There's no advertising tag line on "Tomorrow Never Dies," the new James Bond film, but an accurate one might be "Never wake a sleepwalker. Especially one that's turning a nice profit."
As the latest film in a series that dates back to "Dr. No" in 1962, a run of 18 pictures that has earned an estimated $2.5 billion in admissions, "Tomorrow Never Dies" is very aware of its position as the latest incarnation of one of the most lucrative franchises in movie history.
This self-consciousness means more than licensing so many products--notice, please, the BMW car, the Dunhill cigarette lighter, the Omega watch and the Ericsson phone, to name a few--that you half expect Bond to appear covered with a sea of corporate logos like a successful stock car driver. It also mandates that considerable time and effort go toward keeping things the same as they've always been.
So even though the Bond song is now sung by Sheryl Crow instead of Shirley Bassey or Nancy Sinatra, change is not apparent or even allowed in most areas of "Tomorrow Never Dies." The film's producers have calculated, no doubt correctly, that in this chaotic world the Bond audience wants things unchanged as much as possible. Who would have thought that what started out as the racy exploits of a suave secret agent would turn into the movies' version of comfort food?
From its derivative title through the Bond-in-an-eyeball logo and the way-familiar Monty Norman theme, a lot of "Tomorrow Never Dies" has a stodgy, been-there feeling. Agent 007 still prefers martinis shaken not stirred, still makes increasingly tired double-entendre remarks, still drives a car that's a weapons arsenal on wheels. And gadgetmeister Q (Desmond Llewelyn), though looking like he could have served Queen Victoria, is still handing out gizmos to our favorite undercover operative.
Speaking of undercover, "Tomorrow Never Dies" is so old-fashioned in the romantic area it just about wheezes. Bond's tryst with a Scandinavian professor of linguistics is shot in such a determinedly modest way it comes off as quaint more than sexy. And even the concept of blond Scandinavians as the epitome of sexuality has a comforting, retrograde feeling about it.
Veteran director Roger Spottiswoode has tried to pep the old warhorse up, but the combined inertia of all those pictures over 35 years proves hard to budge. The only place where an updating has been successful is in the addition of the lively Michelle Yeoh, one of Hong Kong's top female action stars, as a sidekick for Mr. B.
Though we've never met him before, even the power-mad villain, intent on nothing less than world domination, feels familiar. As written by Bruce Feirstein and played by Jonathan Pryce, Elliot Carver does have a different occupation than the evil types of the past: He's a media mogul, an exaggerated version of Robert Maxwell or Rupert Murdoch, who believes "words are the new weapons" in a battle to control the hearts and minds of every human being on Earth.
Completely devoted to his credo that "there's no news like bad news," Carver is willing to manufacture events to sell papers and TV time. He and henchman Gupta (Ricky Jay) use computer technology (the all-purpose boogeyman of the moment) to provoke a major diplomatic incident between Britain and China that Carver hopes he can massage into all-out war.
He reckons without the cool intelligence of M (Judi Dench) and the sang-froid of 007 (Pierce Brosnan, once again), who gets assigned to figure out what's up. Fortunately for our side, Carver's wife Paris (Teri Hatcher) is an old, uh, acquaintance of Bond, and its just a matter of time before he finds out enough to battle for the fate of civilization as we know it.
As noted, Yeoh as Wai Lin, a Chinese operative reluctant at first to join forces with "a decadent agent of a corrupt Western power," is a major asset, as are the elaborate stunts that are one of the series' reasons for being. Also breaking the iron-clad bonds of over-familiarity is the terribly amusing Vincent Schiavelli as Dr. Kaufmann, who learns that the pride he takes in being the assassin's assassin comes before a fall.
"I am not interested in your stupid escapades," a fed-up superior says to Bond at one point, but the people who bankroll these films feel otherwise. When it says "James Bond Will Return" at the close of the credits, it's a promise you can take to the bank. Literally.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of action violence, sexuality and innuendo. Times guidelines: The violence is bloodless for the most part.
'Tomorrow Never Dies'
Pierce Brosnan: James Bond
Jonathan Pryce: Elliot Carver
Michelle Yeoh: Wai Lin
Teri Hatcher: Paris Carver
Ricky Jay: Henry Gupta
An Albert R. Broccoli's Eon Productions Ltd. presentation, released by MGM. Director Roger Spottiswoode. Producers Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli. Screenplay by Bruce Feirstein. Cinematographer Robert Elswit. Editors Dominique Fortin, Michel Arcand. Costumes Lindy Hemming. Music David Arnold. Production design Allan Cameron. Art directors Stephen Scott, Giles Masters, Tony Reading, Jonathan Lee, Ken Court. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.