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Will the next 007 step forward?

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The name is Bond. James Bond. Of that we're sure. The face that goes with the name? Well, that's starting to look uncertain.

Despite the continuing popularity of current 007 Pierce Brosnan, whose most recent Bond picture, 1998's "The World is Not Enough," was the highest-grossing film in the franchise's history, rumors continue to swirl that the producers may be looking to replace Brosnan as the suave superspy.

Though it's likely Brosnan will play the role at least one more time — for a big-budget, action-adventure the studio is hoping to have ready for next Christmas — the entire entertainment industry is playing casting director.

Let's run down some of the leading candidates and assess their chances:

SEAN CONNERY

Upside: Some fans would like to see the 70-something former Bond return at least one more time.

Downside: Connery's had it with action-adventure films.

Chances: Don't hold your breath.

RUSSELL CROWE

Upside: The popular choice for many female moviegoers, thanks to his "Gladiator" turn.

Downside: Producers would have to shell out big money (at least $20 million) to convince him.

Chances: Not very likely.

TOM CRUISE

Upside: Having already played one suave superspy (Ethan Hunt in the "Mission: Impossible" films), he's got the role down.

Downside: Even pricier than Crowe.

Chances: Extremely unlikely.

RALPH FIENNES

Upside: He's British and he can be charming.

Downside: He can also be somewhat icy and aloof. Remember his performance in "The Avengers?" 'Nuff said.

Chances: Rather unlikely.

MEL GIBSON

Upside: He's a name star with several big-action movies to his credit.

Downside: At 45, he's younger than Brosnan, but at times he looks even older than the current Bond.

Chances: Lethally unlikely.

HUGH GRANT

Upside: He can certainly be charming, and audiences know him.

Downside: He's known more for comedy, and is too slight for the part.

Chances: (Unless producers decide to remake the comic "Casino Royale" . . . ) Even less likely than his reuniting with Elizabeth Hurley.

IOAN GRUFFUDD

Upside: Thanks to his performances in the made-for-cable "Horatio Hornblower" films, he's a rising star.

Downside: He looks too young and innocent for the part.

Chances: Slim and none.

CLIVE OWEN

Upside: His Oscar-nominated role in "Croupier," as well as the made-for-the-Net BMW ads should convince naysayers.

Downside: The vast majority of U.S. audiences haven't seen any of his earlier work.

Chances: Don't bet on it.

RUFUS SEWELL

Upside: Having played good guys and bad guys, he's versatile.

Downside: His odd good looks.

Chances: Better than you might think (producer Barbara Broccoli is supposedly seriously considering him for the part).

DENZEL WASHINGTON

Upside: There are more than a few who think it's time for a black Bond.

Downside: Some audiences might not accept such a supposedly radical change.

Chances: Unfortunately, unlikely.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Something about being projected on a 70-foot screen makes you more attractive and appealing to the opposite sex, which is pretty scary. No seriously, I have a significant other, so I haven't taken advantage of (the underage fans) . . . I want to keep it legal!" — "American Pie 2" star Jason Biggs, on his new heartthrob status.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com