07 October 2012

MAKING OUT LIKE A BONDIT

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.

TOMORROW NEVER DIES
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
Written by Bruce Feirstein
Premiered 12 December, 1997

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
Several members of MI6 and the British Navy, including M herself (Judi Dench) and a certain Admiral Roebuck (Geoffrey Palmer), watch tensely as Agent 007 (Pierce Brosnan) transmits footage of a veritable summit of international terrorists at an arms bazaar on the Russian border. This goes on for a few minutes, during which they spot American turncoat Henry Gupta (Ricky Jay) buying a military decoder (M is delighted to have scooped the CIA), and eventually Roebuck gets too impatient to let the spying go on any longer; given a chance to wipe out some of the worst bad guys in the world, he launches a missile towards the site, just seconds before Bond spots the nuclear warheads sitting on the auction block. This gives Bond just a short time to swipe the plane the nukes are mounted on, and get clear of the site before it explodes in a nightmarish nuclear holocaust. Which he does - not even clearing the two-hour mark, this was the shortest Bond movie in 30 years, but not that short.

It speaks ill of the sequence, I think, that it's at its best when M and the admiral are sniping at each other ("What the hell is he doing?" demands Roebuck; "His job!" M snarls right back, the most perfectly trailer-ready line delivery ever), particularly given that Dench does more in this one scene than in the whole of GoldenEye, continuing to prove that hiring her was a brilliant decision. Meanwhile, when Bond is obliged to steal the plane and prevent a disaster, it's sort of... pacey. Obviously, we know that Bond will never, ever die onscreen, but there's a difference between being excited to see how he'll extricate himself from a crisis, and simply waiting for him to do so, so that we can move on. And to me, this bit is on the wrong side of that divide.

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Rating: 2 Union Jack Parachutes


TITLE SONG
Sheryl Crow, in 1997, seemed like a slam-dunk choice to sing a Bond theme - at least, that is how I remember it from when I was fifteen (Tomorrow Never Dies was the first Bond movie I actively followed in pre-production, and would ultimately become the first I saw in a theater) - high on the success of her arch-'90s ballads "If It Makes You Happy" and "Everyday Is a Winding Road". And the fact that "Tomorrow Never Dies", co-written by Crow and Mitchell Froom, is itself rather arch-'90s does not help it, now that the '90s are so far behind us.

Its problems are a bit grander than just sounding dated, though. Chiefly, Crow did not write a Crow song; she self-consciously wrote a Bond theme, one that her raspy pop-rock lungs could not come within a mile of handling, and so the whole unbearable length of it is made up of forced, breathless slurring. "Uhhhhntil th' wrrrr-ldfallsway / Untl you say thrlby nmrgbys / T'morro nevr dies." And when the lyrics are readily coherent, it is easy to wish they were not - "Martinis, girls, and guns" is an actual line. The melody itself is just a trite acoustic rock ballad, neither here nor there.

Worst of all: the end credits are set to a much better original performed by k.d. lang, written by the film's composer David Arnold; no classic, but a crisper, more driving song by far. And while it is titled "Surrender", the phrase "tomorrow never dies" appears more often here than in the actual "Tomorrow Never Dies". A particularly galling missed opportunity.

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Rating: 1.5 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
The second, and I am sore tempted to say the best, of Daniel Kleinman's Bond title sequences suffers from CGI that hasn't aged well - at any rate, not nearly as well as the sequence he made from GoldenEye - but the concept behind it is so terrific that I'm willing to overlook it entirely. It's ultimately the same thing as every Bond title sequence ever, with naked women dancing and gyrating, while guns are fired every now and then; the twist is that the guns and other gadgets are seen as transparencies, so we're actually looking at the innards working, while the girls are basically molded circuit boards, abstract, plastic female shapes; at intervals, screens glide through space, revealing the flesh-and-blood bodies the CGI is hiding. It plays much more interesting than I'm describing it.

Basically, I read this as a deliberate act of criticism of Bond movie iconography - Crow singing "Martinis, girls, and guns" might just be spouting random syllables, but Kleinman is reducing girls and guns to their essences as the franchise sees them (curvy shapes; interlocking metal parts), laying them at their most bare - this is what you're here for, the sequence says, just these basic elements that we now present in their most elemental, unglamorous form. If the whole thing wasn't so pretty, it would be positively aggressive.

