FOR A FEW glorious minutes in the new James Bond movie, "Tomorrow Never Dies," Michelle Yeoh takes center stage, high-kicking and whirling, climbing up pillars and doing back flips -- and suddenly there's something to watch. This star of Hong Kong action movies is capable of such visceral, dexterous physical grace that she makes the movie's every explosion and chase sequence (and there's a lot of both) a yawn by comparison. No effect that "Tomorrow Never Dies" comes up with is as special as Yeoh is.
Somebody thought it would be a nifty idea for Yeoh, who does her own stunts, to make her Hollywood debut as a Bond Girl. Too bad they weren't smart enough to think of having her make her Hollywood debut as James Bond. As a Chinese agent who teams up with Pierce Brosnan's 007, Yeoh spends most of her screen time in "Tomorrow Never Dies" dodging bullets or explosions in long shots. Even that fight sequence pales if you've seen her in Hong Kong movies like "The Heroic Trio" or "Supercop," where she performs the astounding feat of driving a motorcycle onto the top of a moving train. It's Yeoh, not Brosnan, who supplies what precious little sexiness and wit and danger and good cheekbones "Tomorrow Never Dies" has.
Brosnan isn't useless. He isn't particularly quick-witted and he doesn't suggest hidden reserves of anger or lust or sadism. He's just far too pleased with himself, especially when delivering the trademark Bond puns. But he's good-looking and ... he's good-looking. He was perfectly serviceable in "Goldeneye" (which was half a good Bond movie), and I have a feeling he'd probably be fine here -- not great, but fine -- if what was going on around him were better. (If you can cast a dullard like George Lazenby, who played 007 in 1969's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," and still come up with the best non-Connery Bond, and if Roger Moore learned to be such an ingratiating self-parodist in entries like "The Spy Who Loved Me" and "Octopussy," Brosnan isn't beyond hope.) But "Tomorrow Never Dies" is a flat, impersonal affair. And I have a terrible feeling that it's going to be the model for the series for the foreseeable future.
The evil genius who wants to rule the world this time around is Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), a media mogul (newspapers, 24-hour news networks, software) who, with the help of the various bits of technical nastiness at his disposal, brings Great Britain and China to the brink of war so he can step in and reap the spoils.
There's an amusing leftish strain in all this. I got a kick out of the idea of a Bond-movie villain combining bits of Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates and the late Robert Maxwell. That his goal turns out to be making billions in the untapped Chinese market calls up every politician and financial-industry slimeball who's looked at China as a long-term investment and said, "Fuck human rights. Let's party!" But it doesn't add to my enjoyment that the politics of "Tomorrow Never Dies" somewhat resemble my own. Bond movies should be so far inside a fantasy world of secret agents and super villains that real politics should never rear their head.
"Tomorrow Never Dies" is Bond for the Tom Clancy crowd. The whole thing seems to take place in war rooms with banks of computers and enormous video screens, or in official-looking vehicles with all sorts of high-tech devices. There are some gadgets that recall the spirit of the original Bond: a cell phone with all kinds of hidden talents including a tiny mouse pad that acts as remote control for Bond's BMW (the best extended sequence is when he gets to put it to use). But "Tomorrow Never Dies" returns Bond to an intelligence-community dullness and earnestness that's the antithesis of the '60s pop explosion that made the 007 movies so irresistible.
The original appeal of the series lay in the combination of Sean Connery's digagi suavity and the travel-brochure lushness of the settings. The movies were like taking a vacation at a posh resort where you could indulge in sex and violence as well as champagne and Strasbourg pbti. The Connery Bonds spanned the cultural shift from lounge-era swingers to pop-era swingers -- they were the only movies of the '60s you could imagine Frank Sinatra and John Lennon sitting down together and enjoying.
"Tomorrow Never Dies" jumps from London to Germany to Saigon, and I can't recall one attractive or sumptuous shot in it. Apart from a roll with a Dutch linguist (you can imagine the puns) and a few shots of Smirnoff in his hotel room (couldn't they at least have gotten a product tie-in with Stoli?), Bond barely gets a decent lay or drink in the whole movie. And when he does bed down, it's with an old flame (whiny and unadventurous Teri Hatcher, in the mercifully brief role of Pryce's wife, projecting all the sophisticated sexual allure of June Cleaver). He has to fess up to having rejected her because she -- gulp -- got too close. What happened to the old Bond who made love for the sheer uncommitted fun of it? Or the gourmand and sophisticate who took time out from every assignment to sample the local luxuries? Or the cool sadist who killed with such swift and amusing detachment? When Brosnan is rolling around on the floor grunting as bad guys beat him, we're far from the witty and painless violence that used to characterize the series.
Roger Spottiswoode began his directing career with the brilliant political drama "Under Fire" and the comedy "The Best of Times," which recalled Preston Sturges. He's barely made a decent movie since. "Tomorrow Never Dies" has no visual sheen, no yumminess. Give Spottiswoode a potentially neat visual -- like a truck of fireworks exploding or Yeoh walking sideways down a wall -- and he'll put the camera in the wrong place. The movie is efficient but scores zero in suspense, wit or class.
There are a few bright spots in the cast, like Vincent Schiavelli employing a Katzenjammer Kids accent as a doctor who specializes in torture, and Judi Dench, who plays M. Casting her in this role is the one genuine inspiration the series has come up with lately. She's coolly commanding and so subtle she makes the puerile puns she's stuck with seem witty. Best of all is Desmond Llewelyn, who, as he has in every Bond movie since "From Russia With Love" in 1963, plays Q, 007's gadget master. Llewelyn, who must be nearing 80, has never once varied his approach to the role. He still greets Bond with an exasperated grouchiness, a certainty that this arrested adolescent is going to reduce his handiwork to scrap metal. Seeing him here is like wandering through a familiar and once-beautiful neighborhood where someone has erected an anonymous monstrosity and unexpectedly running into an old friend. Bless him.