Short Take: Fit with images and writing reminiscent of campy graphic novels, Tomorrow Never Dies undermines its potential to be a fun thriller with a lack of any serious direction.
Officially entering my first real foray in the world of James Bond cheese, I met Tomorrow Never Dies with some initial hope for a playful charmer. That hope was slowly dashed by mindless action scenes that litter the second half. Rampant sexual innuendos and bombastic plot lines, that were sometimes metaphors for our media machine today, almost had me hooked on believing that this film might be onto something. Ultimately, Tomorrow Never Dies left me exhausted by what a mess it was destined to become. A perfect example of blockbuster profiteering at its worst, this seemingly intelligent plot doesn’t take itself seriously at all. There’s no fun in watching a film that thinks any dumb stunt will be entertaining enough to sustain an audience’s excitement.
After a British ship is attacked, we find out that an insane media mogul named Elliot Carver has schemed to turn nations against each other, start wars, and make billions off being the first to report on the chaos. James Bond enters the scene when he’s dispatched to use Carver’s wife – a former lover of Bond’s, of course – to get to the core of what Carver’s planning. Bond steals the decoder that Carver used to send the British ship off course. As he investigates the ship’s content, he meets up with a Chinese operative named Wai Lin, whose also investigating Carver’s involvement. After they are captured, they must work together to stop Carver from starting World War III.
The main question I had while watching Tomorrow Never Dies was, “Why in the world would someone want to start a war that could potentially kill them?” It seems the concept of Carver making profit out of exploiting the bad of the world was exciting enough for the creators of this Bond movie, that the asinine nature of the plot was not an issue. That said, the story does have potential to be quite interesting. In fact, seen today, knowing the control that mass media and social networking has on our lives, the plot almost had potential to be topical. However, the concepts are only half-explored and, in the end, left behind entirely.
Tomorrow Never Dies employs a structure that has become commonplace amongst Hollywood blockbusters. The first portion slowly sets up the world while inter-cutting some decent fight scenes. Then the film gives itself over entirely to implausible action
stunts in the second half. This was the kind of film I feared Bond movies might be. No substance and only ill-conceived style. In fact, much of the last half felt like one spectacle after another, as though the creators want to flex all the pyrotechnic muscles they had in the canon. We get exaggerated moments underwater, high-speed chases on motorcycles, a man chewed up by a sharp propeller blade, and of course, a fiery explosion that destroys the edifice that houses the final shootout scene.
On the plus side, while Pierce Bronson still seems like the bratty, privileged kid who does this “spy thing” just because he’s so damn good at it, his child-like charm and interest in all his gadgets had an endearing touch. It’s a bit like being charmed by the popular kid who gets all the girls, plays on the Varsity team, and also gets into Princeton, but in Tomorrow Never Dies at least he’s gentle, therefore, more aspirational than obnoxious. In many respects, I’m coming to realize that the more vulnerable Bond seems, the more human he is, and the more stakes we feel for his plight. Here, Bond seems, if nothing else, confused by why Carver would do what he’s doing. The uncertainty leaves him insecure and off-kilter. James Bond’s confusion about the plot may be the most relatable aspect of the film. God knows, I was confused all the same.
Besides Bond’s humanization, the playful tone is taken to another level, with sexual innuendos like, “Pump her for information,” “I’m thinking of getting Wai Lin behind a desk,” and “I told you I barely know him” being tossed around with snappy wit and charm, especially from M. The stiff and cold GoldenEye was missing such fun. Also, Tomorrow Never Dies has the best opening sequence I’ve seen yet in a Bond film. Part of the excitement comes from the clarity of stakes. We get what’s going on and therefore we can engage in the inevitable Bond-saves-the-day outcome. Knowing what’s being set-up allowed me to be invested in the basic conceit of the story.
There’s promise to Tomorrow Never Dies that outshines any of the Bond films I’ve seen so far. The opening scene is handled with clarity and skill. The plot has the potential to be thought-provoking and metaphorical. The tone, with its playful graphic novel design, could have been a sharply enjoyable experience. Instead, the story chooses to move away from sly humor to outright camp. Any notion of simile is replaced by literal-minded action. By the time the credits roll, the air has long since been let out the story. [C]