And there's a shot of a woman's diamond necklace turning into satellites orbiting her head, that serves no real purpose other than to look cool, and to make the credits from Diamonds Are Forever seem much worse for not having it.

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Rating: 4.5 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
Let us first point out that Tomorrow Never Dies is, as of 2012, one of three Bond titles with absolutely no connection to the work of Ian Fleming whatsoever. Let us further point out that it proves to be a lame pun.

The story itself, though credited to just one man, was the result of a lot of desperate work to get a Bond movie made right the fuck now in response to the new owner of MGM, Kirk Kerkorian, wanting to have the studio's flagship series ready for the company's stock offering. The result is a wholehearted return to the Zany Epic era of Roger Moore Bond films, in which Bond squares off against a megalomaniac who is identified pretty much from the first scene - in fact, we learn that Carver Media Group is responsible for the evils of this movie even before we learn what Carver Media Group is - and who has a colorful scheme to rule the world. In this case, MI6's suspicions are aroused when the Carver newspaper Tomorrow - and right fucking there is your fucking title pun, assholes - reports the sinking of a British ship and the death of 17 British sailors at the hands of the Chinese, before the Vietnamese government, credited with finding the bodies, has ascertained that information for themselves. Thus does M assign Bond to a gala event in Hamburg, where multinational media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) is celebrating the launch of a new satellite that will put his companies in reach of every square inch of inhabited land on the planet. In particular, M wants Bond to use his former relationship with Carver's wife, Paris (Teri Hatcher) to get at the mogul; all this does is to rouse Carver's suspicions, and the day after the party, Paris is dead, Bond is on the run, and Carver and his entourage are headed for the South China Sea, where he plans to instigate war between China and Great Britain for his own private means. Luckily for Bond, he's teamed up with Chinese secret agent Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), a master fighter with better resources in the area, and together they go on the hunt for Carver's stealth boat.

The minor reason that this is incredibly stupid: World War III, kicked off between China, and Great Britain? In 1997? All my love to my British readers, and I get that this is a Bond movie and Bond is a British spy, but no. If Carver wants to do this, he tricks the United States into attacking. Not Great Britain.

The major reason: so, a thinly-veiled, slightly more evil Ruper Murdoch wants to start World War III? That's kind of daft, but in a post-Soviet world, Bond fights who Bond can find. And why does Carver want to start the war? Something about becoming President of Earth or something- no, it's because the current Chinese government won't let him broadcast in the country, so he wants to effect a regime change. It's not even the reason most people give, that he wants to gin up a war to sell more papers - that would make sense. Instead, the whole thing is just a loopy excuse to having Bond fighting a world-threatening scheme, because that's Bond's job. It's not, in aggregate, the worst of the Pierce Brosnan Bond films, but my Jesus, does it has the weakest excuse for a conflict.

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Rating: 1.5 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAIN
At the risk of repeating myself: a thinly-veiled Rupert Murdoch. And look, I hate Rupert Murdoch almost as much as I love Jonathan Pryce - a whole goddamn lot - but we're squarely in The Spy Who Loved Me, cranky oceanograpy hobbyist territory here. This is exactly the kind of bad guy you come up with when you have to get a screenplay, any screenplay at all, written right this damn second, and hey, it's the '90s, and the Information Age and all, so doesn't a demented media mogul fit the bill real nice? And we can make one of his numerous monologues all about how in a changing world, it's the men who control information, not governments, that have all the power, to make sure the audience gets how au courant we're being (with its fixation on media, Tomorrow Never Dies is stalled out in the 1990s just as securely as Goldfinger is in the '60s or A View to a Kill is in the '80s - with the benefit of distance, in fact, I think I'd be willing to call it the most dated of all Bond movies).

Pryce, who again, I love, was not the man to save this character; there might not even be an actor to save this character. But if there were, it would be someone with more fire-breathing menace; even when playing an antagonist, Pryce has a very contained, even stuffy quality about him. Based on the way he carries himself, and his outright giddy line deliveries, I bet he'd be great at playing a Rupert Murdoch character in a drama or satire; just not a Rupert Murdoch who is also a melodramatic sociopath. Or maybe he was just too embarrassed by the script to try.

