Brosnan’s back! With the success of GoldenEye (1995) Bond as a franchise was revived, and people were excited about the franchise’s prospects. Today we:
- Look at how innovations can fail when done in a worse film.
- Discuss some of Brosnan’s difficulties with deeper material.
- Talk about the internet, 24 hour news, and Steve Jobs.
Yep, I can see the headlines now: Brogan rips into…
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
So you’ve made a Bond film that addresses the important themes of women’s liberation in the business world and the crumble of the Soviet Union, all in a great little action movie that has character and liveliness. Great stuff. Well, you can’t do it again for your follow up, not for another few movies. That would get old. How else do you innovate? What does Bond do now?
The answer at the time was to continue with light but also heavy-handed social commentary and address failings GoldenEye never even attempted to fix. That’s not a bad answer by any means, and I think this film is strong in premise and promise. The execution, however, bogs things down quite a bit and it really shows how a movie needs to deliver on basic principles an audience needs for a Bond film.
But enough talk, let’s look at…
A British ship is mysteriously shot down in Vietnamese waters, and everybody suspects China is responsible. The British government immediately wants to move their fleet to Chinese waters in preparation, but Bond is given 48 hours to get to the bottom of it.
The news headline seems to be strangely early in knowing such vivid details. M sends Bond to meet Elliott Carver, media mogul in charge of a giant news broadcasting network that broke the headline so early. Bond goes to Germany for Carver’s unveiling of his new satellite network under the guise of “James Bond the Banker”. Wow, he’s so believable as a number cruncher.
The unveiling party introduces Bond to Carver, but more importantly introduces Carver to a Chinese news hopeful named Wei Lin and Bond to an old ex girlfriend that became Carver’s wife, Paris Carver. Paris and Bond have a back and forth about why their relationship failed, and Bond starts to push Carver’s patience a bit too much. During Carver’s big unveiling speech, Bond is taken to a backroom to be beaten, Bond escapes and sabotages the broadcast. Absolutely pissed, Carver sends Paris out under the assumption she can find out answers. In actuality, Paris and Bond make up and Paris offers to help him with his mission. Bond retrieves a GPS encoder Paris tipped him off about and runs into Wei Lin. Carver discovers his wife’s romantic history and murders her when she returns. Bond has a moment to grieve before having to escape a weird death doctor guy trying to get the encoder.
Bond gets the US to give him the means to HALO jump to the crashed ship, he needs evidence that the ship was redirected off-course prior to the crash. He bumps into Wei Lin again under water and they’re captured AGAIN by Carver. Lin works for the Chinese government, Carver admits to setting up the incidents, and encourages his henchmen to torture Lin and Bond. Bond and Lin escape, but they’re handcuffed to each other. What wacky hijinx!
There’s a really good chase, and Lin tries to escape from Bond. Bond saves her and they start to trust each other. They realize Carver’s plan is to use a stealth ship to send a missile to China, China will assume the British fleet is responsible and things will escalate to war.
They sneak aboard Carver’s stealth ship, and Lin is captured. Bond starts absolutely wrecking the place and Carver reveals that war isn’t actually his goal. He wants the heads of the Chinese government dead, some good headlines with the British drama, and when a general he likes has taken over he gets a decade’s worth of exclusive broadcasting rights to China. This was always a bad plan.
Bond keeps blowing up the ship and murders Carver. He stops the missile and saves Lin. They embrace each other as M writes the headline to Carver’s death: suicide.
A Closer Look
So the film actively wants to address three things thematically: it wants to discuss the influence and control media has over politics and the general public, it wants to address China as a world leader and market while also subtly reminding everyone of its communist leanings, and it wants to fix how the series approaches Bond girls.
