Monday, September 10, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Tomorrow Never Dies

Not that producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson weren’t under enough pressure as it was to recreate the success of ‘GoldenEye’ at the box office, but when MGM head honcho Kirk Kerkorian decided that he wanted the next Bond movie to open coterminous with their public stock flotation, the race was on to get ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ into production. Bruce Feirstein, who had contributed to the ‘GoldenEye’ script wrote a screenplay inspired by his background in journalism. With Martin Campbell passing on directing two Bond films back-to-back, Roger Spottiswoode was offered the gig. Spottiswoode brought in any number of other writers to work on it. With the script still not finalized as shooting began, Feirstein (to whom sole writing credit was finally given) was brought back on board for a final rewrite.

I can only assume that this too-many-cooks approach accounts for a couple of dreadfully contrived scenes, borrowings from previous Bond movies and the regressive portrayal of the villain as a power-crazed egomaniac who thrives on monologues. Media baron Elliott Carver delivers at least three monologues during the less-than-two-hour duration (‘TND’ is the shortest Bond movie in three decades), a tendency to verbiage that recalls Blofeld. But the differences are crucial: Blofeld’s nefarious schemes are aimed at world domination – Carver is out to sell more newspapers and get some exclusive broadcasting rights; Blofeld was variously played by Anthony Dawson, Donald Pleasance, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray, all of whom provided a sinister, threatening or otherwise dangerous characterization; Carver is played by Jonathan Pryce who, quite frankly, doesn’t.

Pryce was always at his best playing Everyman – much put-upon individuals striving to cope with the vagaries and machinations of a life that’s spinning out of control around them. Think of his turns as Sam Lowry in ‘Brazil’ or James Lingk in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’. His attempt at a super-villain is just that: an attempt. And, I’m sorry to say of an actor much of whose filmography I like, a fairly pitiful one at that. Secondary villain Dr Kaufman (Vincent Schiavelli) isn’t much better, delivering swathes of crass dialogue in a Cherman akzent zat iss so bad you vud zink he wass audishunink for an epizode ov ‘Hogan’s Heroes’, ja. Tertiary villain Stamper (Gotz Otto) is all muscle and sneering countenance and gets to say things like “I owe you an unpleasant death, Mr Bond,” again reminding us that other actors did this kind of thing much better way back when.

One final thought on the disappointing villainy issue before we move on: Anthony Hopkins was offered the role of Carver, but passed. Imagine: Hopkins, post-Lecter, in full on scenery-chewing mode as a Bond villain. That would have been fun to watch.

Because, by and large, ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ is low on fun. For a franchise built on wholly unrealistic narratives, newspaper-baron-starts-shooting-war-in-order-to-report-it arguably represents the most ludicrous story ever to come out of an Eon Productions script conference. I mean, come on, Carver, at least do it properly and hold the world to ransom! And yet every frame of the film strives for a serious tone, Roger Elswit shooting everything in a dull and muted palette. The man’s a master, no doubt – he’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s go-to guy, fer Chrissake – but he’s not a good fit for a Bond movie, where the aesthetic needs to be bigger, bolder and more sweeping than your average actioner.

It’s ironic, too, that such a determinedly po-faced work boasts some really stupid moments, such as the over-egged scene between Bond and Kaufman when the latter, briefly, has Bond at a disadvantage (the script’s contrivance to restore things to Bond’s favour, is risible) or Bond driving his car by remote control from the back seat at irresponsible speeds through a multi-storey car park. And on the subject of automotive action, between ‘GoldenEye’ and this film, it’s pretty fucking sad to see 007 only driving his Aston Martin during routine work and having to rely on a BMW for the chases and the gadgets. Keep it British, Q old chap.

In terms of Bond girls, ‘TND’ showcases the series at its best and worst. Michelle Yeoh as martial arts operative Wai Lin is a kick-ass action heroine in her own right, easily Bond’s equal, and not at all impressed by his louche, sardonic attitude. On the other hand, Teri Hatcher is wasted in a thankless role which adheres to the casual misogyny of Bond of the ’70s, ie. glamour girl who dallies with Bond, imparts some useful information and promptly gets killed off.

Other things annoy: much is made, early on, of Bond’s facility with languages – mainly to facilitate a gag about Bond being a “cunning linguist” – yet there are two teeth-grating moments that demonstrate the opposite. One has Bond at a car rental agency in Hamburg and all Brosnan has to do is deliver the line “mein bureau hat ein auto reserviert”; he stumbles over it so badly I’m amazed nobody thought to redub in post-production. The second sees Bond faced with Chinese characters on a keyboard, whereupon he gives up and lets Wai Lin do the typing. Oh Bond of “I took a first in oriental languages at Cambridge” in ‘You Only Live Twice’, where are ye?

Action-wise, we get a solid pre-credits sequence that, while only tenuously connected to the actual narrative, nonetheless establishes a conflict between M (Judi Dench) and death-or-glory naval chief Admiral Roebuck (Geoffrey Palmer) that informs Bond’s extremely time-bound mission later on, introduces a satellite tracking thingy-ma-jig that falls into Carver’s hand, and delivers a lot of shooting and explosions. Which is always a good thing in a Bond movie. Elsewhere, there’s a full-throttle motorbike/helicopter chase through the streets (and buildings) of Bangkok. It’s the film’s only real high point.

Other set pieces are less effective. An attack on a British naval vessel suffers in comparison with similar scenes in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ and ‘For Your Eyes Only’. The climactic confrontation between Bond and Carver occurs on a stealth ship, the design and narrative purpose of which recall Stromberg’s floating submarine base; however, ‘TND’ delivers a smaller and much less exciting payoff. I remember that a review in Empire magazine referred to it being less a high octane thriller than “medium octane”, and that line sums up ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ perfectly. And the curious thing is why. At nearly double the budget of ‘GoldenEye’ (which you’d swear was the more expensive production based on what’s up there on the screen), ‘TND’ doesn’t give you much bang for its hundred and ten million bucks.


Rick said...

I do remember laughing when Carver attempted to mock Wei Lin's martial arts skills. At that point, I just said 'no one could take THIS guy seriously.'

However, given the appearances of Julian Fellowes, Hugh Bonneville AND Brendan Coyle, I did speculate in my own Bond retrospective if this wasn't the genesis for Downton Abbey.

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Neil Fulwood said...

Rick - good call; agreed.

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