Tomorrow Never Dies
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.
The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have always been a mixed bag, from the détente of the Moore era (in the sense that the series was informed by an arch approach generally, this has aged fairly well) to Dalton’s excursion to Afghanistan (a bit of an ouch, that one) to Craig’s somewhat ham-fisted attempts at commentary on the surveillance state. The next Brosnan would dip its fingers in oil, but Tomorrow Never Dies hits on a premise with a lot of potential, both in terms of broad satire and the creation of a classic era larger-than-life villain, and then only partially fulfils it.
This is a Bond that was subject to a degree of strife due to its screenplay not being shipshape. There were exchanges between director Roger Spottiswoode and the producers over which version was to be used (it had been worked on by Nicholas Meyer, Dan Petrie Jr and David Campbell Wilson, although Bruce Feirstein gets the final credit; Spottiswoode favoured the pre-Feirstein final draft), and dissatisfaction was also voiced by Brosnan, Jonathan Pryce and Teri Hatcher.
The abandonment of the original idea, relating to the handover of Hong Kong to China and a bad guy who wants to devastate the former on the eve of delivery, sounds like it was a wise move, smacking as it does of desperate fishing for topicality. Feirstein claimed Pryce’s Elliot Carver wasn’t based on Rupert Murdoch but Robert Maxwell, and the reference to Carver drowning after falling off his yacht is certainly a reference to the latter, but one also has to think Feirstein was opting for the line of best defence; Maxwell isn’t still around to give him bad press, after all.
Purportedly the Carver role was turned down by Anthony Hopkins; to be honest, Hopkins was so over-saturated by this this point, it would have been too bleeding obvious to have him as a Bond villain and the character would probably have suffered accordingly. As it is, the picture has a slightly too generic sheen to it, despite its plus points, assembly-fitted in a way Goldeneye mostly avoids. Jonathan Pryce, the cheaper villain option, unfortunately yields to his penchant for hamming it up at the expense of any real menace.
He’s closer to his whacky turns in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Brothers Grimm (where such over-playing was appropriate) and, combined with the highly trad Mr Stamper as henchman (beach blonde Aryan type Götz Otto playing a devotee of chakra torture; alas, we never get to see him practice his art), there’s a sense of coasting here, failing to take advantage of the possibilities on the media satire plate.
Elliot Carver: Mr Stamper. I’m having fun with my headline.
While yes, it’s a Bond movie so we don’t expect a rigorously finessed plot, the manner in which Carver doesn’t even attempt to disguise his engineering of events (his headline concerning the attack “by China” on a British frigate appears before the Ministry of Defence even know the full details), such that 007 is set on his trail immediately, is the kind of thing that was silly way back in Thunderball; here it just looks like laziness.
Still, there’s a scattering of pot-shots at the machinations of big media that make the Carver Media Group Network, able to topple governments with a single broadcast, a still relevant creation. New computer software is full of bugs “Which means people will be forced to upgrade for years” while the President is manipulated into signing a bill lowering cable rates or else the video of him with a cheerleader in a Chicago Motel Room will be released (the Lewkinsky Scandal wouldn’t emerge for another year). Sure, some of the lines are disappointingly crude (“There’s no news like bad news” Carver extols, relishing the thought of a billion people reading about his manufactured conflict first on his media group, and “The distance between insanity and genius is only measured by success”).
Carver, who holds that “Great men always manipulate the media to save the world” wants broadcasting rights in China, and plans to escalate his engineered crisis by sending a British missile to take out the Chinese government and then having his proxy General Chang to swoop in and broker peace before relations can get too out of hand (he doesn’t actually intend to start World War III, although near as dammit). The idea that Change would garner a Nobel Peace Prize for his troubles is almost as absurd as giving Obama one.
Pryce’s casual villainy is occasionally quite successful (“I have a problem with a banker”; I think we should set an appointment for my wife with the Doctor”) and a headline like “The Empire Will Strike Back” is the spit of what one would expect from The Sun in such a scenario. But when he reduces himself to imitating the Kung Fu moves of Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), he just looks risible. You might say that’s the intention, but if a Bond villain carries no weight at all, the picture inevitably becomes lop-sided.
