Page to Screen: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Tomorrow Never Dies
based on characters by Ian Fleming


While checking out a handful of the Connery films at the library, I, all fired up about the Bondathon, told the librarian what I was doing. “Oh,” she said, “Pierce Brosnan was my favorite. I’m just so disappointed that he only made one…”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. On the one hand, I could surprise her with the delightful fact that Brosnan, in fact, made four Bond films, giving her three more movies to watch. On the other hand, now actually having seen Tomorrow Never Dies, she may have been thinking of GoldenEye the way I think of the first season of Heroes and other people think of The Matrix: what a shame they never made another! Sometimes, you must lie to yourself to protect yourself from disappointment.

In Tomorrow Never Dies, MI6 grows suspicious of media mogul Eliot Carver when his paper, Tomorrow, reports critical and top secret details of an international incident in the South China Seas concerning a British frigate supposedly sunk by the Chinese. Bond, given his expertise and his past relationship with Carver’s wife, Paris, is sent to a party celebrating the launch of Carver Media Group Network’s new satellite. But Carver is ready for him, and Bond, with the help of his Chinese opposite number Wai Lin, must stop Carver before he starts World War III to boost CMGN’s ratings.

Here’s the first note on my first draft of this post: “what the crap was that people”. If GoldenEye is, at heart, the third Timothy Dalton picture (which simply had the misfortune of not actually starring Dalton), Tomorrow Never Dies is a living cartoon. It does try to say some things about information being the new weapon, but it mutters it under its breath, like a surly teenager. I’m starting to see the beginning of the end, the end being, of course, Die Another Day. Now, I enjoy cartoonish, silly action films. You’ve seen my love for cheesy adaptations of The Three Musketeers before and, within the Bond franchise, I loved Moonraker. But the franchise, since the end of the Moore years, has been arcing towards something grittier, so it’s disorienting to see the franchise take such a huge step back.

But, at the end of the day, if you want to make a living cartoon, there are certainly ways to do it well. None of them are utilized here. Perhaps the best example of Tomorrow Never Dies’ sloppy writing (according to David Campbell Wilson, the script wasn’t ready to shoot on the first day of filming) takes place during an extended action sequence set in a parking deck. Inside Bond’s tricked-out BMW is the encoder Carver uses to manipulate world events to his advantage. Outside the BMW is a swarming horde of Carver’s minions, armed to the teeth. Bond leaps into the back seat and uses the car’s remote control (don’t ask; at least it was established beforehand) to not only drive the thing, but deploy the car’s own arsenal. Two lackeys stretch a thick wire across an exit Bond must take. A wire cutter emerges from the BMW logo and cuts it, both wire and cutter magically being at the correct height. Too many easy gadgets spoil the Bond and the script.

And that’s just how they treat the inanimate objects. While Teri Hatcher was advertised as the main Bond girl, she’s killed off in short order, making little impression. Happily, Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin gets better treatment: she’s the Chinese, female James Bond, calm, capable, and awesome. (Someone on TVTropes pointed out that that’s probably why her relationship with Bond is so shallow; we’re seeing one of Bond’s usual relationships from the other side. Brilliant!) She’s also easily the better spy: the script makes Bond something of an idiot at times. He gets captured by Carver because he can’t help himself making nautical innuendo about the incident to the man’s face. Some of the charm of the Moore years came from his Bond not being terribly good at his job, but this is just ridiculous. Jonathan Pryce does what he can with a lazy villain role. Oddly enough, some aspects of his character that must have looked extreme then look realistic now; it’s hard not to look at the banners bearing Carver’s face and not think of Steve Jobs.

Tomorrow Never Dies does have some bright spots, mostly provided by the capable cast working around the script. Judi Dench as M is, of course, flawless, and the casting director had a bit of fun by giving her an admiral to square off against played by Geoffrey Palmer. (The two played a couple on As Time Goes By.) Moneypenny gets barely a scrap of screentime, but I do like how they’ve updated the Moneypenny and Bond banter by making her a little more mischievous. She just looks so proud of herself for her double entendres, like she can’t help making a joke. It’s very sweet. Weirdly enough, we also get a pair of lackeys with soul: Vincent Shiavelli’s prim torturer Dr. Kaufman steals the one scene he’s in, and there’s a wonderful moment when Stamper, Carver’s German lug of a bodyguard, reveals that Dr. Kaufman was like a father to him. You can see Bond internally rolling his eyes into the back of his head.

Sheryl Crow’s “Tomorrow Never Dies” might be one of my favorite Bond theme songs—it’s a very interesting mix of Bond bombast and her own style, something we’ll see more of as we press on through the series. (Only five movies to go, because I’ve decided I need to see Skyfall again in context.) The title sequence, while it goes a bit pear-shaped at the end, has a lot of interesting ideas, but the one I’m particularly haunted me is a woman constructing herself out of a hard drive. Too bad it’s in this movie…

Bottom line: If GoldenEye was the third Dalton film, then Tomorrow Never Dies is a living cartoon. The few bright spots—including the theme song—can’t make up for a sloppy, cartoonish script. Pass.

I rented this film on iTunes.

6 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

  1. I think this was the first Bond film I ever saw, because it had recently come out and my aunt had the VHS of it. I remember liking Michelle Yeoh and disliking that Teri Hatcher got killed off so quickly because I was a big fan of Lois & Clark at the time. I think that I liked the film overall at the time, but I was also sixteen.

  2. There is so much wrong with this film, but there are some great bits in it. I really like the motorcycle chase and Wai Lin’s fantastic character – though I get so annoyed when Carver refers to her at the end as “the girl”, as if she’s the usual Bondian bit of fluff. All the Bond gadgets are just a bit too convenient, in my opinion: it’s as if Q knew they’d all be wanted…

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