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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1997)


18. Tomorrow Never Dies

“GoldenEye” was a great success, reestablishing James Bond as a blockbuster film franchise. A sequel was immediately demanded. Because that always works out so well, the eighteenth James Bond movie was rushed into production. Filming started without a completed script. There were last minute re-castings, with Anthony Hopkins bolting from the part of the villain just before production began. The title, originally “Tomorrow Never Lies,” was changed by one letter because of a faxing typo. Even the score and title songs were delivered late. The resulting film still made boco box office, though less then its predecessor. It also set an unfortunate precedence for Pierce Brosnan’s run at Bond: Forgettable, mediocre sequels.

007 interrupts an illegal terrorist arms swap in his usual explosive fashion. In the chaos, a notorious hacker escapes with a top secret encoder device. Elliot Carver, a media mogul about to launch a 24-hour news service, uses the encoder to force an attack on the British Navy by Red Chinese forces. Carver’s plan is for tensions to escalate between the two superpowers. The reasoning?: So he can have exclusive broadcasting rights to China, who have previously blocked his contract. Carver, however, fucks up a small detail, releasing unknown details about the attack in one of his newspapers. This gives MI-6 and Bond the hint they need. James investigates Carver, uncovers his crazy plan, and, with the help of a sexy Chinese agent, attempts to stop it.

Maurice Binder’s classic Bond openings were dated in their own way yet maintain a sense of classical, stylish cool. Alternatively, the opening credits for “Tomorrow Never Dies” are immediately dated. The expected sexy women dance inside and around x-ray images of weapons and bullets. Meanwhile, the layered surface of a computer motherboard raise around female dancers. There’s even some images of diamonds floating around the earth. The opening credits have always had a somewhat tenuous connection to the main film. Here, the images seem especially unrelated, while also revealing some of the obsession of 1997. The accompanying song by Sheryl Crow is… Okay. The music builds to a decent pitch. The lyrics explicitly call out Bond, which is fine. Crow’s delivery isn’t bad, with a certain cool, sensual style. However, the opening theme pales in comparison to k. d. lang’s “Surrender,” which plays over the end credits. Lang’s song is all you could ask for from a modern Bond song while keeping the classic style. It’s bombastic, powerful, catchy, and related to the film’s themes. I have no idea why it was passed over.

“GoldenEye’s” stab at relevancy was examining an old spy like Bond’s role in a post-Cold War world. “Tomorrow Never Dies” makes a similar attempt at up-to-date relevancy. The film was originally going to be about the pass over of Hong Kong back to China. Fearful this would immediately date the film, a change in subject was made. In 1996, both the Fox News Channel and MSNBC launched, both becoming controversial for their political bias. Similarly, technology moguls like Bill Gates were becoming hugely popular. So what if James Bond fought a (more) evil version of Rupert Murdoch? One who decided to take William Randolph Hurst’s philosophies even further? That media mogul ranks below even microchip manufacturer for intimidating bad guys never seemed to occur to anyone.

What of Pierce Brosnan’s sophomore run as James Bond? Let’s acknowledge something right up front: Brosnan sucks at one-liners. Pithy comments that Sean Connery or Roger Moore would have spun into gold become groaners. It doesn’t help that the best ones the script can come up with involve being a cunning linguist, backseat drivers, and people loosing their shirts. As a romantic lead, Brosnan continues to underwhelm. He never seems to have much chemistry with his female co-stars. There’s always something calculated or cloying about his love scenes. What Brosnan does excel at is being an action hero. His fight scenes are even more brutal then before. Brosnan beats enemies with lamps, tosses people through windows, and generally murders the fuck out of lots of bad guys. Moreover, when emphasizing Bond’s status as a cold-blooded killing machine, Brosnan truly impresses. The best example of this is when he coldly executes an attempted assassin. Basically, Pierce Brosnan is trying to be Roger Moore when he should be trying to be Sean Connery.

“Tomorrow Never Dies” also features the lamest Bond villain this side of Bambi and Thumper. The idea of an evil media mogul is not a terrible one. It’s not difficult to imagine Murdoch or Ted Turner instigating a global conflict, strictly for selfish reasons. However, the exact motivation behind Elliot Carver’s actions are laughable. Why does he want to start a war with China? Because they denied his news station access to the country. Couldn’t he have just been a war profiteer? Jonathan Pryce goes way over the top in the part, grinning, mincing, and preening like an evil peacock. His main henchman, a blonde German named Stamper, ranks far below similar henchmen like Hans, Necros, and Erich Kriegler. His informed ability of Chakra torture is brought up exactly once. And then there’s the bizarre casting of tubby, mature Ricky Jay as a computer hacker.

The villains might be a lame lot. “Tomorrow Never Dies” makes up for it by featuring a fantastic Bond girl. The film’s focus on Asia and martial arts was probably influenced by the mid-nineties explosion of popularity in Hong Kong action stars like Jackie Chan. Or Michelle Yeoh, who plays Wai Lin. Lin is a bad ass Chinese secret agent, in many ways Bond’s Asian equivalent. She rocks a leather catsuit, walks down a wall with a grappling hook, and sneaks throwing stars into her boot. Yeoh is so bad ass that the movie is not afraid to give her a stand-alone action scene. When ambushed in a bicycle shop, she throws metal rims, leaps around ladders, and kicks the living shit out of her adversaries. This is the most lively sequence in the film and it’s no wonder why. Yeoh is magnetic, goes toe-to-toe with Brosnan, and nearly outmatches him. And Yeoh looks fantastic while doing all of it. (The film’s secondary Bond girl, Teri Hatcher’s Paris Carver, can’t compare. Hatcher reportedly didn’t get along with Brosnan and didn’t like the script. Her displeasure shines through in the character’s bitchy demeanor and her distant performance.)

