Not as strong as “GoldenEye,” and with a villain that is too arch, "Tomorrow Never Dies" nonetheless boasts outstanding action scenes and a good script.
Pierce Brosnan settles into his role as Bond in this outing, carrying out a more physically demanding storyline while still maintaining his charm and screen presence. I very much liked the icy exterior he had in "GoldenEye," and it returns in this film, but the Connery-esque underpinnings aren’t totally there. But they are there.
The scene where Brosnan's Bond gets the drop on the late, great Vincent Schiavelli’s Dr. Kaufman is pure Connery as interpreted through Brosnan. The borderline sociopathic way in which he dispatches of Carver via sea drill is also particularly vicious. For anyone who criticizes Brosnan for not being tough in his outings as Bond, I suggest you watch these two films.
Also, Brosnan is such a capable actor there are moments where he lets us in, and they always occur around women. He clearly has a fondness in his heart for Paris Carver, and he and Teri Hatcher do a great job of conveying a tragic love affair with just a few scenes between them. He likewise has great chemistry with Chinese martial arts queen Michelle Yeoh, and there’s a nice cutaway of him looking at her as she works in their Shanghai hideout.
Again, Brosnan is in a bit of a bind, having to re-interpret an iconic character already portrayed by four previous actors. There aren’t too many places he can go, so where he does go plays well. My only real complaint is with the production team, which didn’t get him dirty during the numerous action scenes.
Story and Characters
The overall conceit is a good one updated from “The Spy Who Loved Me” with a dash of “Thunderball” – set the Brits and the Chinese against each other in a war, given that the Soviets are no longer major players.
The problem with this plan is the same problem that plagued the earlier film, namely it is driven by a villain with questionable motivations. We’re supposed to believe that setting off the war will lead to Carver having exclusive television rights in China? That’s what he wants? Now if his character had more behind him, that this kind of access and control meant something intrinsically to him, then we could buy into it.
This is a bit of a shame, because the idea of the media controlling events is extremely prescient and, of course, what Breitbart News covers. Had Carver been more of a George Soros, or intent on causing anarchy, then manipulating world events and splashing them all over a biased media network would be fantastic ... and all too real.
The opening sequence is as slam-bang perfect as you can get in a Bond film. It should be required viewing for all action sequence writers. Screenwriter Bruce Feirstein sets everything up without clumsy exposition, introduces Gupta and the decoder, raises the stakes first by having the British Navy launch a missile at Bond’s position ... and then telling us there’s nuclear weapons at the site! Big action scene commences with lots of explosions, a ticking clock as the missile races towards its target, Bond escapes with the jet … before the stakes are raised yet again as he’s strangled from behind and another jet tries to shoot him down.
There is a lot of action in this movie and that can be troublesome for a screenwriter to keep things inventive, but Feirstein rises to the occasion by creating obstacles, suspense, and constantly raising the stakes in every sequence just as he did with the stellar opening sequence. Kudos to David Arnold, the composer for the Bond films since this outing, for plenty of usage of Monty Norman’s original theme while also generating a very worthy action score on top of it.
Terrific Actors Abound
Jonathan Pryce is an outstanding actor with broad range, but his character is the real flaw in the film, so he doesn’t have much he can do here. Yeoh makes for a lithe, sexy and capable Bond girl. It’s nice to see the women from the last two films be more than just a pretty face. The filmmakers even give her a showcase martial arts sequence before “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was even released. She intelligent, capable, and best of all, a spy in her own right.
I remember not caring much for Hatcher the first time I saw the film, but I stand corrected. There’s a regret and sadness in her performance, no doubt the result of realizing her mistake at marrying Carver. Gotz Otto does a fine job as yet another German nemesis for Bond to face down. Ricky Jay is regrettably wasted as Gupta, who would’ve made for an interesting supporting character. We are treated again to Joe Don Baker as the boisterous yet charming Jack Wade.
I really want to call attention to all the unknown actors on the H.M.S. Devonshire and Chester and the Royal Navy ships. Bruce Feirstein’s dialogue on board the ships is obviously well-researched, and these fine young actors do a great job at seeming like actual Royal Sailors. One of these includes the now famous Gerard Butler. Also included is Michael Byrne, as the commander of the ship at the film’s conclusion, whom you’ll recognize from many of the great WWII films and the evil Col. Vogel in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
The action sequences are uniformly terrific. Bond’s escape from Carver’s building, including the remote-control car sequence shoot-‘em-up in the garage, and a great sequence with Bond and Lin on a motorcycle, handcuffed together. Director Roger Spottiswoode, his second unit team, and editors Dominique Fortin and Michel Arcand execute all of these sequences with style and flair. Most importantly, this was back in the days where the geography of action scenes still mattered so you could actually follow what was going on.
Take a look at this extended sequence. This is great action filmmaking. Spottiswoode and the brilliant cinematographer Robert Elswit, who manages to light the most complex of action films, make every single shot sparkle. Some action films don’t call for that, but this is a Bond film. Note how the camera moves, sometimes in very subtle ways, just enough to give the frame a bit more of a dynamic feel. Even the most simple of close-ups, such as squealing tires, are lit beautifully.
In the first part of the sequence inside Carver’s building, we get a great lesson on how production design and cinematography work hand in hand. Carver’s building is very contemporary, high-tech, with sharp lines, lots of metal, with a very desaturated (blacks, whites, and greys) color palette. Hence, the very red decoder box really stands out when Bond finds it. The metallic and desaturated palette call for a high contrast style of lighting. Thus, the blacks and whites are in very stark contrast (such as around 2:54), and they really pop when slammed into the same frame. There is also a lot of line play, with graphical elements filling the frame (stop the film at 0:44) to get an idea of what I mean.
All this contrast is important because it heightens the visual tension in the frame which translates to subconscious heightening of dramatic tension for us in the audience.
Then we move to the printing area of the building, and now we have yellows and blues, with warmer lighting. This provides a nice visual contrast to what we just saw, so the film doesn’t have a homogeneous look. Then there’s a third sequence (4:52) where Bond is in the paper roll area. The filmmakers have now introduced contrast of shape, with the big paper cylinders is stark contrast to the vertical and horizontal lines composed of beams and fluorescent lights.
This comes on top of a wonderful use of locations, which is where a great location manager comes in. Carver’s building is filled with these deep and wide space the action takes place in. It’s reflective of Carver’s own ego, while also giving action scenes even more visual flair.
I’m going on at length about these elements because it’s the first Bond film in decades to bring these elements back into play. We saw a lot of it in the early Bond films thanks to the great sets from the late Ken Adam. The visual flair on display in the movie elevates the entire project.
There are a lot of Brosnan film detractors out there in the Bond world, but I really encourage them to watch this film again, as well as “GoldenEye." This picture isn’t perfect, but it’s totally entertaining, and delivers in the ways a Bond film should. It’s a solid effort worthy of revisiting.
I give “Tomorrow Never Dies” with 3 stars.
"On Her Majesty’s Secret Service"
"For Your Eyes Only"
"From Russia With Love"
"The Man With The Golden Gun"
“The Living Daylights”
“Tomorrow Never Dies”
"Diamonds Are Forever"
"The Spy Who Loved Me"
"Never Say Never Again"
“Licence to Kill”
"You Only Live Twice"
"Live and Let Die"
"A View To A Kill"
James Bond will return in “The World Is Not Enough”