27 July 2010

Tomorrow Never Dies

Tomorrow Never Dies is Not Dead Yet
By Kristin Battestella

It seems like I don’t get to see Pierce Brosnan’s second outing as James Bond as often as all the other 007 pictures-and it’s a dang shame. 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies is a fine blend of media speculation, seafaring suspense, and good old fashioned spy intrigue. 

MI 6 Chief M (Judi Dench) sends James Bond (Brosnan) to investigate the mysterious sinking of the HMS Devonshire.  It seems media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) is behind the sinking, pitting the Chinese against the British in order to secure broadcasting rights in communist China.  While investing, Bond rekindles his relationship with Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher), but Carver’s corrupt technology expert Henry Gupta (Ricky Jay) discovers the affair as deadly henchmen Mr. Stamper (Gotz Otto) and Dr. Kaufman (Vincent Schiavelli) pursue 007.  Bond escapes thanks to Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and his remote controlled BMW, eventually teaming with Colonel Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh).  Together they must infiltrate Carver’s stealth ship and prevent him from launching stolen British missiles against China

Tomorrow Never DiesNew Bond director Roger Spottiswoode (Air America, And the Band Played On, The Children of Huang Shi) and house writer Bruce Feirstein (GoldenEye, The World is Not Enough) deal with quite a bit in Tomorrow Never Dies’ two hour timeframe.  We have British and Chinese relations, faux Saigon scenery, naval action, mass media manipulation, and more.   Despite script doctoring and numerous changes, the mission at hand is multi-layered and complex, even intricate, but not convoluted or stereotypical.  Bond has been in Asia before, namely with some good and some absurdness in You Only Live Twice, but the land and sea action and Chinese players are handled with respect and authenticity.  We don’t have any hokey dubbing and a basketball team of women giving 007 Oriental massages here!  Though not actually dated onscreen by the equipment, styles or technology, Tomorrow Never Dies may seem dated to modern techo-philes thanks to its idea that newspaper headlines can control the world.  While the print media’s ‘believe what I tell you’ power may be waning, television media and the internet are certainly influencing our society.  Yes, today perhaps no one would notice if a publisher was printing fake news, but spread misinformation on Facebook and look what happens! The newspaper medium highlighted here serves as an example of how yellow tainted journalism influenced us then and how it still can today.  No, a publisher playing war games for broadcasting rights isn’t as big a dilemma as Bond has thwarted previously, but there is a lesson to be learned along with the rest of Tomorrow Never Dies’ goodness.

While the talk of computers, internet technologies, and the necessity of GPS in Tomorrow Never Dies are ahead of its time and even prophetic in our now overly commonplace reliance on these things, the picture unfortunately isn’t as personal as its predecessor GoldenEye.  Overall, we get more social statements than usually found in a Bond picture, but that commentary is at the expense of well-developed characters and back-story.   Tomorrow Never Dies has a great opening sequence giving us Bond in action as well as a deeper look into the active support of MI 6.  Unfortunately, at some point it’s as if the screenplay was unfinished and character development just stops.  It’s a tough trade off- ideally, we should have both tight, complex plot and non-stock players.  Tomorrow Never Dies keeps it together for the most part, but a little more of those personal touches would have served the cast better.

