There is plenty of bang-bang but very little kiss-kiss in “Tomorrow Never Dies,” a solid but somewhat by-the-numbers entry in the James Bond cycle. An imaginatively conceived media-magnate villain and an unusually active female partner for the hero help distinguish this 18th installment in the 35-year-old series, which was thoroughly reinvigorated two years ago by “Goldeneye,” a series-best $350 million grosser worldwide. Latest effort, which heavily favors straight-ahead action above all else, may not quite match that exalted figure, but it will perform handsomely, with Asian territories benefiting from the winning co-starring turn by Malaysian-Hong Kong favorite Michelle Yeoh.
After a six-year hiatus in the longest-running franchise in film history, “Goldeneye” reaped the rewards of a thorough series retrofitting, from a new Bond in Pierce Brosnan to a rejuvenation in most of the key artistic and crew positions. For his part, Brosnan now looks so at ease in the role that it seems like second nature to him, but elsewhere the excitement and satisfaction is rather more intermittent, with too much running time devoted to good guys and bad guys spraying machine gun fire at one another.
Suggestively, pre-credit action sequence doesn’t measure up to the outrageous one last time out, as Bond narrowly makes a getaway from a terrorist arms bazaar by flying out in a commandeered Russian plane. However, scenarist Bruce Feirstein, who co-wrote “Goldeneye,” has done his best work here in cooking up a delicious and easy-to-hate villain for the post-Cold War ’90s, a megalomaniacal communications tycoon, Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), whose network of satellites enables him to reach nearly every corner of the globe and whose strategy for domination involves manipulating world crises that will be reported exclusively on his network.
Carver’s first major foray into the manufacture of international conflict sees his high-tech stealth battleship sink a British naval vessel in the South China Sea in a way that pins the blame on the Chinese. With tensions rising between East and West, the Brits send Bond to Hamburg to infiltrate a huge party Carver is throwing, and it just so happens that Bond is an old playmate of Carver’s wife, Paris (Teri Hatcher). Before embarrassing Carver by disrupting the bash, Bond also makes the acquaintance of a striking Chinese woman, Wai Lin (Yeoh), whose journalistic credentials are as transparent as Bond’s as a banker.
Realizing at once the threat Bond represents, both professionally and personally, Carver dispatches his goon squad, led by blond super-Aryan Stamper (Gotz Otto), to erase him, but it is Paris who pays the price for a brief old-times’-sake assignation. Vincent Schiavelli amusingly makes the most of his one big scene as a German torture specialist who just misses his chance to apply his expertise to 007, and a car chase in a parking garage is given an added dimension in that a besieged Bond is able to drive his car by remote control, courtesy of one of Q’s special new gadgets.
Action then shifts to Southeast Asia, where, just by coincidence, Bond runs into Wai Lin while both are scuba diving in the sunken remains of the British naval ship. Quickly captured by Stamper, Bond and Wai Lin, who — surprise, surprise, is a Chinese agent — are put in intimate proximity “39 Steps”-style, courtesy of handcuffs, and taken to Saigon, where they manage to escape, making their way across roofs and narrow shantytown streets by motorcycle in a nifty action set piece.
Proposing close collaboration in more ways than one, Bond is rebuffed, but the two secret agents reunite in a climactic effort to prevent World War III by locating Carver’s stealth ship, from which a cruise missile is about to be launched toward Beijing, and thwarting the billionaire’s bid to establish his new world order (which would include exclusive broadcast rights in the elusive Chinese market for the next century).
Action finale recalls any number of earlier Bond pics in its giant industrial hardware setting, innumerable explosions and dozens of fatalities, and director Roger Spottiswoode brings little that’s new to the carnage in the way of special flair or unusual nuances. Filmmakers have steered almost exclusively toward action at the expense of sex, humor or the sort of jet-set and gaming-room glamour often highlighted in the series. Aside from the brief tryst with Paris, Bond’s only other amorous adventure is at the outset, with a blonde who is teaching him Danish in the sack, prompting one of the film’s few good one-liners from Moneypenny, who remarks, “You always were a cunning linguist, James.”
Casting works well across the boards, with Pryce nimbly conveying the media giant’s cutthroat ambition, and the hunky superman Otto embodying unalloyed menace as his No. 1 enforcer. Yeoh proves a worthy equal partner to Bond, displaying snappy martial arts moves and not for a moment falling into the compliant-bimbo mode so common to the series.
The BMW was fun last time out, but the product placements are becoming rather too numerous and prominent at this juncture. Tech credits are consistent with the strong series standards.