James Bond battles a rolling-news media empire in Tomorrow Never Dies, but with its topical plot and quick turnaround, was it a tad premature?.
This feature contains moderate spoilers for Tomorrow Never Dies. (Surrender…!)
“I always wondered how I’d feel if I ever saw you again.”
There aren’t many movies about unchecked and unaccountable media empires, (wonder why?) and arguably, the James Bond series hit upon the topic just a smidge too early with 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies, in which a news company makes the headlines instead of chasing them. It also skirts becoming Carry On Media Ethics, but let’s say that Pierce Brosnan’s second outing as 007 comes in a more traditional mould.
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode, the film revisits a popular Bond story template, whereby two nations are perched on the brink of war while a nefarious third party secretly manipulates them both for personal gain and profit. In this case, when a British navy frigate strays into Chinese waters, the news is broken suspiciously quickly by media mogul Elliot Carver, (Jonathan Pryce) owner of the “Tomorrow” newspaper and the Carver Media Group Network.
Given Carver’s influence with the governments of the world, the subsequent investigation is diplomatically tricky for MI6, but further complicated by Bond’s former romantic entanglement with Carver’s current wife Paris (Teri Hatcher) and a parallel mission for Chinese security agent Colonel Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh). Together, they have to stop Carver starting World War III to boost his TV ratings.
As Bond ramped up its production cycle again, there were some difficulties with this instalment, with Brosnan among the cast members who were unhappy with the script and the ongoing rewrites during shooting.
What’s more, series pioneer and long-serving producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli passed away in 1996. The next film was duly dedicated to his memory, but even more so than GoldenEye, there’s a sense of the series moving forward without its key influencers and drivers steering the ship.
That’s mitigated here by the general retreat into familiarity. In GoldenEye, the world has changed, but in Tomorrow Never Dies, it seems as if the 1990s aren’t so different after all.
But heck, what else do you expect from a film named after a typo? Various reports have it that the film was supposed to called Tomorrow Never Lies, as the slogan of Carver’s flagship publication, before the producers decided to roll with a mistake.
Tomorrow Never Dies may have been the first Bond production to use digital editing, but this was still some time before digital prints became standard, meaning there was a rush to get the movie finished in order to make film prints for the global rollout – we’ve covered more of that mad scrambled in a previous episode of the Film Stories podcast, which is linked below:
In part, the frazzled production was down to script problems. Early plans entailed the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese, due to take place later in 1997, but before filming began in January that year, the filmmakers shied away from referencing real events that might not go as planned. This necessitated a complete rewrite by Bruce Feirstein (who gets sole credit).
While drawing upon various elements of the previous 17 films, the plot lands in roughly the same territory as You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me before it. That proves a decent template on which to stick different bits from the informal writers room, but the finished script could only be the product of the staggered pitching and writing process.
The basis of GoldenEye’s conservative reboot was that the world had changed but Bond hadn’t. On the other hand, Tomorrow Never Dies reverses this a little – there’s more of a suggestion that even brand-new villains might fit into a rather more familiar world and tone after all, while Brosnan’s Bond gets a little more depth than last time around.
As played here, Bond is reluctant to involve Paris in the mission and even a little regretful that he ended their relationship for his work. The film hints that they broke up because he feared her being hurt or killed one day and sure enough, when Paris goes the way of various villains’ partners before her, it’s still by far the least callous version of this particular trope. On its own merits, Brosnan’s reaction, with that groan of grief and disappointment and then silence, is an underplayed moment and a fascinating expression of a still-fresh Bond. It’s still not much for Hatcher to play and she later regretted taking such an unfulfilling role.
Faring much better, Wai Lin is another update of a familiar archetype – a female counterpart to Bond working for another intelligence service, as seen in The Spy Who Loved Me and then again a couple of films later. Played by Yeoh, she’s certainly the most assertive and independent character of her type, and the big set-piece, which contrives to have her co-drive a motorbike while handcuffed to Bond, is a high point for the Brosnan era.
Second-unit director Vic Armstrong was pipped to the top job by Spottiswoode, but the accelerated production gave him and the other units a lot to be getting on with and there’s some stonking action set-pieces throughout the film, from the throwaway thrill of the HALO jump to the full-size remote-control BMW chase in a multi-storey car park. Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit does fine work too.
Another appointment that works massively in the film’s favour is composer David Arnold, scoring his first of five Bond movies to date here. His modern yet John Barry-esque music complements the film wonderfully and for those who are inclined, disc releases of the film have an Isolated Score audio track. (Don’t all jump at the chance to watch Tomorrow Never Dies without dialogue now…)
Arnold also contributed the k.d. lang track “Surrender” as a closing-credits track as Sheryl Crow was already signed up to sing the pop-ballad-y opening title song, but then the story of Tomorrow Never Dies’ various theme songs is one we’ve covered elsewhere:
Read more: The many theme songs of Tomorrow Never Dies
We also get characters like Paris and Wai Lin and, most entertainingly, Dr Kaufman, (Vincent Schiavelli) an all-timer of a henchman whose fleeting but super-quotable part recalls classical henchmen as a counter to the typically invulnerable Stamper (Götz Otto). Countless other actors might have phoned this in from Stuttgart but only Schiavelli produces the desired effect.