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Rating: 1.5 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
I suspect because she's one of the only Bond Girls who doesn't have sex with Bond (anyway, not in the movie - they're clearly about to get down and dirty when the credits start rolling), and even more so because she's not a big-breasted sexpot, Michelle Yeoh's Wai Lin isn't a fixture in lists ranking the very best of the female leads in Bond's adventures. And this is a horrible shame, for two reasons: how obviously it's the case that being Asian is the main reason that the talented actress and excellent martial artist is valued less than the comely Swedish block of wood Ursula Andress, and that in all the decades of Bond pictures, Wai Lin is the one and only woman who is plainly not just Bond's physical equal, but probably his superior. The fight scenes starring Yeoh are among the best ever staged in this franchise; the character is presented as strong, intelligent, and she saves Bond more times than he saves her.

She's a bit light on character, mind you; but this is Tomorrow Never Dies, and it would be too much to ask otherwise. We do not, after all, ask that Bond has psychological depth beyond "takes orders and kills people real good"; need we ask more of his most efficient and effective female counterpart?

And, it's no small thing to point out: Yeoh has by far the best chemistry with Brosnan out of any of the women in his tenure as Bond; not just sexually, but in terms of playful, fully-engaged acting.

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Rating: 4 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMAN
Three of them, and not a one makes much impression beyond "Holy shit, it's Ricky Jay! I totally forgot Ricky Jay was in a Bond movie!"

Certainly, having found himself in a Bond movie, Ricky Jay didn't bother to do much; as the tech head of Carver's criminal plan, all he does is sulk about being surly. That's still enough to put him at the head of the pack above Götz Otto as Stemper, the sneering, contemptuous muscle in Carver's unit, a bleach-blond Aryan Superman out of central casting who doesn't get anything interesting to do until deep into the movie's second half, when he finally has some motivations to play with. The problem is that by that point, he's squandered every attempt at being threatening, and just seems like a lug.

Finally, Vincent Schiavelli - the high chieftain of all That Guys of the 1990s - plays Dr Kaufman, a specatcularly cartoon German assassin, brought in to provide a touch of wildly inappropriate comic relief and facilitate one of the most awesome "coldly kill the bad guy" one-liners in cinema. On the whole, I am happiest not remembering Dr Kaufman's scene any more than I have to.

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Rating: 2 Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
Eighteen films into the Eon James Bond franchise, we arrive at the very ideal of the Other Bond Girl. Not because Paris Carver is such a scintillating, well-etched character - on the contrary, Teri Hatcher's performance is so flat and tone-deaf that it burns - but because she fits the role designed for her so perfectly. She is in the plot for almost completely functional reasons, and yet is worked in naturally; her death makes perfect sense given the stakes of that moment and the characters involved; she exists mostly to reflect on the character of Bond without having depth herself; in this particular film, she serves the important role of being sexy in lieu of the action-hero Wai Lin. To a degree, she is everything shallow and objectifying about the way women are seen in this series; but since that is the secret point of this particular Bond trope in the first place, all that means is that she's really living up to her purpose as best she can.

But seriously, Hatcher is mind-blowingly bad.

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Rating: 4 Golden Corpses


ACTION SEQUENCES
More than anything else, this is where Tomorrow Never Dies suffers from being rushed. It's not that there's bad, clumsy action, like the Roger Moore films; it's that there's so little of it. For the first hour, the plot is so twisted around itself that there's really only one setpiece of note: a car chase through a garage that is reliant to an unusual degree on a gimmick, and is edited as poorly as any action scene has been in a Bond film to date.

In the second half, things pick up a bit: Michelle Yeoh gets two big showcases, and they are both fantastic, and there's a sublime foot/motorcycle chase through Saigon, that goes on for a solid nine minutes, involving jumps over a helicopter and sliding right underneath it; two people, handcuffed, switching seats multiple times; the same two handcuffed people having to split duties steering the motorcycle; and general noisy, explosive mayhem. There's also the customary "storm the villain's lair" sequence that's just shockingly uninteresting, and combined with the action void for over such a long stretch, and no matter great and sustained that Saigon sequence is, it's just not enough to tip the scales in the movie's favor.

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Rating: 3 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
There are only two - never a good sign - and they both reek of product placement; the less noteworthy is an Ericsson phone that can can scan fingerprints and has a little taser on it. It also serves as the remote control for-

-Bond's shiny new BMW E38, which is a remote control car. And while the very near future would make this look like a positively sedate and respectable addition to a car, in the moment it seemed pretty daft; a fun concept that was used poorly, and when we see Bond, crouched in the back seat, driving maniacally, Brosnan is sporting a deeply unfortunate look of happy concentration that makes it seem even more like a handheld video game than was already baked into the idea.

