Tomorrow Never Dies isn’t a great Bond movie. It’s not the best Pierce Brosnan outing, and I probably wouldn’t even put it in the top 10 best films of the franchise. Heck, it’s not even one of my personal favorites.
So what is it doing in a series titled Our Favorite Bonds?! Simple. It’s always held a special place in my heart since this was the first Bond film I ever saw theatrically. Plus, while its reputation among fans is shaky at best, I’m of the rare opinion that the film has more going for it than most either recognize or admit.
Granted, the film does have its share of problems. The film never feels particularly exotic, in part because of its choice of locales and also because Bond drives a BMW sedan. BMW produces a fine automobile, but a boxy four-door sedan isn’t the first (or even fifth) car that comes to mind when one thinks of preferred transportation for a world-class superspy. It also doesn’t help that the stakes are a bit underwhelming. A crazed media mogul who wants higher ratings is fairly weaksauce as far as villains go, even if you don’t compare it to previous foes in the series.
Thankfully, Tomorrow Never Dies has managed to age fairly well in spite of these glaring shortcomings and in fact in some ways ends up as one of the more progressive and even somewhat prescient films of the Brosnan era, if not the entire series.
Let’s start with the villain I just disparaged.
Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) wants to take over the world. He doesn’t want to do it via bombings or invasions. (At least not directly.) No, he wants to control the flow of information. He wants the world tuned into his news channels and flipping through his newspapers and magazines. And he’s willing to manipulate as many world superpowers into fighting each other as it will take to accomplish just that. As I said, chart-topping ratings is hardly the most colorful plot in the Bond Canon. But what it lacks in panache it makes up for in by being one of the series most insidious schemes, if not one of its most plausible. That’s not to say that I think Rupert Murdoch owns a stealth boat and would blow up Chinese warships to kickstart World War III just so FOX News could beat CNN to the punch, but there’s no denying that the manipulation and sensationalist nature of today’s news doesn’t feel too far removed from what Carver is plotting. Realism and believability are hardly cherished qualities within the Bond franchise, but it definitely adds an interesting layer not normally found in these films.
Plus, it gave us Jonathan Pryce cranking the hamminess up to 11 for the proceedings. Is it cartoonish? Absolutely. But that’s part of the joy. Pryce never holds back for a moment and is quite visibly relishing every ridiculous line reading and eyebrow arch. The script certainly does the actor and character no favors (as is true for the film at large), but Pryce manages to make Carver memorable by sinking his teeth as far as possible into part.
Tomorrow Never Dies also gave us two of the best chase scenes in the franchise. Bond’s BMW 7 might be somewhat bland in terms of its looks, but if nothing else it’s one of the most impressively outfitted cars of Brosnan’s run. Roof rockets, a hood ornament buzz saw, reinflatable tires, deployable caltrops, impact-proof glass and, best of all, a remote control. All of which are put to great use during the first big action set piece taking place in a parking garage. Sure, it lacks the sustained mayhem of the Moscow tank chase from GoldenEye, but keeping the action contained actually makes the scene stand out all the more. I must admit, though, that I’ve come around on the part where Bond drives the car remotely via cellphone touchpad. Sure, it’s gimmicky and more than a little cartoonish, but I now appreciate it more than I used to in that it actually feels a fairly inventive if not outright inspired. This is, after all, a series where the cars have had ejector seats and can turn into submersibles. I’m not sure why I ever balked at the notion of a remotely controlled car. (Again, a concept that is more reality than fantasy these days.)
But as fun as the garage chase is, it pales next to the fun of the motorcycle chase. After making a daring multi-story plunge from the top of Carver’s media skyscraper in Vietnam, Bond and his reluctant Chinese agent of a partner, Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), need to steal a ride. Bond insists they take a motorcycle, either forgetting or ignoring wholesale the fact that two handcuffed persons don’t exactly make for easy riding on a bike. But Bond and Wai Lin’s misfortune is our gain as this ends up being the most fun action beat in the film. There have been plenty of motorcycle chases before and since this one, but none of them have managed to provide such a unique hook. Bond and Wai Lin bickering and struggling to continuously shift positioning throughout the chase gives us a couple good laughs, it ratchets up the tension already simmering between the two and it manages to make the whole ordeal feel fairly unpredictable. Given that this is a James Bond flick and his success is typically all but guaranteed, it’s nice to have a scene that feels genuinely volatile and more than a little bit beyond Bond’s immediate, assured control.
Plus, it ends with the completely insane and awesome stunt where Bond and Lin charge the bike toward the hovering pursuant helicopter, only to slide under its low, angled blades at the last minute. It’s an amazingly cool stunt that’s stuck in my mind ever since I first saw the film.
And speaking of Michelle Yeoh, let’s talk about how awesome Wai Lin is, especially within the context of this franchise. Bond Girls have come in various sizes and types, some more capable than others. Just one movie prior we had Famke Janssen going full bore with what remains one of the most memorable villains in Bond Film history. But that’s part of what sets Wai Lin apart. While not every non-villain Bond Girl is completely helpless, we’d never seen a female ally of 007’s who could up and kick as much ass as the super spy himself. Wai Lin is cool, confident, sexy and more than capable of handling mobs of faceless henchmen all by her lonesome.
In fact, one of my favorite moments in the entire film comes right after Yeoh was given a brief action beat to show off her martial arts skills. Bond and Lin have admitted that each needs the other’s help in order to stop Carver from kick-starting World War III, and it’s here that Bond gets uncharacteristically clowned in several instances. Not being fluent in Chinese and faced with a keyboard using only the Chinese alphabet, his commanding bravado is shot down a moment after insisting he send the distress message to their respective governments while Lin prepares the armaments and supplies. Now relegated to supply duty, Bond then makes a bit of a fool of himself as he accidentally sets off gadgets and traps he knows nothing about as Lin observes off to the side with a sustained look of stifled amusement. Granted, Bond still does all this in his typically charming fashion so the scene never feels like it’s laughing at Bond (merely with him), but it’s the fact that he’s shown to be comical and less than fully competent in the face of a cool and collected female equal that makes this moment truly stand out.
In another moment atypical for Bond we see him express deep remorse. While Paris Carver (played with bored obligation by Teri Hatcher) might be one of the most bland and forgettable women to appear in a Bond film, her character at least serves a useful purpose: Illumination. Information delving into Bond’s past was exceptionally rare (especially pre-Daniel Craig), so the fact that we learn that not only was Paris an old flame but apparently one with whom Bond remained committed to for an extended period … well, it felt like a borderline revelation. Add to this the genuine sense of sadness and remorse Bond expresses when he discovers her dead body and Tomorrow Never Dies ends up being one of the stronger Bond films in terms of character development. Granted, the Craig Era films all dwarf this in terms of revelations about Bond, his past and his emotions but for the time this felt like a Big Deal.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention K.D. Lang’s stunning end credits song, Surrender. I don’t hate the Sheryl Crow song used for the opening titles, necessarily, but it can’t hold a candle to the number that Lang belts out. It’s a sweeping and rousing song that captures a level of passion and intensity that, frankly, the film never comes close to reaching. This thing would easily be considered among the top five best Bond themes had it been placed properly in the film. Maybe that’s why they decided not to use it as the opening titles theme, a fear that it’d be all downhill from there. Want proof? Someone took the liberty of replacing Lang’s song over the existing title sequence. Thanks, Internet!
Ultimately, Tomorrow Never Dies is a frustrating film. It has more than its share of stand-out and noteworthy moments, but the final and full product is something much less than the sum of its parts. Still, it’s a much better movie The World Is Not Enough, at least. Not even I am brave enough to mount a defense of that one.