New films: Tomorrow barely stirs

Tomorrow Never Dies Roger Spottiswoode (12) I Know What You Did Last Summer Jim Gillespie (18) A Further Gesture Robert Dornhelm (15) Persons Unknown George Hickenlooper (18)
James Bond might be a coveted role for an ambitious young actor to land, but the secret to playing Bond lies in what you choose to do when you've hung the tuxedo in the wardrobe for another year. It would seem that the more diverse an actor can be in his choice of extracurricular activities, the better equipped he is to play the part of James Bond. Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton never really cottoned on to this, and you got the impression that these were men that lived and breathed James Bond, which is not what is called for at all. In fact, it seems a bit sad.

A fine Bond should be both aloof and alluring, fitting snugly into the part while still suggesting that his evenings and weekends are given over to far more interesting pursuits. That's why Pierce Brosnan is perfect. It helps that we've already seen him in three other films this year, including Mars Attacks!, where he very sensibly parodied exactly the kind of suave, stiff-upper-lipped hero that James Bond likes to think he is - a case of not biting the hand that feeds you, but tickling it. Good career move.

Tomorrow Never Dies is one of the most clumsy and uninvolving episodes in the Bond series, but Brosnan is a scream. He has a debonair grace and crackling sexual energy, and he's not afraid to acknowledge the absurdity of playing this dreary, outdated chauvinist with an unhealthy fetish for firearms. Bond is flat, but Brosnan can make him fizz. And he can be a buffoon without losing his cool. Bewildered by a computer keyboard of Chinese characters, or bumbling around in a workshop filled with volatile gadgets, he has a light comic charm. When he smiles, it feels like a punchline.

The screenplay, which warns of a Rupert Murdoch-style figure who is trying to take over the universe, feels as if it was conceived to counter accusations that the Bond series doesn't engage with the real world. That's mistake No 1. When the real world starts muscling in on escapist entertainment, it's the latter which comes off looking battered and bruised. The Bond films are not known for engaging in political commentary - the closest they ever got was having Janet Brown impersonate Margaret Thatcher at the end of For Your Eyes Only, which is nobody's idea of biting satire. Tomorrow Never Dies is scarcely more sophisticated.

Here, the media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) is creating the news - a murder here, a world war there - so that his satellite channel will be the first to report on it. In one scene, Bond arrives in a hotel room to find a woman murdered; on the television, the newsreader is already halfway through her obituary. You can only mourn the fact that a James Bond film is not disposed to exploit such moments of Orwellian menace, but must devote its time instead to another shoot-out, another motorbike chase.

In his first big scene, Carver outlines his plans for world domination. These include ensuring that a batch of software is riddled with bugs so that consumers will be forced to keep upgrading - a neat detail which should seal the paranoia of anyone who feels that their computer is always laughing at them. Later, Carver explains to Bond: "Your era is passing. Words are the new weapons. Satellites are the new artillery", which is a convenient way of validating the writer's decision to make the villain a man of soundbites rather than sadism, while simultaneously addressing the question "James Bond: Action Hero or Anachronism?".

That Carver should be such a feeble opponent is not the fault of Jonathan Pryce. He has to muddle through without the accoutrements of the average diabolical megalomaniac - a kitten for instance, or even just a silver cane. And he hasn't even got anything especially dastardly to say. Doesn't every actor who gets offered a part of the villain in a James Bond film spend a few minutes in front of the bathroom mirror pretending to be irredeemably evil? Trying to update the series by including references to the media is one thing, but it seems churlish to deny an actor his right to say "So we meet again, Mr Bond."

Or to deny an audience its other basic pleasures. Nobody expects Bond to depart for that great cocktail party in the sky, but it's nice to see him sweat a little sometimes. In one peculiar scene, Carver unveils some instruments of torture which, he announces, his accomplice will use on Bond to inflict a slow and agonising death. When you've gone to that much trouble to establish an arsenal of weapons which make the gynaecological tools in Dead Ringers look like kiddie toys, it's perverse not to put them to some use, however limited. But Bond simply escapes, and the threat, like the scene, evaporates. The director, Roger Spottiswoode, has done enough excellent work (he made Under Fire and was an editor for Sam Peckinpah) to know that this sort of shoddiness will leave an audience with question marks in its eyes.

Those moments in the film which do work feel like achievements in the face of adversity - like David Arnold's exhilarating score, which layers industrialised effects over traditional orchestration, and should take the credit for making many of the action sequences seem more thrilling than they really are. The only moments of pure giddy delight come from the droopy-eyed American actor Vincent Schiavelli, who will be familiar from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or as the grouchy phantom in Ghost. Here, he plays a prissy assassin whose frosty demeanour cracks to reveal an unexpected goofiness that catches you by surprise. The script doesn't really know what to do with him, which may be why he gets killed off so quickly, but Schiavelli's sparkiness gives you a lift. When the movie abandons him, you may feel like abandoning the movie in return.

Ryan Gilbey's Top 5

1 Alien Resurrection

2 It's a Wonderful Life

3 Regeneration

4 One Night Stand

5 A Further Gesture