Skyfall Countdown Day 5: Tomorrow Never Dies

“Back off, Mr. Bond, or I’ll have Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity do a special on you.”

Happy Monday!  5 days to go and we’re in the home stretch.  Hope you’re getting as excited for Skyfall as I am.

When it comes to dreaming up the new Bond movie, one of the largest stumbling blocks must be conjuring new villains for the hero to fight.  After all, how many variations on megalomaniacs bent on world domination are there – particularly ones whose motivations can be believable to a modern audience increasingly regarding such characters as laughable clones of Dr. Evil?  The concept at the heart of Tomorrow Never Dies tackled this problem head-on.  The game would indeed be world domination, not of territory, but rather of thought and opinion; the very ability to manipulate millions into skewing the course of history.  Even in the mid-90’s the phenomenon of the media baron who could bring down governments with a mere flicker of one of his many-tentacled interests was ripe for discussion, especially in Britain, where winning election to national office seemed to require bending knee to Rupert Murdoch and his chain of newspapers.  The medium was the message indeed, and it did not take a great leap of imagination to suggest that said message could be manipulated for nefarious ends.

A British naval vessel, the H.M.S. Devonshire, is manipulated into straying into Chinese territorial waters, where it is sunk by mercenaries working for media supermogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), whose empire reaches every country on earth except China.  After his men massacre the survivors of the wreck, Carver runs a story in his worldwide newspaper Tomorrow accusing the Chinese air force of murdering the British sailors.  James Bond, who has a prior relationship with Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher) is sent to Carver Media Group headquarters in Hamburg, Germany to try and prove Carver’s involvement to an unconvinced British government, with only 48 hours until the British fleet reaches China for potential retaliation.  When Bond rekindles the romance with his old flame, leading him to discover the digital encoder that allowed the Devonshire’s course to be misdirected, Carver has Paris murdered and attempts to frame Bond for it.  Escaping Carver’s thugs, Bond travels to the coast of Vietnam, where he discovers that a cruise missile has been stolen from the Devonshire’s wreck.  Captured by Carver’s men, Bond gains a reluctant partner in Chinese agent Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), and following a harrowing escape from his Saigon office tower, the two find that Carver has a stealth boat, undetectable by radar, in the South China Sea that he’s been using as a base to manipulate the two countries towards war.  Carver intends to launch the stolen missile from the Devonshire into the heart of Beijing, giving his fellow conspirator, Chinese General Chang, the opportunity to seize control of the government and negotiate a truce to the engineered war, in exchange for which the Carver Media Group will receive exclusive broadcasting rights in China for 100 years.

The premise is solid; the execution, not so much, and many of the more complex moral questions that characterized Goldeneye’s screenplay have been tossed aside here in favour of balls-out action.  Pierce Brosnan is clearly more comfortable, looking much broader in the shoulders and more able to handle himself in fights.  But he oddly seems a bit bored as well – the nerves he had carrying his first major motion picture are behind him and with them has gone a great deal of energy as well.  To the question of Bond’s emotional journey in this film, it’s regrettable that Brosnan and Teri Hatcher have no chemistry whatsoever; it’s not believable that this woman could have gotten under Bond’s skin as he admits.  Hatcher, who was cast at the studio’s request for a recognizable American name in the credits, tries her best but is completely wrong for the part – the role demands a more tragic, resigned European sensibility, and Teri Hatcher is more effective at sunny, optimistic characters like Lois Lane.  (There’s a rumour that a then-unknown Monica Bellucci was considered for the part but was rejected by the aforementioned studio – she would have been ideal, and totally believable as a woman who could have enraptured James Bond.)  Notwithstanding the weaknesses in the performance, the dynamic of the movie shifts when Paris is killed, and any character development for Bond goes with it, abandoned in favour of elaborate action setpieces.  A trend I have not been fond of in the recent Bond movies, and it will come more into focus when we deal with The World is Not Enough tomorrow, is the seeming requirement to have at least two love interests in each film – I would rather see a focus on one rather than shoving in another for the sake of additional eye candy, with the result being less screen time available to develop the main relationship properly.

But I digress.  For her part, Yeoh is terrific and handles herself in action better than any other Bond girl to date, or since, for that matter.  But character-wise, she’s hardly anything new, yet another “Bond’s equal” female agent.  Pryce, perhaps best known as the meek clerk Sam Lowry in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and a slew of other roles where he plays a bit of a wuss, has fun devouring the scenery and establishing himself as a formidable intellectual foe for James Bond, with an ego the size of the planet itself.  Unfortunately the remainder of the supporting players aren’t nearly as colourful – Gotz Otto has one scowling note as Carver’s German muscleman Stamper, and magician/actor Ricky Jay is forgettable as technogeek Henry Gupta (Gupta was originally to be an expert at flinging playing cards, as is Jay in real life, but this element of his character was edited out).  A pure delight in the movie however is Vincent Schiavelli as the “outstanding pistol marksman” and torture expert Dr. Kaufman, who has all the movie’s best lines in one tragically brief five-minute scene.  Fans of 300 will want to look quickly at the beginning of the movie for Gerard Butler who has one line as a crewman aboard the doomed Devonshire (his Scots accent is hard to miss).

In writing about A View to a Kill, I commented on the tendency of the filmmakers to lose the character of Bond when he is plugged as a prop into action scenes that either don’t flow organically from the story or have no consequence other than mere survival.  In Tomorrow Never Dies, the action scenes have great setup and play out effectively, but they still seem rather uninspired, as though there is simply a perceived need to have some running and shooting and fast music for a few minutes.  There is little excitement, or originality, for that matter, in watching James Bond walk around casually machine-gunning anonymous bad guys as he does in the finale; we’ll leave those kinds of scenes to Arnold Schwarzenegger and his ilk, thank you very much.  That, I guess is my core issue with Tomorrow Never Dies and the reason why I can recall sitting in the theatre in 1997 feeling the excitement drain out of me as the minutes ticked by – it’s really just a generic action picture that happens to feature James Bond, and feels even in hindsight like a franchise going through the motions rather than attempting to push the envelope.  It’s a funny phenomenon that plagues sequels sometimes, where so much money is riding on repeating the success of the first movie that there is great reluctance to do anything differently in round two; and inasmuch as this movie could be seen as the sequel to Goldeneye in the new 007 era, the play-it-safe approach is obvious and disappointing, particularly when so much thought has been put in to crafting a believable antagonist.

Tomorrow Never Dies was the first James Bond movie made without any participation from longtime 007 producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, who passed away a few months after the release of Goldeneye, and the film is dedicated to his memory.  I have visited Broccoli’s grave in Los Angeles, and I’ll just say that it certainly fits the spirit of showmanship that characterized the big man’s love of bringing entertainment to the masses.  He was a man, who, as Bond puts it in this movie, certainly knew how to “give the people what they want,” and to whom every fan of James Bond owes a lifelong debt.

Tomorrow:  Equal opportunity villainy.

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