He's everywhere! James Bond's handsome face and dashing image are being used to market everything from wristwatches to credit cards this season. The only question is whether they'll be able to sell the most expensive commodity of all: "Tomorrow Never Dies," his new wide-screen adventure.
It's unlikely the answer will turn out to be no. This is the 18th installment in the Bond saga to date, and while studio publicity should always be viewed with a mountain of skepticism, there's no reason to dispute United Artists' claim that his exploits constitute "the longest-running and most successful film franchise in cinema history."
The new picture is overflowing with the same high-energy heroics that have marked the whole series, so its success seems a foregone conclusion.
Pierce Brosnan makes his second appearance as the secret agent with a license to kill, squaring off against a timely new villain: media mogul Elliot Carver, an exaggerated cross between Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner, with a hint of Big Brother during his most megalomaniacal moments.
Carver's immediate goal is to influence everyone on Earth through the power of his communications empire. Next on his list of ambitions is that old favorite, world domination, which he plans to achieve by goading Britain and China into a conflict awful enough to usher in a New World Order under his personal control.
As in many of the better Bond pictures, the bad guy is far more interesting and surprising than our all-too-familiar hero. Bond has enough tricks up his sleeve, though - a remote-control car, a cellular phone loaded with gizmos - to give the illusion that the series still has some novelty going for it.
Lending the freshest touch is his new henchperson, a Chinese woman as resourceful as 007 himself.
None of this means "Tomorrow Never Dies" is a particularly admirable accomplishment. Anybody on the lookout for uplifting values, or even civilized ones, will be put off by the very first scene - glorifying violence and military hardware with explosive glee - not to mention the opening credit sequence, adorned with the display of slinky women that has become one of the series' most predictable and exploitative features.
A few of the later scenes generate psychological or narrative thrust for a few minutes at a stretch, but most of the picture has all the warmth and humanity of Bond's robotic car. The filmmakers just push the right buttons and jump out of the way.
Brosnan makes a credible Bond, if not an exciting one, and Hong Kong action star Michelle Yeoh makes an impressive Hollywood debut as his sidekick. Best of all is Jonathan Pryce, who brings a chilling brand of charm to the power-crazed mogul. Joe Don Baker, stage magician Ricky Jay, and the entertainingly weird Vincent Schiavelli make the most of undistinguished parts.
Returning to their alphabetical roles are the inimitable Judi Dench as M and the unstoppable Desmond Llewelyn as Q, marking his 16th appearance in the ongoing 007 saga. Roger Spottiswoode directed.
* Rated PG-13; contains sexual innuendo and a great deal of violence.