Friday, November 26, 2010
Not Growing Up At All
A cluster of trumpets, as if the opening of John Barry’s main title to FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE was somehow raised from the dead, herald Pierce Brosnan’s first on-camera appearance (not counting the gunbarrel) in TOMORROW NEVER DIES. The music sting sends a surge of electricity through the air, proclaiming JAMES BOND IS BACK in a way that the actor was never quite given in GOLDENEYE, his first stab at the character, and the unabashed charge of the moment seems to signal that this really will be the Bond film that we’ve been waiting to see. And at the time that’s exactly what it was but while TOMORROW NEVER DIES is one of those Bond films I may have liked a lot at the time, it really hasn’t aged very well. Released in December 1997 (same day as TITANIC, for those keeping track) it played just great then, a fun film to see in a theater with a big crowd, delivering non-stop excitement and serving as a solidification of Pierce Brosnan’s success in the role. But the years have laid bare just how uninteresting a movie it really is and even if the action is extremely well done at times too much of the story doesn’t have anything to offer other than that action. This sort of criticism was put forth when QUANTUM OF SOLACE (a problematic film for different reasons) came out a few years back and it raises the question: if a James Bond film pays so much attention to the action at the expense of anything else, should it automatically be considered a failure? It would be easy to delve into how the its villain resembles a real-life famous mogul with a powerful television network, only a year old at the time the film was made, and one which really has transformed the airwaves into its own force for evil. But, frankly, even I’m not sure if I can muster very much excitement in thinking about that too much since the film’s politics just aren’t interesting enough to go down that road.
Media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) uses a special encoding technology via his own private stealth boat to send the USS Devonshire off course without its knowledge into Chinese waters in order to instigate tensions between England and China on the eve of the premiere of his new news network. The headlines of his newspaper Tomorrow blare reports of the conflict as he looks to reap the rewards when war breaks out. MI6 agent James Bond 007 (Pierce Brosnan) is of course sent in to investigate, posing as a banker at the gala premiere of the network in Hamburg, well aware that Carver is now married to his former love Paris (Teri Hatcher) and Bond has little choice but to seek her out with the intent of using their history to learn what Carver is really up to. He also encounters Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), a supposed Chinese journalist who has her own secret agenda with the magnate. Before they know it, the two must team up before Carver is able to use his technology and media savvy before the conflict between the two superpowers escalates and leads to World War III.
Maybe now we can all agree that Pierce Brosnan never quite got the Bond film he deserved. Looked at together, each of his four entries have a feel of one step forward two back in terms of progress towards achieving that goal and this particular film feels like a case of a production losing focus at a certain point while rushing to make a release date. GOLDENEYE, his first film in the role was very much a case of both actor and production trying to get its footing in terms of what that type of Bond he was going to be, so TOMORROW NEVER DIES (a title which, incidentally, doesn’t come from anything ever written by Ian Fleming) displays a certain degree of greater confidence in its approach but something still falters. The subsequent film THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH has a much improved story, utilizing the actor better—it’s not CHINATOWN or anything, but has some meat to it that helps in repeated viewings. Strangely, the action in that film is often too overblown for the story and is presented in a lackluster manner. In comparison, some of the action in TOMORROW NEVER DIES in expertly staged—at least, up to a point and I’ll get to that—but there’s not enough of a story to support it, with all actual conflict between Bond and the Carvers coming to a halt at a certain point so any element of actual drama, larger-than-life or otherwise, is lost. The way things are laid out in the screenplay (sole credit goes to Bruce Feirstein but other writers including Dan Petrie, Jr. and, interestingly, Nicholas Meyer also worked on it), some of it barely even has a chance to get started anyway. The character of Elliott Carver may be a media genius but, confident as he is, probably could have covered his tracks a little better in his master plan with everyone on Bond’s side seeming to correctly assume right from the start that he’s behind it all.
The entire storyline between Bond and old flame Paris Carver is a total non-starter as if rewrites quashed the entire point of it and, actually, quite a lot of the film feels like multiple rewrites bled out all sorts of elements until they were replaced with not much of anything as the story races from one setpiece to the next. Some of the first half focuses on a search for a half-hearted McGuffin so people like Ricky Jay are basically just stand around, not doing much of anything and by a certain point there’s nothing left to happen except for Bond to run and be shot at, then turn and do some shooting himself. By the halfway mark it feels like the film has featured more machine gun fire than any movie in history and it’s just getting warmed up. The plot is compacted into a very tight time frame of a few days—and, to be fair, unlike a few films like THUNDERBALL at least it pays some attention to its ticking clock—but in doing this it seems to sacrifice too many of the cool Bond elements. Damn it, if Bond’s going to be staying in a luxury hotel I want to see him check into that hotel and share a moment with the hot girl behind the desk as he asks for drinks to be sent to his suite. Or at least some kind of equivalent to give us that cool jet-set downtime and the movie never does that, turning way too much of what goes on into one giant setpiece after another until nothing that happens really matters anymore. One might notice future Oscar winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes playing the Secretary of Defense and he has the sort of look that would have made him ideal to play opposite Roger Moore’s Bond as a stuffed shirt who gets put in his place or whatever but here he’s just another authority figure with a few lines of exposition as the scene barrels through to get to the end. I’m not saying that the film needed more goofy Moore-era humor but it feels like the overall approach has disposed of some of the needed elements—character, mood, story—to keep the pace going and by a certain point it doesn’t feel enough like a Bond film. An action film, yes, but they shouldn’t be the same thing.
