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How big have the Bond films gotten, after 18 installments in Albert R. Broccoli’s series? Tomorrow Never Dies opens with Agent 007—Pierce Brosnan, the second greatest Bond—single-handedly averting nuclear disaster at a Russian arms bazaar before the credits. But as things progress, Roger Spottiswoode deftly scales down Bruce Feirstein’s script; this one approximates human size, despite the initial clamor and the wild computer-graphics version of the famously curvaceous Bond credits.

The plot—this time there is one—involves that most modern of menaces, the media baron, an out-of-control Hearst nightmare come home to roost in the age of Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell. Indeed, Hearst’s supposed directive to “supply the pictures” while he (meaning his newspaper) would supply the war, is quoted once on the sly and later laid out clearly, with references and everything, in case we missed it the first time. Bond isn’t just out to prevent war, he’s got a more serious job—to prevent a fake war.

Jowly Jonathan Pryce plays Elliot Carver, the mad mogul in ecclesiastical black suits, his bespectacled face looming from every building and TV screen in Hamburg, Britain, and Vietnam. (There’s a not inconsiderable dash of anti-intellectualism in the depiction of Carver as the nearsighted print geek gone awry, but then Bond films are consistently afraid of male brains.)

But the script understands what media-fear is about, and Carver is villainous not just because he’s attempting to create news and publish it but also because he wants to control our ability and desire to absorb it. Bond fashions his methods to fit the circumstances, so even if he does have a remote-control BMW and a set of handheld tools—laser, scanner, and other useful thingies—that look like Game Boys, he foils the evil Elliot the night of the big cable-news-channel launch with a simple power outage.

All the old chestnuts are trotted out for a bow—the sex jokes, both funny and moronic, the Bondian meritocracy that slaughters hordes of strangers while preserving the precious leads for their final showdown, a technique that will never be the same since Austin Powers got to it—but Feirstein reinvents other dated but still effective touches to Bond’s advantage. The New World car chase is staggeringly imaginative (the stunt drivers should get Oscars), and a motorcycle ride through the streets of Vietnam (actually Thailand) with Bond and his Chinese opposite number (Michelle Yeoh) handcuffed together is blindingly fast and good, if you can overlook the discomfiting sight of Western helicopters ack-acking at streets full of Vietnamese people.

Yeoh is gorgeous and sly, and kicks total ass; she can do with her body all the things gadget-bedecked Bond can’t, even though the movie doesn’t forget who’s the money here—he keeps saving her, to her infinite disdain. The recent Bond films have tried to update themselves culturally with such PC trappings as girls protesting the hero’s blunt seduction technique before jumping into bed with him, but whatever trappings they hang on this warhorse, it’s still about a straight white guy saving the world. Not that it should matter, so long as the world gets saved and all, but for visual variety’s sake, may I make a suggestion?

Dreamworks SKG is on a roll. First, there was the lukewarm reception to Peacemaker, which never fooled audiences into imagining they were watching something other than the same old nuke-action thriller with its unlikelihoods and mealy morals just because three purported creative big guns were behind the project. And now Mouse Hunt, a tedious, drab, nasty-humored remake of a dozen pandering kiddie flicks. SKG is proving to be much less than a sum of its overpaid parts; like Sonny and Cher, these guys are better off working separately.

One doesn’t want to gloat over the failure of any new venture—especially one with this much creative glitter in its eyes—but it’s easy to be gleeful after seeing the level of stupidity and contempt for the audience in the script these guys greenlighted for their second film (by Adam Rifkin, who has some of the worst scripts in Hollywood to his name). Mouse Hunt is the ethically berserk story of the Smuntz brothers, Ernie (Nathan Lane) and Lars (Lee Evans), bequeathed the family string factory upon their tyrannical father’s death. Bluff Ernie isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, but he knows that the plummeting demand for string means financial ruin for the brothers unless they sell the factory to a mobsterish nylon-cord company. Lars, the dreamer, has made a deathbed promise to his father to keep Smuntz String in the family.

The brothers fight over the factory’s future, but after a series of unpleasant events involving gluttony, vomit, death, divorce, and a huge and frighteningly fake-looking cockroach, they find themselves moving into a dilapidated old house also bequeathed by Dad. The house appears to be a dump, but the Smuntzes discover it is of great architectural interest and decide to auction it off to keep the factory viable.

The title, of course, refers to the little guy who is not going to let that happen. (Actually, a mini-army of little guys plays the brothers’ formidable four-legged adversary; the fake mice used for hard tricks look awful, but the real ones are supercute.) One small mouse disrupts the brothers’ lives, damages their bodies, drives away all who come near, and finally destroys the house. The only thing the script never figures out is why.

SKG must have figured that kids want their red meat on a bare platter, so Mouse Hunt lifts the puppies vs. bumbling thugs stuff from 101 Dalmatians and turns it into a whole movie; can an all-cantina Star Wars ripoff be far behind? No sentiment about family or tradition for the minds behind this thing—the feisty mouse plays Home Alone to the brothers, thus preventing them from keeping a deathbed promise to Dad and perpetuating one of America’s increasingly rare family-owned companies. Presumably, the mouse is on the side of progress, nylon cord, and the guys in black shirts and white ties with suitcases full of cash to tempt the hapless Smuntzes. The brothers are the heroes, but we’re supposed to be getting our violent jollies watching the mouse destroy them; it’s not so much ambivalent as, like, schizophrenic and psychologically untenable.

The kids don’t seem to care much, though. Watching Mouse Hunt provides them with the opportunity to parrot the callow reactions they’ve learned from other such films, so the audience resounds with wee jeers of “That’s gotta hurt” and “I don’t think so.”

What’s less clear is what the small ones are to make of the bizarre setting and tone—it’s like The Money Pit meets Tom and Jerry meets Brazil in the ’30s. There’s a dowdy, sepia-toned, Depression-era look to the thing, which is supposed to give it an old-fashioned air, evocative of low brick downtowns whose buildings are whitewashed with the names of the men who own them. But it’s also weirdly futuristic with its Currier & Ives nuclear-winter setting, its bleak frozen landscape depopulated and bearing hints of nonexistent technologies. Everything’s jerry-rigged, but nothing works; Mouse Hunt is so much like Brazil it even features Christopher Walken as a space-suited exterminator who swings in to save the day but can’t.

There are some clever set pieces: The room of exploding mousetraps is a great payoff to a smart setup, and Evans has a scene in which he’s undressed—unraveled, really—by the factory machines and eventually crucified on the threads of this clothing. But in the lulling pornography of parental guides to the kiddie screen, this sucker will read like Lady Chatterley’s Lover: multiple plunges into a frozen lake, a disastrous gas explosion, a disgusting sewage explosion, realistic vomiting, fake animal torture, insect eating, excrement eating, a nasty hit-and-run accident. It’s not just ugly but shabbily constructed: The brothers walk into their destroyed kitchen, and Ernie, the trained chef, moans, “My kitchen,” but since this is the first time we see it, what’s the diff? Snowy exteriors thaw out from shot to shot, and if he can’t have fun with a disastrous auction, Rifkin shouldn’t be in the screenplay business. Oh, and it turns out the mouse is something of a serial killer. Here, kitty kitty.CP