Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Definitive Bond Marathon: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

(directed by Roger Spotiswoode)
Few would dispute the usefulness of easy and accessible transmitted information from one region of the globe to another through various media. The only possible point contention is the person or entity exercising said transmission. He who controls the flood of information can control a whole lot more, and such was the central issue of 007’s (Pierce Brosnan) latest mission, which began when both Chinese MiGs and the HMS Devonshire were attacked at sea, with each country accusing the other of belligerency. The first media outlet to cover the story was the Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) owned newspaper, The Tomorrow. It seemed to many that the story leaked just a bit too fast, a bit too early. How did Carver get his information so quickly and what have he to do with this international incident? Time was of the essence as communication between Great Britain and China heated up, with the potentiality of war growing by the minute.

007 was commissioned with the investigation of Carver and his enterprise during the latter’s much hyped about launch of a 24 hour news television station to take place in Hamburg. It was there that our agent came in contact with a former flame, Paris (Terri Hatcher), now Carver’s wife, as well as the beautiful Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), an Chinese secret agent posing as a journalist seeking an exclusive interview with media mogul. Bond’s snooping, running and shooting shed more and more light on his target, thus making it abundantly clear that the British ex-pat did indeed have a hand in the international incident, aided by a techno wizard named Gupta (Ricky Jay). His goal? To increase television ratings as well as newspaper and magazine readership. Control the content by creating it. The euphoria felt by the fans as a result of Goldeneye was always going to be difficult to live up to. Having one Bond film in which the story deals with the post-Cold War world is one thing, but if the producers were going to make more films, and we all knew they would, new ideas for threats would have to created again and again. What could be considered a danger to the world? It needs to be plausible both in the world of James Bond and in our real world. The Roger Spotiswoode directed Tomorrow Never Dies does address a fascinating issue that many do indeed consider to a problem: the domination of news media by a select few. After all, when so much information is selectively delivered by so few, it is understandable for certain ethical to arise.
The consensus surrounding Tomorrow Never Dies is that it isn’t very good. A meandering, very middle of the road Bond film. While I don’t think many can make the case that is raises the stakes even higher than its immediate predecessor, watching TND  for the first time in a couple of years reminded me that it does have quite a few positive characteristics, although it never amounts to much in the end, by virtue of some poor writing, dubious acting and even some questionable action choreography, something that hasn’t been criticized about the franchise in this marathon since, well, possible ever.

The question of the Bond villain is always a contentious one. Should the character take on more realistic qualities or outlandish ones? Maybe the worst case scenarios are those which try to create a hybrid of those two possible qualities, when the writers and director want to have it both ways. For instance, the seed for the idea of Elliot Carver is interesting. Have a media mogul control the news in less than honourable ways, thus sending major nations into a tailspin of fear and paranoia, Great Britain chief among them. MI6 launches 007 into action and subsequently discovers the horrific acts Carver is engaged in.  Mass media, in our day and age, is a concern for how ironically limited and heavily censored the information can be sometimes. Owners of such media conglomerates are frequently accused of biased reporting and, possibly, stifling the entire truth. Taking that notion and creating a Bond villain out of it sounds like a great idea and in some respects it works in TND. The threat is real as is the ludicrous strategy that Elliot Carve goes about his plan. However, in never plays out in completely satisfying manner. For one, when Carver reveals that he really is just doing all of this to ensure exclusive television rights in China for years to come, it comes off as too silly. I mean, that’s a long way around just to acquire some tele rights. Maybe if he had become enamoured with creating the news and went mad, unable to stop himself anymore, or if he created bad events to then provide in false in depth coverage to come off as some sort of ‘good Samaritan’ reporter to gain fame and fortune. Just tv rights? Sounds pretty flimsy. Jonathan Pryce simply does not feel entirely comfortable in the role either. He does not look or sound threatening at all. He’s just a skinny guy in glasses. Pryce is too classy an actor to be a convincing villain. If you want to go British for a Bond villain, you have to go bad ass. Sean Bean (Irish) was a great example of that.

Someone who isn’t flimsy in TND is Pierce Brosnan, returning for a second outing as James Bond. His performance here is just as good, if not possibly better than it was in Goldeneye. He is very good at playing ‘cool,’ of that there is no doubt, but after watching this movie so many times you start noticing fun little details. One of these neat moments arrives when 007 is remote controlling his spruced up BMW in the hotel garage lot in Hamburg. Pursued by a gang of baddies, Bond is sunk into the back seat, driving his vehicle with his miniature control pad. His car rolls over some spikes, thus piercing the tires, but fear not, for with a press of a button the tires are repaired and the vehicle can continue thrusting along. That ingenious little life saver is so awesome even Brosnan can’t help but give a wide smile. Another is when he is trying to escape from the print factory in Hamburg. Bond has beaten up a bunch of guards and, thinking the coast is clear, calmly walks around, looking for an exit. Suddenly, a burst of bullet fire roars by him, forcing him to take cover. It lasts only a second, but I swear Brosnan has an ironic grin when ducking for cover, as if saying to himself ‘Yeah, I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy!’ If there is one thing that holds his performance back, it is some of the lines he has to deliver, some of which are rather brutally unfunny, such the ‘we’ve formed an attachment,’ quip when he and Wai Lin are cuffed together. Overall though, Brosnan is very good in TND, clearly growing even more comfortable in the role.

