Tomorrow Never Dies confirms what Goldeneye suggested: that Pierce Brosnan's 007 is first and foremost a man of action, and not the kind that one seeks under silky sheets in a hotel penthouse. The Bond films have long been built around spectacular setpieces, of course, but Tomorrow Never Dies shortens the amount of time we have to wait for them – there's always a dose of mayhem just around the corner. The other elements are still there, of course. We get the lame jokes ("I always knew you were a cunning linguist, James") and love scenes and gadgets and all that, but this is nonetheless a Bond movie for a louder, faster, less patient era.
The film's chief asset is its villain. Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce, Brazil) is a yet another chatty megalomaniac (a large number of Bond villains can be described that way), but his profession sets him apart from his predecessors: he's a Rupert Murdoch-esque media mogul preparing to launch a new multi-platform news network. He'll be facing fierce competition from the other newspapers and cable channels, of course, but Carver has a developed an ingenuous business strategy. He'll cause a series of disasters across the globe, be the first on the scene to cover those disasters and watch the ratings soar through the roof. Eventually, he hopes to provoke a war between China and the U.K., the end result of which will be exclusive Chinese broadcast rights. It's the most ridiculously delightful plan since Goldfinger plotted to raid Fort Knox, and Pryce (a last-minute replacement for Anthony Hopkins) plays it with the hammy relish of a man who's been waiting his entire life to play a Bond villain.
M (Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal) quickly grows suspicious of Carver, and tasks Bond with investigating him. Bond soon discovers that Carver is married to Paris (Teri Hatcher, Desperate Housewives), one of 007's old flames. Hatcher has stated the she regrets playing the role, but the character's history with Bond makes Paris a more interesting Bond girl than most. Once upon a time, she was the girl Bond was making out with after completing a victorious mission. Then he abandoned her (as he has so many others), and she wound up in the arms of an unsavory character. As in Goldeneye, we're once again seeing the long-term consequences of Bond's actions.
Later in the movie, 007 teams up with Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a Chinese spy working on the same case. Yeoh's considerable skills as an action star are put to good use, permitting the back half of the film turns into a buddy movie of sorts in which James handles the technology and Wai Lin dispenses the kicks and punches. The previous Bonds (particularly Connery's) almost certainly would have had a few dismissive remarks to offer if they had been asked to team up with a woman, but Brosnan is a more deferential version of the character. He's grateful for the help, though he'll still make a pass at her if an opportunity presents itself.
The film was directed by Roger Spottiswoode, a competent hired gun whose nuts-and-bolts work is enhanced by a surprisingly coherent script (it was written and re-written many times, and production began before it was finished) and exceptional cinematography courtesy of Robert Elswitt (one of those rare cinematographers who's equally skilled in the realm of arthouse drama and big-budget action). He seems to get good work out his actors, too: Brosnan seems much more confident his second time around, and his quiet charm contrasts nicely with Pryce's blustery performance (“The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success!”).
I mentioned that Carver is the film's chief asset, but David Arnold's sensational score would have to be a close second. After the misguided experiment that was Eric Serra's score for Goldeneye, Arnold swiftly corrects course with a soundtrack that builds on John Barry's signature sound with a variety of deftly-incorporated modern touches. The variations on the Bond theme are consistently thrilling, and Arnold proves particularly capable when it comes to churning out adrenaline-pumping action music. Sheryl Crow's title song is merely passable, though, and its presence is particularly odd when you consider that a sensational new Bond tune (“Surrender,” co-written by Arnold and performed by K.D. Lang) appears over the end credits.
Most Bond movies essentially serve as a two-hour display of surface-level cinematic pleasures, and on that level, Tomorrow Never Dies is a solid entry. It's got a sensational pre-credits action sequence (the on-screen text reads "Terrorist arms bazaar on the Russian border"), a surprisingly amusing encounter with a hired killer (Vincent Schiavelli, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), Bond girls who are more than mere prizes, Ricky Jay (Heist) as an observant henchman, a cleverly-staged car chase sequence that puts Bond's video game reflexes to the test, etc. It's also worth noting that the film's relative lack of reliance on CG effects has allowed it to age far more gracefully than many of its big-budget peers. Bond may be an outdated hero, but doing things the old-fashioned way has its virtues.
Tomorrow Never Dies
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Year: 1997