Welcome back after a small break to another exciting-ish edition of Does It Look Like It’s Our First Time?, here on Lewton Bus. Claiming the duty positively nobody else wanted, I’m here to talk to you today about an overhated little film in the Brosnan era called Tomorrow Never Dies.
Let’s get this right out of the way: Tomorrow Never Dies is nobody’s favorite Bond film. I don’t think it would land in anyone’s top five. Some of you out there have given it the mantle of “worst” Bond film, but that’s just nuts. There’ve been some real bad Bond films, in case you’ve forgotten. But beyond damning this movie with faint praise, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit to having been 13 or 14 years old when this film came out, which is a historically proven way to lose your objectivity with one of these movies. Riding high on the heels of the smash success of Goldeneye, which had reignited the stagnant franchise and launched the new Brosnan Era (for better or worse), Tomorrow Never Dies is sort of an embarrassing halt of momentum, and nearly fatal to the rekindled goodwill built in that film. But I still kinda love it!
Calling my shot: TND easily the second best Brosnan film, dubious honor that might be. And with some great miniature work, charming stunts, and (in my opinion) a great second banana in Michelle Yeoh, I think this one transcends its bad reputation, if only as a time capsule of the absolute most 1997 movie I’ve ever watched. This movie is extremely weird, while being almost heroically rote. It appears to have absolutely no earthly idea what to do or what anything is. 1997 was a strange time, full of both uncertainty about the future (due to the Internet) and seemingly endless prosperity and optimism. 20 years ago, everything was so possible, and nobody seemed to have any idea what to do with it. You’ve never seen so many people so ready to embrace cultural apathy. In a navel-gazey time full of disaffected but prosperous pondering, it kind of felt like we were all just waiting to figure out what the hell we were supposed to do now that the future was here. It was The End of History, and we were all very bored, fam.
Tomorrow Never Dies feels like almost the perfect companion piece to that time and place. It is a film obsessed with technology and media, that understands practically nothing about either in the dawning age. A film trying to reintroduce heavy gadgetry to the franchise at the exact moment technology was advancing so quickly that most new developments were nearly indecipherable to people at large. By the time you got a new thing in a film, it was outdated as soon as it hit the screen. A huge plot point of this film revolves around a “GPS encoder” MacGuffin, and if I had to hang my hat on the perfect encapsulation of a panicked creative team grasping at straws, I’d point you to the apex of tech design: A metal box with a red LED readout of arbitrary numbers. I’m not joking.
This is the filmic equivalent of a resigned shrug by the design department. But that’s exactly on tone for TND. The entire aesthetic is post-modern brutalism tinged with a European techno flair. These guys went to Moby for a new theme tune, which I’m pretty sure they don’t actually use in the film.
So why do I like this movie? I think it really boils down to how much it commits to what is maybe the stupidest plot of any Bond film. Jonathan Pryce eats massive scenery as Rupert Murdoch, er, Elliot Carver. Carver is a media mogul with designs on world domination via the 24 hour news cycle. Homeboy is going to manipulate geopolitical tensions and cover the stories he creates faster than anyone else can get the scoop. Yep. He’s going to control the world through newspapers, television, books, and magazines, those edifices upon which we hold up our society to this day. While technology and new media are central to the film, our dude has absolutely no interest in the Internet. In 1997. He gives a villainous speech so hopelessly wrong-headed with regards to tech and media it becomes clear that had Bond taken no action, Carver would have been destitute within maybe 5 years. It’s enthrallingly idiotic. Backed by the most bargain bin henchman to ever have appeared in a Bond film, Mr. Stamper, and (bizarrely) both Ricky Jay and Vincent Schiavelli, Carver sets the plot in motion with all the restraint and authority of an enraged toddler past his naptime. I cannot look away. Oh, and he has a stealth boat. I ask you: What?!
If the villains weren’t so totally nonsensical and ridiculous, I think it would actually hurt the film greatly. The blessing and curse of Tomorrow Never Dies is that this is the absolute most formulaic Brosnan’s entries ever got. This is not personal, it’s not an installment in an ongoing tale, and the beats and plot of the film are never more ambitious than this being “the next mission”. What little personal entanglements they try to wring in the form of old flame Paris Carver (Teri Hatcher) are jarringly out of place, and only add to the odd legacy of the Brosnan era’s attempts to humanize this character, while at the same time winking at Roger Moore’s oeuvre for a little lifeblood. And this is where we get to why this film works for me. It’s almost totally ill-conceived, but like a drunk hitting on you in a bar that’s just sobered up enough to grasp the situation, TND charges ahead anyway to chat us up, even while we stare directly at the fresh vomit on its shirt. At this point in the series, this team obviously has no idea what to do at all. But sometimes if you tell a story with enough flair, it doesn’t matter that the story is flat out moronic.
There’s a certain style reminiscent more of a Clive Cussler novel than a Fleming yarn at play here, focused on emerging geopolitical alliances and naval intrigue in the modern era far beyond the series’ spycraft roots. While usually flatly lit and shot, the camerawork jazzes up a mite during action scenes, which heavily rely on some very good ship and plane miniature work. There’s also a charming return to plot devices that hinge on villains using the prejudice of the military bureaucracy and misdirection at grand scale that gooses that old Bond appeal. And it really seems as if the entire cast is having a ball telling this dreadfully idiotic story. Pryce is the definition of arch, and delights in his tantrums and little moments with his henchmen. More importantly, Brosnan’s Bond is having a bit of fun, laughing at his own gags and inviting us into the nonsense while maintaining a demeanor toward his colleagues that brings to mind the genial, professional Moore outings The Man With The Golden Gun and For Your Eyes Only. He’s downright respectful (and more than a little thirsty) toward Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin, who is actually a far better agent than Bond has ever been. Their chase through Saigon on a motorcycle is actually a little series favorite of mine. I love Michelle Yeoh in this movie so much, and it’s clear Brosnan’s Bond feels the same. This has got to be the first time I’ve seen Bond with puppy dog eyes, bumbling-ly trying to impress a foreign agent.
While I am the first to admit that the appeal of this film is limited, and aimed probably at solely myself, I’d still ask anyone who’s made it this far to maybe reappraise their initial assessment of Tomorrow Never Dies as some series nadir. While absolutely a lesser entry, I feel there’s a level of assuredness and abstract fun to be found in this entry that especially Brosnan’s films never found again. Growing in bloat and absurdity, the series failed to deliver this level of lean, practical excitement again until the reins were handed over to Daniel Craig. While I wouldn’t put this one up against any of those better films (save maybe Spectre), I think there’s a level of enjoyment to be had here that’s been overshadowed in our rush to condemn the admittedly lesser charms of the Brosnan Era.
Also, Gerry Butlers is in this.