Many thanks to my good friend Christian Robshaw for submitting this review. Please also check out his page Mediocre Batman, and read on for his great review.
The first thing I wish to do with this review is to address a grievance of mine in regards to this film’s reputation: it’s not a bad film. It’s not even a mediocre film, but rather, a modern Bond of the same high standard of its predecessor GoldenEye and successor The World is Not Enough. All three successfully update, while never abandoning their classic roots, a character, a setting and a worldview which is, on reflection, absurdly dated; as M sternly tells Bond in GoldenEye, “you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur […] A relic of the Cold War”. But of these three modern classics of the Brosnan era (Die Another Day is something different entirely – bad different), Tomorrow Never Dies is overlooked, with a mere 55% on Rotten Tomatoes, and very few critics really speaking in its favour.
I think the major issue for many is the perception of the plot as “silly”. To recap, the Rupert Murdoch-esque media mogul Elliott Carver hoaxes international incidents – his plan, before its thwarting, would have run all the way to nuclear war with China – in order to increase his newspaper circulation. Now, this is not a silly plot. Not only does it crop up in passing in Citizen Kane, it was also enacted, more or less, by Citizen Kane’s real-life inspiration, William Randolph Hearst. But aside from that, is it really so silly a plot? For a Bond villain? The villains of both The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker intend to destroy humanity in order to replace it with a race of underwater/space übermenschen. It takes a lot for a Bond villain’s plot to be too silly. And aside from that again, isn’t it nice for a Bond film to manage a little satire? It’s certainly rare, but that rarity is surprising considering how well it works here.
It helps, of course, that Jonathan Pryce’s performance as Carver is so gleefully contemptible. Bond’s enemies are usually intimidating types, from the spheres of the military, crime, or terrorism, with a gravitas and a brutality about them; Pryce’s Carver is a skinny, campy nerd who appears to have discovered evil about five minutes ago and remains delighted with himself for doing so. There’s something childlike about him, but also something immensely punchable. The speech he delivers to Bond – while writing Bond’s obituary – is a particularly delicious slice of ham.
Actually, like GoldenEye before it, Tomorrow Never Dies manages to introduce several distinctive and interesting villains, without ever overstretching itself. Stamper is a brutal, and very Teutonic, physical intimidation henchman in the Jaws mould; he never says much, but then he never needs to. His presence is enough. Kaufman, on the other hand, speaks a lot in his brief scene-stealing appearance, and I have to say it’s a shame he didn’t receive more screentime: an ultra-professional, sadistic torturer and hitman is, surprisingly enough, not something Bond’s faced before. I think he could easily have worked as the main villain of another film, with Vincent Schiavelli’s camp, creepy performance given centre stage. There is, however, a weak link in this villain chain: Carver’s tech guy Mr. Gupta, as portrayed by Ricky Jay, does very little and receives a baffling amount of screentime in which to do it, adding up to nothing more than a waste of an excellent stage magician.
As to the good guys, Pierce Brosnan is, as ever, the best Bond, a wonderful mix of lightness and dark, and Judi Dench’s M is utterly compelling. Look out in particular for her performance in the opening action sequence, which actually features more M than it does Bond: her reaction to Bond’s apparent death is a wonderfully subtle indication of a maternal care which was absent from her cold treatment of him in the previous film. Unfortunately Michelle Yeoh, while undoubtedly talented and beautiful, exhibits neither of these qualities as Wai Lin, a character I find flat and unlikable, whose personality stretches no further than knowing kung fu. I think the intention here was to set her up as a parallel, and in some ways a superior, spy character, but this just means she’s given even more lines to deliver monotone.
If Wai Lin is the film’s biggest flaw, its next-biggest flaw has to be the title song by Sheryl Crow, a weird dirge which is one part polished modern rock, one part torch song, and no parts spy movie theme. It doesn’t help that it’s paired with one of the least visually interesting opening credits sequences in the Bond canon, but even so, it’s baffling that k.d. lang’s closing theme, “Surrender”, wasn’t chosen as the main theme.
Elsewhere, though, the music is fantastic; David Arnold, in his first Bond film as composer, updates Bond’s musical world with elements of breakbeat and Big Beat and really any kind of beat you like. It’s a great contrast to GoldenEye’s utterly unmodern synth atmospheres, which were effectively the one element of that film which didn’t belong in the new era Bond was entering. And while, aside from the score, Tomorrow Never Dies doesn’t top GoldenEye, it’s only a very short way off.
Reviewed by Christian Robshaw.
His site: Mediocre Batman