At the MI6 headquarters on the South Bank, a picture on a giant screen flickers and then settles, showing its audience of ministers, spymasters and navy generals a terrorist arms bazaar high in the Russian mountains. As MI6's man scans the crowd, cyber terrorists, as well as the more traditional kind, are spotted and identified, including Henry Gupta (Ricky Jay), who's there to purchase a military GPS encoder. Having seen enough, the military order a strike on the location, whereupon, thousands of miles away, a cruise missile is launched at sea, its destination being the terrorist arms bazaar. M (Judy Dench) issues an order to her man...get out of there!
But Bond stays put, turning his camera on a fighter jet carrying two nuclear torpedoes. Aborting the missile fails so Bond steals the jet and, after dealing with the attentions of a rogue Russian pilot, escapes...but so too does Henry Gupta and the GPS encoder.
Days later, Gupta's intentions become clear when the encoder is used in an incident that threatens to start a war between the United Kingdom and China. Using the encoder, Gupta leads a British warship into Chinese waters, which is then greeted by a Chinese jet, not yet firing warning shots but sending a message to the British that they are an unwanted presence. Undetected, a stealth ships rests in the waters alongside the British warship, sinking it and shooting down the Chinese jet. As tensions rise, footage hits the news media of British soldiers being gunned down in the water as they waited to be rescued, shot with what is later determined to be Chinese ammunition. As the Royal Navy sails eastwards, MI6 are curious how this news footage was first shown on the media networks owned by Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), some hours before anyone else. Sensing that Carver may be doing more than simply reporting the news, MI6 post Bond into an investigation into Carver's businesses. There, he finds himself an unlikely ally, a dear old friend and a mogul who considers being first with the news means having a hand in the creation of it...
Whether a Bond film, in spite of the best efforts of the particular actor in the role, succeeds or fails often depends on how memorable the villain is. To their credit, the producers do seem to realise this, compensating, for example, for a rather forgettable one like Karl Stromberg (Kurt Jurgens) in The Spy Who Loved Me with the truly unforgettable Jaws (Richard Kiel) and Naomi (Caroline Munro). Even Moonraker, for all its faults, is more than a decent Bond movie on account of the relationship between Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) and Roger Moore's 007. Goldfinger is a perfect example of this, having Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), Oddjob (Harold Sakata) and Goldfinger himself (Gert Frobe) lining up against Bond.
There are, of course, exceptions to this, as there are to any rule but Tomorrow Never Dies isn't one of them. There is something deeply untrustworthy about any private news organisation - and even, if you happen to be, or are a similar shade of blue to, Norman Tebbit, publicly funded ones - and regardless of our media of choice, we all know this. But it's so very ordinary to have a Bond film source its villain from the rather dreary world of news media, even if it equips him with stealth boat, a military-grade GPS encoder and a stolen nuclear weapon. Unlike Goldfinger, for example, or Blofeld, whose operations remain hidden from the eyes and ears of the public, I can never escape the feeling that Elliot Carver, much like Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner, has the interests of shareholders to look after. His theft of a nuclear weapon is, in my limited knowledge of the stock market, not the sort of thing that will be appreciated by Wall Street, The City of London or Nikkei Index. It's a wonder, in fact, that he has time to captain his stealth boat when, given how difficult it is to arrange to meet with even the lowliest CEO, he ought to be preparing third-quarter performance reports, IPO agreements and getting drunk on the champagne that flows freely in corporate hospitality events.
But Carver is also so very, very dull and the presence of a Dolph Lundgren-alike, Mr Stamper (Götz Otto), doesn't help matters. At times like a caricature of a Bond film - the very lengthy preamble to the threatened torture gives Bond ample time to plot an escape route, not I suspect, to avoid the pain of the experience but Carver and Stamper's longwinded explanations to what they have in mind - it has a plot that would be fine and dandy for an also-ran thriller like Antitrust but isn't quite Bond fare. The stolen nuclear weapon and the undersea footage does, I admit, hark back to Thunderball but such references do not make for a good film and Tomorrow Never Dies does tend to drift in the water somewhat, never quite satirising the media as much as it could
However, like any Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies has its moments, most of which involve Michelle Yeoh as Chinese spy Wai Lin or Bond's Q-supplied BMW 750i. The latter shines on Bond's exiting of a newspaper printing plant - the locations in Tomorrow Never Dies are often as dull as the storyline - leading a gang of Carver's thugs a merry dance around a multi-story car park. Were it not for the ill feeling that one gets on seeing Bond drive anything other than an Aston Martin, this would be one of the great Bond car chases but it's put firmly to the back of one's mind on seeing Broson and Yeoh together. Crisscrossing one another's paths, they are soon handcuffed together and are not only battling goons but also a helicopter before taking on Carver's stealth boat armed with very little. Yeoh, who, with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon being in her future, was largely unknown in the west by the time of the release of this film but this changed all that. With a starmaking turn, she's the equal of Brosnan in this film and it's a much better movie when she's onscreen.