For a variety of reasons, it’s one of those Bond films that hasn’t dated all that well, with some of the technology and media skewering in its storyline feeling very much like an artifact of the 90s. In a similar vein, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN had that whole Solex Agitator plot, always a little too locked into the energy crisis of the 70s, and interestingly, that film also crammed martial arts into things. This film’s focus on Michelle Yeoh feels like a massive reminder of that stretch when hastily redubbed Jackie Chan movies were being tossed into thousands of theaters maybe twice a year by Miramax and New Line (including SUPERCOP, co-starring Yeoh), with this film trying to capitalize on the popularity of Hong Kong action cinema. Hey, I like Michelle Yeoh—scratch that, I love Michelle Yeoh, I think she’s amazing—but watching this film now, I couldn’t help but think once or twice, what the hell is Michelle Yeoh doing in this movie, anyway? It’s at least partly because the movie suddenly decides she’s one of the leads when the plot has collapsed but also because it almost seems like the wrong personality for this film.
To be fair, some of the action is very well done, with the escape from Carver’s Hamburg plant and the parking garage chase particularly good, not to mention how the martial arts stuff is at least staged in a way that lets us follow what’s going on (I’m not crazy about this stuff being in there, but it’s not badly done). Director Roger Spotiswoode keeps the non-stop going through much of the running time—again, he succeeds more in making an action movie than a Bond movie—but by a certain point the action is all it is and the film has one of those half-hour climaxes, set on Carver’s stealth ship, of the sort where I just zone out by a certain point since the ‘plot’ is finished and I’m just waiting for it all to be over with already. Even the look of the film, photographed by Robert Elswit, is the sort of thing I like on its own and Elswit is a master, making the film look more expensive than the (sometimes reused) sets ever do but it feels like it has too much lens flare, smoke and atmosphere of the sort that doesn’t seem right for what I guess is my own idea for the Bond approach. The location work feels a little skimped on as well—Hamburg seems like a picturesque place from the little we get to see but it still feels like they decided on setting it there just by throwing a dart at a board and while I would hardly have expected the production to go to Vietnam when the story moves there with the exception of some second unit stuff as they go out to sea much of the footage shot in Thailand (some of which looks like where they also filmed THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN) almost feels like they may as well have done it all on the backlot.
Revisiting it the film for the first time in a few years it played considerably better than I expected through the first half and I was almost surprised at how much I was with the film. But after the peak of the parking garage chase, which really works in all the ways it’s supposed to, my patience began to wear thin during the second half as all the mayhem became more and more repetitive, with practically all Bondian elements getting bled out by a certain point with the exception of a few one liners. Sure, Jonathan Pryce keeps on spitting out witty rejoinders as the bad guy to the bitter end but really, so what? The character of Elliot Carver (interestingly, the only Brosnan entry where he deals with one clearly defined bad guy from start to finish) is played so big that he kind of cancels himself out by the climax—and as much as I may like to, I can’t bring myself to have much interest in trying to draw a link between the headline-engineering tactics of the Carver Media Group and certain real-life equivalents, maybe since what’s here is sketched in such a broad manner. TOMORROW NEVER DIES plays a little like a Bond film that they made while someone else in another room was still working out the story for the really good Bond film they wanted to make next and it’s too bad, really, because as it turned out Brosnan only did four of these and it just feels like there should have been more to this one. The big love scene between Bond and Paris comes close to what it should be in illuminating something about the character but it feels not quite there, as if it went through one too many rewrites and has been made just a little too spare, never becoming the Brosnan version of a great lost love for Bond in a way that it feels like the movie was going for. Since it’s a James Bond film I can still enjoy it just like I can watch any of them, good or bad, at any time but too much of what I enjoy about these movies feels lost in favor of a lot of noise.
