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Non-Review Review: Tomorrow Never Dies

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

What the hell is he doing?

His job.

– Admiral Roebuck and M watch Bond do the impossible before the opening titles

I have a confession to make. I unapologetically love Tomorrow Never Dies. It’s the first Bond movie I saw in the cinema, with my dad and brother while on a shopping trip up North. I believe the girls went to see Titanic. It’s my first cinematic Bond experience, a perhaps that’s why I am somewhat fonder memory of the film than most – but, even on reflection, I still hold the movie in high regard. I just think it’s the perfect companion piece to the superb GoldenEye. While Martin Campbell’s film was about deconstructing the spy, showing how useless he was in times of peace and arguing he was “a relic of the Cold War” who needed updating and introspection, this Bond film was about how he can do all the cool stuff he used to, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sure, it’s not as deep, smart or sophisticated as the earlier film, but it’s an unashamed throwback to the classic Bond films – and what’s wrong with that?

By the way, how telling is it that – while Bond used to drive a snazzy sports car in the sixties – he drives a family sedan in the nineties?

I'm pretty sure that the only reason Tomorrow Never Dies is because Bond never tried to kill it...

I loved Eric Serra’s atmospheric ambient score for GoldenEye. I thought it added a wonderful sense of atmosphere while seeming completely unfamiliar – which was entirely the point of the film, with Bond now a stranger in this new world. It was a brave and bold production move and one which, in my humble opinion, paid off. However, here composer David Arnold is sure to return to the traditional formula. The Bond theme blares loud through the sound system every time our hero does something spectacular (so quite frequently, in fairness). A more cynical individual might describe it as trite or corny (or even cliché), but I found it loud and exciting – confirmation that Bond was back, doing what he does best against those ridiculously impossible odds.

The opening sequence, set against a “terrorist supermarket” along the Russian border, is one of the better action openers of the series. With a four-minute countdown before a British airbound missile triggers a Russian nuclear torpedo which could “make Chernobyl look like picnic”, Bond rushes into action, causes anarchy, steals a jet fighter and deals with both a “backseat driver” and second fighter jet without breaking a sweat.

Is it all going well?

Along the way, the series returns to some of that wonderful British patriotism which would be irritating if they were a major world power, but seems almost quaint coming in the decline of the British Empire. On discovering a decoder that American intelligence misplaced, M observes, “I wonder if the CIA will be more upset that they lost it or that we found it.” When the Russian nuclear torpedos are revealed, Admiral Roebuck is less than pleased with the Russian liaison. “Can’t you people keep anything locked up?” This is particularly rich coming from a country whose navy can’t abort a missile mid-flight when it’s nearly five minutes from target.

Indeed, the entire movie’s ridiculous plot hinges on the plan to start a war between China and the UK. In reviewing some of Sean Connery’s earlier efforts, I remarked that – if Bond were American – a lot of the series’ appeal would be lost. The Bond franchise is focused around some of the old world colonialism of Britain, but rendered completely unthreatening in a world where the British Empire is fading from view. Granted, the war between Britain and China likely made more sense when earlier drafts of the script revolved around the handing back of Hong Kong to the Chinese – perhaps the last part of the overseas empire dismantled – but here it seems almost cute and quaint.

Q and A?

Despite my fondness for the opening sequence (and David Arnold’s return to the classic Bond cues), I must concede that I am not as big a fan of the theme song. I loved GoldenEye, as it felt like a throwback to the classic Sean Connery theme songs. It feels like the crew are going for the same sort of effect here, but – while Tina Turner had the voice to pull off a Tom-Jones-or-Shirley-Bassey-esque intro – Sheryl Crowe just isn’t the right choice for a Bond theme. Not that the original version, recorded by Pulp, is much better.

While GoldenEye felt like Pierce Brosnan’s attempt to do an early Bond film – specifically From Russia With Love or Goldfinger – this film feels like a conscious homage to the grander scale of the later Connery films. In particular, the set design of Carver’s stealth ship seems to call to mind Blofeld’s base in You Only Live Twice for the first time in many movies. “Tell me, James, do you still sleep with a gun under your pillow?” seems like a direct reference back to Thunderball. There’s also a hint of The Spy Who Loved Me thrown in, what with Carver’s cool ship and his plan to start a global conflict by staging a “false flag” operation.

The transition from GoldenEye can be quite jarring...

