The Film: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
The Principals: Pierce Brosnan, Jonathan Pryce, Michelle Yeoh, Judi Dench, Teri Hatcher, Ricky Jay, Götz Otto, Joe Don Baker, Vincent Schiavelli, Desmond Llewelyn. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode.
The Premise: James Bond (Brosnan) gets dispatched by MI6 to impede the activities of Elliot Carver (Pryce), a notoriety-hungry media bigwig trying to instigate a war between England and China as a means of strengthening his worldwide reach.
Is It Good? GoldenEye on, I have seen every single James Bond movie in the same theater—the AMC (formerly Sony, then Loews) Monmouth Mall 15 in Eatontown, New Jersey. This was the first one I saw opening night (because I didn’t know Titanic had boobs yet and I was spending fourth grade praying to the Church of 007 and playing GoldenEye 007 for the N64 at most given moments of free time, which was a lot). I had spent much of November and December of 1997 preparing for this new installment, cleaning through everything except Dr. No, Thunderball, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in the weeks leading up to this.
Buzzed on the adrenaline of anticipation, I loved it. I pretended that the opening scene where Bond tries to chase down Ricky Jay’s hacker-thief via harrier jet in Russia was actually set on the Runway level in the game. I was able to discern that Carver’s evil floating lair was akin to Stromberg’s underwater fortress from The Spy Who Loved Me. If GoldenEye had established my acquaintanceship with the character and all those rentals made me a full-blown fan, Tomorrow Never Dies made my relationship with James Bond for life.
I have not seen Tomorrow Never Dies since 1998 or 1999…until now. Sure, the film is certainly not infallible, as it was during that first pre-Christmas viewing with my friend (and my parents in another area so I wouldn’t be embarrassed by the babes Bond would be philandering with). Under the direction of Roger Spottiswoode—Sam Peckinpah’s former editor and director of cool genre beans like Terror Train and Shoot to Kill (we’ll forget Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot)—this is a slick, action-packed entry that proved rebooting with GoldenEye wasn’t a fluke.
The first entry without the involvement of the late Albert J. “Cubby” Broccoli, Spottiswoode works solidly with EON and writer Bruce Feirstein to meld the edge of Connery’s golden age with the wit and bombast of Roger Moore’s run. Packaged with the sheen of fetishistic destruction that Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer thrived on in the 90’s, Tomorrow Never Dies understands its footing very well. Brutality and excitement is counteracted well by its sense of humor and continuing to play up Pierce Brosnan as a best-of-both-worlds successor to the most famous actors to take the mantle. His magic is mapped out easily when he seamlessly fights an assassin into a printing press that grounds the unfortunate lackey into hamburger. As blood-stained newspaper mills through the gears, Bond suavely remarks, “They’ll print anything these days.” His dispatching one-liner here segues into the film’s media-centric plot, which predates the widespread power of new media but capitalizes on the heightened reality of the techno-thriller of the 90’s.
Communication is the heart of darkness in this iteration of espionage, entertainingly realized by Jonathan Pryce as the megalomaniacal Elliot Carver. Part Rupert Murdoch, part Cobra Commander and able to chew through the easily demolished scenery, Pryce relishes in the sinister intentions of his billionaire villain, his face expressing a clear delight for playing the role. Carver refreshingly differentiates from most previous Bond foes in that he does not live the world domination du jour as a recluse—he’s a shrewd, cutthroat businessman in the public eye, a master at yellow journalism as a weapon of concrete and subjective purposes.
We see a man like Murdoch as a dour crook on top of the food chain that plays off Fox News, and whereas Carver is trying to use anarchic means to spread his very similar brand of fair and balanced around the world, Pryce is able to give this villain a charm in spite of his psychotic arrogance. He gets excellent support from Ricky Jay’s wry but calculating stooge and German actor Götz Otto as his violent, homoerotic second-in-command, Mr. Stamper.
In a way, Stamper’s role in the film is akin to Bennett in Commando and Mr. Joshua in Lethal Weapon, the brute force of accomplishing antagonism. With few lines and an imposing presence rivaling a young Dolph Lundgren, Otto conveys genuine danger and sadism for Bond, the id to Carver’s ego in their Freudian enterprise. The legendary Vincent Schiavelli also gets a great scene as another Carver hitman, speaking with an effective but amusing German accent and using his dry wit to play off Brosnan’s…before the latter takes his souped-up cell phone taser of death to him and sends him into that part of hell reserved for less-important Bond villains.
If I have anything to complain about, it’s the Bond girls here. Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin is a strong-willed but weakly-realized female counterpart to Bond. Considering her success in Hong Kong, you’d have thought for her big crossover into a western production, she’d be kicking ass. She does, but not to the maximum effect. This fault makes the whole Bond experience here extremely masculine. Teri Hatcher has two scenes (one of them a mean, tantalizing scene at the age of ten) and she comes across as just what the script ordered: Elliot Carver’s philandering wife. She’s sexy, vapid, and that’s all there is to her—typical male ideas. All that said, however? I dig the hell out of this movie. Unfortunately, it was the last time they got Brosnan right in the role, but ignoring the war crimes he made after this, he cashed out well.
Is It Worth a Look? Any real James Bond fan should have seen this one by now. If you consider yourself such and haven’t, get on it. For those of you superfans revisiting the series, make sure you make a stop here because this is one of the good ones.
Random Anecdotes: Anthony Hopkins was cast as Elliot Carver after turning down the role of Alec Trevelyan in GoldenEye. Thanks to the air-tight shooting schedule—a result of MGM’s rush to have a new Bond film to coincide with their initial public offering—Hopkins bolted after three days due to the constantly-changing script and accelerated production schedule. Had Hopkins gone forth with the role, he’d have been the second Oscar winner after Christopher Walken to play a Bond villain. With the release of Skyfall, Javier Bardem has become second in line.
Donald E. Westlake, he of the famous Parker series, wrote an early treatment for the film. The scope of his work in the final product is unknown.
This is the second movie I’ve reviewed in a few weeks’ time after The Sender that has featured Al Matthews, best remembered as Sgt. Apone from Aliens. It’s also the movie I discovered the wonderful and jowly god incarnate that was Vincent Schiavelli.
Cinematic Soulmates: Every James Bond movie.