December 02, 2002 12:00 PM

Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Rosamund Pike, Toby Stephens

Forty years after novelist Ian Fleming’s Agent 007 made the leap from page to screen in 1962’s Dr. No, the movies about England’s suavest spy have too often become boringly Bondomatic. But in Die Another Day, at least, the formula is gently shaken, making the 20th James Bond installment, directed by Lee Tamahori (Along Came a Spider), stirring enough to provide engaging escapist entertainment. To claim more would be to overstate the case.

In his fourth outing as master spy James Bond, Brosnan hits his stride. Sean Connery will always own the role, but in Die, a thoroughly comfortable Brosnan achieves optimum balance between taking this nonsense seriously and playing it with a wink. “Here we go again,” he seems to be saying as he jumps into yet another souped-up vehicle to chase after—or escape from—the bad guys, “so let’s at least have fun.”

In Die, Bond pairs with Jinx (Berry), an American spy, to hunt down yet another megalomaniacal tyrant—this time an English billionaire (Stephens, who’s silkily evil). Our hero’s new partner looks as smashing in her bikini as Bond does in his tux. Jinx is also Bond’s equal, if not superior, when it comes to lame sexual double entendre. (“I think I got the thrust of it.”) Though serving primarily as eye candy, Berry holds her own with Brosnan. She even manages to either go barefoot or wear sensible shoes when running from the bad guys, something previous Bond babes never seemed able to figure out.

A big plus is John Cleese, promoted to the role of Q (replacing Desmond Llewelyn, who died in 1999). He brings a Monty Pythonesque sense of the absurd to his scenes. (PG-13)

BOTTOM LINE: Brosnan and Berry form a strong Bond

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