James Bond 007: Revisiting Tomorrow Never Dies

Pierce Brosnan's second outing as James Bond may not be Goldeneye strength, but Tomorrow Never Dies still has its moments...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

For many, Tomorrow Never Dies is the forgotten middle child of the Pierce Brosnan era of James Bond movies. Neither as loved as Goldeneye, nor reviled as Die Another Day, and it doesn’t have Christmas Jones. A muscular, accomplished outing that certainly deserves the prefix “action” before any mention of “thriller,” Tomorrow Never Dies is the moment Brosnan hit his stride and simultaneously fell over. Great chases, hissable villains and one of the brightest of Bond’s flames in Paris Carver keep this viewer happy. The over-explosive climax and reluctance to experiment hint at trouble ahead.

The villain: I think Rupert’s gonna sue somebody… The antipodean qualities of megalomaniac media mogul Elliot Carver have only grown more pronounced over time. He’s a fine villain in his own right, with that fine actor Jonathan Pryce just about resisting the scenery. The “war for ratings” scheme, while bonkers, at least feels pleasingly modern – and no, that one hasn’t dated either. Gets a lot of screentime to do his thing and does it very well.

The girl: Viewed by many as one of the great heroines of the series. Personally I’m not sold – but nobody could deny the girl has style. Chinese agent Wai Lin walks down buildings, takes out roomfuls of adversaries, rides a motorbike handcuffed, and locks Bond to a shower. Played by Michelle Yeoh, she’s every bit Bond’s equal. Except that she isn’t, not really, requiring rescuing as much as anybody else and light in the character department. If you’re a fan I completely understand and concede I’m probably in the wrong here.

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Film number two for Pierce Brosnan – and we’re halfway through already. After Moore, everyone feels brief. Let’s crack on then.

Pre-credits were a strength of Brosnan’s. Tomorrow Never Dies delivers with a highly enjoyable, escalating stakes romp that sees nuclear disaster narrowly averted. Always look before you fire, Admiral Roebuck! Especially if you’re firing into the middle of a terrorist arms bazaar. Okay, nukes is unlucky, but what did you expect to be there – air rifles?

Bond saves the Admiral’s bacon by hijacking the plane and escaping with seconds to spare. He basically flies over the incoming missile. Then the unconscious co-pilot wakes up, and the pursuing terrorist makes his presence known, but as so often an ejector seat saves the day. It’s a really great scene, one of the best.

After Goldeneye we have another massacre: British sailors rather than Russian office workers. Most Brosnans contain a bit in which innocent people are machine-gunned indiscriminately. While not remotely squeamish, I find these scenes never add anything to the film. Not even pathos because these nameless, in this case faceless, people literally only exist to be killed off. I don’t hate the massacres but I feel they are emblematic of the lack of subtlety that was an unfortunate feature of the Brosnan era.

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Another feature: Brosnan was always weirdly regimental with his lovemaking. He always has an early shag, middle shag and climatic shag. True, he only kisses Xenia (although the steam room fight is far saucier than most sex scenes) and Jinx counts as both early and climatic but the rule holds remarkably firm. So we have the Danish Professor early – a scene that really only exists to get it out of the way, and for the “cunning linguist” line (I still can’t tell if that’s terrible or inspired). My overall point? The effect is a bit filmmaking by the numbers (love scene? tick! car chase? tick!) rather than something fresh, inspired. I have a lot of time for Pierce but the “soulless” charge applied to his era doesn’t entirely lack merit.

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This time we meet our antagonist early. Jonathan Pryce is clearly having a ball as Elliot Carver. One of the advantages of casting thespian heavyweights is, acting ability aside, they won’t be overawed by the occasion, and can submit a lovely, loose performance like Javier Bardem’s in Skyfall. Risks include the possibility of gleefully hammy overacting (I know he’s mentioned in every retrospective, but Berkoff) or neglect of character by the writers in the belief the actor alone is enough. Funnily enough, I think Bardem suffers from this a bit – but the blinding example is Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission Impossible 3.

