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Dr. Wostenberg's World of Cinema Reviews: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Don’t Wait Until Tomorrow to Watch Bond

A Film Review of Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) by Christopher Wostenberg

It is almost summer, which makes me think about summer blockbuster movies, specifically action films. One of my favorite guilty pleasure action franchises is the James Bond series. I have seen and own all of the films. While many aspects of the films are dated, I still enjoy watching them if for nothing else the incredible action sequences, be it chases, fights, or gadgets. So, for this review, I will look at one of the films that tends to get a bad rap in James Bond movie rankings and that is 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies with Pierce Brosnan as 007.

The plot revolves around Bond (Brosnan) trying to stop media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) from starting a naval war between Britain and China. If the war breaks out, Carver will get exclusive broadcasting rights in China. Assisting Bond is Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese spy, who is also investigating Carter’s actions.

The critics census from Rotten Tomatoes is that the movie is a “…by-the-numbers entry to the 007 franchise.” It checks the boxes for required bond movie. First, a cool upbeat pop song, preferably sang by a female, that incorporates the title of the film. Here we get Sheryl Crow singing from the point of view of Paris Carver (Teri Hatcher), wife of villain Elliot Carver and former lover of Bond. Nothing about the song makes it overly memorable compared with other opening songs in the franchise. Second, larger-than-life villain. Jonathan Pryce, being a stage actor, knows how to dominate every scene he is in without being physically intimidating. Third, chase scenes. Tomorrow Never Dies has two, both of which are memorable, with the remote-controlled BMW chase in a Hamburg parking garage generally ranking in top ten Bond chase lists. Fourth, beautiful women. Again, the movie offers two, a former lover and the other a female spy working for a foreign government. Finally, spy tech. The film features a minimal number of gadgets used by Bond, the main one being the Ericsson mobile flip phone. Its main use was as the control for the BMW car, but also features a stun gun, fingerprint scanner, and lock pick.

At first glance, I agree with this assessment. But looking at the franchise holistically more than a decade later, the film does move the series towards the new century. This is done by first, taking a look at one of the more cringeworthy aspects of the Bond films and that is the “Bond girl” troupe. The original Bond films are a product of their time with toxic masculinity and objectification of women being very present. In Tomorrow Never Dies, this changes a little bit. Paris Carver appears as a typical “Bond girl,” who Bond sleeps with for information. The twist here though is that Bond is ordered by his superior M (Judi Dench) to use his former relationship with Paris to get information about Carver. In fact, Bond appears hesitant at first to follow through with M’s orders in this manner, demonstrating he is not so callous with women as the earlier movies portray him. In addition, the past relationship is used to add depth to Bond’s personal life, mainly how he is unable to have a meaningful relationship due to his profession as a spy. Notably, this affects Bond. Both aspects have been elevated in the Daniel Craig era of Bond films that would follow by him having more meaningful and lasting relationships with women.

Next, the character Mai Lin is an equal to Bond. She is a fellow spy with her own skills and expertise with a similar mission as Bond. Earlier Bond movies have had strong female characters, but never really an equal. Either they have been sidekicks to the main villains, e.g., Mayday (Grace Jones) in A View to a Kill (1985) and Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) in GoldenEye (1995), or in the case of Octopussy (1983) a criminal businesswoman that aids Bond to capture the main villain. This is the first time we see a woman spy in the franchise. She is mysterious at first and a rival to Bond when he is first trying to get information about Carver. The two learn to work with each other towards a common goal. Initially, it seemed like she would be a returning character, similar to CIA agent Felix Leiter in the Bond series, or have a spin-off, but unfortunately this was not the case. On the upside, this has led to future Bond films using more recurring female characters for continuity, such as Vespa (Eva Green) and Dr. Swann (Léa Seydoux).

The plot of stealing government weapons and turning them against other countries to start a global war is nothing new to the franchise or spy movies in general. Instead, the interesting aspect of the plot is the media angle used to gain more access and control of information. This was fairly relevant at the time with media moguls like Rupert Murdoch buying cable networks and news publishing companies. But, it seems more so now, with social media being an outlet for news, real and fake, especially with politicians heavily using them. It is this forward thinking of how access to information for the masses is a more powerful weapon in the new century than the missiles and bombs of the later 20th century. And in the case of Bond, these 20th century weapons were the main focus in previous films. I could see future Bond movies leaning into information as a weapon more, but time will tell if this is the case.

James Bond and Wai Lin sliding on a motorcycle to escape a helicopter at the end of the motorcycle chase scene through Saigon in Tomorrow Never Dies (Spottiswoode, R., 1997, MGM Distribution Co.), Scene at 1:24:02.

Favorite Scene: There are many things Bond movies are known for, including gadgets, opening title song, and car chases. Tomorrow Never Dies has one of the best car chase scenes in the remote-controlled BMW chase. Instead, I prefer the motorcycle chase scene over the more famous chase. Bond and Lin are handcuffed together and must escape Carver’s henchmen in Saigon. They steal a motorcycle and race through streets and even roofs to escape multiple cars and a helicopter. Throughout the chase, Bond and Lin are constantly changing positions on the bike to facilitate drivability.

The chase is memorable in the movie, even after the remote-control car chase scene in the parking garage a few scenes earlier as it illustrates the dynamics between Bond and Lin. This is the first moment when the two characters have to work together. There is some debate between them at first; they bicker whether to take a car or a motorcycle and which direction to go. But by the end, their professional spy abilities take over and they work seamlessly together. In most of the Bond car chases throughout the entire series, the focus is on Bond’s capabilities even if there is another passenger. Here, it is about the team, which is great to see. Additionally, it makes sense afterwards how the two can work together towards the common goal of stopping Carver’s plan.

The Bond series has its ups and downs, much like any series. Tomorrow Never Dies is a good entry level to the franchise as it balances fun and seriousness. The film is a turning point in the franchise and it benefits from recent viewing. The plot seems to be more relevant as time goes on with the advent of social media and “fake news”. I would like to hear what your favorite Bond movie is and why. Let’s close this review with one of the best James Bond exchanges, which comes from Goldfinger (1964).

Bond (Sean Connery): “Do you expect me to talk?

Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe): “No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!”


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