Pierce Brosnan is once again a-okay as Our Man James.  Even when parts of the script may fail him, Brosnan still delivers sweet quips and perfected mannerisms.  His style of romancing is a little more subtle than Roger Moore, and the modern innuendo is refreshing.  Brosnan adds layers to Bond by differentiating his charm with women.  The harsh but sweet banter with the always wonderful Judi Dench, his tongue in cheek romps with Danish Professor Inga Bergstrom (Cecilie Thomsen, 54) and the latent kink with the charming Samantha Bond as Moneypenny are great.  ‘You always were a cunning linguist, James.’ I love it!  We enjoy this of course, but there’s some previous angst with Paris Carver and budding sweetness with Wai Lin, too.  Brosnan keeps Bond well rounded here.  Instead of just spying and international intrigue, we see 007 doing contemporary and fairly serious military missions.  Woohoo we get to see Brosnan’s Bond in his naval uniform, too!  The interplay and debriefing with the disguised Desmond Llewelyn’s Q is a delightful surprise, and Bond is even allowed some fun time with others at the home office like Colin Salmon (Dinotopia) as Chief of Staff Charles Robinson and Joe Don Baker returning from GoldenEye as CIA pal Jack Wade. (I’m not really sure why they bothered with the latter, but it’s all in good fun.) Brosnan knows how to work Bond’s seriousness as well as the fun, both internally and with the ensemble.  Anything lacking in Tomorrow Never Dies is forgivable thanks to Brosnan and his dang likeable 007.

Unfortunately, not all the ladies fair as well in Tomorrow Never Dies.  Teri Hatcher (Lois and Clark, Desperate Housewives) is good, if perhaps a bit untrained.  Certainly she looks pretty damn near dynamite-not because she was younger, but because there’s some healthy meat on her bones!  Sadly, the character doesn’t do her much justice, and Paris Carver is little more than a misused would be femme who actually doesn’t have nearly as much screen time as her billing deserves.  The viewer would think her line, “I’ve made my bed, and you don’t sleep in it anymore” would be a lot more incriminating than “Tell me James, do you still sleep with a gun under your pillow?”   All of Paris’ dialogue is a give away towards her past, present, and future.  Instead of developing a complex former flame, we’re left with too much obvious and it all happens too quickly to care. 

Now then, Michelle Yeoh is where it’s at!  I don’t care if I ended the sentence with a preposition-Wai Lin is one of the best Bond ladies we’ve yet seen.  Yeoh (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Far North) crafts a witty and intelligent foreign agent with priorities more important than Bond.  Her martial arts skills are only used occasionally, rather than being the fulcrum of her wow factor, and this allows for more dimension than expected.  Wai Lin has plenty of spy tricks up her own sleeve-and the combination of this kick ass makes her no less lovely.  She’s not portrayed as rough, manly, or ugly.  Yeoh has real life sex appeal, not the usual trumped up Bond Girl’s skimpy clothes and big boobs.  She’s a spy who knows her stuff but just happens to be a woman.  Sure, we could have had some better dialogue or character development here. Despite some of the written feminine weakness in Tomorrow Never Dies, once again Michelle Yeoh proves she can act with big boys.  I simply don’t know why Hollywood doesn’t take more notice of her. 

Some of the blandness or lack of personal interest viewers find in Tomorrow Never Dies is largely due to the fairly weak villains.  Though not stupid-in fact this is a very intricate caper with global implications-media mogul Elliot Carver just isn’t creepy or megalomaniacal enough to really enjoy.   It’s not the wonderful Jonathan Pryce’s (Carrington, Pirates of the Caribbean) fault; but Carver’s supposedly crooked, ruthless, and power hungry ways are revealed too early.  We don’t spend enough time with Carver, yet we get it all too fast and too soon.  Likewise, Gotz Otto (The Pillars of the Earth, Schindler’s List) as platinum haired henchman Stamper isn’t given much more than you’re usual bad boy with an accent.  He plays with some ancient pain knives-I guess that is supposed to be his steel brimmed hat or metal teeth ala Odd Job or Jaws.  Our main men are just a little too bland against other, more memorable Bond villains.  Hello, we just had 006 in the last movie for goodness sake, and Christopher Walken already did the platinum thing better in A View to a Kill.  Ricky Jay’s (State and Main, Magnolia, Boogie Nights) Gupta, however, is a neat and modern villainous spin.  He’s a beatnik tubby and slobby techno guru with no qualms about selling his devices and knowledge to the highest bidder.  He’s unassuming, yet a little too realistic in this day and age of rapid gadgetry.  The late Vincent Schiavelli (Ghost) is also perfection in his scene as the ruthless yet gentlemanly Dr. Kaufman. Whew!  On a lighter note, astute female fans will also spot Gerard Butler (300) in a one-line appearance early on aboard the HMS Devonshire.

