Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bond-arama: No. 0014 Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Tomorrow Never Dies holds a lot of promise. The plot is Bond-like. Teri Hatcher is beautiful. Pierce Brosnan was a solid James Bond. And Jonathan Price is an excellent choice as a villain. Even the idea of a newspaper man manufacturing news to manipulate the world is a great idea. But the film never fully achieves its promise, which is why it’s only No. 0014 of 0023 on our countdown.

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 then travels to Hamburg to investigate Carver because Carver released details of the attack before they were even known and because MI6 noticed strange signals on one of his communications satellites when the frigate was sunk. In Hamburg, Bond discovers that Carver’s wife (Teri Hatcher) is an ex-girlfriend of his, and she helps him steal the GPS encoder Carver used to divert the H.M.S. Devonshire. Naturally, she is killed for her troubles and Bond escapes with the help of a remote control BMW. This produces one of the better moments in the Brosnan Bond films as he navigates the BMW through a parking garage.

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.
Bond and Lin then attack Carver’s stealth ship. They need to stop Carver from firing a stolen British cruise missile at Beijing. Bond damages the stealth ship, making it visible to radar, and allowing the British navy to sink it as Bond stops the missile and kills Carver. Unfortunately, before this climax began, the filmmakers made a strange mistake. They allow Bond and Lin to explain to their governments what Carver had done. This effectively sucked the drama out of the ending and, to fix this, the filmmakers create fake drama by presenting the Royal Navy as bloodthirsty fools who are unwilling to wait to hear what Bond has discovered. This needlessly makes the ending a mess.

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.
Teri Hatcher played Paris Carver, the trophy wife of the villain and a former girlfriend of Bond. Hatcher was pregnant when she played this role and apparently that limited her, and it shows. She’s also rather cold. A better choice would have been Monica Bellucci, who was turned down for the role – she oozes sexy. Hatcher seems more trouble than she is worth as a trophy wife. Also, Brosnan proves incapable of selling the idea that he cares about some forgotten ice queen girlfriend, and she is forgotten so quickly after she is killed that her inclusion in the film almost seems like an afterthought.

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.
And as an aside, as so often happens, if the writers had answered this motive question fully, they may have found a much more interesting film. Indeed, it’s within the idea of a media man manufacturing his own news to reshape the world where a truly inspired tale lies, not in him gaining ratings for some nebulous profit motive.

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.

Conclusion

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.

37 comments:

Dave Olson said...

(Sigh)

We've gone round and round on this, but IMHO this is approximately where The Living Daylights should have scored. And in all fairness, this one and Golden Gun could have been knocked down considerably. Don't worry, I'll only bring up TLD one more time when you review one Bond film that (astoundingly) hasn't shown up yet.

Anyway, to the business at hand. I have a vague recollection of starting to watch this movie. I'm pretty sure I watched the handcuffed-on-a- motorcycle chase. And I distinctly remember Teri Hatcher getting whacked. But for the life of me, I can't remember how it ended. I'm not even sure I made it to the end. I'm guessing that there were explosions and gunfire and at least one straightening of Bond's necktie, but I don't know how, where, or even if Johnathan Pryce bit the dust. Hell, I don't even remember the pre-credits sequence or what gadgets Q came up with. All in all, a very forgettable entry. That's too bad, because I liked Pierce Brosnan as 007. Such a shame that he only got one really good script to work with. This wasn't it.

Koshcat said...

I agree although for some reason I never really cared for this one. Perhaps it was the believability. A US frigate would have made more sense. The pacific fleet could get there in a short time and large enough to instill fear. Felix could be suspicious but his superiors aren't convinced. Ask UK Bond to help investigate and stop the war.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, Little tweaks like that would have made a world of difference in this film. Making it the US Navy or China threatening to invade Hong Kong would have made the story much more believable. Even if you didn't fix Carver, that would have helped. But fixing Carver would have helped a lot as well.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, This one had potential, but they made a few fundamental errors which kept it from achieving its potential.

Backthrow said...

