JFR FEATURE 005 | Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Pierce Brosnan's first appearance as James Bond in GoldenEye (1995) had put 007 firmly back on the map after the six-year hiatus following Licence to Kill (1989). The reason for this gap is another story in itself but, evidently, GoldenEye hit its audience right between the eyes at a time when the future of Bond was by no means assured. Therefore, there was much anticipation surrounding Brosnan's second 007 adventure. Would it capitalise on the success of the first? Would James Bond live to die another day?
The first thing to say is that Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) exudes confidence. Which is remarkable when one considers the behind-the-scenes scrabble to get it made in the first place. 'Scrabble' might indeed be the appropriate word, as the final title was reportedly the result of a mistyped memo early on in production; one which erroneously substituted the 'L' from the original title of 'Tomorrow Never Lies' (which, plot-wise, makes more sense) to a 'D'. As principal photography commenced, a final shooting script had not yet been completed, having been passed around numerous screenwriters (including Nicholas Meyer and Daniel Petrie Jr.) before settling on a sole credit for Bruce Feirstein (who had previously received a co-writing credit for GoldenEye). The lack of final script reportedly caused friction on the set, and also resulted in Anthony Hopkins walking away from the role of villain Elliot Carver, to be replaced late in the day by Jonathan Pryce. But more on that later.
Tomorrow Never Dies is even more successful at synthesising the classic with the modern than its predecessor.
In front of the camera, though, Brosnan had immediately been established as a hit with the audience, so both the production team and their leading man, at least on the surface, could continue assertively and optimistically. I would suggest Tomorrow Never Dies is even more successful at synthesising the classic with the modern than its predecessor. This is partly due to the fact that it basically recycles plot elements of both You Only Live Twice (1967) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), but with a 21st Century spin.
However, the film feels fresh and vibrant, helped in large part by the first of composer David Arnold's Bond scores, a noted disciple of the work of veteran John Barry. Arnold successfully integrates a late 90s electro-pop sound with the return of the archetypal dramatic orchestral stabs and flourishes (sorely missing from Éric Serra's almost defiantly ‘anti-Bond’ score for GoldenEye). He also includes elements of the unused k.d. lang theme ‘Surrender’ in the underscore. Co-written by Arnold and returning Bond lyricist Don Black - and featuring during the end credits - ‘Surrender’ is a typically bombastic Barry-esque song with a stellar vocal performance by lang, which was ultimately usurped as the main theme at the eleventh hour by a more commercially viable song by Sheryl Crow. In fact, Tomorrow Never Dies still remains the Bond film that had the most potential theme songs submitted for consideration, with entries ranging from the contemporary indie synth-pop of St. Etienne to a rumbling, melody-free effort by Britpop stalwarts Pulp.
An underdeveloped, somewhat one-dimensional character on the page, hampered an opportunity to fully flesh out a truly fearsome foe.
In a plot contemporaneous with its times, Bond is up against a sinister media mogul Elliot Carver (absolutely not inspired by Robert Maxwell), who is aiming to elicit global war to boost his ratings and broadcasting rights. These are suitably maniacal and psychopathic motives, but Jonathan Pryce's portrayal of Carver verges on parody in places. He feasts on lines like "there's no news like bad news" and "let the mayhem begin" but, as brilliantly skilful and accomplished an actor as Pryce is, not even he can make those lines sound anything other than clichéd, ‘Bond-Villain-101’. (Plus, the line "the distance between genius and insanity is only measured by success" is too close to Spinal Tap for comfort). It feels like Pryce's last-minute casting, and an underdeveloped, somewhat one-dimensional character on the page, hampered an opportunity to fully flesh out a truly fearsome foe.
007 finds an ally in Wai Lin, an agent from the Chinese Ministry of State Security, played by Michelle Yeoh. Yeoh had established a successful acting career in Hong Kong cinema, particularly in the action and martial arts genres. Notably, she had become known for performing many of her own stunts, including the infamous motorbike jump onto a moving train in Police Story 3: Super Cop (1992). Naturally, she was keen to transfer these skills to her first Hollywood production, but prohibitive insurance restrictions soon put paid to that idea. This is particularly ironic given the presence of a brilliantly filmed and edited chase sequence which, to my mind, is a direct homage to Yeoh’s fearless set-piece. Bond and Wai Lin’s stunt doubles escape from their pursuers on a motorbike, taking it in turns to control the throttle, culminating in a spectacular leap over the whirring blades of a hovering helicopter. As a character though, Wai Lin is a refreshing ‘Bond girl’; someone in whom 007 has definitely met his match, who is quick to quash unwanted advances, and will get the job done, with or without the "decadent Western agent". There is fun to be had in the light-hearted bickering and one-upmanship between Bond and Wai Lin, and Brosnan and Yeoh have an easy chemistry, even if that is all their dialogue ultimately amounts to.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the typically reliable returning characters. Judi Dench has well and truly made her mark as M, following her debut alongside Brosnan in GoldenEye. The Head of MI6 longs for the days of the Cold War, when enemies were known and identifiable – a theme revisited in Skyfall (2012). Samantha Bond’s dialogue as Moneypenny runs the gamut of innuendo and double entendre, memorably describing Bond as a “cunning linguist” (an improvised line by Robin Williams cut from Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), but remembered by co-star Pierce Brosnan and tucked away for future use).
Tomorrow Never Dies remains effortlessly stylish and only increases in stature over time.
The incomparable Desmond Llewellyn returns for his penultimate appearance as gadget-master Q. Llewelyn is the only actor to have played opposite all of the Bonds to that point (tragically killed in a car accident before the end of Brosnan’s tenure), but had undoubted chemistry with them all. Brosnan clearly relishes acting opposite a childhood hero, and their scenes together in Tomorrow Never Dies have a knowing nostalgia. Adorned in the striking red suit of an Avis rental car employee, Q introduces Bond to the gadget-laden product placement of the film: a BMW 750 saloon. This most un-Bondy of cars is the centrepiece of an extremely entertaining (and very Bondy) car chase, bombing around a multi-storey car park with 007 as a literal backseat driver, controlling the car with a modified mobile phone acting as a remote control. (As an aside, the filming of this sequence caused so much smoke to emanate from the filming location at Brent Cross Shopping Centre, London, that a member of the public reportedly rang the fire brigade). Needless to say, the insurance waiver that Q asks Bond to sign may well have come in handy.
There is little onscreen evidence to suggest any particular behind the scenes issues. Tomorrow Never Dies remains effortlessly stylish and, in my view, only increases in stature over time. Though, arguably, subject to the law of diminishing returns following this film, I would argue the Brosnan Bonds are due a reappraisal in much the same way those of Timothy Dalton have had a renaissance. The Bond films had been steadily heading towards a grittier tone since Dalton’s sophomore adventure, Licence to Kill (as Dan noted in his review of that film). Brosnan's outings have often been considered meaningless fluff in the fickle shadow of the rougher, tougher Daniel Craig era. It can therefore be overlooked that Tomorrow Never Dies continues the trend started in Licence to Kill, and is as rough and tough (and violent) as any Casino Royale (2006) or Quantum of Solace (2008). 007 was viable again, and the one-two attack strategy of GoldenEye and this film set out the stall for Bond in the 90s and beyond. Without them, arguably, the oft-lauded Craig era would not have existed in quite the same way.
As an epilogue, it must be noted that the success of Tomorrow Never Dies would be bittersweet, as this is the first 007 adventure without the involvement of producer Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli, as he had died the previous year. The film is dedicated to him, and his singular legacy undeniably lives on.