Tomorrow Never Dies Review
Tomorrow Never Dies is Pierce Brosnan’s second outing as James Bond and one that was, arguably, his best in terms of a Bond film, being that it built on what GoldenEye achieved but turned up the wick on what makes Bond, Bond. But, where it falls down slightly is in its rushed production, which resulted in a poorly envisaged villain, poor(y developed Bond Girls, and a poor end goal; but it scores massively in what makes Bond great: action, gadgets and, best of all, the music, which they get just right. Typically splitting audiences I will try to be as objective and impartial as I can, so strap on your shoulder holster and sip your vodka martini as we take a look at tonight’s feature presentation Tomorrow Never Dies.
Despite the runaway success of GoldenEye the production crew were acutely aware that a number of mistakes had been made, the foremost of which being the music. Less critically but nevertheless lamented by the fans was the lack of gadgets as it was deemed by that time that there had been virtually none in the preceding seven films. These two concerns would be fully addressed at the expense of a rushed production to coincide with MGM’s stock offering headed up by the new owner Kirk Kerkorian who put tremendous pressure on the flagship franchise resulting in a two year production and an extremely late script, so late, in fact, that principle photography started without one. The initial production is somewhat beyond this review save to say that many of the actors were unhappy with their part as written, that itself involved various re-writes and whilst the film doesn’t suffer unduly there are definitely cracks in the seams and it uses an idea that is clearly cobbled together with little or no thought to concern. The entire plot involving a media mogul trying to instigate a war between Britain and China just so he can obtain exclusive news rights for the next one hundred years is bordering on ludicrous and that is saying something considering some of the outlandish Bond villain schemes of yore. The whole thing comes off as a jibe at what was happening in the world at the time, i.e. Rupert Murdock was becoming ever more powerful with his empire and Britain was handing back Hong Kong to the Chinese thus the production crew threw these two desperate ideas into a pot and came up with a script that reflected current opinion – the fact that it morphed into the beast we now see due to various re-writes still doesn't hide the fact of where it’s roots actually lie.
The film starts off typically strong, with Bond spying (yes, actually spying!) covertly on an arms bazaar populated by some of world’s worst terrorists and dictators. On display is some of the most ferocious weaponry, being bought and sold by some of the world’s most wanted, including one Henry Gupta listed as an American "techno-terrorist", who is buying a GPS encoder made by the American military (remember that it’s important and considerably dates the film also). Bond is relaying live images, via satellite, back to MI6 headquarters where M and Navy commanders are assessing the situation – against M’s advice the Navy launch a missile attack to wipe out the area irrespective of Bond’s presence, but things escalate rapidly when nuclear weaponry is located at the site and the missile is out of range and cannot be aborted. (Why the abort signal cannot reach the missile, but its live camera feed is unaffected is never explained). This prompts Bond to break cover and try to fly the bombs out of the kill zone, which involves plenty of explosions, bullets flying everywhere, death and destruction all to the riotous fanfare of the James Bond Theme – and this time everything is in place. It is a typically exciting set piece that plays everything right; not too outlandish, but big, bold and adventurous. From here we enter the opening credits and, in my opinion, one of the worst songs for a Bond film ever. I actually quite like Sheryl Crow’s music, but this song just doesn't convey anything about the film and is actually quite dull, even in isolation. By contrast the closing song (which I’m listening to as I type this), Surrender, written by the film’s composer David Arnold and sung by performer K.D. Lang - all in the style of stalwart Bond singer Shirley Bassey - is a far, far superior track and definitely should have opened the film simply because it fits the Bond film that the makers were going after and Arnold’s ‘Barry-esk’ old style score that the film is famous for; the Crow offering is out of place and won out purely because of the chart sales it was aimed at (money) and not for the overall good of the film – like the BMW product placement, grrrrr.