TND was... 'okay'... it had its good points, and plot (and other) weaknesses, as Andrew has outlined. This and (especially) GOLDENEYE were easily Brosnan's best, but I don't think he ever had a truly great single Bond film. GOLDENEYE came pretty close, but it's like all four of his films had good pieces (DIE ANOTHER DIE less so, apart from the swordfight) that would add up to a great film if you could somehow cobble them all together into one coherent narrative, but instead, you have them countered by weak plot elements, characters or directorial choices (or all three, in some cases), or other drawbacks.

Another reason why TND suffers a bit, compared to the best 007 films, is something that plagues most of the Brosnan entries:

1.) While Brosnan's Bond does some globe-hopping here, and in his other films, you never quite get the 'travelogue' feel very often. Sure, there's the motorcycle chase across the rickety Saigon rooftops, but other than that, it's one rather generic city location (or building) to another. Little-to-no sense of the exotic. This blands everything down, even if the film boasts decent art direction/production design, which this did.

2.) Brosnan's Bond rarely, if ever, does much in the way of actual spying. Unless you count machine gun battles with faceless minions as 'spying'. Connery, Lazenby, Craig... even Dalton and Moore, do their share of blending in (or breaking in) and gathering intel. Brosnan... not so much. Not that this is the actor's fault; the filmmakers seemed to think Bond, at this stage, was John McClane in a tux. Except McClane actually did more spying in the original DIE HARD! LOL

The best scene in the film is with Brosnan confronting Vincent Schiavelli's hitman. Bond using the remote-control feature of his own car was good and fun, too.

One really dumb scene is the henchmen using the helicopter's blades to chop up Brosnan, Yeoh, and the building they're on.

Another flaw: having Sheryl Crow sing the theme song, while relegating K.D. Lang's vastly superior "Surrender" to the end credits. Probably another of Elliot Carver's evil schemes.

Dave Olson said...

Maybe that's why I find this film so unmemorable: I despise Sheryl Crow. I must have blocked out most of the movie the way I blocked out her theme.

A bad theme singer can ruin a movie. That's why I never saw Skyfall in the theater. If there's one singer I despise more than Sheryl Crow, it's Adele. There was no way I was going to spend good money and be forced to listen to her warble her way through four minutes of opening titles. Blessed be the fast-forward button.

Tennessee Jed said...

This one was not bad as Bond films go. It is true, there are better more credible ways to get a British 00 into a plot without straining credibility (see, say, Thunderball.) I was so happy to have Roger Moore retired, I probably enjoyed the early Brosnan films a little more than they deserved. On the Bond girl thing, we will agree to disagree. Terri Hatcher is great, even if she was under-used. Michelle Yeoh is extremely sensuous. Baum, there it is!

Anthony said...

I liked Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow. Athletic and competent are words rarely used to describe Bond girls.

tryanmax said...

I'm still working through the Bond films chronologically and I'm still mired in the wasteland of Roger Moore. (Seriously, after a few, the man makes you not want to watch Bond.) So, this one isn't fresh in my mind right now. As a rule, I find the Brosnan films entertaining but uneven. This seems to fit.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Mired in the Moore's is a good way to put it. LOL! I think the problem with all of Brosnan's film is that they were all kind of rote. They went through the motions of being a Bond film, they had the necessary elements, but they just never had much heart. And I think it's the lack of attention to detail that was the problem. Plus, of all the Bond actors, he's the only one that I think was playing the role rather than becoming the role.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I like her the actress and I thought her character should have been a good one, but it just didn't add up to much in the film.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, LOL! We can agree to disagree. I do think this is probably the most enjoyable of Bronsan's films, but it's still kind of middling, which is why it's ranked here.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, I never had a theme song ruin a Bond film for me. I've ignored a couple and fast forward through them, but I've never really hated a film because of it.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, That is definitely a problem with the Brosnan films -- he just kind of walks from plot point to plot point without actually earning it, i.e. there's no spying.

I also agree with your description of the Brosnan films. They all have some very good moments and good pieces inside them, but they never add up to great films.

K said...

