Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

D: Roger Spottiswoode
S: Pierce Brosnan, Jonathan Pryce, Michelle Yeoh, Teri Hatcher

The latest James Bond adventure, the second with Irish actor Pierce Brosnan in the role, has our hero going toe-to-toe with villainous Jonathan Pryce, a movie amalgam of Rupert Murdoch, Robert Maxwell, Ted Turner and Bill Gates whose dastardly scheme to start a war to scoop the rest of the press comes replete with references to William Randolph Hearst and repeats a line of dialogue used in Citizen Kane. Along the way he teams up with a crack Chinese secret agent (Yeoh), evoking memories of You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me, and fights the good fight for Queen and country against typically astronomical odds in characteristically spectacular style.

Bond films have always been about empire; specifically, the British Empire, and an attempt to maintain symbolic control as a remnant of colonial power. In the absence of real British influence in geopolitics, a superhuman, supermasculine cold-war hero was just what was needed to let them down gently, and served this purpose well in print and on screen right up to the end of the war itself. In the search for chimerical enemies against which to pit Bond in more recent times, the wheel has finally turned to the real face of postmodern geopolitical power: the media barons.

There's nothing especially surprising about this revenge fantasy. Great Britain has found itself colonised by the colonies in the guise of the international media empires run by Americans and Australians, and they need to get back some measure of control to feel better about themselves: cue Her Majesty's finest fictional servant. The British Secret Service is presented here as a force for the greater moral good, even more valiant than the short-sighted military, represented by cameo stalwart Geoffrey Palmer. When Bond eventually triumphs (come on; that's not a spoiler by any stretch of the imagination) in the name of the old world order, we applaud on cue.

It mounts an impressive series of action highlights as it goes, though there are perhaps too many of them, and while Brosnan carries the film with ease, his 'new and improved' version of Bond still has not emerged as a workable symbol of anything in particular. The vehemence with which the film goes after the media seems all the more curious given the level of advertising worked into the film through the various brand-name gadgets, and its evident self-reflexivity as a postmodern spectacle about the emptiness of the postmodern spectacle is eventually an impotent attack on a tangible threat to the world order, because little about the character speaks to the world in which we live anymore.

Of course, at the most basic level, Tomorrow Never Dies is simply a good time spent in the company of one of the cinema's most durable heroes. But it does continue the gradual evolution begun with Licence to Kill towards generic homogeneity, where Bond films don't even constitute a sub genre of action/adventure, but are simply action films with a character called James Bond in them.

Sure, most of the signifiers are there: Desmond Llewellyn (bless him) still turns up as the techno-boffin Q; Judi Dench repeats her performance in Goldeneye as the redoubtable M in the indominatable mould of the late Bernard Lee; and there is plenty of over-the-top, edge-of-the-seat action and some excellent special effects and stuntwork. But, like every film since and including The Living Daylights, there is a sense of a desperate urgency to ensure that people don't get enough time to sit back and relax into the James Bond universe, in case they begin to realise that it doesn't exist anymore. The volume has been pumped up to the max, the bullets fly liberally and lethally in all directions, and the witty repartee has become sardonic self-parody or blasé action film one-liners.

It moves along briskly and is superbly put together as a piece of escapist entertainment. Everything works properly, including the score by David Arnold (a welcome relief after Eric Serra's work in Goldeneye) and the title song by Cheryl Crow, and the cast play it relatively straight. There are moments of tension and excitement throughout, and it all passes by amicably enough (if it is a little violent). Basically, there's no real reason to complain if all you want is to fill a couple of hours. But the fact that it is an empty film is not necessarily excusable simply because it is a Bond film. This is not to say that Bond films are in any way deep. But in their own way, many of them communicated effectively with the people who saw them at a time when the character had more edge. He was admirable but despicable, a necessary evil in a world without heroes. This was what made Bond a phenomenon in the first place. The films set the trends which became the formulae, driven by a character who stood out from the rest of the herd. Now, they simply emulate their own imitators, and there is really little left for James Bond to contribute. Of course, people have been saying the same thing ever since Sean Connery abandoned the role. But even if it was true then, it is doubly so now.

By all means, go and see Tomorrow Never Dies. It's an enjoyable, well-staged action film which sets out to give the audience what it wants (and even says as much at the climax). There are one or two genuinely funny moments and the gadgets are great fun (now, where can I buy them...?). But don't be surprised if you've forgotten the details of the plot within about twenty minutes of leaving the theatre, and if you don't want to read the novelisation. There's nothing here you're supposed to take home: this is the stuff of the sound-bite, as much a product of the marketing machine as the power of the media moguls it so passionately decries. James Bond is dead. Long live James Bond.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.