There’s nothing really wrong with Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), the eighteenth chapter of the James Bond saga, but there isn’t really anything right either. It simply exists, competent and pleasant, mildly engaging but ultimately temporary. This might sound like a complaint, but I assure you it isn’t. So few of these movies achieve great art, perhaps never less so than this one, but there’s very little to complain about this inoffensive if impermanent entertainment; there’s just little to praise as well.
Perhaps it is direction that makes Tomorrow Never Dies so evanescent. In my memory it has a number of whiz-bang sequences, including a car chase in which the car is controlled by remote and a motorcycle jaunt in which the drivers, pursued by helicopter, are handcuffed together and must acrobatically maneuver around each other. It also has a few interesting human moments like a goofy German torture expert and a Bond girl who is not so much a sexual subservient but as close as the series comes to a true equal (although the movie has a sexual subservient as well). However, these moments quickly slip away. There must be something in the assemblage, something about the mise-en-scène that keeps the movie from penetrating the imagination. Perhaps it becomes so unmemorable because it fails to either improve upon or disastrously disappoint the established notes of the series. Maybe if it were the second or the third James Bond movie and not the eighteenth it would stand out more, but in a series in which many of the movies exist colloquially as “the one with the henchmen with the razor-lined hat,” or “the one where Bond goes to outer space,” Tomorrow Never Dies exists as “the one in which … well … uh … Bond slides down a building holding onto a poster, maybe?”
Pierce Brosnan is back as James Bond and finds himself up against a megalomaniacal media baron Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) who is orchestrating a war between China and England to use as the launching point for his new cable news outlet and to manipulate a scenario in which he becomes the exclusive news provider in China. When his satellites send a British ship off–course into Chinese territory, the two countries drift dangerously close to war and James Bond 007 is sent between them. He is joined in the fray by his Sino-counterpart Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), and the two eventually work together to keep their respective governments from starting World War III. Briefly into this mix is Paris Carver (Teri Hatcher), the wife of the enemy, who is an old flame of Bond’s. Caught between a man who kills for a living and one who does it on the side, she does not see the second half of the movie.
Hung around the plot are the sequences I mentioned above but little else. Brosnan is in excellent form once again as the Bond with the driest humor (his scene with gadget master Q [Desmond Llewelyn] is fine), and he gets to show it off best in a scene with Dr. Kaufman (Vincent Schiavelli), the aforementioned torture enthusiast. Kaufman, in a Colonel Klink accent, has Bond cornered but his best-laid plans keep getting interrupted. This scene doesn’t fit in with the tone of the rest of the movie, which is more straightforward, but it’s brief enough that it’s more of a breath of leavening air as opposed to an inappropriate aside. What is inappropriate about it is that it takes place in a room that includes a character who has just been murdered and is simply lying there while the hilarity ensues. The Bond series is full of little moments in which it’s best to ignore these kinds of things, but this one may be the most egregious.
The best thing I can say about Tomorrow Never Dies is that it gets the job done, which is no small thing. It glides pasteffortlessly, never bores and keeps you engaged, even if it’s the minimum amount. If the worst movies only accomplished that, we’d be in a much better place. However, a hammer also gets the job done and I watch a movie expecting slightly more than a hammer.