They don’t crack any of the three in a particularly satisfying way, but I gotta recognize the effort. I’ll talk about the Bond girls and media a bit later, but the series has certainly gone out of its way to avoid depictions of China. The series has generally been very afraid of Asian depictions, and with good reason. The first film Bond villain, Dr. No, was of mixed Asian descent and was reminiscent of racist propaganda. The character certainly tapped into Fu Manchu levels of evil mystique. The last Bond film set in an Asian continent as prominently (ignoring India as a major country in Asia) is You Only Live Twice (1967). That film was very insensitive culturally to the Japanese people, so after that there was a lot less Asian depictions. Moore also briefly visited Thailand, Hong Kong, and similar places in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974). That was also insensitive with an entire kung fu dojo section, but there was a lot more globetrotting in that adventure. This was the film that addressed China as a global superpower.
How does it do? The film largely does what the Glen films did to Soviet Russia: it tried to dance around any issues. The Chinese Government are largely the victims in the film, being framed throughout and are the central victims for the climax of the film. The missile is hitting them, those are the people we are worried about. That’s not a bad thing. The Chinese Communist practices are also the inciting incident for Carver to go evil. China won’t broadcast his network, so he goes crazy for it. This says its own thing about government control over media, but I’m just gonna say the film doesn’t explore China’s faults very much and that’s probably okay for this film.
I think the best thing about the film is what it tries to do with the Bond girls and the villain. Neither stick the landing, but let’s talk about the girls here. We’ll save Mr. Carver for the peanut gallery that is “What’s Bad?”
First, Dench’s M isn’t actually given much rapport with Bond this time around. This time, M is having to stand up for Bond to hardened generals eager for retaliation. Her demeanor here is trust in Bond and her strength against those generals grants respect within the audience. GoldenEye didn’t care about making you like M. It was more important in that film to have M bust James’ balls. Here, we need to start liking her as a supporting character, so she’s given good scenes to do that in.
Then, they gave the “Bond girl that dies to the villain” role to Teri Hatcher, a very popular actress at the time, and an entire subplot about being romantically linked to Bond. A Bond girl is an ex! That’s really fun, and it feels serious for the most part, too. The romance wasn’t a one-and-done scenario that you might assume from Bond. He has strong feelings for her and Hatcher does a good job fighting those feelings on her side. Yet, she still dies. She still falls in the same trope as all the other women that stick too close to the villain. Here, it’s played to be more tragic than typical. Brosnan is given some dramatic moments to mourn over her, and this is Brosnan at his weakest so far. Paris Carver works for a lot of the film, but then it doesn’t and then she’s gone for the rest of it.
Wei Lin is also the girl that helps Bond and gets with him in the end. It’s not the strongest romance in Bond films. Yet, it works for a lot of it because it doesn’t try to be romantic until the end. Wei Lin as an equal to Bond absolutely works and their chemistry as insecure agents unwilling to trust each other makes for the best action of the film: the handcuffed motorcycle chase. The goofy gimmick still forces these two together in a way that’s satisfying. When a cliche works, it works.
Until Wei Lin becomes a damsel in distress. Until she becomes the object for Bond to smooch on at the end and the prize at the end of the rainbow. These don’t work for me. Their relationship wasn’t built on that sexuality, it was built on a trust in peace and interest for their countries. It was merely closure sex.
Other good qualities about the film include a stronger general score. The score to GoldenEye was a tad controversial. The theme song was good, but the actual score was largely industrial and cold feeling. This score is a return to a sort of razor’s edge guitar vibe and bombastic brass that’s been missing from the series for a little bit. Here it’s less afraid to play the Bond theme, because the theme sounds good.
The one-liners man. I’m dying here. Some are fitting, some are worth a cringe, and some are just plain confusing.
The Good: “I would have thought watching your TV shows was torture enough.”
The Bad: “James, you always were a cunning linguist”
I Don’t Even Get It: “You forgot the first rule of mass media, Elliott: give the people what they want.”
The film runs out of steam fast in the second half. The second half has the best action scenes, but all the other plot threads in this review sort of dangle and wither away.
