Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Double Oh...18: Tomorrow Never Dies

1997, Roger Spottiswoode

Tomorrow Never Dies Preamble:

For the longest time, this was my favourite Bond movie.  I'd say probably until the late '00's when I watched On Her Majesty's Secret Service for the first time did I hold this in my utmost regard of what a Bond film was or should be.  As we've established by now through 17 of these, I really didn't know shit about Bond until recently.  That said, I enter this film with affection and trepidation, I know that I loved it once, but it's been so long since I watched it I don't truly recall it, and my view of the Brosnan pictures was critically tainted by the subsequent two films, one which I outright hated, the other which I enjoyed by only the slimmest of margins.

The one thing I got out of Tomorrow Never Dies was Michelle Yeoh.  I'm struggling to remember if I had seen any of her wuxia films at this point (a friend held a screening of Wing Chun which would have been around the time of this film's release) and Crouching Tiger would be 3 years off still.  What I remember most is seeing a sit-down interview with some entertainment news program and absolutely melting at hearing her lilting voice, her almost, but not quite flawless English, her sense of humour and her great smile.  She was (and remains) one of my biggest celebrity crushes.

Villains:

Henry Gupta (Ricky Jay), is first seen in the opening sequence at a big terrorist swap meet.  He's purchasing a "GPS encoder", stolen from the US military, and it's later used to send a British Naval ship off-course and perilously close to Chinese waters.  This sets off a chain of events, aided by our bad guys, which threatens to spark a war.  Gupta acts as a master hacker and ace A/V guy.  He doesn't really have much to do with anything beyond being the techie help.  Honestly, I don't recall if he makes it out alive or not... he's thoroughly unmemorable, except that he's Ricky Jay.

Gupta is in the employ of Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), a media baron whose newspapers are said to be capable of overthrowing governments.  Carver's goal is to launch a new 24 hour cable news network channel, and to be the king of all media.  He does this by "predicting the news" thus getting the scoop and seeming like the best news source in the world, I guess.  His predictions involve a lot of hired men sent out in the world to kill other people and cause strife.  He's a ruddy lunatic.  He spent probably hundreds of millions on building a stealth boat (buying materials off a Chinese General), and buying the GPS encoder, all so he could manipulate the British and Chinese in to a potential conflict that he could report on in the news.  Also, his ample donations to the General have allowed him to set up a bureau in Beijing and, should everything pan out, he'd get exclusive broadcast rights in the country for 100 years.  It's lunacy, and Pryce plays him completely unhinged.  Not only does he freely admit to anyone who'll listen that he doctors the news, but he revels in the fact that he gets away with it.  Carver meets his fate in the teeth of a really cool torpedo that's also part a boring drill (in a nice call back to earlier in the film)

Carver doesn't like to get his hands dirty, which is where Stamper (Gotz Otto) comes in.  He seems to be everywhere at once, and is the now-common giant, muscular, machine of a henchman.  He's the same style of uber-mensch that we've seen about a half dozen times, generally quiet, unnaturally strong, and unbelievably tough.  He runs the show on the stealth boat, and is the towering menacing figure meant to keep Carver's nemeses in line.  He dies when Bond traps his ankle underneath a rocket that's about to launch

It should also be mentioned that Stamper is the protege of Doctor Kaufman (Vincent Schiavelli), a master of chakra torture.  It's Kaufman who kills Carver's wife and is tasked with pinning the murder on Bond.  The scene between Kaufman and Bond is a drastic tonal shift when Bond discovers Paris dead in his bed, and he's in a state of mourning, anger, and a heightened awareness of being in a trap.  In walks Kaufman and he's over-the-top seething with malevolence.  He's got Bond under his thumb while the lackeys are in the parking garage trying to break into Bond's car without any success.  Just as he's about to do away with Bond, Stamper informs him of the troubles and that he may need to extract from Bond how to gain access to the car, and it's a delightfully silly exchange we're only privy to one side of.  It's unlike anything in any Bond film before or since, a bit of a comedy sketch in the middle of an action movie.  Anyway, Kaufman gets tazed by Bond's phone and Bond gets the upper hand forcing Kaufman to shoot himself in the head.  "Wait, I'm just a professional doing a job" he pleads.  "Me too," Bond replies as he shoots him.  Fantastic scene.



