Thursday, February 9, 2017

Tomorrow Never Dies: James Bond marmite

When a British warship is sunk in the South China Sea, Jimmy Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is put on the case. All the clues point toward media baron Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce). Bond soon finds himself in a race against time, as the megalomaniacal Carver prepares to celebrate the launch of his new satellite network with perfect news story: World War III.

I watched this movie a lot when I was a kid. However, of all the movies I watched then, I remember my enjoyment declining dramatically with each subsequent viewing. Before now, I don't think I'd watched this one in over a decade.

The truth is that Tomorrow Never Dies is an extremely flawed movie, but one whose weaknesses are harder to pinpoint than the roaring dumpster fire of Brosnan's one real failure Die Another Day. Tomorrow Never Dies is not bad in the same way, but it is singularly worse than its middling reputation suggests.

Before tearing into it, it's worth noting that this movie had an extremely troubled production. A release date (December, 1997) was chosen before the script was written. After the script was completed, based around the handover of Hong Kong, the producers realised the plot was going to become outdated and the script had to be dramatically re-written. This was in January. Mindful of the time crunch, the production team then went to war over which direction the story should take. Eventually, the spate was settled, and filming could start. IN APRIL.

So this movie was screwed from the beginning, and with this in mind it's surprising how coherent the movie wound up being.

Time for the dissection.

One of the chief criticisms thrown at Tomorrow Never Dies is that it is formulaic. This is an easy charge against a lot of Bond movies, but Tomorrow Never Dies is an especially poor example of filmmaking by-the-numbers.

Typically Bond movies do not work like other movies -- the main characters don't learn or evolve, and the plots don't really deviate from a few set blueprints. Usually there's no real sense of dramatic tension. Whatever excitement they have comes from the way the filmmakers juggle the formula -- or don't. The problem with Brosnan's second movie is that it makes the cardinal sin of revealing who the villain is and what his plan is right at the top of the movie.



The Spy Who Loved Me is a perfectly generic Bond film, but unlike Tomorrow Never Dies, we don't know who the villain is or his plan until the movie is half over. There is a suspense there based on a lack of information -- a sense of mystery which makes the film compelling (at least on the first go-around). Tomorrow Never Dies fails to achieve even this modicum of tension.

Instead of following Bond as he uncovers the mystery of the sunken ship, we already know what has happened, and since it's a Bond movie, we can track how the whole thing is going to unfold. 

Outside of the script, the other weakness of this film is the direction. On the face of it, there is nothing obviously wrong with Tomorrow Never Dies. The action moves at a good clip, and you are always aware of where you are in a scene. However, when it comes down to key aspects of scenes -- like performances and tone, the problems become more evident.

Roger Spottiswoode started out as an editor for Sam Peckinpah, with strong work on the controversial Straw Dogs and the brilliant Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. He made the jump to directing in the 80s, where he achieved a certain level of success. Sadly, his most notable credit outside of Bond is Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!, regarded as one of the worst movies of all time.


The problem with his direction of Tomorrow Never Dies is that every aspect of the movie is based on one note. Brosnan's Bond is a smooth, unflappable hero, Carver is a villain with all the shading of a pantomime character, Paris is the jilted lover and Wai Lin is... really good at martial arts? Part of the problem is that the script never fills the characters out convincingly, but this problem can be compensated for dynamic performances (see Javier Bardem in Skyfall).



However, this is not the case in Tomorrow Never Dies. Brosnan is stuck playing Bond as an unruffled action hero -- he's always cool, but that's not really conducive to the movie. And Jonathan Pryce plays his villain like a guest villain on Scooby Doo. There is no sense of escalation or underplaying -- as a public figure, you would think he would present himself in a more positive light. But no. He's just evil, from beginning to end. Ultimately Bond and Carver are just stock figures going through the kinds of sequences you would expect in a James Bond movie.

Spottiswoode's key weakness is the tone. The scene which really illuminates how poor the direction is Bond's confrontation with the sadistic Dr Kauffman. It's a great scene -- Bond enters his hotel room to find Paris dead and a news channel playing on the TV, reporting her and Bond's 'suicide'. This confrontation is tense, brutal and has a certain pathos -- which is immediately negated by the NEXT scene, the car chase in the parking garage.


A massive set piece featuring plenty of gadgets and explosions, the scene feels completely at odds tonally with the scene in the hotel room. At no point does it seem like Bond is effected by Paris's death -- and that means when Bond and Carver finally face off, the intended emotional payoff is missing. That sense of schizophrenia when it comes to tone (especially evident in the over-abundance of quips) is a major drag on the movie's impact.

Tomorrow Never Dies never sinks to the depths of being outright terrible, but it is a seriously flawed film that lacks the compensations of strong characters or direction to mitigate an extremely predictable script. GoldenEye has its patchy moments, but Martin Campbell's direction and the strength of the script mitigate the movie's flaws in a way that its sequels' do not.

It is disappointing because there are many aspects of the movie which are terrific.

First of all, David Arnold's score is one of the best scores in the series -- a perfect, swaggering encapsulation of what makes Bond great, topped off by a wonderful end title credits song from kd lang.

Bombastic and tinged with shades of Shirley Bassey, it is a pity that lang's effort was relegated to the end credits. It is, pound-for-pound, the best theme song the series had between Duran Duran's 'A View To A Kill' to Adele's 'Skyfall'.

The action sequences are solid examples of late-nineties action set pieces. They may lack a certain panache, but they get the job done.

And the script, while overly simplistic and stuffed with obvious exposition, does feature some great one liners -- especially from Elliot Carver. The scene where he chats to Bond and Wai Lin while writing their obituaries is up there with the best.

At the end of the day, Tomorrow Never Dies is leaps and bounds better than the later films in Brosnan's run, but it does represent the beginning of the end. The oscillation between the serious (Bond's relationship with Paris) and the silly (the remote-controlled car) would become impossible to maintain as pop culture and society in general out-paced the Bond franchise's ability to keep with the times.

Previous reviews

Diamonds Are Forever

For Your Eyes Only

Octopussy

The Living Daylights

Casino Royale

Quantum of Solace

Spectre (2015); (2016)

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