Also, Bond trades in the Walter PPK for a Walther P99, because tradition can go sit on it and rotate.

The plus side is that Desmond Llewelyn gets his best "God 007, you are such a tit" moment since the heyday of the gadget-driven Moore pictures, when arranging new insurance on the beautiful vehicle he expects to see totaled:

Q: "Now, will you need collision coverage?"
BOND: "Yes."
Q: "Fire?"
BOND: "Probably."
Q: "Property destruction?"
BOND: "Definitely."
Q: "Personal injury?"
BOND: "I hope not, but accidents do happen."
Q: "They frequently do with you."
BOND: "Well, that takes care of the normal wear-and-tear. Is there any other protection I need?"
Q: "Only from me 007, unless you bring that car back in pristine order."

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Rating: 2 Easily-Riled Welshmen


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
Peter Lamont being busy with some boat movie for Jim Cameron, design duties fell to Allan Cameron, who had absolutely no other experience with the Bond franchise. Perhaps that is why there's such a déjà vu feeling to the interior of Carver's evil stealth boat, which is basically a much smaller, dingier version of Stromberg's palatial sub harbor in The Spy Who Loved Me. And 'round here, copying the all-time best Bond set, and doing a crummy little job of it wins you no favors.

On the other hand, there are a couple locations that serve to counterbalance: Wai Lin's headquarters, a slice of pure matinee fantasy - walls rising up to reveal armories, that sort of thing - done so earnestly that I can't help but grin; and Carver's Hamburg headquarters, a giant screaming pile of "IT'S THE NINETIES, WE HAVE TECHNO" steel grays and monitors everywhere, and while it's impossible not to shake your head in disbelief at how tackily austere it is, I have in the past given love to sets that are just so damn '60s, I see no reason not to do the same for a set that serves the same purpose to a time period I actually happened to live through.

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Rating: 3 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
The Aston Martin DB5 puts in its last appearance in a 20th Century Bond movie, and for that we shall heartily, enthusiastically give the film a lifestyle porn point. Might as well, because there's not anything else driving us to do so; in the hectic rush to get the movie made, one stitch that seems to have been dropped is giving Bond any opportunity to go be classy. Carver's launch party is hardly the same as a casino; and while alcohol is spoken about, it is not consumed. Worse yet, Bond's command of esoteric knowledge, usually a good way to make him seem like that much more of a worldly man of adventure, is limited to jokes about his facility with languages, and not even sexy languages: German and Danish.

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Rating: 2 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
At the Carver party, the spy introduces himself as a banker of the same name.
Forced or Badass? Less because of the standard-issue context than the line delivery, unusually forced; Brosnan barks out the words like he has never in all his life uttered the "nd" phoneme, and is horribly scared at getting it wrong. The worst delivery of the line in the franchise.


BEST QUIP
DR KAUFMAN: "I'm just a professional, doing my job!"
BOND: "So am I."


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
The drop in quality between GoldenEye, one of the best Bond films ever, and Tomorrow Never Dies, on the wrong side of average, is the third of the four really severe tumbles in the franchise's history (preceded by On Her Majesty's Secret Service giving way to Diamonds Are Forever, and the even worse plummet fromThe Spy Who Loved Me to Moonraker); and while it can be at least partially explained by the curious circumstances of its creation - the first Bond movie made after the death of guiding producer Albert R. Broccoli (replaced by his daughter Barbara Broccoli, as well as stepson Michael G. Wilson, who'd been in the producer's chair for a few films now), which would have already been a stress on all involved, but with the studio breathing down the producers' necks, it's no wonder that the end result looks a bit like a the paper a stressed out undergrad cranks out at the end of term, the night before it was due. That this was only the second film after the franchise's long dormancy ended up being fatal: after GoldenEye got the Brosnan phase of the series off to a strong start, Tomorrow Never Dies seriously derailed it, and sent the character flying into a ditch that only another dormant period could fix.