The following scene sets up the plot, such as it is, for the film and, again, harks back to an earlier era of Bond, whereby a huge vessel (in this case a navy frigate) is driven off course and destroyed (see Diamonds are Forever, Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker etc). The technique used in this instance is the reliance of GPS devises and their vulnerability to a military encoder (from the opening scene) which in itself is not too terrible an idea: to put a naval vessel in foreign, and possibly hostile, waters thus provoke an incident is very clever. However the frigate is also being stalked by a ‘stealth ship’, i.e. one that cannot appear on radar, but it gets so close that anyone looking out of a window would clearly see it! And then to further provoke the situation the stealth ship uses an underwater drill to bore into the frigate under the pretence of China’s aircraft firing on it. Again a great idea, but just how does the drill manage to manoeuvre in open space below decks in a ship – the idea is ridiculous. But, let us forget these two idiotic ideas and concentrate on the bigger picture; with a British naval frigate sunk in Chinese waters and a missile attack on China’s air force there is a clear escalation in tensions between the two host nations. In MI6 headquarters the navy want to send in a task force to recover the frigate and retaliate if necessary when it is discovered that the surviving crew members were all executed by Chinese weaponry. The newspaper that printed the headline that informed of the situation belongs to one Elliot Carver, a media baron, and M questions how they knew to print the story before the reports were actually available – this, together with a spike from one of Carver's satellites, is enough of a hunch for her to dispatch Bond to investigate, however he only has forty eight hours before the navy reach their destination. There you have it, a neat plot device to send him into action with instruction from M to use any method possible to discover the truth, including rekindling a relationship with Carver’s now wife, an old flame of Bond’s, if necessary.
Judi Dench reprises her role as M and even though she is only in the film for less than five minutes, and all her scenes are in the MI6 headquarters control room, she still manages to convey a decent character with plenty of presence. Her butting heads with the navel Admiral has some sparkling dialogue: Admiral Roebuck, “With all due respect, M, I think you don't have the balls for this job,” M, “Perhaps. But the advantage is, I don't have to think with them all the time.” Dench shows that she has the gumption to make it in a ‘man’s’ world and is not afraid to make the tough decisions. A shame she was in the film so briefly and I’m really looking forward to Skyfall when she will have a far greater part to play. As for Bond, well Brosnan takes the role in his stride. In fact it's a little bit too casual for my liking. That dark edge he displayed in GoldenEye has been replaced with something all together softer and the comedic one line comebacks are far more prevalent. While this might be ‘classic’ Bond in the grand tradition, playing on the lighter Connery or Moore interpretations, it means that Brosnan is not bringing anything new to the role, I’d go so far as to say that it’s a step back from his GoldenEye performance – now this may be due to the way the makers wanted to take the franchise, lightening the mood from the revenge seeking agent, but Bond needs that edge, he needs a tough no nonsense streak that enables him to use his ‘00’ licence – here Brosnan rarely displays any of that steely edge and whilst the interpretation doesn’t feel out of place within the confines of the film, it is not a particularly good interpretation of the character. Still at least he drives the beautiful silver birch Aston Martin DB5 when in London.
Talking of cars, once again the vehicle of choice for this film was the BMW, in this their second of the three film product placement deal they signed whish started with GoldenEye. But, and this, I thought, was an ingenious idea from the writers, Bond hires the car from Q Branch in Hamburg, Germany, thus he is driving a car native to the country to blend in and as such, at least with me, it does not hurt so much that Bond is not in his signature Aston. But doesn't the then top of the range BMW 750iL look dated now? Compare that to the Aston briefly seen in London and how gorgeous it still looks! In response to fans the gadget count of the film was upped, most notably for the car. In this instance, in addition to it being armoured with missiles, and other high tech weaponry, it is also remote control guided by a phone. Now, whilst the mechanics of such a devise are beyond even current technology at least the idea is not outlandish – Top Gear even raced full size remote controlled cars a while back. And the car park car chase is one of the best scenes in the film, due to it being quite a claustrophobic environment – though why a car park would have armoured doors that are impregnable to missile attacks is never explained.
