Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
The James Bond series, it’s that cinematic itch so many of us love to scratch. For some, it’s all about the fancy cars, high wire action, and beautiful women, which are all nice, but what keeps me coming back to the franchise is a somewhat odd fascination with watching the same movie made 25 times. It’s what draws me to nearly every long running movie franchise from Zatoichi to Friday the 13th. There is something about watching the same idea wiped clear and rebuilt again with different mixes of the same formula.
With the exception of Dr. No every James Bond movie is a remake. However, that doesn’t mean every film is a remake of Dr. No (most follow the template of the third film, Goldfinger) instead each film builds on the foundation of the others, adding to a cinematic expression on the whole. Some of these remakes produce great inspired moments of action cinema, like the foot chase to open Casino Royale, and some produce head scratchers like the infamous pigeon double take in Moonraker. So, in this countdown I may be ranking each Bond film, but it’s more about analyzing the evolution of the series, and having fun comparing and contrasting all the many reoccurring quirks, scenes and motifs of the grandest movie franchise of all time.
Though I’m starting at number 25 I don’t plan on working in order through this list, instead each film will be followed by the best companion to the previous film in an attempt to keep each review feeling like a running dialogue. I’m also including the “unofficial” Bond film Never Say Never Again just in case there’s any Bond purest in the audience.
Which brings us to number 25; Tomorrow Never Dies, for all intents and purposes the 19th film should be rated higher (lower?) on this list given it at least attempts to bring some fresh ideas to the table. Michele Yeoh’s character, for example, is a refreshing addition as Bond’s Chinese counterpart Wai Lin, finally, a female hero who is every bit the clever and physical match to Bond. We’ve seen some pretty capable female villains throughout the series, but not as many capable heroines, and as a bonus she wasn’t given a name like Pussy Galore. Unfortunately that’s where most of the warm and fuzzies end.
One of the pratfalls most commonly repeated throughout the series is the ‘follow-up trap.’ Often throughout the franchise a film that arrives on the heels of one of the more successful entries tends to try to go bigger and flashier than the previous movie, often ending with the film falling flat on its face. The focus is no longer on reinvention rather than turning everything up to 11. You’ll see this in Moonraker following up The Spy Who Loved Me and SPECTRE (yeah, I said it) following up Skyfall. Tomorrow Never Dies is no different following up the restorative Goldeneye. Trying to duplicate or outdo the success of its predecessor, TND winds up chasing its tail from one exhaustive set piece to another, throwing a lot of noise and stunt work in our faces but, rarely a thrilling moment. One can feel every measure of its overreach with each perfunctory set piece. It’s not that they aren’t impressive; it’s that they’re in service of little more than a blocky plot and uninspired characters.
The best scenes in the series all have a level of restraint and simplicity, like the great train scene between James Bond and Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia with Love; it starts out with a tense conversation between the two men before escalating into the inevitable physical altercation. The close quarters fight itself is simply shot and well choreographed, impressive on its own, but the tension building conversation of two adversaries feeling each other out is what elevates it to memorable heights. The most memorable scene in TND isn’t as great as train fight #1 (there are several train fights in the Bond series, it’s kind of a thing) but, it takes its cues from it and other great scenes. It’s also a close quarters fight but this time between Bond and several men. In it he does the typical James Bond hero act, but much of the scene takes place behind sound proof glass, leaving the audience to watch the super spy dispatch each generic thug over the shoulder of an oblivious security guard in the other room. It’s certainly not a piece of cinematic genius, and the fight was probably kept at a distance to hide the fact Pierce Brosnan isn’t much of a physical presence in these types of scenes, but it has a memorable quirk and visual dialogue that much of the film lacks.
Some may argue the scene where Bond drives his car remotely in a daring escape from a parking garage is also worth mentioning, but I always felt that scenes was hinged more on the gimmick of the remote driven car rather than the thrill of the chase.
Almost every Bond villain has a pretty dumb scheme, but, it’s never really the point. The point is to have a charismatic equal to the Bond character. Their flawed plan to dominate the world is easily forgivable as long as the character and performance is compelling and we can at least connect the dots of their scheme logically. For example, Goldfinger’s plan to poison the air surrounding Fort Knox in order to get into the vault and irradiate all the gold, thus forcing up the price of his own gold collection, is stupid, but it still makes sense. TND’s villain Elliot Carver’s (Jonathan Pryce) nearsighted plan to start WWIII for the gain of his media empire, is not only dumb, but completely lacks any root in logic. This is coupled with the fact that Carver isn’t very compelling or charismatic, not even Jonathan Pryce eating through every piece of scenery on screen could breathe life into Carver, and part of it is the character’s embarrassing lack of foresight. It’s 1997 and Elliot Carver, the global media giant, the guy trying to start WWIII so he could have “exclusive broadcast rights in China for 100 years” can’t see the elephant sitting on his lap called the internet, or that starting a full scale nuclear war will likely annihilate much of the world’s population rendering his goal pointless. It’s easy to say now, but I feel like any evil media genius in 1997 would have at least an idea of where communication is headed, and in extension, a big Hollywood production company should be more aware. But, in a way, it makes Carver more memorable, adding a little quirk to an otherwise milquetoast villain.
Tomorrow Never Dies could be summed up perfectly with the opening song, sung by Sheryl Crow. Crow sounds fine, the song sounds like what a Bond song should sound like, but it all feels so uninspired.
– James Merolla