Friday, April 27, 2007

007 in '007: Tomorrow Never Dies

My first viewing of Tomorrow Never Dies was at the Screen on Baker Street Cinema in London. The film premiered in the UK a week before the U.S. and I was lucky enough to be there that week. Being an American, these circumstances were ideal for viewing a Bond flick, and as a result my view’s slightly colored: Dies has always been my favorite Brosnan flick…which isn’t saying much since I’m not wild about the quadrilogy in the first place. Having not seen the movie for several years, I was curious as to whether or not it would hold up.

One aspect of Brosnan’s tenure that’s more noticeable with hindsight is how different each entry is in tone and execution. Tomorrow Never Dies smacks of a good old-fashioned Roger Moore-era outing. It’s the least complicated of Pierce’s movies and moves along with a brisk pace. It’s got some great action scenes, an over-the-top villain and a surprising number of witticisms that don’t fall entirely flat:

Bond: (In bed with a language tutor) “I always enjoyed learning a new tongue.”

Back at MI6, M walks up behind Moneypenny, who’s talking to Bond.

Moneypenny: “You always were a cunning linguist, James.” (To M) “Don't ask.”

M: “Don't tell.”

Yet the wit is about all there is to praise in Bruce Feirstein’s script, because there’s barely any plot and character motivation must have been thrown out the window during what was apparently a very messy writing process. The first half attempts to rectify this with a “GPS encoder”, serving as a handy MacGuffin to distract us from the realization that satirizing the media isn’t enough of a mission to keep a Bond film afloat.

Zee Villain: Jonathan Pryce’s media mogul Elliot Carver is an insane megalomaniac drawn in the old-school Bond tradition; William Randolph Hearst were he alive today with Rupert Murdoch’s power & technology at his disposal. Carver lives by his catchphrase, “Tomorrow’s News Today”, and the idea drives the meager plot. He creates political disasters for the sole purpose of being the first to put them in the headlines. His current scheme involves inciting war between China and the UK, which will in turn give him some kind of media stranglehold -- um, yeah…I don’t really get it either, but since the entire affair harkens back to flicks like You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me, perhaps we’re expected to care less than we are to bask in a form of nostalgia.

Back to Pryce…you know, it’s Jonathan Goddamn Pryce. Need this man’s stellar resume even be listed? The guy’s just class and surely has never given a bad performance. He’s played good guys and bad blokes and chaps somewhere in between. He’s been the lead as often as he’s been the supporting player. He plays notes of comedy and drama to perfection, regardless of whether they’re set in past, present or future. He makes us laugh, he makes us cry, and he’s even scared the crap out of us. Jonathan Pryce is one of the most flexible, underrated actors in the business and the fact Carver stands out given how piss poorly he’s drawn is further proof of Pryce’s talent (not that further proof was required). Without Pryce’s antics and line delivery, this film would have no dramatic center.

Les Girls: Before she was a bed-hopping desperate housewife, Teri Hatcher, as the inanely named Paris Carver, soiled the linens of both James Bond and Elliot Carver. It seems Paris has some kind of history with James – something that’s supposed to elevate her above the Bond girl pack. But given what’s shown on-screen, we’d never know it if we weren’t told it. Her limited screentime amounts to wagging eyelashes, a push-up bra and smacking James across the face before falling back into bed with him.

You know what would have worked here? A character/actress from an older Bond movie. Maybe Maryam d’Abo’s Kara Milovy from The Living Daylights? As a concert cellist, she was something of a celebrity and it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for her to fall for Elliot’s charms and vice versa. If we’re to believe Bond’s got a history with a girl, why not give us a history we already know? At least the script never offers up a dreadful spin on “We’ll always have Paris”.

The primary Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies is Michelle Yeoh’s (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) Wai Lin, an agent who’s essentially the Chinese government’s version of Bond (again, reminiscent of The Spy Who Loved Me). Michelle Yeoh is a kick ass babe, and it’s a credit to the script that she never falls into bed with Bond (well, not until the final seconds anyway, which in turn gives us the perfect Roger Moore ending). Unfortunately, like the rest of this film, Wai Lin’s got virtually no character and pretty much amounts to her martial arts skills, which is obviously why Yeoh was hired, despite being nearly as good an actress.

