But where's the Aston Martin?

the critics

"NOT that it matters," wrote Ian Fleming in the author's note to From Russia with Love (1957), "but a great deal of the background to this story is accurate". The same realism is not evident in the spectacular prologue to the 18th Bond adventure, GoldenEye (12). Having blown up a Russian chemical weapons plant, Bond bungee-jumps into a passing plane, flying through the air in a manner that makes you wonder whether the Bond people, after six years' inactivity, have confused the traits of their hero, and accidentally embarked on a Superman film. Not that it matters: the audience laps it up - a cheer went round the auditorium in which I saw the film. Bond, and his precarious glamour, are back.

The Cold War has thawed, the Iron Curtain fallen, and gender politics have become correct, since Fleming first fantasised Bond over 40 years ago. The fascination of GoldenEye is that it tries to straddle the two worlds: it is a hymn to the hero, ancient and modern. The plot is standard Cold War paranoia - rogue Russian general gets hold of a weapons plant - though the weapons are now in space. The Russians, in time-honoured fashion, are implacably angry, their nostrils flaring in fury. Pierce Brosnan's Bond retains the commander's amatory, linguistic and martial skills, but no longer smokes or drinks much. His women are still legion, yet also now feisty: they snap back at him with accusations of sexism and harassment. Silhouetted naked, models still dance through the credits, but they prance around dismantled statues of Lenin. The movie-makers are deconstructing Bond, even as they build him up anew.

Pierce Brosnan's Bond is being described as the best since Sean Connery, which might sound like a back-handed compliment. Brosnan doesn't have Connery's animal grace, though he moves better than Roger Moore, who was often stiffer than the foes he wiped out. Tall and stringy-limbed, Brosnan, in his blazer and slacks, can too much resemble a golf-club Lothario, better suited to the 19th-hole tipple than the 11th-hour crisis. He is best in close-up, where his clean-cut yet rugged profile strives for variations of sang-froid and clenched-jaw resilience. The key to Connery's success was the larky glint in his eye that defused the silliness. Brosnan too keeps a distance from the role: he seems mercifully maturer than the film, mistrustful of it all, but still prepared to enjoy it. Fleming's Bond was famously blank - undescribed, save for all the brand names he used - yet Brosnan's foppish complacency makes him closer to Fleming than to Connery.

It is in its use of the Bond girls that this movie is least reconstructed. For all their verbal jousting with Bond, Famke Janssen's Xenia Onatopp and Izabella Scorupco's Natalya Simonova clearly fit into the old pattern of vamp and waif. Scorupco's computer operator, a survivor of the villains' sabotage on a weapons plant, clings to Brosnan's tuxedo-tails, demurely but fetchingly dressed in lacy white blouse, grey cardigan and knee-length skirt. The film at times resembles The Perils of Laura Ashley. The Amazonian Janssen's suggestively named Onatopp is a vampire woman, usually clad in black, who smokes big cigars and crushes men, in the throes of passion, between her thighs. She is the embodiment of the sadistic James Bond cocktail of sex and death.

There are fewer than usual of the grotesque minor characters. But Robbie Coltrane is commanding as a belly-laughing Russian gangster; while Minnie Driver plays his would-be singer mistress, screeching through a rendition of "Stand By Your Man". Desmond Llewelyn returns as Q, with another boffin's lair of gadgets, though Brosnan's tendency to act in isolation dissipates the comedy of their traditional "Now pay attention 007" scene. Judi Dench moves the film with the times as a severe-suited M; Samantha Bond is a far too young Moneypenny - we miss the courtliness of Bond's relationship with the wistful spinster.

Much of the credit for this revived Bond must go to the director, Martin Campbell (television veteran of Edge of Darkness and some of the best episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street). He handles the action with assurance - including one extraordinary sequence when Bond races in a tank through St Petersburg, ploughing through vehicles and statuary, only pausing to adjust the knot of his tie. But he never allows the special effects or the limp humour to crowd out the core of human drama. GoldenEye is not as slick or as much fun as last year's True Lies, but it brings a welcome trace of intelligence back to Bond.

One of the many pleasures of Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad (15) is in seeing the conventions of the gangster movie, so much associated with American cinema, go East. Set in 1930s Shanghai, the film opens in an underground car park, whose ominous hush presages a shooting. Hoods in smart suits and hats carry out the execution. It is witnessed by a boy, Shuisheng, who is our eyes in the opulent gloom of this triad world, having gained a job with his uncle, a crony of the sinister Boss. Soon the camera is looking up in wonder, along with Shuisheng, gazing over a palatial ceiling. It is not long before Shuisheng witnesses the affair of the Boss's mistress (Gong Li) with his sidekick.

A familiar tale, then, of brutality, betrayal, and compromised innocence, even boasting a rival boss called Fat Yu. But Zhang Yimou keeps an icy moral distance from his characters, unlike so many Hollywood directors who seem complicit in the degeneracy. The movie closes with another shot from the boy's point of view, as he hangs upside down - this is a world, Zhang is saying, where morality is upturned. Zhang is aided, maybe for the last time, after the break-up of their affair, by Gong Li. If we had ever doubted Gong to be a great actress, here is proof positive. She has never been so open before - her beauty less pristine, but more accessible, close to lushness, in fact, as she gets tipsy on champagne and sings coquettishly, wearing a costume of scarlet feathers. Later she petulantly trashes her room, and then, with a mournful wail, drops desolately on her bed. It is her film.

With his usual economy, exquisite cinematography, and consummate use of music and silence, Zhang paints a garish yet deeply conservative world. When the Boss uproots his entourage - and the film - to the country, there are some oddly becalmed passages. But the climax is still devastating, and we never doubt that the real boss of this movie is indeed a master.

"Too bad, Father, I was just starting to enjoy myself," quips Leonardo Di Caprio's Jim Carroll, as he takes a schoolboy beating in The Basketball Diaries (18), Scott Kalvert's adaptation of the acclaimed account of Sixties drug addiction by Carroll. Di Caprio puts across this impish, early Carroll better than the later, drug-addled, shuffling hustler - the free spirit rather than the broken one. Unwisely updated to the modern day, and shot in a style unsure whether it wants to play straight or psychedelic, the movie disintegrates in step with Jim Carroll himself.

Carlotta Joaquina - Princess of Brazil (15), which plays for a week at London's Barbican Centre, is a wacky and rather wonderful historical farce, about the eponymous Spanish princess, who married a Portuguese prince, and ended up being shipped to Brazil, where her son Pedro established the country's independence. Disappointed in her marriage to the effete Prince John (a great comic performance by Marco Nanini, matching Jim Broadbent in Bullets Over Broadway for compulsive eating), Carlotta dedicates her life to sexual abandon. The film was a huge hit in Brazil, whether due to its veiled feminism or exuberant humour. I first saw it at the Danube Festival in Bratislava, where the director, Carla Camurati, was nearly reduced to collaring members of the public from the street to see it. It deserves a much better fate here.

Just room to recommend Antonioni's re-released 1959 masterpiece L'Avventura (15), playing at the Screen on the Hill in London, before touring the country. Ostensibly a missing person mystery, it's a study of the barrenness of comfortable lives, shot in Antonioni's ascetic yet compelling style - a neo-realist Unbearable Emptiness of Being.

Cinema details: Review, page 92.

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