With Bond firmly re-established as a cinematic heavyweight franchise and “GoldenEye” delivering the best box office returns of the series to date, the pressure was on to build on the success with the next movie. With Martin Campbell reluctant to direct two Bond movies in a row, Roger Spottiswoode was recruited and a script was written focussing on the forthcoming handover of Hong Kong to China. When this idea was scrapped quite late into production, Bruce Feirstein rewrote the script as a story about a power hungry media mogul intent on starting World War III.
The films opens spectacularly with Bond infiltrating a terrorist arms bazaar (a scene originally earmarked for “The Living Daylights“) where we see an American terrorist procuring an American GPS encoder. When a remote missile strike is ordered, Bond has to escape in one of the fighter jets to avoid a nuclear accident. As we slide into the foreboding strains of Sheryl Crow’s theme song – lyrically a post-modern riposte to the lavish praise of ‘Nobody Does It Better’ – we’re again treated to Daniel Kleinman’s wonderful opening titles, which continue the direct thematic connection to the story approach adopted with “GoldenEye”. This film also sees the arrival of composer David Arnold who, although not involved in the theme song, delivers a fantastic score for the movie, honouring the brassy horn-driven motifs of Barry whilst making it contemporary and engaging.
The story itself is an intriguing one. A global media mogul manipulates events to bring about a confrontation between the UK and China with the twin aim of boosting his circulation and viewing figures and securing valuable media rights within China itself. It’s in the execution of the story that “Tomorrow Never Dies” gets into trouble, with a muddled tone and uneven pacing exacerbating an already weak script.
A Bond film is only as good as its villain and Jonathan Pryce is more than capable of playing a great bad guy. Here, though, he opts for a kind of breathless, camp villainy rather than the chilling ruthlessness he can bring which, together with his pseudo Andy Warhol styling, robs him of any menace. The sequence where Carver is instructing his various division heads is pure Saturday morning cartoon goofball evil, a real life Cobra Commander moment and cements his characterisation as simply no match for Bond. His henchman Stamper is likewise a disappointment, a cookie-cutter goon, absolutely anodyne and devoid of the usual quirks that make Bond villain henchmen great. It takes more than glowering and being able to take a punch to stick in the memory.
Terry Hatcher’s brief cameo as Carver’s wife and Bond’s former flame feels a little bit like stunt casting and she seems bored throughout. Perhaps it’s the perfunctory way the script treats her character, one of the Bond series’ most obnoxious Fridging moments. Michelle Yeoh, on the other hand, is a welcome breath of fresh air in the Bond ‘girl’ department, smart, capable and kick-ass: she’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. She’s the first leading lady who gives the impression that she would have got the job done if Bond hadn’t got involved – maybe even a little quicker – and one of the few to date who not only gets a fair share of the action scenes but even gets a fight scene of her own.
Although Spottiswoode seems unable to coax the cast into elevating the text on the page above the clumsy and obvious wordplay which seems to litter every line, he’s more than adept at bringing the big action sequences to life. The extended chase scene in Berlin culminating in the remote control car chase through the multi-storey car park is simply brilliant, and after a lean few films it’s great to see gadgets making a big comeback. Brosnan’s giggle of delight as the BMW’s tyres reinflate themselves is adorable.
The film loses a bit of momentum following the escape from Carver’s Vietnam headquarters [note to scriptwriters: learn what an Oedipus Complex is before having Bond accuse someone of having one] and the finale is pretty much a warmed over remake of “The Spy Who Loved Me” right down to the enemy agents working together to sabotage the villain’s secret ocean-going lair.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see “Tomorrow Never Dies” as an early attempt to court the increasingly important Chinese market but the film doesn’t suffer from it, if anything Michelle Yeoh’s involvement improves the overall product. Symptomatic of its rushed production and a few questionable casting choices (did anyone want Joe Don Baker to return as Jack Wade?), the film feels less than the sum of its parts. The script is really bad, and so the film stands on its action sequences alone, which thankfully are some of the best Bond has offered. The film is dedicated to the memory of Albert R Broccoli, who died early in production. His legacy was one of the world’s greatest franchises; it’s just a shame that the one to bear his dedication couldn’t have been a bit more polished.