It's a dull Saturday afternoon in Cleveland, Ohio, and young Halle Berry is flipping through the TV stations. She's bored in the deep, almost desolate way that eight- and nine-year-olds get bored but something on the screen grabs her attention. A blonde in a white bikini is rising from the sea. There's a knife in her white-leather belt. Suddenly the afternoon isn't dull anymore. One of those channels that broadcasts old movies by day and infomercials by night is showing a 1962 James Bond film called Dr. No. "I remember that bikini coming out of the water and thinking how beautiful Ursula Andress was," Berry says. "I thought, 'Wow! Wouldn't it be great to be like her?'"
Berry's memory of her first Bond moment might seem suspicious even a P.R. hack's invention if the same image weren't frozen in the minds of millions of other 007 fans. But when you're an Oscar winner and one of the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood, fantasies have a way of coming true. Berry gets to live hers out on an April afternoon in Cádiz, Spain. Wearing a fluorescent orange bikini, she slips off her flipflops, adjusts the white-leather knife belt slung low around her hips, wades about 10 meters out into the shallows of the Atlantic and turns back toward the beach. "And action!" director Lee Tamahori calls through a megaphone. Berry dips under the surface, pops back up, runs her hands through her hair, then sashays toward shore, her wet skin glistening in the afternoon sun. Tamahori asks her to do it again. And again. Then he has her swim toward the camera. "And action!" Cut, action, cut, action, one final "Cut!" and the set bursts into applause.
When Berry comes out of the water, her teeth are chattering. The locals say April was never this frigid, this windy "Nunca," they insist, never until the week she had to pretend the icy Atlantic was the bath-warm Gulf of Mexico and shoot Scene 102, her big entrance as Jinx, the mysterious assassin in the new Bond film Die Another Day.
In return for making the cold look so hot, Berry wins the undivided attention of everyone on set including the off-duty Bond. Lolling under the thatched roof of a beachside cabana throughout the scene, Pierce Brosnan hasn't taken his wolfish eyes off Berry. "Look what you've created," he whispers to writers Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, a sly grin creeping across his face. "Look what you've done."
That the Bond girl rising from the sea is the reigning Oscar queen says plenty about the staying power of the understated British spy Ian Fleming created 50 years ago. Though Fleming's 14th and last Bond book was published 36 years ago two years after his death his character launched the most successful franchise in film history. Now celebrating its 40th anniversary with the release this month of the 20th official Bond film, the series has come roaring back from its protracted midlife crisis of the 1980s. The last three outings, all starring Brosnan, have together grossed more than $1 billion at the box office and if the story lines were not always coherent, at least the action was reliably high-octane, the stunts spectacular, the women lovely (and increasingly lethal) and the hero an island of imperturbable British cool amid the mayhem. In Brosnan, the franchise has found its best Bond since Sean Connery (some say the best of all time), a man whose nimble brow and arch half-smiles see to it that despite decades of critics asking when he'll mothball the tux, pack away the Walther PPK and retire "Bond is still so sexy and so cool," as Berry puts it.
Much of the credit for the aging spy's resuscitation goes to producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson. The daughter and stepson of franchise co-founder Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, the two run EON short for "Everything or Nothing" the London-based company that has produced all 20 "official" Bond films (Never Say Never Again, the Connery comeback vehicle made by Jack Schwartzman and Kevin McClory in 1983, is considered a renegade). When Cubby's health began to fail in the 1990s, they stepped up to take his place. (Wilson had been co-producing with his stepfather since 1985's A View to a Kill, and Barbara had been an assistant director and associate producer in the '80s.) Their first effort: GoldenEye, the high-tech, high-speed 1995 hit that proved 007 could compete with the big-bang action pictures while keeping some of his cheeky, retro spirit. Since then, the competition has only got tougher, brasher and more explosive, with plenty of pretenders to the throne most recently, Vin Diesel's xXx echoing villain Auric Goldfinger's famous threat: "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die."
He's not dead yet. Broccoli and Wilson made sure of that by paying Brosnan a reported $15 million per picture to stay in the role. He was almost the Bond that got away: in 1986, Brosnan had to turn down an offer to play the role because he couldn't get out of his Remington Steele TV contract. But he was ready to take the part when asked again in 1994. After Roger Moore's disarmingly jocular and almost geriatric Bond, and then Timothy Dalton's brooding, I'm-really-a-serious-actor Bond, the debonair Irishman has reinvigorated the old spy and even shows signs of making the character his own. Although he delivers Bond-mots with requisite panache, Brosnan tends to play the part straighter and steelier than Moore did, and he's plainly more comfortable in 007's skin than Dalton. On the beachside set in Cádiz, he slips into and out of the role, puffing a Cuban cigar all the while. It may not seem so, but playing Bond "is bloody hard work," he says during a break from filming. "Trying to hit that note correctly with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek, yet also trying to play him with a certain reality can be tricky."
