Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
I really like Pierce Brosnan as an actor. I also really like the concept of Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. However, in many ways, I have always considered his time in the role as GoldenEye and then three other movies where he was wasted. GoldenEye was such a return to form for the series that I eagerly awaited what would come next. I was even more excited that Michelle Yeoh was going to be one of the Bond girls.
Something important to understand about the 1990s. There is a lot of nostalgia right now for '80s cinema, largely because that decade managed to get quite a number of genres right and, for Generation X, there were directors that did a good job of capturing what our childhood was like, whether it be Stand by Me or The Breakfast Club. It also contained a bevy of imaginative horror and action films for the older crowd, many of which we had to wait until our parents let us see R-rated films to finally enjoy.
Thus, those types of films continued into the '90s as we could finally spend our own money. What also happened in the 1990s was a wave of independent film making not seen since the 1970s, and, just like in music, the revival of a number of other genres. Martial arts movies became a thing again, and not necessarily the traditional costume dramas of the Shaw Brothers. Along with that Hong Kong action films, and the style they were directed in, became the rage. As 1997, the time that the British colony would fall into the clutches of the People's Republic of China, was approaching, a number of actors and directors were hedging their bets on Hollywood. It was a gamble that paid off, with a number of Jackie Chan's Hong Kong films being brought to American audiences.
Keep in mind these were not playing in art or grindhouse theaters. Armour of God, Rumble in the Bronx and a number of other movies from his early '90s output had mainstream openings in neighborhood multiplexes. One of the most popular was Police Story 3: Supercop, which was released under the shortened name Supercop in the U.S. It introduced American audiences to Yeoh, a Malaysian actress and stuntwoman whose style was a equal to Chan's in that movie. One of the most famous scenes was Yeoh jumping a motorcycle onto a moving train. Though released in Hong Kong in 1992, it came to U.S. theaters in 1996, a year before Tomorrow Never Dies.
With these expectations of seeing Brosnan reprise the role and hopefully see Yeoh set free to do her own stunts, I was there to see the movie open. What I got at the time was not quite what I expected, so much that the main memory of the movie I had was seeing buildings covered with Chinese writing when our heroes are supposed to be in Saigon, which, obviously, is not China. It was as if the entire series had taken a giant step backward into the worst of the Roger Moore era.
A British ship in the South China Sea finds itself being buzzed by the Chinese Air Force, but they insist that they are international waters. What appears to be a torpedo hits the boat, and they get a last shot of at one of the MiGs. Only problem is, the whole thing was manipulated by news and entertainment mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce). The escalation of tensions between China and the UK is central to the launch of his new satellite news network, and he intends to reap the rewards of being the one agency able to report on the events in a timely manner.
While both countries prepare for war, M (Judi Dench) becomes suspicious of the fact that Carver was aware of the deaths of a number of the survivors of the ship prior to the bodies being found by the Vietnamese Navy, and sends Bond to investigate and use his prior relationship with Carver's wife Paris (Teri Hatcher) as leverage. As usual, Bond isn't the best undercover agent, and Carver figures him out rather quickly. It also turns out that British Intelligence isn't the only one with suspicions about what is behind what is devolving into a shooting war; Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), originally posing as a journalist, turns out to be a Chinese intelligence agent also investigating Carver. Soon Bond and Wai Lin team up to stop Carver from bringing his plan to fruition.
I think I am understanding why I have been so disappointed in most of the villains during Roger Moore's tenure. I have become quite used to someone like Elliot Carver chewing the scenery throughout, and Jonathan Pryce does so in a way that I am surprised he didn't gain about 10 pounds during the course of the movie. His motivations are completely ridiculous, which is something I also had a problem with when originally seeing this movie. Distrust in the media was growing throughout the 1990s, but this just seemed to be getting silly. Silly or not, Pryce sells it with all he's got.
For henchmen this time we have another computer expert in Henry Gupta (Ricky Jay), and the usual slab of Teutonic muscle in Stamper (Götz Otto). Otto has just the right amount of menace to overcome the fact that his is one of the most overused bad guys in Bond films, and it is hilarious hearing someone of his size ordered around by someone like Carver. An all-to-short sequence involves a Dr. Kaufman (Vincent Schiavelli) who also attempts to do Bond in, with the usual results. Schiavelli, a seasoned character actor, manages to makes his few minutes quite memorable.
Teri Hatcher has stated she took the role of Paris Carver largely because her husband at the time fantasized about being a Bond girl. From what I understand she had no passion of the project, and it shows as she largely sleepwalks her way through her part. Michelle Yeoh, on the other hand, does get to do many of her own stunts and even keep her clothes on throughout. She is also not forced into doing the cutesy Asian woman stereotype; rather, she's believable as Bond's Chinese equal. I just wish she was in more of the film, and that she had been allowed to do more. Unfortunately, insurance concerns led to her having a stand-in in some cases.
Brosnan is again solid in the role, as if it was as tailor-made for him as his suits. Quality of some of the movies in this period aside, I will never have any complaints about how he portrayed the character. It has to also be said that, though I generally disliked this film (and the fact that neither Hong Kong nor Bangkok work as stand-ins for Vietnam) when it came out, I was surprised on the re-watch. I expected it to be a slog to get through, but then the opening sequence (which I had completely forgotten about) was amazing. Then, stupid as the plot is, as it unwound I found myself enjoying this even more than I did re-watching GoldenEye after all these years. It is minus the bloat of many of the Bond films, including the ones that Brosnan is in, and just largely gives the audience action sequence after action sequence.
The plot being thin isn't that surprising, as by all accounts this was a mess to make. There was no script, Pryce and Hatcher weren't even cast, and Anthony Hopkins (who was originally supposed to play Carver) left, thinking The Mask of Zorro was a better use of his time. That it was entertaining in any way is a surprise, given Roger Spottiswoode was the director for Stop or My Mom Will Shoot. I'm surprised with that on his resume that he was allowed to make any movie, much less a Bond film, but he delivers what is needed. This was also a harbinger of Bond films, and blockbuster movies, to come, exceeding a hundred million dollars to make. At least I can say the money was spent wisely for what's on the screen.
I know this is one film that I will differ from with most people. I really doubt that for many I would be able to convince them that Tomorrow Never Dies is anything more than a convoluted mess of thin plotting with a few redeeming qualities here and there. For me, however, it is a pleasant surprise at how much fun a movie that I myself had dismissed could really be. Keep in mind I don't have any such high hopes for the other Brosnan Bond films, but at least I can say I found my own guilty pleasure among the bunch.
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Time: 119 minutes
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Michelle Yeoh, Jonathan Pryce, Teri Hatcher, Götz Otto
Director: Roger Spottiswoode