Film discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Twenty: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Since the James Bond series moved to autumn releases, with 1995’s GoldenEye, filming for a new entry has tended to begin in the December or January before release.  With Tomorrow Never Dies, principal photography began at the start of April.  A truncated schedule meant that the film would be going into production without the script being anywhere near ready.  Despite GoldenEye‘s Bruce Feirstein writing the initial draft – and rewrites being performed by Nicholas Meyer, the writer-director of the second and sixth Star Trek entries – production on the 18th Bond adventure would be a seat-of-the-pants affair.

The assembling of crew was a similarly scattershot affair.  Offered a second consecutive turn in the director’s chair, Martin Campbell declined, going on to direct The Mask of Zorro instead, returning to the series when it was rebooted in 2006.  In his place was Roger Spottiswoode.  Whereas the modern Bond series can set its eyes to Oscar winners, such as Sam Mendes, the EON of the 1990s was happy to appoint the director of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, the truly execrable 1992 Sylvester Stallone / Estelle Getty ‘comedy’.  On composing duties would be David Arnold, for the first of his five entries.  A life-long Bond fan, Arnold was best known for 1994’s Stargate and 1996’s Independence Day at this point, although he would also produce an album of Bond theme reworkings, Shaken and Stirred, months before the film’s release.

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In front of the camera, the series again attempted to cast Anthony Hopkins, this time in the role of media baron Elliot Carver (reportedly inspired by Rupert Murdoch, and played, in the event, by Jonathan Pryce).  The lack of a script ended Hopkins’ involvement.  Also cast was Lois and Clark‘s Teri Hatcher as Paris Carver, Elliot’s wife and old flame of Bond.  Given, frankly, better actresses such as Sela Ward and Monica Belluci had screen-tested for the role, Hatcher’s casting set an unfortunate precedent for EON stunt-casting popular but ill-suited talent into roles throughout this era.  Hatcher struggled for chemistry with her lead, on or off camera, with her role in the end product smaller than expected at the time of her announcement.  The leading lady for this film would be the character of Wai Lin, portrayed by Michelle Yeoh, today best-known for her role as Georgiou in Star Trek: Discovery, but in 1997 regarded for her action roles in Eastern cinema.  As is common to the Brosnan era, Bond and leading lady share little chemistry – to the point that it is jarring when they kiss at the end, despite every Bond film, pre-2006, ending that way – but she proves a memorable character, outclassing Bond himself for much of the film.

After a pre-title set at an arms bazaar, near the Russian border – at which we’ll later learn Elliot Carver’s associate, Henry Gupta (Ricky Jay) has acquired an encoder which is able to intercept and alter GPS signals – Tomorrow Never Dies begins with the UK Frigate HMS Devonshire being sunk by Carver’s stealth ship, in Chinese waters, after being sent off-course by the encoder.  With no evidence of Carver’s ship, and the British craft being in Chinese territory, despite believing itself to be in international waters, the British Government sets 48-hours for James Bond to investigate; otherwise they will retaliate against China, for what appears to be an unprovoked attack.

With the Carver Media Group (CMG – think News International: a 24-hour news network and newspapers – the latter including the Tomorrow of the film’s title) in possession of news of the sinking before UK security services, M sends Bond to Hamburg, in the guise of a banker, to attend a CMG launch party.  Bond uses his relationship with Paris to get information, with Paris being killed by Carver’s hired Killer, Dr Kaufman (Vincent Schiavelli), in punishment for her betrayal.  Recovering the encoder from Carver’s offices, Bond is able to ascertain, with the assistance of CIA associate Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker), the location of the sunken British ship.  Encountering Chinese agent Wai Lin, an operative working on the same case, the two investigate the wreck to discover a cruise missile is missing.  Captured by Carver’s henchman Stamper (Götz Otto), Bond and Lin are taken to Saigon, to Carver’s Far East headquarters, where Elliot explains his plan to fire the missile at Beijing, prompting battle between Britain and China.  Working in league with exiled General Chang, Carver will have the General step in to stop conflict and gain power,, in return for exclusive broadcast rights in China for CMG.  Barely escaping with their lives, Bond and Lin must locate the stealth ship and stop Carver’s plot, in time to prevent Carver attacking Beijing and unleashing war between East and West.

Tomorrow Never Dies should have been called Tomorrow Never Lies.  In fact, a demo of a song by Pulp exists with that title.  A mistake on a fax sent to MGM led to the error.  The interchangeability of the two – inspired by the Beatles song ‘Tomorrow Never Knows – speaks to the paint-by-numbers nature of this particular adventure.  Tomorrow Never Dies has a lead villain lacking in any menace whatsoever, and wildly overacting in every scene; supported by a henchman, in Stamper, who is Red Grant’s blander cousin.  Bond has no chemistry with either of his ladies this time – in fact, the short scene in act one, with Cecilie Thomsen as an Oxford Professor with whom Bond enjoys a tryst, features far more spark than is present with either of the headline female players.  This is off-set at least by Wai Lin’s portrayal as such a capable agent.  In fact, much of the film deals with Bond working out what is going on, only to find, on every step of that journey, that his Chinese counterpart is able to get hold of the exact same intelligence.

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The film feels very formulaic, particularly in the crow-barring in both of ‘funny’ lines and of action sequences. It does feel like you could set your watch by a Pierce Brosnan James Bond film: action sequences come along regularly, but with rote predictability.  Similarly, Bond is given quips to recite, whether those quips work or not, and regardless of whom, in-universe, is around to hear them.  Hence “They’ll print anything these days” is both a terrible line, and a beat ruined by literally no-one being there to hear it.  Nor does it feel like Bond talking to himself (unlike “what a helpful chap” in The Spy Who Loved Me).  An action scene with Bond driving by remote control from the back seat of a BMW aside, the film lacks for much in the way of anything that makes it stand out as special.  It looks okay, it sounds okay, the action is… okay: you get the picture.

On the plus side, Brosnan is far better this time.  He looks more comfortable in the role.  Hair and costuming are more suited to the actor, and it looks like he may be a little fitter too.  More than anything, it is the fact that he has relaxed a little: he’s simply not trying as hard as he was in GoldenEye; rather, he is letting the role come to him.  The score is a massive improvement.  David Arnold slightly over-uses the Bond theme itself, but after the failed experiment of Eric Serra’s European electronica, Arnold’s Barry homage anchors the film in an updating of the familiar.  It is easy to see why he was asked to return repeatedly.

Tomorrow Never Dies is the difficult second album, both for Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson in taking over from Cubby (who died in June 1996, and was credited merely as a ‘presenter’ last time), and for Brosnan in looking to cement his reputation, after a lauded debut.  Despite the production issues, and opening the same day in the US as James Cameron’s Titanic, the film grossed $333 million worldwide.  To get that close to GoldenEye, without the same level of pent-up demand – and with stronger competition – was impressive.  The two Bond actors to have reached a third entry had rewarded viewers with two of the most iconic entries: Goldfinger, and The Spy Who Loved Me.  With a more celebrated director coming on-board for Brosnan’s third, in the person of the Gorillas in the Mist and Gorky Park‘s Michael Apted, hopes were high for the final Bond film of the millennium.

The Road to Bond 25 will return with The World Is Not Enough (1999).

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