Plot Quality: Tomorrow Never Dies is essentially You Only Live Twice with media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) replacing SPECTRE and a stealth ship replacing the volcano lair. Unfortunately, even though the plot is less fantastic than You Only Live Twice, it is actually less credible. Still, the story is quite decent.
The story begins with Carver sending the British frigate H.M.S. Devonshire off course into Chinese waters by manipulating their GPS signal. They think they are in international waters. This provokes a Chinese military challenge. As that is on-going, Carver uses a secret stealth ship to sink the British frigate. He then films his own crew shooting the survivors in the water and he uses a missile obtained from the frigate to shoot down a Chinese jet fighter sent to investigate. Carver then uses his media empire to drum up the claim that the Chinese sank the frigate and shot the survivors. His goal is to start a war between Britain and China, which would result in the Chinese government being replaced by one willing to give him exclusive rights to the Chinese media market.
On the surface, this sounds good. The sinking of a naval vessel in what the aggrieved side believes to be international waters and the cold-blooded murder of her crew is certainly cause for war. But there’s a problem: Britain. I’m sorry to our British readers, but Britain is just not a credible military power and it is inconceivable that Britain would (or could) actually go to war with China. To non-British audience this sounds a bit like Belgium planning to invade the US. Also, Bond is given 48 hours to stop the war, which stretches credibility again because there is no way the Royal Navy could be assembled and shipped to China in anything under a couple weeks. Still, if you can overlook the British hubris of this entire idea, the idea of starting a war is a solid one.
Bond next travels to the South China Sea to investigate the wreckage. He is captured by Carver, along with Chinese spy Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), and taken to the Carver Media Group tower in Saigon. This results in an escape down the outside of a glass high-rise and a chase scene with Bond and Lin handcuffed together on a motorcycle as they are chased by a helicopter. For all the skill involved in the stunts in this chase, the chase feels remarkably pro forma and staged, and there’s never any real sense of danger.
All in all, this film is enjoyable. The plot is sufficiently fantastic to be worthy of James Bond, yet it’s also grounded enough that the audience can see how the plot would work and why a villain would do this. The writers made some mistakes which kept the film from hitting its potential, but this is a worthy Bond film.
Bond Quality: This is Brosnan’s best performance. He was comfortable in each aspect of the role by this point and he could easily be both suave and cold-blooded. Moreover, he’d developed a sense of humor which comes out at the right times to enhance his sexual appeal and to soften his brutality without losing the seriousness of it. At this point, Brosnan is the equal of any of the others at their best.
The Bond Girl(s): The Bond girls are a different story. The primary role of the Bond girl is to add sexual tension to the film and to give Bond a reason to care personally about his fight against the villain. That didn’t happen here. Indeed, the Bond girls were a weakness in this film as neither proved to be very sexual.
The main Bond girl is Michelle Yeoh, who played Chinese spy Col. Wai Lin. A former Miss Malaysia, Yeoh starred in several Jackie Chan films before this. At this point in her career, she honestly lacks the sex appeal to be a Bond girl. Indeed, she treats the role more as a buddy cop story, which is what she played with Chan, and she never develops more than a “pal” chemistry with Bond. She and Bond don’t even compete effectively, like Barbara Bach did in The Spy Who Loved Me. She also lacks a personal motive which would give her character fire. Essentially, she becomes a sidekick rather than a Bond girl.
Villain Quality: The villain quality here is difficult. Jonathan Pryce is an excellent actor and he’s extremely well-suited to play a Bond villain. And on the one hand, Elliot Carver sits among the greats. He is ruthless. His scheme sounds intelligent and is grand and is certainly worthy of the attention of Mr. Bond. His acting is also the perfect pitch to give the character the right amount of credibility that he got to where he is and the right amount of ruthless insanity to make his villainy believable.
But on the other hand, the flaws in his plan are what doom the film. For one thing, his scheme is about securing ratings for his news empire. But it’s not clear how ratings will translate directly into anything the psychopathic Carver would care about. In other words, how does this plan really help him personally? We can infer that he would gain influence or become richer as his company’s share price goes up, but that’s never explained nor does it seem to be a fitting motive for a megalomaniacal psychotic.
The other problem with the plan is that it’s ludicrous to believe that Britain could be a credible opponent for China. They have no ability to project power around the world. Indeed, a war between Britain and China would go like this: Day One, Britain declares war. Two hours later, Hong Kong surrenders. Britain sends its tiny fleet as a show of impotent rage. China showers the fleet in missiles. China sends the survivors home on a China Air flight after Britain agrees to pay the airfare. That’s the best case for Britain. More likely, Britain would demand an apology, China would laugh, and the whole thing would be forgotten. And audiences know that, so the stakes of Carver’s scheme never feel real because no one really believes a war would erupt. It would have added a lot to the film if it had been an American frigate or if it had been a Chinese frigate and China threatened an invasion of Hong Kong in retaliation. But the idea that Britain could threaten China militarily just doesn’t wash.
This was an enjoyable film with the potential to be one of the best, but a couple mistakes stopped that. The Bond girls were miscast and the villain was mis-written. Essentially, you have a potentially excellent villain played by an excellent actor whose plan doesn’t really pass the sniff test because it doesn’t fit his psychosis and because it can’t really happen the way they’ve outlined it. A couple of tweaks would have made a world of difference. And even more to the point, if they had answered the question of what a psychotic would really do with near-total control over the media, they may have discovered a much stronger film. Unrealized potential is why this film sits at No. 0014 of 0023.