Anyway. Pryce is certainly gleefully hammy, but not to the point of distraction. He recalls the grand old megalomaniacs of yore, Goldfinger, Stromberg and, yes, Berkoff’s General Orlov. Instigating a war for ratings has the ring of true megalomania; utterly evil and makes no sense whatsoever. His black Nehru jacket is straight from the SPECTRE wardrobe, and the glasses earn instant pub quiz immortality (only bespectacled Bond villain, folks. Well, main one at least – damn you Locke!).

Carver also delivers one of the most hilariously gratuitous threats of the series. Showing Bond the torture instruments of the henchman Stamper, he instructs the German to “save this one till last. Once you remove Mr Bond’s heart from his body there should just be enough time for him to watch it stop beating.”

Actually that whole scene is a blast. I also love Stamper’s solemn: “Dr Kaufman’s record was 52 hours. I’m hoping to break it.” That would be torturing somebody, naturally. And anybody else notice the continuity mistake with the torture tool in Carver’s hand?

Since we’re on the baddies, let’s briefly do Stamper. Apparently actor Gotz Otto introduced himself at audition with the immortal line: “I’m big, I’m bad and I’m German.” That kind of covers Stamper as well. Refreshing to have a foe who’s the physical superior of Bond; the small villain, big henchman dynamic has served the series well. Stamper is slightly too colourless to join Tee Hee, Oddjob and Jaws in the henchman pantheon. However he’s a welcome throwback and gets to snarl the wonderful line: “I owe you an unpleasant death, Mr. Bond!” So well done him.

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Paris Carver is that rarest of things: a proper grown-up. Bond doesn’t really do grown-ups. Adults, yes, but only in age. The villains are immediately ruled out, no matter how diabolically brilliant: no grown-up would think it a wise move to extinguish humanity, or even just rob Fort Knox. Both are clearly silly ideas. Grown-ups don’t do silly.

Most Bond girls are just that: girls. Either helpless, naive juveniles (Stacy, Kara) or kickass wonder women about as realistic as Bond himself (Pam, Octopussy, Melina). You’ll notice I only need examples from the most recent preceding films: this rule tends to hold pretty true.

However, Paris is a woman – and she’s grown out of Bond. Sure, all that spy stuff was cool in her 20s but she learnt the hard way it only leads to a dead end. So she carried on with her life, met somebody else and married him. He might be a little homicidal but nobody’s perfect. And then Bond comes swanning back into town…

Giving Paris a history with Bond is a masterstroke. Immediately it elevates her into the upper echelon of Bond love interests, making her one of the few women to hold significance for him. You sense Bond regrets abandoning her so abruptly. His introductory “I always wondered how I’d feel if I ever saw you again” rings genuine. Brosnan is the most soulful of Bonds; sometimes, I suppose, one might claim this dilutes the character (wuss!), but here it is certainly a strength.

Doubly impactful is the fact that, despite all the lost past, Bond’s really just using Paris: pumping her for information, to use M’s delicate phrase. M is great here: Judi Dench further cementing her credentials as the only rival to Bernard Lee. Like her predecessor, she’s more than willing to pimp Bond out to aid the mission. But Lee only wanted Bond to bed a complete, and willing, stranger (Tatiana of From Russia With Love); Dench demands Bond return to a woman whose heart he broke and break it all over again. Cold.

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Unsurprisingly, Paris is involved in the two best scenes of the film. The first is stylistic, perfectly so; a shirt-sleeved Bond in a hotel room, armed with a gun and a bottle of vodka, awaiting an unknown but certain threat. Just perfect. Paris then arrives, triggering the most passionate snog of the entire series; fierce yet beautifully tender.

