“There’s no news like bad news.” – Elliot Carver
Welcome back to 00 Saturdays here at Film Seizure. This is our weekly walk through the Bond saga. This week, we take a look at the second Pierce Brosnan Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies.
Hot off one of the greatest films in the series, Pierce Brosnan returns as James Bond in a movie that features one of my favorite pre-titles sequence, a spectacular Asian action star as our lead Bond Girl, one of the prettiest ladies of the 90s as an ill-fated former lover of Bond’s, and an incredibly interesting, and prescient, idea for a plot. Add to that a pretty great actor playing the villain in Jonathan Pryce. What do you have?
Another case of The Man with the Golden Gun – a movie that just doesn’t quite work out.
In Tomorrow Never Dies, Bond is up against media mogul Elliot Carver (Pryce). Carver is a psychopath based on Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch. He is generating ratings and revenue by manufacturing a war between China and the United Kingdom. He’s able to do this through two outlets. First, he is working with a techno-terrorist named Henry Gupta (Henry Jay) who has a device that messes up people’s global positioning which leads to confusion about where a British battleship is as well as Carver’s goons murdering the survivors to create a seemingly leaked headline. Bond has 48 hours to investigate how someone at Carver Media knew before the Vietnamese government recovered the bodies.
Let’s talk about what does work. First, Bond has to deal with a past relationship in Carver’s wife, Paris, played by Teri Hatcher. She’s not your typical Bond Girl – in fact, neither girl is in this movie. Paris is scorned. We find out how most of Bond’s relationships come to an end – with him simply leaving. Bond is given orders from M herself to find Paris and pump her for information. He tries to play down his past relationship, but when he talks to her again for the first time in years, she responds with a slap to his face. It’s not your usual first moment between a Bond Girl and 007. She has a particularly saucy scene later when she goes back to him and drops her dress right in front of him. Sadly, reconnecting with him leads to her being killed.
In fact, I do like how classic Bond is in this movie. After Carver sees Bond and Paris talking to each other, he sends goons to deal with him. He’s up against some big German dudes and he takes some punches, but then beats the crap out of them all and even knocks a guy out with a heavy, glass ash tray. Then, he goes back to his hotel room and pours himself some shots of vodka and waits with eyes on the door and a silencer on his gun for reprisal. That’s some cold, Connery stuff right there.
Another thing I like in this movie is the other Bond Girl, Michelle Yeoh. Yeoh is one of the all time great Hong Kong action stars. She’s a super bad ass, and that checks out in this movie as well. Not only do you get to see her do her thing with martial arts, she double fists machine guns in the big action climax. She’s not your typical Bond Girl either. Bond barely romances her and I think that is an absolute relief here. Yeoh is very pretty, but I don’t want to see her get googly-eyed over Bond. I want her to kick ass WITH Bond. She’s one of the great Bond Girls, but it is so unfortunate that she’s not in a particularly great entry in the series because she deserves much, much better.
I mentioned earlier that I love the opening, pre-titles sequence. Bond is sending video from a remote area in one of the former Soviet states and the military decides to send in a missile to take out everyone there – roughly half of the world’s terrorist leaders. Bond refuses to leave because one of the jets there has a couple nuclear bombs attached to it. So he has to take on the entire bazaar and steal the jet. It’s great. Additionally, there are a couple other good action scenes with Bond’s new BMW that he can remote control with a cell phone (the first time in the series cell phones play a large part in the story). I love how Bond takes glee in what his car can do while he’s in the back seat controlling the car through a parking garage. Lastly, another great chase involves Bond and Wai Lin (Yeoh) handcuffed together and riding a motorcycle through Saigon. That chase even involves a stunt team using the motorcycle to jump over the rotors of a helicopter. It’s a neat scene.
The other aspect of this movie that I quite like is the idea of how the media is able to control a great deal of narrative around a particular story, topic, event, etc. Living in the United States, it’s hard to say that we don’t get a whole bunch of media coverage that is very slanted to one side or the other. Of course, this is only compounded by the internet the utter proliferation of opinion, coverage of news, worthy or not, and, most certainly, conspiracies.