There’s already enough here ensuring that, alas. The pre-credits sequence is rather lacklustre, setting up Ricky Jay as a techno-terrorist (and former student radical) who steals a GPS Encoder for Carver. It’s fairly light on Brosnan, framed by MI6 monitoring the situation until he pops up, and when he does it’s replete with every-other-action-movie waving a machine gun about. This was probably one of things Brosnan wanted to rein in when it came to The World is Not Enough, and understandably so. Also, with another opening sequence involving an aeroplane, it draws unflattering comparisons to its predecessor.
Admiral Roebuck: With all due respect, M, sometimes I don’t think you have the balls for this job.
M: Perhaps, but the advantage is, I don’t have to think with them all the time.
The sequence also sets up Dame Judi as once again dropped into tediously gender-driven conflict, this time with Geoffrey Palmer’s Admiral Roebuck (in one scene future Oscar-winning Dench shares a moment with future Oscar-winning toff Julian Fellows). The last Bond with such a high navy quotient was The Spy Who Loved Me, and those sequences were also the least of that outing (Bond never looks quite right uniformed).
M is given to ripostes such as “His job!” when Roebuck asks, “What the hell is he doing?” M’s very much in Bond’s court now, letting him do his thing (“The PM would have my head if he knew we were investigating him”, being Carver, another nod to the power of the Murdoch press) and getting all Bond groupie with Moneypenny (“Don’t ask” the latter says; “Don’t tell” M replies).
The subsequent titles too are entirely forgettable (if I mention CGI, suspended guns, x-rays and diamonds, you probably still won’t remember it), which rather matches the Sheryl Crowe theme song (KD Lang’s Surrender over the end titles is far superior). David Arnold probably stayed doing the Bond scores too long, and there can be a sense that he’s a bit rote in appropriating John Barry by way of electronica, but in his debut his work is mostly satisfying, particularly so his collaboration with the Propellerheads in the car park chase sequence.
Of which, while the picture fumbles to get up steam, and falters to a conclusion, Tomorrow’s mid-section flows extremely well, with number of accomplished scenes and set pieces. Spottiswoode had received acclaim with early pictures including Under Fire, but his last major big screen outing had been lambasted Stallone comedy Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. The director had shown interest in the series during the ‘80s but presumably, when Martin Campbell turned the gig down, the producers went down their list of malleable yes men who didn’t intrude too much on the series nuts and bolts approach.
I wouldn’t say Spottiswoode exactly brings flair to the proceedings, but there are nice touches in most of the sequences, such as the fight between Bond and Carver goons playing out behind soundproofed glass, suggesting he wasn’t just sitting back and letting the second unit get on with it (see his successor).
Then there’s the remote control car chase, infectiously scored, as Bond navigates his latest BMW product placement from the back seat (ending with a it crashing into an Avis storefront; for whom Q was posing as when he signed the car over).
Prior to this, Arnold also offers good support when Bond breaks into Carver’s offices, with a lovely little touch while he is under fire as he looks quizzically at Wai Lin escaping by climbing vertically down a wall.
The later Vietnam sequence, leaping and ducking a helicopter on a (BMW product placement) motorbike is also impressively rendered (“Pop the clutch”). If he’s out of inspiration come the confrontation aboard Carver’s stealth boat (the HALO and diving sequences are also unremarkable), it’s not uncommon for the series to fudge the grand finale.
Doctor Kaufman: My name is Doctor Kaufman. I am an outstanding pistol marksman. Take my word for it, ya?
Bond: It won’t look like suicide if you shoot me from over there.
Doctor Kaufman: I am a professor of forensic medicine. Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.
The absolute highlight of the movie occurs between the visit to Elliot’s offices and the car park scene, in which Bond is accosted by Vincent Schiavelli’s Doctor Kaufman. Schiavelli is best recognised for his background role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Patrick Swizzle-mentoring subway ghoul in Ghost, and he relishes the chance to actuate a more refined villainous type here.
He only has one scene, but Schiavelli’s easily the best bad guy of the Brosnan era (and probably Craig too), encapsulating the unfortunately elusive alchemy of humour, threat and presence. Kaufman’s diligent politeness, combined with his effusive list of qualifications (“More like a hobby” he replies when Bond asks him if he is a doctor of torture too) and apology over his colleagues’ failure to gain access to Bond’s car (“It is very embarrassing”). Even his demise is a classic of its sort (“Wait, I’m just a professional doing a job”; “So am I” responds 007).
Bond: I’m just up here in Oxford, brushing up on a little Danish.