Unfortunately for Paris, she’s dead for the second scene. But Dr. Kaufman isn’t. An utterly crackpot assassin, Kaufman steals the film during his brief time onscreen. Some of the best Bond moments occur down the barrel of a gun – no matter who holds it – and the standoff with Kaufman bears comparison to any. All ‘ja’ and ‘ze’, the good Doctor teeters on the brink of parody but the dead body of Paris prevents him from becoming a joke. An eccentric killer is still a killer. Bond’s wary disdain is nicely played. Not as nice as Kaufman’s cheerful: “No, no [torture] is more like a hobby… but I am very gifted.” The escape is fair – gotta use the gadgets for something – and the execution both satisfactory and tinged with regret.

Two chases provide the backbone of the film’s action. Now I’ve never been a huge fan of chases – one car drives slightly faster than some other cars – but both of Tomorrow Never Dies do the business if you’re that way inclined. Driving a BMW around a car park with a mobile phone sounds a little high-concept for Moore, let alone Connery, but we get some fun, inventive carnage from it. Hidden weapon piles upon hidden weapon as Bond remotely spikes, shoots and explodes everything in his way.

Now purists may cry foul but is the mobile-driven BMW really so different from the celebrated DB5? Especially as the BMW has 30 years advantage over the Aston. The time to reflect on Bond-technology will come with Die Another Day; for the moment I’ll say the car park chase is always enjoyable, and that’s not a bad bar to clear. (Although why the hell does Bond drive the car off the roof?! Dammit man, think of the people down there!)

The motorcycle escape from Carver features no gadgets: just good, clean action and a deftly wielded crowbar. As always, one can’t help speculating where Bond found the time to learn all this stuff; he clearly spent his gap year biking across South America, Motorcycle Diaries style. And surely Wai Lin facing Bond is more practical than steering with one hand each? What do I know. As with most chases we get a fraction too much of it but the time mostly flies by (like a motorbike over a helicopter).

Wai Lin proves a more than worthy companion for such hijinks. A skilled Chinese spy, capable of taking out a roomful of adversaries, Lin certainly has the action credentials. So why don’t I warm to her? Paris is largely to blame; the Lin-Bond relationship pales in comparison to the lost Mrs. Carver. And Lin is fake: she’s a figure of fantasy, light on characterisation but, hey look, she kicks people.

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This, I’m aware, is both an unfashionable opinion and extremely harsh. So let me provide balance. I understand why many fans celebrate Lin as one of the best Bond heroines, period. Few characters – female or male – can handle themselves better; and her no-nonsense attitude is the perfect foil for the increasingly boyish Brosnan. Michelle Yeoh, once ranked the greatest action heroine of all time by Rotten Tomatoes, excels in the role. I just think, for me, the writers fall into the trap discussed above: the Hoffman trap, we’ll call it (or the Bardem trap to be Bond-specific). Knowing they had a winner on their hands, they don’t bother adding any flesh to the character, believing the fighting and the stunts to be enough. And maybe they were right. But some backstory wouldn’t have gone amiss.

The climax is a funny one, isn’t it? The closest Brosnan ever came to the pitched battles of old: indeed the closest the series has come since The Living Daylights to recreating the Connery/Moore staple. A stealth ship! Very nice, Elliot. Not quite Stromberg but not far off. And everybody likes a countdown; especially one counting down to mass death and destruction. Bond and the girl, the world’s only hope. And she goes and gets captured within two minutes. It couldn’t be more Bond…

And yet it isn’t Bond, not really. We long ago established that Bond is a broad church, with room for clowns, pigeons, shark mauling, hairs over wardrobe doors, wine snobbery, lasers and much else under its roof. So what’s a little bang, bang, bang? In one sense the climax is perfectly functional. It fulfils the purpose of an action climax: be bigger and louder than what came before.

