Now that the Japanese Tora-san series -- with fiftysome entries in 30 years -- has presumably drawn to a close following the death of star Kiyoshi Atsumi last year, the James Bond films constitute the longest-running continuous series around. They've had their ups and downs, but something about the Bond formula has proved enduring enough to keep the character alive through five incarnations -- Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan.
Brosnan returns as 007 in Tomorrow Never Dies, opus 18 of the "official" James Bond series (Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again were outside productions). With the commercial -- and, to some extent, critical -- triumph of GoldenEye, Brosnan established himself as the best Bond since everyone's favorite, Connery.
As has become standard, the title has nothing to do with anything: If "living" or "dying" were even vaguely applicable to "tomorrow" -- and they're not -- then tomorrow would always die ... by becoming today, and then yesterday. Still, it sounds right, and, within the Bond universe, with its determinedly surface values, what else is really important?
After the usual unrelated, pre-credits action sequence, the new Bond opens with a mysterious stealth ship destroying a British vessel in the North China Sea in order to manufacture a diplomatic crisis between Britain and China. In short order, we discover that this nefarious scheme is the work of Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), an international communications mogul who plans to beat his competition to the news by being the one to create it. Carver at times vaguely suggests Ted Turner, but his character owes at least as much to both Rupert Murdoch and William Randolph Hearst.
Bond is summoned; he would, of course, be the only man for the job, even if he weren't, by pure coincidence, a former lover of Carver's wife, Paris (Teri Hatcher). M (Judi Dench), in a particularly coldblooded moment, implies that 007 should use his sexual expertise to get information from Paris.
Bond heads for Carver's Hamburg headquarters, where Q shows up (in a slightly confusing sequence) to give him his latest gadgets -- most notably a BMW with a videogame-like remote-control pad. At the launch party for Carver's CMGN (Carver Media Group Network), Bond meets up with both Paris and with Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), ostensibly a Chinese newswoman, but clearly a spy in mufti.
From then on, it's caper ... chase ... murder ... sex ... chase ... and so on, until the finale, where, rather predictably, Bond and Wai Lin have to collaborate to save the world.
It would be silly to expect anything startlingly new from the venerable series at this stage of the game. Ever since Goldfinger set the pattern that has guided the series, the individual films have risen or fallen on the quality of the leading man and the cleverness of the execution. Brosnan proved his worth last time around; but, sad to say, the rest of the film lacks the wit and inventiveness of GoldenEye, let alone of Goldfinger.
A skydiving sequence is a perfect example of the lackluster shtick that fills Tomorrow Never Dies. Moonraker, the worst film in the series, opened with a spectacular skydiving sequence that will probably never be bettered; GoldenEye's opening, in which Bond sailed after, and caught, a pilotless plane, was at least a worthy contender. But the skydiving scene in Tomorrow Never Dies is just plain ol' skydiving. Why bother having such a sequence unless there's some twist to make it new?
Likewise, the distinguishing element of the biggest car chase is that Bond is squatting in the back seat, driving with his little touch-pad remote control. Since it takes the bad guys a zillion bullets to shatter the windshield, you wonder why Bond is hunching down in the first place. And, more important, since the touch pad has a video-screen view of the driver's-seat perspective, what's the big deal? In what way is Bond doing anything substantively different from driving the car normally?
All the chase and suspense gimmicks are of that caliber: They fill the spaces adequately, but just adequately. The sole exception is Yeoh's one big fight scene -- which brings us to the film's other big disappointment.
The greatest hope for the new Bond was the casting of Yeoh, Hong Kong's biggest female action star, as Bond's sidekick. Anyone who's seen her best H.K. films or, at the very least, the American release of Jackie Chan's Supercop (for which she was billed as Michelle Khan) knows how extraordinary she can be.
In Tomorrow Never Dies, we get a wonderful taste of Yeoh's abilities ... but only a taste. It's a half-hour before she shows up, another 20 minutes before she does anything and another 40 minutes before she finally gets to show her stuff. We're nearly three-quarters through the movie by then: Yeoh gets a brief, wonderful solo fight scene, staged by the great Hong Kong stunt coordinator Philip Kwok. (Kwok, who is best known to Western audiences as the fearsome Mad Dog in John Woo's Hardboiled, has a walk-on here as General Chang.)
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Yeoh gets to do plenty in the final half-hour, though much of the action doesn't really spotlight what makes her different from Western action stars; it's as though the producers -- so used to standard Hollywood action, with its high-tech hardware, special-effects wizardry and stunt doubles -- didn't know what to do with an actress who has actual physical skills.
After John Glen directed five Bond films in a row, the producers cannily decided to shake up the series by choosing the relatively unlikely Martin Campbell (Criminal Law, Defenseless) for GoldenEye. While it seems a good idea to have fresh directors on each new film, veteran Roger Spottiswoode (The Best of Times, Under Fire) doesn't seem to bring much to the party. And the wisecracks in the script by Bruce Feirstein (who wrote Real Men Don't Eat Quiche and had a co-credit on GoldenEye) aren't particularly witty.
Tomorrow Never Dies.
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode. With Pierce Brosnan, Jonathan Pryce, Michelle Yeoh and Teri Hatcher.