Brosnan's eight-year delay helped him build a better Bond. Age weathered some of his pretty-boy sheen; a few more lines on his face, a touch more flesh at his jawline, and he began to look like a man who'd survived a few too many fights and a few too many cocktails. By now, his fourth time in the role, "the part has become second nature in some respects," he says. "I've grown into it or at least I'd like to think I have."
Die Another Day gives Brosnan a chance to stretch a bit, by working an emotional terrain usually reserved for bad guys in their final moments of pain and despair. Betrayed during an investigation into diamond smuggling, Bond is jailed and tortured by the North Koreans in what might be the first Bond scene to qualify as harrowing. Battered, bruised, bearded and, yes, even long-haired we've never seen the man like this. Naturally, he eventually wins freedom and makes his way back to London, only to learn that he's been stripped of his 00 status. His quest for redemption and to unmask the traitor takes him into the arms of three women and the crosshairs of Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), an audacious diamond tycoon bent on (what else?) world domination. (The writers had the good sense to ditch the small-potatoes bad guys of recent films, like the one bent on conquering ... the media sector.) Bond's trials, at the hands of both his captors and the agency that loses faith in him, reveal traits that fans of Fleming's novels will recognize. They "bring out his vulnerable side," says writer Wade. "But you'll see a lot of resilience."
If the thought of Bond on a mission of self-discovery makes you queasy, relax. As guardians of the 007 legacy, Broccoli and Wilson won't mess with or let anyone else mess with the formula. They constantly field suggestions to tweak the franchise, but most times, "Barbara and I have to say no to casting someone inappropriate, to diminishing the role of Bond, to making it into a buddy picture," says Wilson. "The principle is what Cubby said: 'Don't screw it up.'"
"A Bond movie has conventions: girls, gadgets, action," says Tamahori, a New Zealander best known for the 1994 Maori domestic drama Once Were Warriors. "It's not that you must stick with them, but if you don't, you may be doing the film and the genre a disservice." So he gives us the staples: action, exotic settings, a good-vs.-evil showdown and Bond girls (Berry and pale, slinky British newcomer Rosamund Pike). Enlivening these elements are blasts from the past in honor of the franchise's 40th anniversary nods to Bond history, from Berry's sexy play on Andress to Stephens' Union Jack parachute to cameos by memorable gadgets (Thunderball's jet pack, Octopussy's Crocodile minisubmarine). Audiences won't doubt for a moment that they're watching a Bond movie.
On Nov. 18, Queen Elizabeth will go to the movies for the only time this year, to Die Another Day's world premiere at London's Royal Albert Hall. We'll probably never know whether the Queen was amused, but it's only proper that she should come out to support Bond: after all, he has been in Her Majesty's public service for 40 years (50 if you count the books) as a stalwart of the British film industry and global ambassador of British cool even before Cool Britannia existed.
When Bond first introduced himself onscreen in 1962, Britain's geographic Empire was breaking up, but its cultural one was burgeoning. Even then, in the era of the Beatles and Carnaby Street, the dinner-jacketed Cambridge grad seemed curiously old school. Still, he has managed to age gracefully that is, barely at all. His country is fixed in amber, too which is also part of the appeal. In a Bond film, Britain is still a superpower. In The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), the villain Stromberg captures three nuclear submarines one American, one Soviet and one British and only Britain, thanks to 007, can respond. In 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies, China and Britain teeter on the brink of a bilateral war. Tony Blair may be accused of being George W. Bush's lapdog, but in Bond's world, "the Anglo-American special relationship is turned upside down," says James Chapman, a film historian and author of Licence to Thrill, a cultural history of Bond. Americans from CIA agent Felix Leiter to the NSA's Falco (Michael Madsen) in Die Another Day just play backup to the real global policeman who saves all in the name of Queen and Country. Bond part trad gentleman, part liberated hedonist, all Brit is, in Chapman's words, "an exception to the rule of American cultural imperialism [and] the Coca-Colonization of global culture."
Nobody seems to mind this form of British imperialism. In fact, we kind of like it. EON says that more than 2 billion people have seen a Bond film, and you only have to look around Cádiz to see the hold Bond has on the popular imagination. The 007 shoot makes the front pages every day; the Diario de Cádiz reports that Berry's "figure is so fine that it will give ammunition to the poets at Carnival time." Hundreds of locals play hooky from work and school to stake out shoot locations in the hopes of seeing stars. And even Crown Prince Felipe, in town for some official engagements, clears space in his diary for a chat with Brosnan.
If culture really is globalizing, then Bond is part of the movement. We know the catchphrases and we've seen the spoofs from Casino Royale to Austin Powers to The Simpsons (Homer goes to work for a Bondlike baddie), but far from hurting Bond, the parodies and takeoffs only keep him on our cultural radar.