Indeed, it’s nice to have a scene where Brosnan clearly knows the material is good and can dig into it, since elsewhere he’s a bit adrift. He’s still as fine a mover as ever when it comes to action, but the bad quips aren’t really landing (“Backseat driver”; “If I didn’t know better I’d have said he’s developed an edifice complex”; “I would have thought watching one of your TV shows was torture enough”; “You forgot the first rule of mass media. Give the public what they want!” as he shoves Elliot into his sea drill).
Moneypenny probably gets the most tired and well-wrung line, though (“You always were a cunning linguist, James”). At times, the gags are even a bit much for the relentlessly sociopathic Bond persona; “They’ll print anything these days” says 007 after dispatching a hapless stooge, who was decidedly not an armed security guard, to a grizzly fate in a printing press; such callousness comes at an ironically apposite time, since this was the same year as the first Austin Powers, in which the fall-out of a poor unfortunate minion is felt by his family.
Possibly Brosnan pressed for a bit more substance to his female leads following Goldeneye. Certainly, the right ingredients are there, even if they don’t ultimately amount to very much. Wai Lin is that rarity, a capable female lead who actually is capable (the Brosnan era, despite Christmas Jones, has a generally superior track record on this than Craig’s to date), and because Yeoh isn’t your typical bikini babe the relationship with Bond is a little more respectful on his part. Yeoh is particularly good playing up indulging him as the big kid (as when Bond investigates Chinese intelligence’s Q-like gadgets; “Very novel” he comments of an ornamental dragon flame thrower).
Hatcher’s Paris Carver is a bit of a throwaway role, much as Monica Bellucci ‘s was in Spectre (notably Bellucci auditioned for Paris and didn’t get it, much to Brosnan’s chagrin). Hatcher sports an impressive array of suspenders (one thing noticeable here is how Brosnan’s Bond, in the heat of passion, gets quite bitey; he should have played Vlad), but we’re not buying that they were once a really hot item (“Did I get too close?” she asks, to which Bond replies in the affirmative), and that needs to be accomplished in a single scene if the pay-off is going to work.
Interestingly, though, the finger is repeatedly pointed at Bond in terms of responsibility; “A pity you got her involved in this” opines the Doctor, while Carver chastises “Actually, you’re the one who wrote my wife’s obituary, when you asked her to betray me”. It’s the kind of thread the Craig era would no doubt love (although the attempts to claim his is so much weightier are often rather flimsy, since Brosnan had mostly been there first, if to very variable effect).
Q: (Showing him the new phone) Talk here, listen here.
Bond: So that’s what I’ve been doing wrong all these years.
Q has a nice drop-by in Desmond Llewelyn’s penultimate appearance. He’s basically showing off much of the product placement – I hope Llewelyn got paid well – from the latest BMW to a charmingly antique Ericsson phone (there’s also a new Walther, but courtesy of Chinese Intelligence). Brosnan’s rapport with Llewelyn is a blast, and there’s a nice bit of business as Bond shows Q how a remote control car should be handled. Mercifully too, M is sandwiched around the ends of Tomorrow, rather than permeating the plot. Unless there’s a really vital reason for the character to be integrated, that’s how she/he works best. Also, as a reminder of how much better it all worked last time, Joe Don Baker is also granted an all-too brief cameo.
I think when I first saw Tomorrow Never Dies I probably over-credited it for how well the second act works and for even trying to throw in a bit of satire on mass media. As a whole, it’s too formulaic and lacking in finesse, but it’s still easily the second best of the Brosnan Bonds, and above average as these things go. It was the first Bond released post-Cubby Broccoli’s death, and the first to with a title not referencing Bond history (books, movies, Ian Fleming himself). There was a rush to get the picture released, but even the consequent price tag of $110m pales in comparison to Spectre’s, even inflation adjusted ($160m to $250m). It was a big hit, of course, fourth for the year globally, albeit not as big as Goldeneye and was kept off the top spot in the US by Titanic.
The real take away from Tomorrow Never Dies is the series inevitable propensity for playing it safe, however. After the vigour applied by Campbell, going with proficient journeymen Spottiswoode (and reliable screenwriter Feirstein) kept the series ahead of the rather static approach of John Glen, but meant the picture looked exactly like every other action move out there. This struggle between formula and a desire to stand out fro the pack is something the series is still struggling to come to terms with.