Bond Girls:

After the credits roll, and the stuff with the British warship and the Chinese Migs and Carver's stealth ship happens, Moneypenny (the returning Samantha Bond) is advised to call in 007 at once, where Bond advises her that he's "just brushing up on a little Danish".  The Danish in question is Professor Inga Bergstrom (Cecilie Thomsen) who for some reason takes issue with being called "little".  I'm inclined to think that Bond was supposed to learn Danish (and he did pick up some) but got a little distracted.  She superficial, but somehow showing Bond as a preternatural womanizer seems necessary.

Trying to figure out how Carver managed to report on the sunken British ship in his newspapers when press time was before even MI-6 heard about it, they zero in on Carver, and M tells Bond to focus in on carver's wife, Paris (Teri Hatcher), with whom he had a relationship in the past.   The exact words were "pump her for information".  Moneypenny in this scene in the back of a limo feeds Bond his airplane tickets and some information and a bit of a flirtatious exchange.  I like Samantha Bond's Moneypenny because she's not a doter.  If she would like to have something with Bond, it doesn't show, as she seems quite aware and accepting of who he is and what his nature is, no jealousy involved

 After slapping him, then exchanging flirtatious barbs, Paris shows up at Bond's suite and makes it clear she's not there to flirt, she wants to hash out the past in more ways than one (despite being a married woman).  "Did I get too close?" she asks.  Bond confirms before he drops her dress, but while Brosnan effectively conveys affection towards Paris, he seems less in love and more in lust.  It's interesting though to see sort of the Bond girl after being a Bond girl, and what kind of attachment these women hold onto.  That almost needs its own story.  Hatcher was at the height of her Lois Lane foxiness in this movie (not that she's not still quite attractive today), even being a few months pregnant at the time, very well hidden.  Of course, Carver finds out, not of her infidelity but of her lying about how she knew Bond, and he has her killed.  Harsh.  I recall upon first viewing that I was absolutely shocked to see Hatcher's Bond girl go out in the first act... thankfully there's Michelle Yeoh taking center stage.

Yeoh is Wai Lin, a Chinese secret agent also investigating carver.  We first meet her under cover as a Chinese journalist infiltrating Carver's launch party for his new network.  Here she's in serious glam wear, a sleek, form fitting silver dress, and catches many eyes, but she's also very charming and keenly observant.  We see her a second time when, the next morning, Bond is infiltrating Carver's office and happens across her as well, having just set off the alarm and looking for an escape route.  It's a charmingly playful scene as the both evade gunfire separately and have a mini-rivalry in their egress.  In this scene she has this cool bracelet which shoots out a tether which she uses to scale down the wall.  Their paths cross a third time when Bond investigates the sunken British ship off the coast of Thailand and they fight at first, until they realize who the other is.  They head to surface, are captured by Stamper and taken to Carver's new tower (which it seems he just got in the past 6 hours, considering it was said earlier he didn't have any bureaus in China) where they're handcuffed and make a very well orchestrated escape (I like the "I'm driving" argument as they steal a motorcycle).  They work as a team (though she does try to lose him at one point), and she reveals to him her arsenal hidden within the walls of a modest looking bike shop.  She's got toys as good, or better, than Bond, and she kicks ass better than any Bond girl in the past.   She's so awesome, it's a shame she's captured and left dangling, in need of rescue, and equally a shame that she never gets a really great martial arts fight in (the one in the bike shop isn't even close...).  They've created a few female doubles for Bond over the years, and I keep waiting for them to take one and make a Bond film out of them.  Wai Lin would be so awesome in her own Bond-styled feature.  Wai Lin and Bond don't have any real romantic involvement until the very end, where they wind up on the remains of Carver's destroyed stealth sub...and, well, we know by now that being on the water is Bond's biggest turn-on, and Wei Lin seems more than game.

