Oh, James, what will you do next?

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

James Bond is back, and it's his birthday, too.

The formidable hero made his first screen appearance 40 years ago, and the 20th installment in his ongoing saga has a few surprises to offer - along with the usual bag of utterly predictable tricks that 007 fans have enjoyed since he first stepped off the pages of Ian Fleming's bestselling novels.

The first surprise comes during the opening credits, when the series' patented herd of shimmying females is superimposed on scenes of Bond being tortured by the wily North Koreans who've managed to capture him.

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The second comes right after the credits, when we learn they've had our hero in the slammer for a whopping 14 months.

More than a year at the mercy of his enemies?

Is this vulnerable man really the invincible 007 we've come to know and love? And hey, is M really revoking his license to kill and kicking him out of Her Majesty's Secret Service, just because he may have spilled some secrets when his captors hauled out the scorpions?

Don't fret, it's him. The new wrinkles in his latest adventure are the brainwork of the Bond franchise-holders, who apparently felt the need to balance the increasingly high-tech atmosphere of the series with a slightly more humanized approach to 007 himself.

And he's not that much more human than he used to be.

No sooner does he slip away from his foes than he's up to his well-groomed hairline in harrowing situations, split-second escapes, and awesome romantic conquests, all without losing his jaunty smirk or making us worry he won't survive until the inevitable "James Bond Will Return" logo tells us the show is over.

Pierce Brosnan has mastered every smidgen of 007 schtick, making the role more thoroughly his own than any actor since Sean Connery - still the best of the batch - decided to call it quits.

Halle Berry is less impressive as Jinx, his female counterpart, but reliable pros Judi Dench and John Cleese take up the slack with ease. Rosamund Pike is also solid as an icy adversary named Miranda Frost.

Holding the directorial reins, action specialist Lee Tamahori keeps the adventure hopping at a properly jet-propelled pace, helped by the sort of computer-enhanced visual effects you usually see in futuristic sci-fi fantasies.

No doubt about it, Bond is keeping up with the times in everything but his story ideas, which seem as determined to keep cold-war anxieties alive as 007 is to get out of his latest scrape.

Don't be surprised if he's as popular on his 80th birthday as he is on multiplex screens this weekend.

Rated PG-13; contains sex and violence.

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