Zee Henchmen: A wasteland of nothingness! In a movie where the main characters are underwritten, it should come as no surprise that the henchman suffer even more horrible fates. Carver’s two primary employees are Stamper (German actor Götz Otto) and Mr. Gupta (illusionist Ricky Jay; why does he have an Indian surname?). The former is the muscle, the latter is the brains. Had the pair been combined into one character, they might’ve amounted to something memorable. Vincent Schiavelli cameos as Dr. Kaufman -- a “professor of forensic medicine” with orders to kill Bond. He makes a bigger impression than the other two guys with only a bad German accent and a few minutes of screentime:

Dr. Kaufman: “My art is in great demand, Mr. Bond. I go all over the world. I am especially good at the celebrity overdose.”

Bond, James Bond: Stop me if you’ve heard this one: The script blows. Bond’s motivation (orders from M notwithstanding) ranges from ridiculous to non-existent, and Brosnan has little to do other than jump from one set piece to the next. He shows little remorse over whatever the hell went down in the past with Hatcher’s Paris, but after her husband has her killed, Bond seems motivated to avenge her death rather than get on with his job. Soon though he forgets Paris, and becomes overprotective of Wai Lin – and with no good reason other than she’s a hot woman whom he has yet to bed (would Bond get so worked up over a male Chinese agent?). Add in the fact that Wai Lin simply doesn’t need Bond looking over her shoulder. She’s more than capable of taking care of herself, until a moment near the finale where she isn’t – a development which degrades both characters. On one occasion Brosnan’s forced to deliver a quip to no audience other than us; this was Moore territory and a gag he mastered -- it feels clunky when Brosnan attempts it. After the meaty script (by comparison) that was Goldeneye, Dies must’ve been a massive disappointment for Brosnan the actor.

Tuneage and Credits Sequence: Even though Maurice Binder’s title sequences didn’t always hit the bullseye, they’re sorely missing from Brosnan’s era and it’s almost painful to see the various stabs at aping his distinctive style. Dies’ titles are about half success, half failure: The parts featuring half-naked women brandishing weapons and marching against fields of X-Ray work pretty well; the stuff featuring computer generated nudity comes across as more creepy than erotic.

The music, however, is a success on every count. Sheryl Crow’s title song (co-written and produced by Mitchell Froom) pays sensual tribute to Carly Simon’s "Nobody Does it Better" and Sheena Easton’s "For Your Eyes Only", while simultaneously dishing up a little something original and right. Composer David Arnold’s excellent work deftly underscores the action and breathes life and mood into areas where there otherwise wouldn’t be any; indeed, it’s possible Arnold contributed more “character” to Tomorrow Never Dies than anyone else. He also wrote “Surrender” -- a bombastic riff on Shirley Bassey sung by k.d. lang over the end credits. If all this musical goodness isn’t enough, the film even crams Moby’s cool, thumping remix of the James Bond Theme into the proceedings.

Writing about its music brings me to the strengths of Tomorrow Never Dies. What the movie lacks in plot and character, it more than makes up for with the thrilling, escapist action and stuntwork that’s become a major hallmark of the franchise. There may be a bit of CGI in the movie, but its carefully hidden and the bulk of the action looks very “real”.

One improbable sequence begins with Bond and Wai Lin, handcuffed together, escaping from the top of a skyscraper by grabbing a giant banner covering the building’s exterior, and tearing it straight down the middle until about halfway down when they crash through a window and into an office full of surprised workers. The scene is humorously punctuated by Elliot’s face emblazoned on the banner! It’s the kind of thing that only Bond movies can pull off and it’s just an intro to an action centerpiece that goes on for an interminable amount of time as the still handcuffed duo steal a motorcycle and are chased by a helicopter into all manner of improbable situations.

Another showcases Bond skydiving into the ocean – replete with scuba gear – opening his chute only several hundred feet before hitting the water. The underwater photography that follows -- Bond swims through the remains of a wrecked submarine (running into Wai Lin along the way!) -- is breathtaking. Yet another fun scene details Bond’s escape from Carver’s lackeys in a parking garage -- by navigating a Q-issued BMW via remote control from the back seat. The car is in turn equipped with more gadgets than any other vehicle in 007 history.

Tomorrow Never Dies shows off some amazing cinematography courtesy of Robert Elswit, and Roger Spottiswoode’s (Stop or My Mom Will Shoot!) direction, all things considered, is pretty damn good. As many criticisms as I’ve launched, it remains my favorite Brosnan flick because it’s an easy watch that miraculously entertains from start to finish. It takes viewers back to a time when we weren’t supposed to take Bond all that seriously. Admittedly, this conflicts with my subjective feelings of where Bond should’ve been in 1997, yet it sidesteps the problem by being a fun movie whose only goal is to entertain. It’s tough to dislike an outing that accomplishes the one thing I really want from 007.