Theme/Opening Credits:

I cannot tell you how much I disliked Sheryl Crow back in 1997.  "Everyday Is A Winding Road" was just one of many banes of my existence on pop radio in the year preceding it.  A precursor to Nu-Country, Crow was just not anything close to the indie music I was invested in at the time, nor the hip-hop I had grown up with.  But damn if this song I didn't love, and kind of hated myself for loving.  I recall wincing when she hits to sustained "day" notes, just seeming shy of her reach, and yet I like that she has to restrain herself knowing she can't hit it that high.  There's a pulsating element that alternates with it's epic sweep which feels modern, but with a 1930's New York big band chanteuse throwback.  It's fricking great.  The actual lyrics may not resonate or hook in the same way that some of the other Bond themes do, but the melody just envelops you.
The title sequence is appealing, a mash of technology and titillation (foreshadowing the copious amounts of nudity available on the internet, perhaps, unintentionally).   There's a lot of broken glass, and arms stockpiles, but it's the brief x-ray of the gun being loaded with bullets, and later of it firing,  ricocheting off multiple screens, creating a shower of broken glass.  Some of the elements seem a little odd, like the floating diamonds and the woman freefalling off the diamond into a planet, but for the most part it's really interesting, if inconsistent.



Bond:

Brosnan seemed ready for the role in Goldeneye so Tomorrow Never Dies is just more status quo.  Again, he's very physical, and at times harsh in his brutality.  While Bond's always been a very sexual character, I think Brosnan is really the first to really bring that out, perhaps only because he's the guy playing Bond in an era where there's a more liberal attitude towards sex on film.  As well he really brings the steam when he starts getting it going.  One gets the sense that Brosnan really, really liked playing all aspects of Bond, and wanted the best of all worlds (the fighter, the camp icon, the sex god, the sleuth, the spy, the wounded puppy, etc).  This I think is the peak payoff, but rewatches of the subsequent films will say for certain. 

Movie:

Tomorrow Never Dies is easily my favourite of the Brosnan Bond films, which I admit isn't the most audacious statement given that its only real competition is Goldeneye, but I feel it's the more enjoyable of the two with the least amount of demerits.  It feels bigger, more globe-spanning, with more at stake.  It's true, Carver is one of the worst villains in all of Bondome (and by worst, I mean utterly ridiculous in his motivations and non-sensical) though Price makes him very enjoyable to watch.  The idea that a media mogul would manipulate events around the world, spending a fortune to do so in order to capture a story first and to gain exclusive broadcast rights in China is preposterous in a series filled with idiotic motivations.  But despite that, the stakes are high.  They're high in the pre-credits sequence where Bond is trying to avert a nuclear detonation, and they remain high throughout.  Not only does World War III loom, but there's a 48 hour countdown to preventing it.  Talk about ratcheting up the tension...
I love the sequences at the start of the film in the MI-6 den, with all the monitors and technology.  It's a really cool set that is sorrily underused.  The only set that rivals it is Wai Lin's bike shop.
It is not a very dynamically directed film, I mean, Spottiswoode directed Turner and Hooch and Stop, Or My Mom Will Shoot for Q's sake.  But he turns out a very straightforward, very watchable product.  It could be better looking, sure, and the fights and action could be more eye-popping, but even so, they're all still entertaining.  It's like having a hamburger and wanting some garlic aioli on it but only having mustard, ketchup and relish available.  It'll more than do, it's just not spruced up.
Much of what I love about this film, honestly, are the Bond girls.  In a recent heated conversation about Bond, a friend noted that it almost doesn't matter who plays Bond, it's the people around him that really make a film.  Unlike the next film, I don't think there's a miscast role here.  We've got M, her Chief of Staff, Moneypenny Charles Robinson, and the return of Jack Wade, all on support, and the aforementioned villains and Bond Girls.  It really is the strength and charm of Michelle Yeoh that carries this film home for me, but it's also one of Teri Hatcher's most memorable works despite the brief screentime.  The worst thing about this film is probably that there's not a good poster for it.

Q-gadgets:

A little light on the gadgetry in this one, a cel-phone that doubles as a remote control for the new BMW that Bond's given, as well it has a stun gun and an electronic lockpick/safecrack device.
His watch also has a small plastic explosive which he can use as a remote detonator. 

Wai Lin's secret lair is full of gadgets, too bad we never meet the quartermaster who stocks it for her.

Classification [out of 01.0]: 00.8... it's not only one the best Brosnan but one of the better Bond films overall, and that's not just nostalgia talking.