Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review - Tomorrow Never Dies

October 6, 2011

Tomorrow Never Dies – UK, 1997

There’s a moment in Roger Spottiswoode’s Tomorrow Never Dies when media mogul Elliot Carver, played by Jonathan Pryce, mocks the stubbornly persistent attempts of a beautiful Chinese spy to stop him after she is captured. He does this by making some rather feeble endeavors at what he must think are karate kicks and karate chops. He then abruptly stops and says, “Pathetic.” His word has an eerie, ironic truth to it, for the scene is pathetic. Putting aside the fact that it seems entirely out of character for a man like Carver to suddenly breaking into martial-arts derision, as well as the uncomfortable feeling that such an act can stir up in viewers, here again is a Bond villain with one of his enemies in his grasps, and he would rather ridicule her than remove her from the picture. I suppose we can’t have a Bond film without one or two of these “idiot” moments, but someone, perhaps the director, should have looked at this scene and had second thoughts about it. Elliot Carver is a character intent on ruling the media. He’s a character who gets practically orgasmic when he talks of terrorist attacks and political crises. He shouldn’t be acting like a ten-year-old boy who’s just seen his first Bruce Lee film.

Tomorrow Never Dies begins with the obligatory scene of Bond on another case. In this one, he’s somewhere along the Russian border watching what may be the largest terrorist marketplace you’re likely to see. The scene is classic Bond – he punches, kick, steals an airplane. In an unexpected move, he even ejects his terrorist co-pilot into the plane flying above his. It’s fun stuff. Usually, these scenes have nothing to do with events later on, but I’ve learned that whenever a character from the opening scene lives, he’ll come back later. So when a heavy-set American mentions getting something called an encoder, it’s a safe bet that he’ll reappear later in the film and that the encoder will be important to whatever dastardly plot is about to be unleashed upon our unsuspecting citizenry.

When the plot is finally revealed, I have no doubt that some eyes will roll. After all, it’s not often that Bond and the criminal mastermind agree as to the absurdity of a scheme, but there they are doing just that later in the film. Carver, though, hedges a bit, reminding the audience that the line between insanity and genius is a thin one. It would seem a rather hollow argument, if not for the fact that some of Carver’s actions are not much further from what some in Rupert Murdock’s NewsCorp are now accused of doing in Great Britain. And if CNN could make a name for itself by providing the only live coverage of the first moments of the Gulf War, it’s not that much of a stretch to believe that someone out for ratings and success would think of instigating a war and then boasting about being the first to get the story.

The problem with Tomorrow Never Dies is that it devolves into a standard Bond film after hinting at being something different. For just the second time in the series, we see Bond the widower. We see a Bond that may be able to woo woman but intentionally keeps an emotional distance from them. When he finds himself too close, he simply walks out the door and never returns. In short, he displays all the signs of a man who is afraid of being hurt again. As part of his investigation into Carver, he must reacquaint himself with a woman from his past, and he is not very pleased about having to do it. When M (Dame Judy Dench) and Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) joke about “pumping her for information,” Bond can only fake a smile and make a rather weak attempt at a witty response: “If only that were true of us Moneypenny.” When Bond is finally reunited with his former flame Paris (Teri Hatcher), now called Mrs. Carver by acquaintances of her husband, the scene is tense and realistic. There’s a degree of hurt in both Bond and Paris, and it makes one wonder about all of the other women Bond has had flings with. Were their relationships with Bond as emotionally scarring as Paris’s?

So what is Bond to do when confronted with having caused someone such pain? Apparently, give her a good-bye kiss and then pursue the next beautiful woman that he comes across. In this case, that would be Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese spy working undercover on the same case as Bond. At first, they are adversaries and then reluctant partners. Eventually, they are more than that, and if that sounds familiar, that’s because it is remarkably similar to parts of The Spy Who Loved Me, which I criticized for not having the good sense to keep Major Anya Amasova as a potential adversary for Bond. Here, Wai Lin never wants to kill Bond, but for once I would have liked for Bond to have a strictly professional relationship with a female partner, especially so soon after losing someone he cares about. It would have shown Bond’s personal growth. Instead, it’s as if Bond has undergone some form of emotional regression.

Tomorrow Never Dies has its share of exciting scenes. My personal favorite is a scene in which Bond drives a car from the back seat using what looks to be an early model of a handheld personal digital assistant. There are also a number of well choreographed actions scenes involving both Michelle Yeoh and Pierce Brosnan, which are weakened somewhat by the director’s unfortunate use of slow motion at inopportune moments. I also enjoyed the performance of Jonathon Price. He has a way of asking his henchman to kill “Mr. Bond” that makes the request seem downright polite. However, the best performance in the film has to be that of Teri Hatcher. Watch the way she talks about Bond’s job. It’s rather heartbreaking.

Tomorrow Never Dies is a good Bond film, not a great one. While it starts off well, it soon begins to devolve into one that has less heart that it should have. It’s a shame, yet not a surprise. Bond films have rarely trusted their audience enough to try something different. There’s almost always a secret lair, a beautiful woman, a villain who lacks common sense at the most opportune moments, henchmen that probably couldn’t pass an IQ test if their lives depended on it. For a while at least, Tomorrow Never Dies looked to be different. It can probably best be described then as a good Bond film that had the chance to be much, much more. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 stars

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