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OUR WORD IS OUR BOND – TOMORROW NEVER DIES (1997)

Our Word Is Our Bond returns with Jonathon Dabell’s analysis of Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) starring Pierce Brosnan, Jonathan Pryce and Michelle Yeoh.7
After Licence To Kill (1989), the Bond series fell off the radar for six years. A revamped, updated Bond – described by his boss M (Judi Dench) as a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” – eventually came along, played by Pierce Brosnan in the frankly mediocre Goldeneye (1995). Mediocre or not, the film performed extremely well at the box office and as a result Brosnan’s selection was fully justified as far as the producers were concerned. And, to be honest, if members of the public were going to the cinema in droves to watch these new James Bond movies, then it’s impossible to deny that popular opinion also favoured Brosnan in the role. As much as I might consider him the least interesting and suitable of the five actors to have played 007 for Eon, I have to accept that I’m in a minority – his box office record proves that he was well-received by the vast majority of film-goers.
Brosnan’s second Bond film is perhaps the best from his four-picture tenure as the character. That’s not saying much, as I rate all four of these movies in the bottom half of the series… but if you must watch a Brosnan Bond flick, this is the one I would recommend (well, sort of).4
After an admittedly exciting pre-credits sequence, in which Bond escapes from an arms bazaar in a nuclear-missile-loaded fighter jet seconds before British Navy rockets flatten the place, the story moves on to introduce a sinister newspaper mogul named Eliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce). Carver is the head of the Tomorrow newspaper group, busily manipulating world events to get the best stories and most sensational scoops.
Carver uses some stolen high-tech equipment to send a British ship off course in the South Chinas Seas. The ship is then sunk by Carver’s stealth ship, but not before some missiles are stolen from the arsenal and used to shoot down a Chinese fighter jet sent to investigate its unauthorised presence in the area. While Tomorrow newspaper leads the way in reporting the heightening crisis, Britain and China stand on the brink of full-scale war.5
Bond is sent to find out what is going on. He seduces Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher) for information; later he teams up with Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese agent working on the same case from her country’s side of the coin. They discover Carver’s treacherous plans for initiating war and set out to stop him before it’s too late.
Plus points for this entry? Well, Judi Dench is back as M and is as fiery and strong-willed as ever. The pre-credits sequence is pretty good, as noted above. The idea of having a villain snatched from contemporary current affairs (Carver is based on Robert Maxwell, although there’s a good measure of Rupert Murdoch thrown in for good measure too) is rather novel and interesting, although Pryce is ultimately let down by a script which takes him down the route of pantomime-style villainy. For the first time in ages, there’s a genuinely formidable henchman in the shape of Harry Stamper (Götz Otto)… some viewers might argue that Xenia Onatopp was formidable in Goldeneye, but I found her cheesy and gimmicky, like a female version of Jaws from the Roger Moore entries. Her ability to kill with her thighs is meant to make us chuckle and perhaps even make jokes laden with rude innuendo. Otto’s Stamper is not like this at all – he is a physical behemoth, strong and dangerous, reminiscent of the likes of Robert Shaw and Harold Sakata, It’s also good to see a strong and entirely capable lead female in the shape of Michelle Yeoh. The film features an excellent action sequence involving a motorbike being chased by helicopter over the rooftops of Ho Chi Minh City, with a nerve-jangling stunt jump over the chopper’s rotor blades.3
The plus points pretty much end there for me. The rest of the film consists of weaknesses or, at best, mediocrities. Brosnan is not really allowed to act and react as Bond; he’s just a cardboard cut-out of the character, looking dashing and saying the lines without having any depth or dimension. Like my daughter Ellie noted in her review of Goldeneye yesterday, Brosnan is an ideal romantic leading man and/or light comedian. He ‘out-Hugh-Grants’ Hugh Grant in quirky romantic comedy-dramas, and is entirely agreeable in that style of movie. His 007 is just a younger, physically fitter version of Roger Moore; his age and virility make scenes where he’s hitting on young women feel less sleazy and inappropriate, but the sense of ‘Moore-of-the-same’ is hard to shake. After a decent first half, the film becomes increasingly soulless and by-the-numbers. The motorbike chase is the highlight of the second half, but in general the last hour consists of routine action shenanigans of the kind seen in any straight-to-video action fodder from the era. The main theme, sung by Sheryl Crow, is pretty bland and average, while the incidental scoring throughout by David Arnold is totally innocuous. By the climactic confrontation aboard Carver’s stealth ship, one finds oneself staring at the screen watching empty spectacle; none of it engages the brain or the emotions by this stage. 2
On a personal level, it was at this point – sat in some darkened movie theatre in Mansfield on the day the film went on general release – that I realised I was falling out of love with Bond. It wasn’t the very worst Bond film I’d seen (indeed, it was a slight improvement on Goldeneye, and was better than weaker entries like Diamonds Are Forever, Moonraker and the non-Eon Never Say Never Again), but it was the first time I saw Bond becoming noticeably soulless and routine. This could quite easily have been a Steven Seagal movie, or a Dolph Lundgren movie or a Van Damme movie – there is barely anything in it to set it apart from the standard action fodder of the day; and that, above all else, is the biggest disappointment.1
Tomorrow Never Dies is fast, slick and perfectly watchable. But it’s empty. Albert R Broccoli had died before its release – I suspect he would have been happy with the box-office takings, but I’m not sure he could have said, hand on heart, that the Bond franchise was moving in a good direction dramatically and creatively.
MoM Rating: 5.5/10

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