Some of the characters may be poorly written, but Tomorrow Never Dies has some great Bond action.  The remote controlled car chases are claustrophobic, dangerous, and fun, even if the notion is a bit silly.  Likewise, it’s preposterous to be handcuffed to a chick that’s on your lap during a rooftop motorcycle chase- but the urban damage mixed with a deadly helicopter in pursuit keeps the suspense and pacing on form.  The locations are all wonderful as expected, and Bangkok fits the bill in substituting for Saigon.  The underwater action and naval bombardments look modern and realistic as well.  A good bit of time in Tomorrow Never Dies is spent away from Bond with full-scale marine sequences.  We have the fearful and vast ocean depths to disappear in, the dangerous equipment and claustrophobia of ships, and the tragedy of those lost at sea.  The pre-title shootout and fighter jet chase are realistic and well done, too. 

Despite the talk of satellites and the technology of tomorrow’s news today, there’s actually not a lot of gadgets in Tomorrow Never Dies.  Beyond the unbelievable of the remote control car, we stick with realistic and modern missiles and fighter planes.  This outing isn’t as fantastical as other Bond pictures, but rather a balance between Bond motifs and the heavy and serious of Craig’s current tenure. Maybe a few things are the traditional product placement coughbmwcough, but each device presented has an intelligent place in the plot.  This is very refreshing after the ridiculousness of Die Another Day and the Truman Show-like commercial pauses on Daniel Craig’s titanium phone. Tomorrow Never Dies may be imperfect, but it isn’t as pretentious as Bond is now.

The Bond theme has been reworked a little for Tomorrow Never Dies as well, but pieces of 007’s music make their presence known whenever Bond is badass, be it if the action’s hot, or when the wit is on form.  I also have to say, it’s a very nice touch to hear a swanky version of ‘It Had to Be You’ at Carver’s reception.  There should be more of this subtle hint of back-story between Bond and Paris Carver, and it sounds wonderful. I don’t normally care for her, but Sheryl Crowe’s title song isn’t bad.  There’s some evoking of the Goldfinger theme adding to Crowe’s husky range, and it keeps the song catchy. The opening titles are also in true Bond form.  The women covered in circuitry, infrared coloring, x-rayed guns, shattering glass, and zipping bullets tell us exactly what Bond is about: gadgets, guns, and girls.  Its statements are about technology while looking cool and being kinky.  Hot damn!

Yes, a lot of the younger audiences grew up with Brosnan and consider him their Bond-yet at the same time, we can admit the latter half of his tenure is drivel.  Somehow, I feel Tomorrow Never Dies is a little unloved, and I don’t know why.  I know Titanic was big that year, but the two pictures don’t exactly have the same audience after all.  If the toned down gadgetry, great Bondisms, social statements, and realistic gals of Tomorrow Never Dies can be combined with the depth and complexity of Craig’s films, we could have a seriously great 007 film on our hands.  Of course, it’s not as if that can happen anytime soon thanks to all the behind the scenes troubled waters the franchise is trudging through yet again.  The DVD set for Tomorrow Never Dies is just fine, with the expected treats and good looks.  Unfortunately, there’s no blu-ray release forthcoming anytime soon thanks to the turmoil.  I protest!

Though thin on some characters and personal touches, Tomorrow Never Dies has a bleak and realistic commentary that’s still relevant today.  Brosnan and Bond lovers can delight here, but casual fans or mainstream action lovers can enjoy this entry, too.  There’s a bit more risqué material here garnering a PG-13 rating; but compared to today’s sex, drugs, and violence, Tomorrow Never Dies is safe enough for a father and son Bond night.  Spend some time with Brosnan’s Bond again and revive Tomorrow Never Dies.

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