Elsewhere, it's a rather lacklustre affair. The man-faced Teri Hatcher has a short turn as one of Bond's old flames but makes little impression whereas Julian Fellowes and Geoffrey Palmer bluster but are called upon to do very little. Ricky Jay wears the mask of a IT geek and is as infuriating a presence as that suggests while the British naval officers, all of whom will be familiar from British television, do their very best estuary English while sailing to their doom. Vincent Schiavelli has a good turn as an assassin but is let down by a weak script and although Judy Dench is good as M, and Samantha Bond remains, to me at least, the best Moneypenny, they're not called upon to do very much.
Still, with the stuntwork, the flavour of far-off places and the sense of the ridiculous all being firmly in place, Tomorrow Never Dies is undeniably a Bond film. It isn't, however, that great a Bond film and although it sort of passes the time, I would imagine that, of the twenty films included in the Ultimate Edition attache case, it will be rather an unloved one. Certainly, and although The World Is Not Enough offers some stiff competition, it's the worst of the Brosnan-period Bonds, which is something of a pity given that, with Goldeneye, it really did look as though the producers were building on the Dalton era with a sense of what made Bond great. As the first Bond film to be completed after the passing of Albert 'Cubby' Broccoli, it's possibly not the tribute that he would have had in mind.
With the old Special Edition having a 2.44:1 aspect ratio, this Ultimate Edition brings the framing of the image back to 2.35:1 but is, in all other respects, a step back. The amount of pink in the image varies from film to film but I prefer the Special Edition, feeling that snow ought to, well, look white rather than a very pale shade of red. I don't, therefore, think that this Ultimate Edition has brought much to the film that the old release didn't have and, in a straight comparison, I would plumb for the Special Edition.
MGM Special Edition (Above) / Sony Ultimate Edition (Below)
MGM Special Edition (Above) / Sony Ultimate Edition (Below)
In terms of the audio, this Ultimate Edition is a slight improvement with the emphasis on the slight. There's a little more action in the rear channels and dialogue is a touch clearer but, otherwise, there is very little between the two. Even the DD5.1 of the Special Edition compares well to the DTS track on this Ultimate Edition, leaving the old release as, in this viewer's opinion, the better of the two.
It's also worth saying that this version of Tomorrow Never Dies is uncut and released as a 15 as opposed to the 12-certificate of the Special Edition. Reappraised by the BBFC earlier this year, all cuts were waived, including the use of shuriken/throwing stars and the silencing of various strikes, including Bond's stamping on a guard, Wai Lin's kicking of Carver's thugs and the breaking of an arm. Altogether six seconds of cuts were made to the 12-certificate version of this film, sometimes by the distributor prior to submission to the BBFC but these have been reinstated for this release.
As well as an Isolated Score (Dolby Digital 5.1), there are two commentaries, one brought over from the MGM Special Edition with Vic Armstrong and Michael G. Wilson and the other recorded for this Ultimate Edition with Director Roger Spottiswoode and his, as he describes him, friend and colleague, Dan Petrie Jr. Of the two tracks, the one with Armstrong and Wilson is the better, possibly because of their long association with the series - Armstrong was a ninja in You Only Live Twice - but also that they're able to sustain their commentary throughout its length, leaving very few gaps. Spottiswoode isn't bad but were it not for Dan Petrie Jr keeping the track going, the director would frequently lapse into silence but even with some company in the recording studio, even Petrie Jr. begins to falter the longer the film goes on.
Unfortunately, we only received one disc out of the two in this Ultimate Edition set but in addition to the commentaries, there are Expanded Angles, Moby's version of The James Bond Theme and a feature, Highly Classified: The World of 007. The final piece of new content is the Interactive Guide Into the World of Tomorrow Never Dies. Brought over from the old release are The Secrets of 007, a Storyboard Presentation, a feature on the Gadgets, the Original Trailers and, finally, a Photo Gallery.