Elliott Carver is a great villain that gives away too much too soon and becomes complete garbage by the end of it. The idea of a media magnate orchestrating politics for the sake of ratings is great Bond villain fodder that appropriately reflects reality. His hunger for violence is visible in the actual media even now that the internet has actually taken hold and 24 hour news networks have been proven to control the culture. He definitely is meant to resemble Steve Jobs, and it feels weird for a film to condemn him so much in a manner that he wasn’t even responsible for. He wasn’t a news guy. I’m sure Jobs was guilty of plenty, but this doesn’t feel indicative of him other than the ego. It feels like Carver is meant to criticize any sort of entrepreneur at the forefront of television or computers. This still isn’t a problem.
The real problem is we learn everything about Carver immediately with the only mystery in his plan being the details of it. We learn how evil he is in his first scene. There’s so little mystery that goes on, the characters on screen are playing catch up. It feels like if Paris Carver knows how terrible her husband is, why is she defending him for a large part of her time?
And in the second half of the film, where everything kind of goes to shit, Carver just goes off the wall crazy and it’s not satisfying. He’s whiny and his plan is totally convoluted and lacking. The second half needed a real tension to it. Instead, the goal becomes Bond and Wei Lin resolving their differences and storming the fortress. Carver’s goal goes from interesting to absolutely dumb. The plan is like if Netflix orchestrated a war with Iran so Iran would allow the television show Friends to be shown in their country… I don’t know if you can see Friends in Iran. Don’t fact check me, that’s such a Ross move.
Don’t get me started on the internet/computer thing. It’s sort of played up in certain parts, but Carver is essentially running CNN or something, not actually using the internet for control. In fact, this film doesn’t really consider the cultural implications of the internet. It wants the binary ones and zeroes to be a visual for the intro theme, and a way to make the villain seem on the cutting edge, but his methods don’t reflect that aspect at all. I think they thought the more TVs and computer monitors this guy had the smarter he looked to a nineties audience, but he looks like a goofball.
Previously mentioned, Brosnan’s acting pushes its limits here. He has great chemistry, a great look and presence, but Paris challenges Bond in the film to give him dramatic range and Brosnan fails. It might also be from the pacing of the film, there’s no subtlety to his performance. Bond hitting on Wei Lin comes off as creepy as the worst of Moore, but there should technically be nothing wrong with Wei Lin. It’s weird.
Final things to touch on: the theme song is kind of mediocre and the intro especially feels dated with all the references to binary and the internet. There’s a computer model with a rigged sensual animation and it looks terrible. I also like Sheryl Crow, but this wasn’t that great of a song. It’s sad, but not haunting or particularly evocative of any sort of suspense or joy. A good Bond song sets up a good tone for the adventure, and if that’s the case this song sets us up for a mediocre experience. Wait, maybe it is a good Bond song?
The films get worse. Next on the block is The World is Not Enough (1999). Its gimmick is also innovative and fun and is still soured as the film actually plays out. I don’t know if it’s a lack of commitment or just a failure in writing, but these get so mediocre I’m personally counting the weeks until we hit Daniel Craig.
What I Drank
Hatcher’s character used to drink tequila with Bond back in the day, so we’re gonna go with a Tequila Sunrise (also a good film starring Kurt Russell and Mel Gibson). Two ounces of tequila, four ounces of orange juice, 1/2 ounce of grenadine, and your garnish should be an orange slice or cherry. It’s super tasty.
3 thoughts on “James Bond Retrospective: Tomorrow Never Dies”
Elliott Carver is supposed to be Rupert Mudoch much more then he is Steve Jobs. Apple were much more of a computer company then they were a media company back in the mid 90s
Also Surrender, the theme playing through much of the film and over the credits was supposed to be the main theme (you can see on YouTube it tallies much better with the intro} but the studio decided Sheryl Crow was the bigger name over KD Lang. An absolutely appalling choice given the quality of the respective songs, Surrender being the best of the modern era until Adele.