Much like those later Connery films, the movie has a grand scale, but falls just short of self-parody. The scale of the film is larger than life, as is the villain. Jonathon Pryce gets a lot of flack for chewing the scenery like it was made from steak, but Elliot Carver is really the last Bond villain that I can be bothered to remember. Like Walken in A View to a Kill, it seems like Pryce is living out a lifelong fantasy in playing the role. I think it was Pryce who once famously remarked that every young boy dreams of being a Bond villain… once he realises he’s not going to get to play Bond himself. “This is our moment!” he states at one point with such force I’m fairly sure the sturdily constructed set wobbled a bit.

Given the insane nature of the plot, Carver needs to be an over-the-top scenery-devouring monster in order for it to work. Any sane billionaire multimedia mogul would probably simply bribe his way into China and stage a grand news story which didn’t threaten the world with nuclear armageddon, but that isn’t how Carver rolls. Carver is, in that fine tradition of Bond villains like Auric Goldfinger and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, completely off the rails and playing out a sociopathic adolescent fantasy simply because he has the power to. Sometimes I like my Bond villains realistic and cleverly constructed (like Alec Travelyn or Sanchez), but there’s room for off-the-wall craziness in the series as well.

Daniel Craig isn't the only one who can do a shirtless scene...

It helps that the movie has one of the best henchmen in recent memory. I am not, of course, referring to the bland and generic Stamper – a character undoubtedly intended to remind the audience of Red Grant from From Russia With Love. I am referring to the one-scene appearance from Vincent Schiavelli is deadly in his one scene as a suicide faker. “I am especially good at the celebrity overdose,” he boasts on introducing himself to Bond. When Bond tries to goad him into moving closer to stage the agent’s suicide, he’s having none of it. “Believe me, Mr. Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart and still create the proper effect.”

Which leads to perhaps my favourite scene of nineties Bond. The villains are unable to break into Bond’s car. By the way, it’s nice that MI6 have moved away from the explosive defense mechanism we saw in For Your Eyes Only – I can only imagine the disaster which had to happen before they considered decommissioning that one (“actually, Q, somebody accidentally touched the bumper while trying to park next to it and took out half a city block”). Stamper contacts his mentor with the problem. “Did you call the autoclub?” the good doctor asks. After a bit of pressuring over the earpiece, he relents. “Uh, ok, I’ll ask.

Kauf it up...

“This is very embarrassing,” he concedes as he addresses Bond. “It seems there is a red box in your car. They can’t get to it.” Then there’s that awkward pause before he acknowledges that he needs Bond’s assistance. “They want me to make you unlock the car. I feel like an idiot. I don’t know what to say.” Another pause. “I am to torture you if you don’t do it.” It’s just a wonderfully awkward little moment beyond Bond and the hired killer. “You have a doctorate in that, too?” Bond inquires. “Hmph,” the doctor replies, flattered by the question, “no, no, no. This is more like a hobby.”

It’s a nice little self-aware scene which illustrates just why I enjoy the film so much. It is a classic Bond film in just about every way, but it’s aware of just how much of a classic Bond film it is. The set pieces in the film are spectacular. Even ignoring the opening sequence, there’s a superb motorbike chase (which has been parodied in South Park and homaged in Knight and Day, so you know it’s made its way into popular consciousness). There’s also the famous chase sequence with Bond’s BMW. In a parking garage. With Bond in the backseat. Perhaps it’s a sign at how hard the crew were struggling to shake things up, but that doesn’t make it any less awesome.

He'll always have Paris?

The script was reportedly reworked by Nicholas Meyer, the famous director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I like to joke that the Bond movie is basically a retelling of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, as an invisible warship commanded by a “General Chang” seeks to provoke a war between two powers. More seriously, perhaps Meyer’s involvement explains the stronger sci-fi bent of the script and elements like the stealth boat.

Teri Hatcher, while more heavily promoted as the film’s Bond girl than co-star Michelle Yeoh, clearly doesn’t want to be there. She admits that she only took the role to fulfil one of her ex-husband’s fantasies and there are all manner of stories about the actress showing up late on the set and just being a pain to work with. Reportedly Pierce Brosnan was quite disappointed the producers didn’t cast Monica Belucci in the rule (she actively wanted it). Although Paris is a great plot device – a character who recognises Bond from another life (inevitable, really, given he’s never kept a low profile – especially here, with the whole “I’d be lost at sea” bit in front of the criminal mastermind). Unfortunately, the character herself is treated as just an object to be fought over by Bond and Carver. “I believe you have two things that belong to me,” Carver states to Bond at one point. The first is his satellite thingy, but the second is “my wife, in your hotel room.” It’s not noticeably worse than any other Bond movie, but it’s still there.