So what of the Bond girls? Playing Caver’s wife and ex-Bond flame is Lois Lane, I mean, Teri Hatcher who, if you can believe the gossip, only took the role as her then husband wanted to have married a ‘Bond Girl’. Perhaps fanciful, but it might explain away her rather dull performance. As a character I actually quite like the idea; it is the first time in the film franchise that Bond was actively involved with a married woman. And a woman that he was actually quite serious about at the time, so much so that she knows his profession and his personality quite well. And it is delicious irony that she can still see right through him, “Do you still sleep with a gun under your pillow?” However what elevates her is the fact that she is discovered and murdered, of course it’s not without precedent (Goldfinger) but it was nevertheless a darker turn in what is ostensibly a light action adventure. Sadly this turn of events doesn’t turn Bond to the dark side, as it would have done in the previous two films, and, I think, was not only a wasted opportunity but also out of character for the Bond from GoldenEye. The second bond girl is the amazing Michele Yeoh in what was one of her first English speaking roles. No stranger to martial arts, Yeoh is damn good in the acting department too and was, still is in fact, a very bankable star in her own right. She has the mettle to give Bond as good as she gets and I love the scene when she shows Bond her own ‘Q Branch’ (especially Brosnan’s reaction to the fire breathing dragon weapon). However, she is never given the time to fully develop her character, we know very little about her excepting her agent background and even worse is her complete lack of chemistry with Bronsnan, despite one of the best scenes in the film together – the motorcycle chase while handcuffed together. In all, for such a talented actress as Yeoh is, this part was completely wasted on her.
So what of the villains? The main villain of the piece is Elliot Carver a media baron, head of the Carver Media Group Network that employs a network of newspapers, news shows and satellites to keep the world informed and who is supposed to have a fearsome reputation able to sway governments with a headline. Ok, information is power and with enough media clout it is possible to make and break reputations. He is shown to give scant regard to anyone except his ambition, even using murder to gain his advantage. His ultimate goal to have one hundred years of exclusive media coverage in China is an insane idea, but the method that he wishes to obtain it is even worse, possible World War 3. Thus Elliot Carver can only be considered as insane himself, a beast of a man able to hold sway over his entire empire with the click of a keyboard. So far so good. Trouble is, Jonathan Pryce plays the character, and Jonathan Pryce is a nice guy. Even when he acts dark, he still comes across as a nice guy. Think of how true nasty editors really are; think of Murdock, or Piers Morgan – these are reprehensible people, thoroughly nasty pieces of work whose writings and ‘investigations’ have literally destroyed countless people. To fully envisage this part Carver needed to be played by a slimy, nasty villain, someone that should make your skin crawl whenever he comes on screen, a letch and a creep, someone that can silence a room with a stare and whose reputation is bigger than Bond’s himself. And Jonathan Pryce quite simply does not have what it takes. He is not a total loss, the part, as written, has enough to make it evil, but it is laced with pantomime when really it should have been laced with arsenic. Of course it’s traditional for a villain to have a henchman and Carver is no exception; played by six foot six German powerhouse Götz Otto, Stamper was supposed to be another psychopath who has an unhealthy interest in ‘snuff porn’ (hence the filming of the execution of the navel crew in the beginning) but somewhere along the filming/editing stage he has been reduced to nothing more than a generic thug. Whilst he has a formidable presence due to his size, he has no character to speak of and thus even his face off against Bond in the climax comes off as little more than action without threat. A special mention must go to the late Vincent Schiavelli who plays the assassin hired by Caver to eliminate his wife and Bond in what is a deliciously camp role played with absolute perfection by a master of his art. It also helps that he has some of the best lines in the film: “My art is in great demand, Mr. Bond. I go all over the world. I am especially good at the celebrity overdose.” “I am a professor of forensic medicine. Believe me, Mr. Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.” And, “I am to torture you if you don't do it.” Bond, “Do you have a doctorate in that as well?” “No, no this is more like a hobby... but I am very gifted.” Excellent stuff!
Now I am aware that up until this point the review could be construed as being quite negative, indeed there are numerous aspects of the film that invite criticism, but, and this is where it all comes together, the makers, in going back to ‘old school Bond’ and despite all of the short comings above, have actually come up with the goods and produced a perfectly enjoyable film. It is not offensive or insulting, sure there are daft (even stupid) elements but as a whole this does exactly what you want from a Bond film – pits Bond against near insurmountable odds alongside a globetrotting backdrop filled with guns, gadgets and girls; and against the odds I was thoroughly entertained. In stark contrast to GoldenEye which doesn’t feel like a Bond film despite its excellent filmmaking, Tomorrow Never Dies gets it all right despite its rushed filmmaking and as such, I feel, it’s a better Bond film. Therefore despite the equal scores I’m awarding, this is the film I prefer and the one I will return to most often.