Another aspect that allows “Tomorrow Never Dies” to raise above its mediocre script is its action sequences. The opening scene features Bond sneaking into an airplane, taking out lots of bad guys with the jet’s machine guns. When the co-pilot wakes up, it nearly goes very wrong for the agent. After sneaking into one of Carver’s buildings, Bond has to grapple with some guards, tossing one into a printing press. The highlight of the film is an extended vehicle chase through the streets of rural China. Bond is handcuffed to Wai Lin as the two leap onto a motorcycle. They fight over the steering wheel, positioning around each other. A helicopter takes chase, circling around the town. The most impressive stunt here is when the bike jumps over the copter’s twirling blades. There’s other fun stuff, like a run over crumbling wooden stairs. Or the conclusion of the scene, where the bike slides under the helicopter, tossing a chain into its rotor. It’s ridiculous but fairly amusing.

Brosnan’s run as Bond continues to heavily feature gadgetry. This time, Q hands Bond two main devices. The first is a cell phone, which looks hilarious dated today, that also functions as a code breaker, a taser, and a keyboard. If that one seemed outlandish back in the day, imagine what the world made of a talking, remote starting car! In all seriousness, that car leads to another great action scene. It’s a tense run through a parking garage. Bond huddles in the backseat, steering with the phone’s remote control, bullets whizzing overhead. He blasts through walls with the car’s build-in missiles, dissuades pursuers by dropping razors, and cuts through a rope with a well-placed saw blade. My favorite moment here occurs when a missile is shot at the car and harmlessly passes through the busted-out windows. It makes up for Bond’s cool car playing a small role in the last film.

For the finale, Bond and Wai Lin sneak onto Carver’s admittedly pretty cool stealth war ship. Once again, the best action belongs to Yeoh. Recalling her Hong Kong days, the actress leaps through the air whilst firing two machine guns. She sneaks around, kills a guy with a throwing star, and is generally a total bad ass. Disappointingly, the movie nerfs her abilities by having the villain take her capture at the very end. Brosnan gets in a few moments though. He stuffs a grenade in a jar, a mildly clever plan. He takes over a missile launcher, firing it inside the boat. Generally, he tumbles around and blows away villains, in the style typical of nineties action flicks. What good will the generates in these moments is squandered when it comes time to kill Carver. Bond delivers an especially baffling one-liner (“Give the people what they want?”) and pushes the guy in the path of a drill missile. Yet the way it’s shot makes it look like Pryce had plenty of oppretunity to escape the slow-moving drill’s path.

“Tomorrow Never Dies” also features some campy, silly moments mostly unrelated to the rest of the film. Bond is stopped in his Paris hotel room by an assassin played by Vincent Schiavelli. Schiavelli speaks with a ridiculous accent, boasts about his ability, and generally contributes nothing to the plot. Why was that scene in the movie? A stunt that was heavily advertised has Brosnan and Yeoh slowing their fall from a building by grabbing a giant poster. Though cool in concept, the scene plays awkwardly in real life. Lastly, the random bike shop Yeoh wanders into turns out to be a secret base. With the press of a button, the walls turn around to reveal computers and weapon caches. It’s silly.

The Bond series is no stranger to product placement. These days, it practically relies on it. However, “Tomorrow Never Dies” is the first time it’s become distracting. Bond’s tricked-out car is a BMW, a fact that film repeatedly draws attention too. A mook falls into a crate of Heineken beers, at one point. A secret compartment is full of name-brand watches. Bond has used a Walther PPK for years. The movie notably upgrades him to the Walther P-99. Why? Because the gun’s manufacturer wanted to push their new product!

“Tomorrow Never Dies” is a disappointing follow-up to “GoldenEye.” Brosnan is still finding his footing, the villain is unimpressive, the plot is weak, and the film is hampered by some baffling moments. Only Yeoh’s dynamite presence and some well-executed action scenes saves it. The producers were seemingly aware of this because a solo series revolving around Wai Lin was briefly considered. Like all plans to spin a Bond girl off into her own adventures, this never came to fruition. Which is a shame cause I’d totally watch that. As it is, the eighteenth James Bond adventure is middling and forgettable. [Grade: C+]

THE 007 SEVEN:

[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

2 comments:

samhuddy said...

Zack, might I ask how old you are? While Fox News and MSNBC did both launch in 1996, neither resembled their current forms. Fox News was a banal also-ran until Roger Ailes turned it into a right-wing mouthpiece in 1999. MSNBC was arguable a right-wing network, with Phil Donahue as the standout liberal, until about 2004. Of course, media anxieties about Rupert Murdoch was rampant in the nineties, but it was for different reasons from today.

Bonehead XL said...

I'm in my mid-twenties which would've left me in the single digits in 1996. And when I wrote that, I figured I was going out on a limb. I guess what I really meant is that 24-hour news channels were in the public consciousness at the time and the writers of "Tomorrow Never Dies" were definitely thinking about them.