrorist in North Korea, and placed in detention under the stern, watchful eye of his old boss M (Dame Judi Dench, trying to make the most of dialogue even she doesn’t understand). But Bond escapes, checks into the swankiest hotel in Hong Kong in wet pajamas, and orders a bottle of ’61 Bollinger. What would you do?

Next stop: Havana, with its ’58 Chevys, Cuban cigars and the treacherous Zao (Rick Yune), a Korean killer with blue eyes and diamonds imbedded in his skin like sparkling acne. Enter a brand-new high-octane Bond girl named Jinx, played by a scantily clad Halle Berry, who emerges from the sea with a knife holster in her bikini, a not-so-subtle hommage to Ursula Andress. The aptly named Jinx and the oversexed Bond become sidekicks, in and out of bed, exchanging body fluids and bad jokes before they blow up the Cuban clinic where Zao is hiding out, waiting to have his identity changed through DNA splicing.

Back in London, M holds secret meetings in an abandoned subway station while Q, the high-tech-gadget guru now played by John Cleese, introduces new toys, like a gold ring that demolishes glass walls, and fondly revisits old artifacts, like the exploding backpacks from Thunderball and Lotte Lenya’s knife-throwing shoes in From Russia with Love . While in London, Bond visits a gentleman’s club in Mayfair run by-are you ready?-none other than Madonna (in an unbilled cameo). Enter another Bond kitten, a cool double agent named Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), and the cunningly evil new villain, Gustav Graves (dashingly played by Toby Stephens, the son of Dame Maggie Smith), an arrogant, eco-friendly diamond miner from Iceland whose true secret identity has been resculpted through Cuban gene therapy into that of a British fencing champion. Are you still with me?

Everyone ends up on an Icelandic glacier in the film’s outrageous centerpiece, an igloo-shaped luxury hotel made entirely of ice, where the spectacular sets melt before your eyes, Jinx is trapped under an iceberg, Bond flies to the rescue in an invisible Aston Martin that launches torpedoes from the mufflers in time to thaw her out (boy, does he thaw her out), and … oh, what the hell. You get the picture. This is supposed to be a 007 for the new millennium (replete with a lousy theme song by Madonna), but the dialogue seems mysteriously retro (“I see Mr. Bond’s been explaining his Big Bang theory.” “Oh yes, I think I get the thrust of it”)-and I may be wrong, but I think I’ve seen some of the gadgets at Sharper Image. Still, there is much to enjoy here. The direction, by New Zealand’s Lee Tamahori, makes every frame count. No matter how sharply the movie careens in the direction of absurdity, he makes sure there’s no time to scratch your head or mutter, “Huh?” And although Mr. Brosnan and Ms. Berry are often upstaged by the technology, dangerous stunts and special effects, they’re as easy on the eyes as they are indestructible. The technicians outnumber the actors 100 to 1, but when it’s over and your pulse rate returns to normal, it’s still the dynamic and sexy new Bond team that lodges Die Another Day in the memory bank.

Love and War in Colonial Vietnam

The Quiet American is one of those cold, cryptic Graham Greene espionage thrillers about sex and politics that somebody always has to explain to me later. This one is slower than the buzz of a mosquito, but moody and brilliantly evocative of a time, place and people in transition. Without tricks and pyrotechnics, Phillip Noyce, the Australian director of such high-octane thrillers as Patriot Games , Clear and Present Danger and The Bone Collector , turns cerebral, exploring the visceral intrigues-both personal and political-between two men caught up in the French war in Indochina in the early 50’s.

Michael Caine plays Thomas Fowler, a lazy correspondent for The Times of London who has settled into a life of sensual hedonism in Saigon with his stunning young Vietnamese mistress, Phuong (played by lovely newcomer Do Thi Hai Yen). Fowler has abandoned a wife back in London who refuses to grant him a divorce, while Phuong wants nothing more than marriage and respectability. For a time, they’re both willing to coast along, enjoying the luxuries of colonialism. Ignoring the smoke signals of an approaching war that’s slowly encroaching on his lifestyle, Fowler is on the verge of being sent home to London by his newspaper because he’s only filed three stories in a year. But everything changes with the arrival of a bespectacled, idealistic young doctor from Boston named Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), whose curiosity about the conflicts between the French and the Communists arouses Fowler’s suspicions. When Pyle falls in love with Phuong, panic and jealousy are added to an already poisonous brew. At first, Pyle seems irritating but harmless-a naïve, decent and foolish do-gooder who just wants to help the Vietnamese in their struggle for independence. Then Fowler discovers that “the quiet American” is a secret operative working for the C.I.A., whose interference leads to the massacre of innocent civilians. With Ho Chi Minh dividing the country and 495,000 American troops on their way to fight a full-scale war, the old, emotionally detached journalist sees the opportunity to orchestrate a “scoop” of international impact that will extend his stay in Saigon, and springs into an act of deception and betrayal that leads to murder. In the tragic consequences, a moral question remains: Has the sleeping tiger eliminated his nemesis because his long-dormant conscience is at last awakened, or because the “quiet American” has stolen his girl?

