The ads have run for months now, with those lemon twists, arranged like origami into the numbers ''007,'' floating in a martini glass. Still, they raise the question: Would James Bond really be caught dead drinking Smirnoff vodka? Sadly, the very notion of a Smirnoff martini blends all too well into the harsh-grained mediocrity of Tomorrow Never Dies.
The film begins promisingly, with Pierce Brosnan biting into the role of Bond in a way he never quite managed in the slack, jokey GoldenEye. That film came out two years ago, but Brosnan already seems older, a middle-aged rotter who doesn't deserve to have a face this unlined. When Bond is summoned for an assignment from the bed of his latest conquest (ah, those leggy Danish Oxford tutors!), you can taste the wry decadence of a series devoted to a man who views life as a series of accessories.
As the villain, Elliot Carver, a sci-fi Rupert Murdoch/Robert Maxwell/Ted Turner figure who wants to rule the global techno-information empire by controlling the news itself, Jonathan Pryce doesn't overdo the megalomaniac camping. He plays this fascist media mogul with gusto and attack. The film creates some urgency by having Carver married to a former Bond flame (Teri Hatcher), who attempts to rekindle their romance. Bond looks tempted, too: Teri Hatcher doesn't have much presence, but her faintly desperate, chintzy-aristo sexiness seems just the sort of thing that would get under the skin of Brosnan's aging playboy. For a while, the film appears to be toying with the idea of giving Bond, and the audience, a reason to care.
And then? Then the cocktail gets stirred into oblivion. The love triangle evaporates, and Bond teams up with a Chinese superagent played by the imperious Hong Kong star Michelle Yeoh. Is it just me, or do the action scenes in a Bond thriller now seem about as exciting as an over-the-hill New Orleans stripper still twirling her tassles for applause? In Tomorrow Never Dies, there's a motorcycle chase through the streets of Saigon and a scuba-diving sequence that makes you nostalgic for the erotic ominousness of the one in Thunderball. The film forgets that Bond's most dangerous actions have always been his quietest ones, in which he uses his charisma to turn his enemies against themselves. Brosnan, for one, looks game to play that characterBond the sadist-seducer. But the film, by the end, undermines him so thoroughly that it's hard to resist the notion that the series' producers have grown afraid of James Bond. He's just a glorified stuntman now; he's lost his license to thrill. C+