WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: Fresh from averting disaster in Russia, James Bond is ordered to investigate disturbing events in the South China Sea, and specifically what media mogul Elliot Carver has to do with the sinking of a British Navy ship. If he and suspiciously gung-ho ‘journalist’ Wai Lin cannot work out what’s going on in the space of 48 hours, their respective countries could find themselves at war.
In GoldenEye, the world was introduced to a new James Bond in the charming shape of Pierce Brosnan, and with a new ‘M’ (Judi Dench) in charge the franchise was perked up no end, retaining 007’s roguishness whilst dealing with the fall of the Soviet Union and other new realities. Now Bond is back for the eighteenth time, and while much of the action takes place in the East, in terms of quality the franchise has very much gone west.
Saving the world from nuclear devastation at what amounts to a terrorist’s car boot sale in Russia, secret agent James Bond – monitored closely by M and the military – lose track of noted tech expert Henry Gupta (Ricky Jay) in the thankfully non-nuclear fallout. When the HMS Devonshire is sunk in international waters, supposedly at the hands of the Chinese, there are suspicions that all is not as it seems, and trails point to Gupta and media tycoon Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce). M assigns Bond the task of finding out what’s going on in Carver’s organisation, a job complicated by Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher) being one of Bond’s numerous ex-lovers. Though it costs her her life, Paris gives 007 what he needs to discover the mad magnate’s plan: Elliot plans to use his news outlets to foment war, then profit by reporting on it; also taking advantage of the situation to get his news channels on the air in China, the one country in which he doesn’t already dominate. In the course of Bond’s adventures, he runs into supposed journalist Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) who is investigating Carver for the Chinese authorities. As the countdown to war begins – to be initiated by Carver with a missile strike on Beijing from his ‘stealth boat’ – the secret agents race across the world to prevent a catastrophe, although Carver’s vicious right-hand man Stamper (Gotz Otto) is only too happy to kill them as painfully as possible.
Though I always do, it’s no use complaining about the things that are wrong with every Bond film, such as his deadly accuracy when flailing around with a machine gun whilst the hordes shooting at him can only ever hit nearby railings; the cringe-worthy double entendres and glib one-liners (they border on non sequiturs here); or the talkative assassins who somehow can’t resist a bit of reminiscing before pulling the trigger. No, Bond is fine, in his smooth, invulnerable way: the problem with Tomorrow Never Dies is that the problems are amplified to extraordinary proportions and some new ones are piled on top, Elliot Carver chief amongst them. As a symbol of the power and influence of the media, Carver is an obviously satirical take on Rupert Murdoch; fair enough, but taking the neat idea of ‘there’s no news like bad news’ and expanding it so that Carver has his own warmongering ship and army of henchmen verges on pantomime (witness the outlandish way he attempts to type one-handed!). Carver is not a credible character, but the blame for this lies not so much with Pryce (though he’s a bit wild) as with the writer Bruce Feirstein, who makes the bad guy a callous madman clever enough to run a huge corporation, but so stupid that he fails to react to a huge drill whirring behind him. Furthermore, it’s virtually inexcusable plotting for the villain to leave the scene whilst his henchmen finish Bond off (Austin Powers made fun of this and rightly so): Carver does it twice.
Glossing – like the movie – over M, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance of Joe Don Baker as Bond’s CIA contact and the fatuous two minutes with Q (Desmond Llewelyn), the film’s next problem is Michelle Yeoh. She’s great at the stunts and the martial arts stuff, and aside from a few smaller fights gets to show off her skills in a sequence created just for her to kick ass; but she’s no great shakes as an English-speaking actress, shares very little chemistry with Brosnan (is this why the ending is so abrupt?) and you feel she’s mainly in the film to market Bond to a larger audience. And while we’re on the subject of marketing, the idea of Bond driving a BMW is pretty hard to stomach – and who knew they made bikes? – but the use to which the car’s badge is put (handily, it contains a blade that pops up at exactly the right height to cut through a steel rope) is awful. This makes Bond’s mobile phone with its sonic screwdriver-like abilities a little easier to stomach: but not much.
It’s not all bad. Teri Hatcher is fine in a short-lived role and as ever, Bond’s globe-trotting and action sequences are explosively and lovingly shot. The money shot in Tomorrow Never Dies is a motorbike jump over a helicopter, and it’s very good; but the exciting moments don’t come frequently enough, and in between the action is either far too casual (millions of people are about to die, so act like it’s a big thing, won’t you?) or extremely stilted – on both the Navy and Carver’s boats, some good British actors are given dialogue so dry they can’t help but sound like they’re reading it off their monitors. Last of all, while I bemoaned the lack of a countdown in GoldenEye, and the climactic fight between Stamper and Bond as Wai Lin struggles underwater is tremendously exciting, the fact that the last minute of the countdown actually lasts 2 minutes and 44 seconds doesn’t create tension but destroys it.
I try to like Bond, I really do, but the idiocy of films like this one makes me rail against people who tell me to enjoy it for what it is. What Tomorrow Never Dies is is an indifferent movie with a bad script and a bad baddie. The film is dedicated to the late ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, legendary producer of the Bond series: I don’t think he would have been impressed if he had lived to see all of Bond no. 18.