It's a disjointed, sloppy movie: the jump from Germany to Vietnam practically feels like a brand new movie starting up, and while the second one - the one with Michelle Yeoh and lots of action - is a good, if mostly typical Bond picture, the first one is a slurry of ideas being thrown together haphazardly, advancing the story in lurches rather than a single flow (there is a massive stretch of film following the opening credits before it feels like the plot is back on track). Taking too much time to establish a dreadful villain, swerving from daft comedy to violence to violent comedy, and allowing the requirements of the story to dictate events, rather than character logic - Bond is shockingly open about his mission at Carver's launch party, even by the standards of a franchise in which Britain's greatest spy always introduces himself to the big villain, by name, at their first meeting, just so Carver can have something to react to.

The film boasts Brosnan's worst performance in the character, at least until Yeoh shows up and goads him into upping his game; I imagine it is because of that same uncertainty about the tone of the movie, and the reason things are happening, which surely did not encourage him to try very hard. Other people tried hard: Dench's M is even richer and more authoritative, and Samantha Bond's Moneypenny suddenly has a bright, witty personality and a clear reason for existing (moreover, the two actresses manage to sell a singularly dirty exchange involving the word "pump" that feels like it ought to just curl up and die onscreen). But Brosnan, saddled with too many contrived situations and canned quips (the one with which he dispatched Carver is a leaden disaster of dialogue writing), simply tries to muscle through that deadly first half, and the result is a Bond who hardly seems alive.

The second half works. That can certainly be said on the film's behalf; if the first half of the movie looks ahead to the next pair of Bond pictures, equally given to illogic and plot-for-plot's sake and paper-thin characterisations, the second half looks back to GoldenEye and perhaps even The Living Daylights for something more fast-paced and attached to something resembling the real world. Insofar as "the real world" has ever been a major concern to any Bond movie.

Other things worth noting: this is the movie that brought John Barry's hand-picked successor, composer David Arnold into the fold; his approach in the Brosnan films (he'd score the next four movies after this one), was to use Monty Norman's theme as often as possible, regardless of whether it was appropriate or effective, and fill the rest up with generic action cues, which was anyway a step up from the disastrous GoldenEye score, though by no means imaginative or even all that interesting. And this was also shot by Robert Elswit, a tremendously talented cinematographer who does manage to burnish the exteriors with a nice, painterly haze, though his efforts don't do much to add or subtract from the overall experience of the film.

It's all just... so mediocre. There's plenty I like here, and more I dislike, and it's far from the franchise's worst moment. But it feels, more than even some of the truly bad films, like a waste: of the fairly successful attempt Brosnan made at inhabiting the character in GoldenEye, of one of the few truly strong Bond Girls, of a franchise that had been resurrected through great struggle just two years prior, and was now mismanged right into- gah, I'll have time to talk about it next week. Let's instead close out this review on a note of optimism: whatever its problems, Tomorrow Never Dies still has some real merits, and enough fun action and escapist fair that it's not a good time watching it, and that, ultimately is what any Bond movie is aiming for. If many of the movies are more fun than this; well, some of them are quite a lot less fun. It's a middle-of-the-pack sort of picture. Not worth slagging on it any more than that.


OVERALL SCORE
31/60

4 comments:

Douglas Evasick said...

While I can understand a lot of points you make I still pretty much love this movie. Always have and always will. I think giving the action only 3 stars was a bit low. That motorcycle chase alone is worth the 3 stars and I think the car chase through the garage is a lot more exciting and cool than you made it out to be. It's not the very best Bond movie, but it's still one of my favorites and maybe the series most underrated in my opinion.

Tim said...

I love the idea of the garage scene, I just don't feel that the execution is there, but of course it's just a matter of taste.

As for the score: the motorcycle scene is an easy 4.5, but you've called my attention to something I've never explained officially, which is that the score is meant to be more of an average than quantitative, and can be brought down - in this case by how there's a solid 50-minute stretch of the movie with no action to speak of whatsoever. It is probably best that I clarify that, even though there are just a few more of these to go.

Will said...

Tim, I know we're two movies away from it, but if ever there were a time to fill an entire section with a gif, it would be the "Action Sequences" of Die Another Day with Bond riding the CGI wave.

Benjamin said...

I seem to remember some promo piece for TND, naturally produced in the interim between that and The World is Not Enough, that said Wai Lin might be the first Bond Girl to carry over into the next movie. Obviously that ended up not being the case, but am I right in remembering it was once a possibility?