On the flip side of that, the aforementioned masterstrokes don’t cohere as well as they ought to, in a script that too frequently errs towards pastiche. Hong Kong doesn’t come up (and the handover wouldn’t be referenced until Skyfall) but the more topical angle that emerged in later script drafts is a send-up of media barons like Robert Maxwell (specifically) and Rupert Murdoch (more implicitly).
Despite taking a lead from other films’ plots, the nearest point of comparison for Tomorrow Never Dies is another second outing, The Man With The Golden Gun – similarly, there’s a sense of a different type of villain being snapped into a Bond villain template because they’re not sure what else to do with him. In creating Carver, Feirstein took inspiration from the different representation of the same story about the Gulf War on Sky News and CNN and arrived at a villain who’s more premature than prescient.
And unusually for a public figure, he’s an inveterate baddy, even in contexts where you’d think he’d get someone else to do his dirty work. He’s across everything, seemingly as involved with the live launch of a news channel as he is barking orders from the deck of an advanced stealth ship he doesn’t actually need to be on. Micro-management is a terrible thing, is it any wonder he’s headed for a fall?
In any case, his villainous plot is full of holes, (tantamount to confessing to war crimes on his own front page) and the reveal of what he actually hopes to gain from starting a nuclear war is more anti-climactic than sharp or satirical. Pryce’s performance is a bit of a Marmite one too – like Brosnan, the star wasn’t happy about the script changes, but he has a ball with it anyway, leaving absolutely no scenery unchewed.
Aside from howlers like his demented typing style and his embarrassing kung-fu mockery, Pryce is strong enough as an actor to remain watchable as he gets ever more ridiculous. Mind you, with today’s eyes, it’s much easier to imagine CEOs could be public-facing megalomaniacs as cringy, unfunny, or openly shitty as Carver – as amply evidenced by Twitter, or its new CEO’s Saturday Night Live hosting gig.
Much has been made elsewhere of the film’s more prescient concerns about the media run amok, but the newness of the idea seems to have the film at a disadvantage in places. One film after GoldenEye didn’t really get the internet, this arrives too early to find a frame of reference on how mass media would really change our world in the years to come. Over the last twenty years, media spin has gone through our democracy like an especially slow sea drill, encouraged by journalists and politicians alike, but those stakes are hard to make an action movie about, especially in 1997.
Instead, there’s lots of very tart gags about things like Carver’s new software being riddled with bugs on purpose (it’s the sort of film that would all these years later be down the pub talking about Project Fear and how the Millennium Bug was a big fuss over nothing, if films went down the pubs) and a tortured bit of exposition about his brush with “Sir Angus Black, the great British beef baron” at his party.
Inevitably, it’s riddled with such choppy dialogue, but in a competitive field, Bond’s quip about Carver having “an edifice complex” may be the very worst joke in any of the 007 films.
The film wrapped in September 1997, with a single test screening scheduled for just four weeks later, and an unchangeable December release date looming ever closer. They got the job done, but in a typical case of Hollywood accounting, Tomorrow Never Dies’ budget ballooned to $110m, almost double what the more frugal GoldenEye had cost.
With a £333 million gross, the film fell slightly short of its predecessor’s worldwide box-office total too, but we can chalk that up to its US release date landing on the same day as a little film called Titanic. It was still the fourth highest-grossing film in the global chart for 1997.
But the ultimate product of making a Bond film on a deadline is a generic nuts-and-bolts actioner, the second techno-thriller on the bounce after GoldenEye, that nevertheless includes some strokes of genius in a runtime that Spottiswoode insisted be kept below the two-hour mark.
The late, great Cubby Broccoli always said Bond should be set five minutes into the future and as the title suggests, Tomorrow Never Dies is the Bond series’ first all-out satire; a film about the adversaries it imagines 007 will have to save us from in the next five to ten years. In retrospect, it’s quite optimistic, compared to how we’ve actually treated corrupt and unaccountably dishonest business figures around the world.
It’s well acted, shot, and edited, but without the proper script development, it’s both forward-thinking and instantly dated – maybe not the difficult second outing that The Man With The Golden Gun proved to be, but something a little closer to pastiche than many Bond fans might like.
Tomorrow Never Dies is screening in select Cineworld, Odeon, and VUE cinemas nationwide from Friday 12th August. UK readers can also watch it on ITV1 on Saturday 13th August at 8:00 p.m.
Also on Film Stories:
James Bond at 60 – where does 007 go from here?
No Time To Die, one year on – a James Bond finale
James Bond, Spectre, and the trouble with a retcon
Skyfall – resurrecting and retro-fitting James Bond
Quantum Of Solace – revisiting Daniel Craig’s difficult second James Bond film
Casino Royale, and the art of disarming and reloading James Bond
Die Another Day, and James Bond as his own worst enemy
The World Is Not Enough and the “Bond girls” of the 1990s
GoldenEye and the “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” package
Licence To Kill and James Bond’s special relationship with America
The Living Daylights, and what Timothy Dalton brings to James Bond
A View To A Kill – what really makes a good James Bond movie?
Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, and 1983’s battle of the Bonds
The story of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score
Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and James Bond’s maddest mission
The Spy Who Loved Me – celebrating James Bond’s workplace romantic comedy
The Man With The Golden Gun – a James Bond film as good as its villain?
Live And Let Die and the making of Roger Moore’s James Bond
Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the curious case of George Lazenby’s James Bond
You Only Live Twice and the rise of the James Bond parody
Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations
Goldfinger – how James Bond found his gadgets, girls, and groove
From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake
Dr No, and James Bond’s long road to the big screen
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