Yet such a climax only works for a certain type of action film. I’m by no means an expert but the final reel battle-royale seems to be typically found in the modern superhero flick: Avengers, Man Of Steel, Iron Man 3, The Dark Knight Rises etc. The great action thrillers of the past often blow the budget in the middle and keep the showdown more low-key; Die Hard, Heat, Lethal Weapon off the top of my head. Because they know it’s the emotional stakes that count. Narrative action means more than the empty spectacular.

The old climactic battles of Bond rarely closed the film. Goldfinger ends not at Fort Knox but on the hijacked plane; The Spy Who Loved Me’s tanker war is won, then Bond travels solo to Atlantis. In Licence To Kill, an highly explosive finale and for this fan the best of the series, the bonfire of the lorries is merely the backdrop to Bond’s vendetta against Sanchez. Goldeneye, another classic, focuses on the rivalry between Bond and Trevelyan, not the destructive satellite.

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But Tomorrow Never Dies forgets the playbook. Everything drowns in a cacophony of gunfire. Noise piles upon noise. Somewhere amidst all the carnage, the ghost of Paris Carver lies trapped. Meanwhile Bond machine guns upwards, Stamper machine guns downwards, the bullets get vaporised somewhere inbetween. Bond sprints down the length of the ship with an automatic in one hand and a pistol in the other. A seriously pissed-off Bond marches down a corridor spraying bullets at anybody in his way. He isn’t a spy anymore, or even an action hero – he’s a one man army. Or a computer game player with infinite lives. Or Nick Fury.

Killing Carver carries none of the satisfaction the deaths of Trevelyan and Sanchez brought the audience (undeniably, the buzzsaw is cool). It occurs almost randomly: here he is, there is goes, onto the next burst of action. Which is the showdown with Stamper: nearly a great moment, shorn of real bite by the thinness (metaphorical, I should add) of the Stamper character. His frenzied assault doesn’t invoke a killer driven mad by hate but an action man getting angry.

Additional gripe: how did Stamper chain up Wai Lin? Wouldn’t the superwoman have at least attempted an escape? Obviously Stamper held her at gunpoint. If so, where’s the gun?

Despite the above, I count myself a fan of Tomorrow Never Dies. It’s a lesser film than Goldeneye but a more rounded one, if that makes sense. Put crudely: the good bits are less good but the bad bits less obvious.

Goldeneye was effectively a modern homage. After six years away, the series needed to update, not reboot. You had to reassure the audiences that, Cold War or no Cold War, this was essentially the same gig. Cue femme fatales, stunts, gadgets, multiple escapes, fast cars, seductions, casinos, etc etc. The problem? Trying to emerge fully formed didn’t leave much space to evolve. The debuts of Connery and Moore, while fine films, were actually fairly atypical of their stars. Dalton had two, very different, but you can see the seeds of License To Kill in The Living Daylights.

Yet where could Brosnan really go? Anywhere, in one sense, but after the Goldeneye smash hit the producers were understandably keen to replicate the formula. And that’s the word: formula. A girl here, a car chase there, this gadget, that shootout: once you see behind the curtain, it’s hard to look away. This determination to stick to script would prove more damaging in the tantalisingly different – but yet oh-so-similar – The World Is Not Enough.

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Tomorrow Never Dies escapes relatively unscathed. I doubt many people hate it, I doubt it’s the favourite of many people. A good, solid two hours of entertainment. Had Brosnan produced a great third film, I expect Tomorrow Never Dies would be viewed more kindly; instead, despite its many virtues, it seems to be either overlooked or pinpointed as the moment Things Went Wrong. Poor Pierce. A great Bond searching for that great film. It seems so close! But the wave has crested. He’s barely arrived and already he’s halfway out the door.

Best Bit: Vodka shots and a silenced Walther in the hotel room. Almost scales the heights of Connery’s introduction: it’s that Bond.

Worst Bit: I know he’s evil but Carver’s weird kung fu impression in front of Wai Lin just feels a bit off.

Final Thought: Is making out on some wreckage in the middle of the ocean really preferable to being rescued? Plus their clothes must be soaked!

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