A while back, I happened to catch ''Dr. No'' on television, and I was startled to be reminded of something: The James Bond movies used to be movies.
They were espionage dramas wrapped in the tinsel of gimmickry, rather than the other way around. Die Another Day is the savviest and most exciting Bond adventure in years, and that's because there's actually something at stake in it. No, I don't mean the fate of the world (as if there were doubt about the outcome of that), but the fate of James Bond himself. Is he a walking action figure, the kind of guy who might just as well be played by Bruce Willis in a tux, or is he someone who still matters not because of what he does but because of the precise tenor with which he does it -- the razory exactitude, say, with which he disarms a sexy masseuse who's got a gun strapped to her thigh and then smashes the mirrored wall where he's being videotaped by Chinese spies?
In the sensational opening sequence of ''Die Another Day,'' Bond (Pierce Brosnan) tries to trade a briefcase of diamonds to a sniveling young North Korean despot, and when his secret-agent cover is blown, he escapes in a high-speed chase over a road packed with land mines. Bond dodges flamethrowers and machine-gun fire, and he all but dances around a moonwalking hovercraft to evade the villains, leaping about with the graceful improv nonchalance of a man who knows that the physical karma of the moment will always favor his instincts. But then the unthinkable happens. Bond is captured, and as the credits roll over the nifty electro-cut pauses of the title Madonna song, images of Bond babes cast in smelting gold are superimposed on what's happening to our hero: beatings, scorpion injections, his face held under ice water. Emerging from this torture chamber, Bond looks like Kris Kristofferson with a very bad hangover, and he is then rescued and subjected to the ultimate abuse: Judi Dench, as M, gazing at him with withering Oxbridge contempt as she declaims, ''You're of no use to anyone now.'' It's enough to make you wonder if she's been watching DVDs of ''GoldenEye'' and ''The World Is Not Enough.''
In recent years, the Bond series has grown bloated and decadent and -- yes -- dull, coasting on the nostalgia we all share during those first 15 minutes, when the twangy machine-gun guitar chords come rippling over the image of 007 firing his weapon at the audience, followed by the inevitable action sequence that's so elaborately kicked-up it's a mad logistical joke -- and nothing more than a joke. ''Die Another Day,'' on the other hand, is directed by a true filmmaker, Lee Tamahori (''Once Were Warriors''), and he has reestablished the series' ominous pop sensuality. Tamahori gets the true trick of Bond: that he's the ultimate agent because he keeps breaking rules, even the ones approved by his side.
The movie has a juicy, smirking villain -- the aforementioned Korean, who has gone to a sinister DNA-transplant facility tucked away in Havana, the kind of clinic that would look like a vacation spa to Michael Jackson, and made himself over into a foppishly malicious British mogul of the new swinging London, played by Toby Stephens with a charismatic flash of horsey upper gums. In his insolent way, this dastardly fellow, an African-diamond buccaneer who plans to turn a giant satellite reflector into a second sun, is every bit as polished as Bond. The two face off in a fencing duel that's choreographed for maximum rousing, glass-case-smashing abandon, complete with bigger and bigger swords. Even as the violence spills over the top, what keeps the sequence grounded is its furious battle of wills. I can't remember the last time that Bond and his archenemy so flagrantly didn't like each other. Stephens, a terrific, snarling actor who's the son of Maggie Smith, raises the stakes for Brosnan, who came closer to the true Bond spirit in ''The Thomas Crown Affair'' and ''The Tailor of Panama'' than he previously has in the series itself. Brosnan draws on his work in those films to infuse 007 with a new forceful twinkle -- the perfect balance of purpose and play.
Tamahori keeps the encounters human-scale, whether he's getting John Cleese to slow-ball his archness as Q or staging Bond's sexual escapades in a way that preserves their naughty appeal but underplays the usual two-ton winks. Bond's love of the ladies isn't just an obligatory sideshow this time. It's been made crucial to the plot -- his weakness, as it were. Brosnan flirts up a storm with Halle Berry, who brings superwoman confidence and a megawatt smile of temptation to the role of an American agent who's every bit the daredevil he is, as well as with newcomer Rosamund Pike, as an all-too-meltable British ice princess.
Speaking of ice, the climax of ''Die Another Day'' unfolds in a setting of spectacular cheesy grandeur. We're in Iceland, at some sort of frozen palatial-hotel fortress in the white wilderness, and the ice all looks plastic, but when Bond leaps into a pointy-nosed ground glider and races seconds ahead of a reflected sunbeam that's trailing him like the wrath of God, you're more than happy to sign on for the ride. The fakery goes right back to the kind we got in the '60s 007 films, with their wide-eyed suspension of disbelief. But ''Die Another Day'' gets away with it, because it's the first Bond movie in ages that isn't fake fun.