Working from a tight adaptation by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan of the classic Greene story, Mr. Noyce builds an existential portrait of conflicted souls with hidden agendas in which nothing is as it seems. The smell, heat, rain, lights on the Mekong River at night, opium and brothels-every surface appearance is deceptive, and every sensual pleasure is pierced by an undercurrent of violence. The fact that there are no heroes in this film enhances its integrity, but also challenges its potential for commercial success. In the newly forged national patriotism following 9/11, do audiences really want to see a movie that depicts the American military as savage mercenaries?

Despite the obvious bad timing, The Quiet American is highly recommended viewing for its courage, ideas, technical proficiency and great acting. Mr. Caine’s performance is one of the highlights of an undeniably distinguished career. From sloth to centaur, the gradations of his metamorphosis are reflected in reptilian eyes that take in every shadowy movement of every scene he’s in. Mr. Fraser’s transformation from smooth, clean-cut egghead to lethal provocateur matches the old veteran all the way. Moving from brainless frolics like George of the Jungle to sensitive challenges like Gods and Monsters , Mr. Fraser’s career trajectory is clearly defined by diversification. His superb portrayal of Pyle is a gripping study of contrasts. And there is the power of the story itself: Few films deal with America’s evil prewar involvement in the region, which led to the shameful conflict that torched Vietnam. A complex love story of competing desires and paradoxical priorities, set against a tapestry of shady maneuvers for power, The Quiet American digs deeply into the human condition. Color it fascinating.

Emperor’s Club Still Stands Out

Back in September, when I wrote about The Emperor’s Club from the Toronto Film Festival, I called it one of the best American films of the year. I haven’t changed my mind. After watching the recent, disturbing 60 Minutes piece about the spiraling statistics on college cheating and the rising number of Web sites selling test answers and term papers, this valuable, insightful film seems twice as relevant. Sensitively written, meticulously directed (by the excellent Michael Hoffman), gorgeously photographed and beautifully acted, this profound and deeply moving film stars the great Kevin Kline as a dedicated teacher at a distinguished prep school who believes that “a man’s history is his fate.” A noble, inspired academic in charge of a classful of scrubbed and respectful students eager to learn, his world is disrupted by the arrival of a rich, arrogant, spoiled brat named Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch). Bell has been taught by his father, a Virginia Senator, that the fastest way to power and success is to lie and cheat your way to the top. Eschewing Roman history for girlie mags, cigarettes and rule-breaking, Bell becomes a dangerous role model for the other boys and a challenge to the professor’s deep-rooted integrity. Rebelliously resisting the passage from juvenile anarchy to manhood, the boy is caught cheating on the annual contest for membership in the esteemed “Emperor’s Club” and goes down in the professor’s personal history as his greatest career failure. Twenty-five years later, the same kid-now a wealthy corporate C.E.O. running for political office-pledges the largest donation in the school’s history on the condition that the contest be restaged on his luxury country estate with all of the old contestants and the retired professor as the judge. Instead of regaining his lost honor, the handsome, grown-up Bell (Joel Gretsch, a matinee idol in the making) cheats again in front of the old classmates, who are now power players in the fields of industry, law, finance and education. History repeats itself as the world of principles and virtues collides with the popular trend toward expeditious lying and cheating we’ve all witnessed in the Enron and WorldCom scandals. Much more than just another Dead Poets Society , this is a film of enormous heart, compassion and intelligence that tackles vital issues with wrenching, thought-provoking honesty and cinematic skill. I really love everything it stands for. There will be bigger, noisier and flashier movies this year, but I haven’t seen anything that has impressed me more.