Tomorrow Never Dies

Tomorrow-Never-DiesLate in Tomorrow Never Dies, the eighteenth James Bond film, my familiar question at every Bond movie arose — though it was my friend, not me, who posed it. When Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and his new sidekick Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) had just finished mapping out their strategy, my friend turned to me and said, “Okay, I’m lost — what are they gonna do?” Then he answered his own question: “They’re gonna go stop the bad guys.” Maybe I’m slow, but one of many reasons I’m not a big Bond fan is precisely this: the writers concoct complicated plots (Who’s in cahoots with whom? What country are we in now? What exactly does the arch-villain want?) to cover the fact that the 007 films are just a bunch of stunts strung together.

So, okay: As a bunch of stunts strung together, Tomorrow Never Dies isn’t bad. The series has found a serviceable 007 in Brosnan, who doesn’t make Timothy Dalton’s mistake of taking these films too seriously. At the same time, this series serves as a depressing commentary on the state of megabudget action fare: As the genre has gotten cruder and more brutal, so have the Bond films. Long dead is the elegance found in Sean Connery’s slow-moving but still entertaining 007 entries. The series has reached the point where a Bond film’s simplest, most satisfying moment comes when good old Q (Desmond Llewellyn) breaks out his cool gadgets.

Partly, too, Mike Myers is to blame. I find it hard to buy into 007, even on his own outrageous, borderline campy terms, after Austin Powers so thoroughly lampooned Bond and his imitators. This movie’s Dr. Evil is Jonathan Pryce as Elliot Carver, a media mogul who likes to provoke wars and then command full media coverage of the carnage. These post-Cold War villains are getting rather sad, their motivations progressively bland. (No recent Bond villain has matched Adrian Veidt in Alan Moore’s 1986 comic book Watchmen, who killed off half of New York with a fake alien landing in order to avert nuclear war.) And let’s face it: as a target for satire, the media is so riddled with holes by now that it whistles in a strong wind.
Bond reacquaints himself with old flame Teri Hatcher, who — well, don’t get too attached to her, put it that way. He also benefits (as does the movie) from the two-fisted help of Michelle Yeoh, an international superstar who gained U.S. cred two summers ago in Supercop. It’s great to see Yeoh, but it’s also a little discouraging to see her playing a sidekick, however skilled and autonomous, to some mere guy. Give this powerful woman her own movie and let a guy be her sidekick.

Tomorrow Never Dies was directed with no particular flair by Roger Spottiswoode, a once-promising talent (Under Fire) who has resigned himself to impersonal Hollywood stuff. His staging of the action sequences is competent but lacks the snap Martin Campbell brought to GoldenEye. Perhaps the series’ most valuable addition is Bruce Feirstein, the humorist who wrote Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche and has also worked on the last two Bonds. Feirstein lets characters like Q and Bond’s supervisor M (Dame Judi Dench, a welcome injection of cool, intelligent estrogen in this testosterone-drunk series) roll their eyes at Bond’s fixation on gadgets, derring-do, and womanizing.

As for that media-evil villain: For a while, Jonathan Pryce seems to be having fun hamming it up, but past a certain point he can’t come up with anything fresh, and his performance sputters out. Comparably esteemed British actors can drop into a piece of Hollywood entertainment, relax, and amuse us by amusing themselves (Anthony Hopkins and Jeremy Irons come to mind); perhaps Pryce has trouble letting himself go. He outclasses the movie, and I felt that the vulgar way he’s killed off (c’mon, I’m not giving anything away; maybe tomorrow never dies, but Bond villains always do) is fairly insulting. If a villain lives by the media, he should die by the media, not by some big stupid thing that looks like Pac-Man on steroids.

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