The run of hit or miss Bond girls continues. How long has this sequence lasted, in which each Bond film with a memorable, strong female lead is followed by a letdown. Well, in TND, director Spotiswoode gives us not one but two letdowns. The first comes in the shape of Terri Hatcher of Desperate Housewives fame. There are several problems with this character, the most pressing being where her character’s relationship with Bond stems from. Few details are revealed, but the film does share the fact that she and Bond have a past. That in of itself is interesting, especially since Paris is now Elliot Carver’s wife, thus complicating matters when 007 shows up at the Hamburg event, masquerading as a banker. Rather than remain content with the notion that Bond and her had a fling, the film really hits home that they were madly in love with each other. What? Where is this coming from? Bond tried that once in OHMSS and his wife to be was murdered on their wedding day, so I find it surprising that he’d fall for the same trick twice. Granted, the movie tells us that he left her before things might have gotten too serious, but still. The second problematic aspect of this thankfully brief plotpoint is the actress, Terri Hatcher. There is about as little chemistry between her and Brosnan as I’ve seen in a while in a Bond film.  She tries to play it with a sense of cool and sexiness, but for whatever reason it doesn’t work properly, maybe because she plays it with a sense of overconfidence, almost like a parody of a Bond girl. Brosnan is fine in these scenes, demonstrating a vulnerable side to Bond audiences are not privy to often, but Hatcher simply doesn’t cut it. I’ve heard stories of these two actors not getting along on set and, I don’t know, I feel it plays out on screen. For what it’s worth, we get a fantastic scene after her death involving Bond and the odd, funny, memorable Dr. Kaufman.

Then enters Michelle Yeoh, an actress gifted with a lot of charm (Tai Chi Master makes an argument in favour of that statement) and obviously impressive martial arts skills, playing Wai Lin of the Chinese secret service. Here again the plot point begins with an interesting idea, in this case the partnership with a British spy and a Chinese spy, operating for the exact two countries who might go to war with one another if Elliot Carver has his way.  While I think Yeoh fairs better than Hatcher, there isn’t enough time for her and Bond to ever develop anything more serious than sexual attraction. We see her all too briefly in the early going, only to have her reappear shortly after Paris’ death. So this Paris woman whom Bond loved so much has been brutally murdered, but he sort of forgets it quickly when Michelle Yeoh’s sexy tush shows up. It all feels rather odd. It isn’t as though they have great dialogue scenes with each other either. The writers try for a few snappy things, but few land as they should.

In the same vein of TND containing a mixed bag of tricks, some of the action is spectacular, while other moments which hope to thrill land flat on their proverbial faces. The pre-title sequence is solid for the most part, with Bond snooping in closer and closer into a rogue arms dealers’ bazaar while under guidance from home base (codename: White Night!) and then creating absolute mayhem once his target is in sight. Following a fun little chase through a The Tomorrow print factory in Hamburg (in which Bond uses one of the silliest methods for escaping gun fire) is what many consider to be the highlight of the picture: the remote controlled BMW car chase. I actually disagree. It reminds of the Goldfinger Aston Martin scene and the Little Nelly scene from You Only Live Twice. It’s essentially Bond pressing a bunch of buttons. A lot of what happens is fun, but I’m always under the impression that a bit less skill in on display. Great stuntwork and pyrotechnics, but not much in terms of how great James Bond can be. For me the highlight of the film is the helicopter-motorcycle chase through the shantytowns of Hanoi. That scene has some freaking fantastic stuff happening, both by the stunt people playing Bond and Wai Lin on the bike and by that damn helicopter. Beautiful Bond action.

However, there are some real downers in there as well. Is it just me or is Bond mowing down an especially large amount of faceless goons via machine gun? That climax must have about three or four shots of 007 simply walking around with a mean look on his face, machine gun in hand and just letting her rip. Not very 007-esque if you ask me. I also find the entire climax to be a huge dud. The set design is awfully boring, there’s nothing interesting that can happen in a series of mundane industrial style corridors of a submarine. There are even some especially weak slow mo scene of Wai Lin gunning down baddies yelling ‘Hiiiyyyah’. Oh god, really?

Last but not least is Stamper (Gotz Otto), Elliot Carver’s right hand man. Has there ever been a more generic, uninteresting, uncharismatic heavy in the franchise? That ridiculous bleached hair,that stare, the atrocious dialogue, etc. I don’t even want to talk about this guy.

Tomorrow Never Dies is an unfortunate case when one really thinks about for a moment. There are plenty of phenomenal ideas on the table. A media mogul turned insane, British-Chinese international relations, Bond running into an old flame...but almost none of them amount to much. Some of the more traditional Bond elements save the day, as the fun factor of tagging along with a cool 007 and specific action sequences which impress. A missed opportunity if you ask me, even though it isn’t all that bad.


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