I wonder how bored Pierce Brosnan is with talking about Bond by now. With this film, it feels like it’s the script that strands him with ultimately nothing left to do but act cool and use his expert comic timing that even then he was probably able to do without getting too worked up over things. Brosnan can often be self-critical in his frank discussions of his own frustrations with the series but in this case that seems unwarranted. He displays a great deal of confidence here and inhabits the part just fine, making it seem like the actor deserves to be playing the part in a cool, stripped down film that he never got to appear in. Jonathan Pryce goes way over the top in his portrayal of the villain but something still feels weirdly mis-calibrated as if the actor thinks he’s about to burst into song or something—he plays it as if he’s about to star in the first James Bond Broadway musical. I think my favorite part of his performance is the way he types on his portable keyboard with one hand. And if there’s anything wrong with the film’s Bond girls it’s that they don’t really seem like Bond girls—Michelle Yeoh is awesome, seriously, she’s just in the wrong movie and as great as she is when the movie stops to let her do her thing it still feels shoehorned in. Her best moment is when she turns up wearing a quasi-Emma Peel garb in Hamburg and displays herself literally walking down the side of the wall but it all goes by too quickly. Teri Hatcher seems a touch too immature for her role and I’m not sure she had any real idea how to play the thin material. The actress was also several months pregnant at the time and it makes me wonder if she just had her mind on other things. Actresses up for the Paris Carver role but not cast include Sela Ward and Monica Bellucci. Seriously, they turned down Monica Bellucci!! That she never played a Bond girl feels like one of the more unfortunate tragedies of pop culture from recent decades.
Almost walking away with the film in just a few minutes of screentime is the late, great Vincent Schiavelli as the sadistic assassin Dr. Kaufman who brings the right sort of menace and arch humor to his part in one of the very best scenes of the film, even if the Auto Club line is pretty dumb. Gotz Otto is the big, blond henchman and Ricky Jay doesn’t get to do much at all as his computer hacker bad guy—his odd style of speaking makes me wonder if he really only should act in films directed by David Mamet or Paul Thomas Anderson. Judi Dench as M, Joe Don Baker as Jack Wade, Desmond Llewelyn as Q and Samantha Bond as Moneypenny are all in there, however briefly, while Colin Salmon makes his series debut as Chief of Staff Charles Robinson. Gerard Butler makes an early appearance on the USS Devonshire, Al Matthews from ALIENS is a U.S. Master Sergeant and Hong Kong film veteran Philip Kwok appears for a few seconds as General Chang (presumably no relation to the character of the same name played by Christopher Plummer in STAR TREK VI), one of those characters who seem to play a large role in the plot but almost entirely off camera.
Coming after the train wreck of what Eric Serra unfortunately provided for GOLDENEYE, David Arnold received a great deal of praise for his score at the time and for at least the first half of the film it’s deserved so it’s not surprise that he’s stayed with the franchise up to now. The score for the pre-credit sequence “White Knight” on the album, is a genuine triumph, a endearing tribute to John Barry and sounding like Arnold is living out his ultimate fantasy of scoring a Bond film, making an ok sequence into something truly special. Much of the time his score lines up just right with the movie, making it thrilling and fun in all the right ways, tossing in gentle electronic stings in there, but by a certain point it feels like Arnold runs out of ideas so he blares things as loud as possible either in generic ‘action movie music’ style or just playing the Bond theme over and over and over again as often as we hear all that machine gun fire. As for the songs, Sheryl Crow’s main title has never done much for me and I like Crow most of the time but k.d. lang’s “Surrender”, written by Arnold and Don Black, is much more like it. The sound is genuinely Bondian and it even utilizes one of the melodies from the film itself, particularly in the track “Backseat Driver” which underscores the parking garage chase. Larger than life in the way any true Bond theme should be, “Surrender” really is kind of awesome and a song that deserves to be better known than it is.
The movie isn’t in any way a total loss—there is lots of enjoyment in there and more serious touches like Bond doing shots of Smirnoff (ignoring the blatant product placement) while waiting to see who’s going to turn up at his hotel room door might not strictly be Fleming but it is character detail of the sort which I like that the film doesn’t have enough of. I can’t remember who it was that complained how Bond’s line about “not growing up at all,” when he comments on how well he handled that BMW motorcycle, protesting that James Bond isn’t an overgrown kid who goes out and does lots of cool stuff but a full-grown adult who lives the way he does because he’s convinced that it may very well end at any time (“Enjoy it…while it lasts.” “The very words I live by,” went the exchange between Brosnan and Famke Janssen in GOLDENEYE). That may be what’s wrong with TOMORROW NEVER DIES, as much as some of it does work pretty well—it gets all the action in but misses the character too much of the time. Of course, everyone has their own idea of what makes the ideal Bond film and you can’t please them all but this one tries to bland the formula down in a way that thinks if it’s noisy enough we won’t notice what isn’t there. I honestly don’t mind TOMORROW NEVER DIES—I don’t mind any James Bond movie, really. But, as loud as the familiar theme blares some of the time, I can’t help but wish that it could take as much pleasure in how cool it is to be a James Bond movie in a way that the very best of the series is sometimes able to achieve.