The "video game" car didn't work for me. First, it played on a popular meme when the movie was coming out and second it made me ask under what circumstances would an agent want to remote control his car? How many pedestrians would you run over with it because you're driving with a 2 inch screen?

The only circumstance I could think of is if you're being attacked and you happen to end up in the back seat and have to drive through a parking garage with no innocents in sight being shot at continuously. So either Q has a time machine and knows exactly what's going to happen or the writers in charge of gadgets/action scenes were having a bad week.

K said...

Athletic and competent are words rarely used to describe Bond girls.

"Flat chested" are words rarely used to describe Bond girls as well. Hey, just kidding. Yeoh was one of the best things about the film.

AndrewPrice said...

K, I have no problems at all with the car. It's exactly the kind of gadget that Bond normally has -- not practical, but sounds cool, and they used it well.

Tennessee Jed said...

"K" when you let things like logic or realism bother you at this point in the franchise ...... don't get me wrong, I liked the books and early Bond stories best, but that trin had left the station long before Brosnan came on the scene.

K said...

Jed: I could pretty much swallow the rest of the movie. I could even take the car if it had been used differently, say as a decoy. But obviously writing a scene around the gadget just so Bond could back seat drive was a bridge too far for me.

BTW, I particularly liked the Dr. Kaufman character.

Kit said...

Why the %$#* was Monica Bellucci turned down?!?!?!

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, No idea. I would have cast her instead.

AndrewPrice said...

K and Jed, At this point in the franchise, you kind of have to accept a lot of improbable stuff.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I liked this one but then I saw it again years later and it was kinda meh. Sadly, it only proves that Brosnan got better as his films got worse. It's good enough for the "passable" category, I suppose. Best part was the parking garage chase.

Vincent Schiavelli was a highlight, while Ricky Jay looked out of place. Jonathan Pryce is a great actor but wasn't served well here. The plot doesn't hold up to scrutiny but maybe it's a victim of "Go big or go home." Media moguls are real people - better to have made Carver an old-fashioned Dr. No-style villain and not Rupert Murdoch/Sumner Redstone.

On the plus side, the songs are great, though they should've put the kd lang song at the beginning. And this was the first of several Bond films scored by David Arnold, who does great work here.

Rustbelt said...

I often forget this one even exists. As I've noted before, I NEVER liked Brosnan in the role. Quite frankly, I'm shocked he didn't get Bond shelved the way George Clooney did with Batman. But I've gone on and on about that before. So...

Andrew, you're right that this movie had incredible potential. There are few Bond films as modern and up-to-date with current issues as this one. In 1997, the Internet was really beginning to gain steam and mass media was truly taking shape. The idea that a media mogul would use such power to manipulate events is just oozing with potential. And Jonathan Pryce as the bad guy? This is just one of those classic "how could they possibly get it wrong?" scenarios. But they did. It's boring.

For me, beyond Brosnan, the problem is that this film- like all the Brosnan-era films- is treated as a typical 90's actioner. I agree with Backthrow that the filmmakers thought Bond was just a British version of John McClane.
You know, on that note, when was the last BOND film even made? If the 90's ones were generic 90's action films and the Craig films trying too hard to be in the 'Bourne' mold, would that make 'License to Kill' the last trendsetting Bond film? Hm...

I also agree with K. The remote control car just sounds like a big gimmick- worthy of pro wrestling at its silliest.

Oh, and, uh, I'd like to second Kit. Why on earth was Monica Bellucci turned down?!?!?!?!

Rustbelt said...

And one more thing, Andrew: when you reference the possibility of China invading Hong Kong, are you referring to Hong Kong still being a British colony in early 1997, or is there something else to its current relationship with Beijing that gives it semi-autonomy?

PikeBishop said...

Michelle Yeoh and Monica Belluci, together in the same film?

Man, I think I got semi-wood just typing that sentence. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, This is definitely a film done in by it's script. Brosnan is finally hit his stride and does really well, but there just isn't enough to work with from a practical standpoint. The overall scheme works, but there just isn't enough "getting there" to make the film work really well. It's too bad too because this could have been a much higher ranked film.