She's Wai better than most other Bond girls...

On the other hand, I do like Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin. She’s really the first time in the series that I’ve felt a Bond girl could hold her own. Unfortunately, Bond does have to save her once or twice, but she’s a noticeable improvement over many of her predecessors. Indeed, what I most like about the character is that she’s a female Bond – right down to the fact that she actually has his grappling belt buckle from GoldenEye as a gadget. Her relationship with Bond is ridiculously shallow, even by the standards of the franchise, but that actually makes sense. Like Bond, she’s only interested in a superficial attachment.

I have to admit that the movie’s portrayal of Asia represents a marked improvement over previous visits to the region. Although there are a few stereotypes thrown in (for example, the obligatory kung-fu sequence), there’s much less fetishism than we saw in The Man With The Golden Gun and You Only Live Twice. Indeed, the islands off Thailand reappear from the earlier Roger Moore film, looking just as stunning. I wonder if Bond stopped by the wreckage of Scaramanga’s secret headquarters for old time’s sake?

Bond always has a good squeeze in these films...

Brosnan looks to be having great fun in the role. Sure, he can do serious – but he can also work with the lighter elements of Bond much better than his predecessor. Check out the look on Bond’s face during that fantastic car park chase sequence – it’s like he’s just discovering all the gadgets and gizmos for the first time, as giddy as the audience. And yet Bond is just as cold here as he was in the previous film. His rather brutal and cold-blooded dispatching of the movie’s villain displays the darker side of the character that Connery and Brosnan kept simmering away underneath the sophisticated and practiced exterior.

I love Tomorrow Never Dies, because it is basically a boiled-down version of a Bond film. It contains all the tropes and clichés that one associates with the franchise, executed in one film without ever veering too far into camp. Of course, I understand that this aspect of the film could also be viewed as a flaw – it’s pretty assembled along a factory line and lacks the psychological complexity of its direct predecessor – but I love it nonetheless. I think GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies represent the perfect combo of Bond movies. One dismantles the character, picking apart our romanticised idea of him, while the other rebuilds him from the ground up.

We’ve got full reviews of all of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond films, if you want to check ‘em out:

The following bloggers have reviews of the film as part of James Bond January:

8 Responses

  1. I only just noticed some of the subtleties of the acting (Bond’s disgust at Wade’s attire, Miss Carver’s wink to 007 when her husband calls) in this last viewing. I was surprised to find the film to be better than I had given it credit for in the last few years.

    • I do like the film, perhaps more than I should. It’s essentially the most generic Bond film you can imagine, but done really, really well.

  2. I love this movie. I discovered the ad in, I think, a Toys ‘R Us ad in 1998..? And I saw it after a while a few years ago, and noticed really how good it is. The music in it is great, like after Bond swings on the chain across the platform in the ending of the movie (even though it’s about 2-3 seconds long!), and during the scene at the end with Wai Lin.

    • I think it feels like a decidedly “classic” Bond film, with all the gimmicks and clichés. After GoldenEye (which I loved), I thought it was the perfect change of pace.

  3. Not to mention I’m 20 now. Haha.

  4. Strange how Brosnan’s bond girls aren’t given a hell of lot to do. With the exception of Natalya, you could edit them out entirely and it wouldn’t improve or harm the film. She’s only there for the end credits, because Bond has to put his end away. It’s like blowing things up is the only way he can get an erection.

    This is my least favorite of his outings, by the way. It reminds me a lot of Moore, the worst Bond: takes too long to get where it’s going, which is nowhere.

    • Interesting. I’d rank it as second best of the Brosnan outings. But that’s likely due to the fact I remember seeing it with my dad and brother. I’d compare it more to late Connery than Moore; it’s silly, but I think Brosnan’s Bond has an edge to him that Moore didn’t. His first three films end with Bond cold-bloodedly murdering a defeated bad guy. I refer to TND as “the one where Bond throws an OAP in a the shredder.”

      • I remember a review saying, “A man who lives by the news should die by the news!”

        And it’s a good point. Why does some random mook get tossed in a printing press, and Carver gets fed to a giant drill? Where’s the poetry, I ask you!

        It might have been a mistake, combining the characteristics of Blofeld (Nehru jacket, underwater base, world war III) with a celebrity like Murdoch. Sorta got one foot in and out of satire, there.

        Pryce is fun, but in the end it’s just another failed successor to Pleasance. It makes me sad to see so many amazing actors in forgettable Blofeld roles.

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