So to have a guy who is manipulating opinion and truth with media is fascinating because we kind of see this today. I’m not accusing anyone here of pulling some seriously bad shit like Carver is, but obviously there are plenty of people who would very much like to steer ideas or twist truths to fit certain narratives. This film happens 15-20 years before it actually became a sort of reality. There is something here that you can make a movie out of, for sure. It should come to no surprise that this movie has received a bit of a re-evaluation in recent years for being so prescient.
What’s unfortunate, though, is that it’s played too campy. Jonathan Pryce is a great actor and someone who deserves his shot at being a Bond villain. However, the way he delivers his lines, the way he carries himself, all of it… It’s bad. It’s hokey and campy. I like the Stamper character. He’s the main German muscleman goon. He fits well with the series. The Gupta character fits a means to an end. He’s fine.
It’s Pryce and another goon of his nicknamed “the doctor” played by long time character actor Vincent Schiavelli. They are played almost like jokes. I like tongue-in-cheek. I like villains who are over the top in their plans or a quirk, but when you make too much of a Venn diagram of these two ideas, a quirky, over the top character played too much tongue-in-cheek, you will cross too much into camp. Camp is bad if it isn’t perfect. In this film, it hurts the interesting idea by almost making a joke out of all this.
I think the problem with this film comes down to the choice of director. I don’t often speak of directors in great detail because usually the sum of a Bond film is greater than the parts and flourishes that a director might add. It’s hard to deny that there are instances that I can’t help but see that I like Lewis Gilbert’s films or that Martin Campbell made two VERY good Bond films or that John Glen really hit his stride when Timothy Dalton came along.
Roger Spottiswoode is the director on Tomorrow Never Dies. He started his career with Terror Train which is a decent slasher film and not a bad way to get into feature films. He then did a combination of either thrillers, action flicks, and comedies. However, leading up to getting the job for this film, he did Turner & Hooch, Air America, and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. That’s not exactly inspiring a great deal of confidence. It, however, does inspire the thought that he maybe directed Pryce and Schiavelli to be campy. That’s not great. It’s especially not great when Carver takes Wai Lin prisoner, and she struggles which leads to him making a goofy karate impersonation before calling her pathetic. That’s cringy as hell at worst, and unnecessary at best.
Another thing I specifically cannot stand in this movie, and, in fact, it is something that I even groaned at when I saw it in the theater, is the use of slow motion. Now, sometimes slow motion is necessary. It’s good to show off a stunt. But this is used very sparingly in the Bond series. This film has four terrible instances of slow motion that adds absolutely nothing to the film. The first instance is when Carver’s goons attack that British ship at the beginning of the movie and we see people evacuate in a dramatic slow mo shot. That’s unnecessary. The second AND third come in the climax in the exact same scene which we see Wai Lin who has only a few bullets left in her double machine gun attack and both slow mo moments happen when she ops around the corner to make a shot. The last instance is when the British goes looking for Bond and Wai Lin and they are just hanging out there looking at the boat looking for them. It looks really, really bad. This is the movie that made me realize that I cannot suffer any slow motion that is not necessary.
There is a story issue in the movie that creates a pretty big problem in the general plot. Bond is sent to figure out what the hell is going on with Elliot Carver, right? He’s sent in with papers, background story, and all that to pose as a banker. Okay, great. Shortly after reconnecting with Paris, what does Bond do? He starts being a prick to Carver and making a bunch of puns about boats and stuff. This INSTANTLY makes Carver suspicious of Bond which gets him to look into what this British prick’s deal is. Then, it just becomes this dick measuring contest at that point that is totally unnecessary and ends up getting Paris killed. That’s on your head, Commander Bond.
And this bad entry is on your head, Mr. Spottiswoode.
Join me next week for a look at the music of Tomorrow Never Dies. In two weeks, we take a look at the next film in the series, and what I believe is the end of the “classic” James Bond films – The World is Not Enough.