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With war drums echoing from Iraq to Bali to lower Manhattan, international intrigue just doesn’t seem as sexy and carefree as the James Bond franchise needs it to be. And for the first 15 minutes of Die Another Day, it appears that the current 007 brain trust—producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, director Lee Tamahori, and scripters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade—understands this.

OK, so the film opens with Bond (Pierce Brosnan) surfing into North Korea and blowing up lots of stuff. But then he’s captured and brutally tortured, held for more than a year, and finally traded for Zao (Rick Yune), a Korean archvillain with a diamond-pockmarked face. Bruised and sorta disgraced, Bond finds himself in the custody of M (Judi Dench), who no longer trusts him because someone revealed the identity of a U.S. operative to the North Koreans during the period that 007 was being dunked in ice water and dosed with scorpion venom. So he escapes from his MI-6 cohorts and gets Chinese intelligence to fund his search for Zao.

Now there’s the premise for an interesting 007 flick: James Bond against the world, without M, without Moneypenny, without Q and his gadgets—alone and a little bit desperate, rather than so goddamn suave that even the imminent end of the world doesn’t cause a ripple in his martini. The Cold War relic’s 20th big-screen excursion, it seems, finally offers a welcome variation on the Bond formula.

But Purvis and Wade, who shared the script credit for 1999’s The World Is Not Enough and once wrote a good movie, 1991’s Let Him Have It, quickly lose their nerve. Bond chases Zao to a DNA-replacement lab in Cuba, where he meets and greets—if you know what I mean—U.S. superspy Jinx (Halle Berry), who’s wearing Ursula Andress’ belted bikini from Dr. No, 007’s 1962 debut. She’s also condescendingly required to utter such trash-talk jibes as “yo mama.”

Then it’s off to London, where M revalidates the prodigal Bond’s 00 status and the spy gets another round of hi-tech gimmickry from Q (John Cleese, who has the film’s best lines). It seems that MI-6 has its suspicions about zillionaire Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens, who has the pinched mouth of his mother, Maggie Smith). Something to do with “conflict diamonds” from Sierra Leone and one of those ominous thingamajigs that some megalomaniac is forever putting into geostationary orbit in these flicks. So Bond and MI-6 agent Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), one of the matched set of bed-mates 007 is issued for every movie, are dispatched to Iceland. There Jinx resurfaces, and it turns out—to no one’s surprise—that Graves is connected to both Zao and Bond’s sojourn in North Korea.

Tamahori, whose previous films include 1994’s Once Were Warriors and 1996’s Mulholland Falls, has a robust style that energizes the more plausible action sequences, notably a fencing match between Bond and Graves that starts out friendly but turns vehement. (This occurs at a London club where the film’s theme-song artiste, Madonna, dispenses foils.) But the momentum is lost once the story moves from real locations (Hawaii, Hong Kong, Spain, Cornwall) to blatantly phony-looking ice palaces, space stations, and cargo planes. And neither Sean Connery nor original Bond director Terence Young could have salvaged Die Another Day’s most annoying 40th-anniversary tribute: the script’s many sophomoric double-entendres. The filmmakers were apparently so busy immortalizing those it’s-so-big gags that they didn’t notice their movie had gone flaccid.

One of Die Another Day’s few edgy touches is to refer to James Bond as an “assassin.” That’s starker than his having “license to kill,” but still not as deflating to gun-guy glamour as Neil Burger’s Interview With the Assassin. This deadpan pseudo-documentary, shot in impeccably nondescript digital video, imagines one of the most notorious killers of the 20th century as the guy next door—literally. One day, lonely old Walter Ohlinger (Raymond J. Barry) invites his San Bernardino neighbor, recently laid-off TV-news cameraman Ron Kobeleski (Dylan Haggerty), to tape a confession. He’s soon to die of cancer, Walter says, and he wants leave behind his testament: He was the second gunman in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

Walter is persuasive, but all he has for evidence is the shell he claims came from the bullet that killed Kennedy. He explains that he only ever met one man associated with the conspiracy—his handler, John Seymour—and that Seymour is now dead. Ron is fascinated, doesn’t have anything better to do, and realizes the value of what he’s videotaping if Walter is actually telling the truth. So the cameraman follows the self-styled assassin to Dallas to reconstruct the crime. Then, when one of Walter’s old Army buddies says that Seymour is still alive, the odd couple tracks the handler first to Norfolk and then to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. Finally, the increasingly agitated Walter leads Ron through downtown D.C. to make a point.

Like The Blair Witch Project, Interview With the Assassin treats the unbelievable with a lo-tech earnestness that’s curiously persuasive. Diligent in its conception, the film includes no footage that couldn’t have been shot by Ron except scenes that would logically have been available from other sources, such as surveillance cameras. The performances are equally

rigorous: Haggerty and especially Barry embody their parts with such naturalness as to be irrefutable. You’ll believe, at the very least, that Walter believes what he says. Playing adroitly on what people know—or think they know—about JFK’s assassination, Burger has devised a small but piquant riff on truth, video, and America’s secret history. CP