On Carver, I think the real problem is that they leave him in between. He's not quite a real villain and not quite a real businessman either. He's kind of a little of both. Again, if they had thought his character through a little more, then it would have worked and been a much better film.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, No idea why she was turned down.

I agree that this is one of the few Bond films in a very long time to be well ahead of the curve in terms of issues that are happening. I'm not sure what the last one would have been, but it would actually probably be Goldeneye with the EMP pulse. As for being the last "Bond"-Bond film, it would probably be For Your Eyes Only. The Dalton stuff was just ripping off 1980s action films.

In terms of Brosnan, I like him, but his movies are very flat. I think they just never gave him enough to work with.

On Hong Kong, I'm referring to the handover. There was already a lot of tension about that and I think it would have made an interesting (and credible) threat for China to threaten to just march across the border and take it as retaliation for something.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, She would have been a nice addition to the film. LOL!

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, different idea: instead of trying to create a war involving the UK or US, maybe Carver could've focused on starting a war between China and Russia. In 1997, China was rising as an international trading partner and Russia was desperate to hold off its slide into post-Cold War obscurity. If he manipulated those countries, then he'd be able to (at least try) to control what the western countries (his audience) saw. Starting a war in two other countries in order to carefully take over information markets in the more advanced countries might make a more focused plot. The audience (the one Carver is gunning for) might not care as much, which is why they'd be oblivious to Carver building his power base- realizing what had happened only after it was too late. Maybe.

I was also thinking about other countries to involve since war involving east and west is such a cliche in action movies these days.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, That would work too, though it might make the plot a little more convoluted in terms of getting western audiences to care -- it might lead to a "let them kill each other!" mentality.

Ultimately, I think the Hong Kong thing works best because of the handover. It was an issue that was ripe in the news at that point but hadn't been exploited anywhere else before. But the war is just a pretext. What really needed to be cleaned up was Carver's power, how he would benefit, and his motive. They kind of gloss over all of that right now and that's where the film feels too weak... what does he hope to gain?

El Gordo said...

One way Britain could hurt China is by using their nuclear submarines to attack shipping and close a couple of ports. That would take weeks and is not very cinematic. Of course, sinking nominally civilian merchant ships and (gasp!) tankers would also upset people at home much more than the murder of a few hundred sailors.

El Gordo said...

I liked Michelle Yeoh, though her role was indeed not well defined. Thought she had charisma and was the liveliest thing in the movie.

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, That would be one way Britain could attack China, but I can't see them doing that. That's the sort of thing that would outrage the world. Plus, it would take weeks. I still think the best way to handle this would be to flip it around to China attacking Hong Kong.

I like Yeoh a good deal, but they didn't give her much to work with in this film.

John Johnson said...

The lack of sexual tension was quite a relief in my view. The sexual tension and escapades in each installment was a repeating bad joke to me. It's like a bingo player who constantly says "you sank my battleship" after each number is announced. And the public is expected to laugh each time. Besides, I like strong women.The ones who are capable at what they're doing, and stand for something. Not the feminist types. That's weak, not strong.

Now on the subject of the supposed supremacy of England. In those days, many of us believed the British armed forces where the best of the best and whatnot. The usual which the English government wants us to believe. The myth of the mighty British Empire. In that sense, the British attacking the 'outdated' Chinese wasn't that bad of a premise in a fantasy movie. These days we see things in a better perspective (I hope, the masses keep surprising me). Basically I forgive this movie for depicting England that way. But England as a (military) world leader seems laughable to me these days.

AndrewPrice said...

John, The problem with the lack of sexual tension is that there wasn't much else offered either.

In terms of the British, I doubt very many Americans considered this plausible by this point. China was a nuclear power and was something even our armed forces were very cautious of. And by the 1990s, it was clear to most Americans that the British weren't capable of more than sending a few supporting troops.

It's not that we didn't appreciate it, but they weren't much more than moral support.

PikeBishop said...

So almost two decades too late Monica Belluci finally makes it into a Bond film, with "Spectre." Sad, still an attractive woman, but nowhere near as hot any more. My wife just said, "Wow she looks old now."

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