Hero Worship

As if in answer to a special, seasonal wistfulness silently voiced by the moviegoing public, the film industry seems to hit us each fall with a couple of hero-centered megafilms. Die Another Day is the latest James Bond flick, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the second movie made from the world-beating series of books by J.K. Rowling. Both the heroes are dark, English and privately educated, and both the films are sumptuous: From the blistering action sequences (Bond in his car, Potter on his broomstick) to the thespian blue bloods hired to add class (Bond has Judi Dench, Potter has Maggie Smith), the pulse and glamour of molten Hollywood bullion are overpowering.

Of the two films, Die Another Day has the better writing. "One of the benefits of never sleeping -- you get to live your dreams," someone in the franchise's 20th film says. What a marvelous line that is! Faustian and yet post-Freudian, it's full of the mystery of the unconscious, of light's bargain with darkness, and yet bleakly -- piercingly -- psychiatric. And it revives a cliché to boot: It's the best thing uttered by a Bond villain (in this case, a rogue North Korean colonel who has had himself genetically altered to resemble a mid-European aristocrat, losing in the process his capacity for sleep) since GoldenEye's nasty Agent 006, who, holding Bond at gunpoint, speculated that his ex-colleague's imminent funeral would be attended only by "a few weeping restaurateurs."

Spiffily up-to-date, Die Another Day sees our man prancing about on the "axis of evil" as he mixes it up with the North Koreans. As the movie begins, Bond (played for a fourth time by Pierce Brosnan) is at a low ebb, being knocked about and dunked in buckets of cold water in a North Korean jail. The opening credits evoke his terrible suffering: Apparitions of pain come and go, a hallucinatory collage of writhing fire women and scorpions made of ice, as the famous groomer is denied a razor and forced to grow his locks and beard until he resembles a roadie for the Grateful Dead.

Finally he is traded back to his own side, but no one likes him anymore -- he is widely supposed to have cracked under torture and blabbed to the North Koreans. The injustice! "Double-O status rescinded!" snaps M (Dench), and sentences him to a term in her special "observation center" on the Falkland Islands. He bolts, of course, shaves, puts on his tux and commences wreaking havoc.

Bond is traditionally the destroyer of dreamworlds, grandiosity's opposing force; this is his truly mythic aspect. Maddened mortals conjure schemes to militarize the earth's core or breed a master race in space, and Bond must tear them down, blowing up the secret lab or -- as in Die Another Day -- driving round and round the evil ice palace at high speed until it falls to pieces. And he must do these things offhandedly, eyes elsewhere, as if removing his cufflinks.

A product of the Cold War, the character of Bond expresses a very British suspicion of ideology and/or fanaticism, and his end-of-history composure has weathered well. The fact that his newer films are bristling with product placements -- Die Another Day is, among other things, an advertisement for Samsonite suitcases, Omega watches and Norelco shavers -- only enhances his authenticity: In a very real sense, Bond is a man of the world. He is the great balloon popper, the enemy of delusion; his enemies speak in bombast, coining fantastical concepts, and he answers with his well-worn little drolleries. As much as he carries with him his own portable fantasia (the girls, the drinks), Bond is an agent not of the British Secret Service but of some deflating reality principle, and in a slight way you hate him for it. After all, some of the plans he foils have such ambition, such élan. What could be better for clearing the Korean demilitarized zone of its millions of U.S.-laid mines, for example, than a monster beam of reflected solar light angled in from an enormous outer-space mirror?

The visionary who came up with this is Gustave Graves (Toby Stephens), the diamond mogul and former North Korean colonel. Graves is insanely wealthy, a twisted thoroughbred, kiss-curled and snarling, his face alive with tremors of equine disgust -- particularly when he meets Bond. Ever the sportsman, 007 elects to confront Graves at fencing practice, where he has a brief exchange with Graves' instructor, Verity (Madonna). This is almost it for Die Another Day, because Madonna, as everyone knows, is pure filmic antimatter: When she opens her mouth, what you hear is not dialogue but the sound of suddenly departing electricity, of cinematic voltage going south. But the movie survives -- a noisy duel, during which Thomas Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy" is sliced in half, helps restore the mood -- because Bond and his franchise are indestructible.

Is Die Another Day any good? That's almost impossible to say. Preposterousness flaunts itself from the screen, at great expense and considerable length. And as for Pierce Brosnan, well, excited as I was when he landed the role, I'm still not convinced by his Bond. He makes a Moneypenny out of me, as I nurse my spinsterish dream that he will stride in one day and fulfill his brooding promise. In the meantime, I must take what comfort I can in his shady banter.

Bond's newest consort is a fierce National Security Agency agent named Jinx (Halle Berry), but their affair is a trifle hardly to be noted, a jaded bagatelle next to the romance of Harry Potter's life: the extraordinary Hermione Granger. Hermione (Emma Watson) -- now she's a great girl, every young boy's dream, a literal spellbinder. Dark hair, dark eyebrows; she rubs together a couple of Latin-sounding syllables and the sparks of magic fly. Wand in hand, she could light your cigarette for you. And it is Hermione and the blubbering Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) who are Harry's chief allies against evil in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

The story, it must be said, is not that strong. Deep in the catacombs of Hogwarts, the school for wizards where young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is getting his training, a dastardly mage has built a secret chamber with (possibly) a monster inside it. This might seem like a strictly administrative matter, something for the teaching staff at Hogwarts to handle without getting the pupils excited, but somehow it is left to Harry to sort it all out.

Much fanciness is loaded onto this frail structure -- time travel, snake talk, enormous arachnids, the healing tears of a weeping phoenix -- but something primary is missing: the simplicity of the great children's story, perhaps, where there is always that main line to the ancient essences of fear and wonder. In such tales, the archetypal is forever shifting its slumberous coils not far beneath the surface, however busy that surface may be.

Alas, The Chamber of Secrets -- and I say this in defiance of the millions who obviously adored the book and the series -- does not have this resonance. One effect follows another, like those hatched in Q's laboratory, and although some of them are superb -- the fetal scream of an uprooted mandrake is not soon forgotten -- long before the end I found my thoughts drifting homeward, to my glossy Samsonite luggage set, to my massive Omega watch, to my beautiful Norelco shaver ... .