Posted by: dougery | October 13, 2011

Better Late Than Never: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Oh the delightful halcyon days of 1997. A June highschool graduation. Off to Syracuse for my freshman year in the fall. The economy on the way to an actual Federal Surplus. Radiohead’s OK Computer releases and MTV2 (playing music videos 24 hours a day) spotlights an animated “Paranoid Android” music video. South Park is little more than an underground Jesus vs Santa viral video on a rapidly expanding ‘net. Tomorrow Never Dies releases that December on the same day as the Titanic and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” fills my dormitory’s dining hall for a 6 month uninterrupted iron-fisted (if not tin-eared) reign. A month later the Monika Lewinsky scandal would break. Good times, folks. Good times.

Tomorrow Never Dies is an infuriatingly smug, irritatingly dumb (especially since it fancies itself topical and clever), particularly dreadful entry in the James Bond film series. After viewing I read up on its history. To no surprise I found the film riddled with rewrites, studio interference, cast complaints and insubordination. What saddens me the most is that somewhere beneath the rubble of this screenplay is a treatment by Donald Westlake, one of my favorite genre writers ever. Three quotes from contributors explain all you need to know about this movie.

“We didn’t have a script that was ready to shoot on the first day of filming.” -Michael G. Wilson (co-producer)

“We had a script that was not functioning in certain areas.” -Pierce Brosnan (insufferable jag)

“It’s such an artificial kind of character to be playing that you don’t get any special satisfaction from it.” -Teri Hatcher (Miscast cinematic cannon fodder)

Regarding the writing, here’s the sequence of chefs spoiling the broth:

Westlake (treatment) ->
Bruce Feirstein (initial scriptwriter, holdover from GoldenEye) ->
No fewer than “Seven Hollywood screenwriters” (for “brainstorming”) ->
Nicholas Meyer (rewrites, general finger-in-the-dyke triage) ->
Dan Petrie, Jr. (I don’t know let me take a stab and say, “additional seasoning”) ->
David Campbell Wilson (who knows, maybe he added “the funny.”) ->
back to Feirstein (for, and this one is actually true, the “final polish”) who retained the sole writing credit.

As you might expect the plot is strewn with pointless reversals and boneheaded maneuvers that exist just to make a character do something that will ultimately achieve nothing at all. Or flat out not make sense.

The movie opens with Bond at one of those black market weapons bazaars you’re always hearing about after the fall of the Soviet Union. Like a good British agent he is trying to get back some piece of technological death that the Americans lost. Some high-ranking official says “No Time!” and surface to air missiles are launched to wipe the whole flea market, 007 and all. Oh but there’s just one thing. One of the jets sitting around the market is armed with nukes. D’oh! Attempt to call back the missile strike: a malfunction. But don’t worry. Bond is going to steal the jet and prevent the nukes from going kablooey. In the meantime, however, it doesn’t seem that the locals are particularly worried about the nukes going off because they are emptying everything out of their machine guns, rocket launchers, pistols, blunderbusses (assumed) at James, the plane, and the fucking nuclear bombs hanging right there in view, they’re even helpfully pained yellow, as they wobble around the bazaar. Don’t worry British High Command. Looks like the terrorists will take care of things for you. Except that they of course don’t, because none of these highly trained criminals can hit anything, even a large jet.

The plot that follows revolves around the Media. Some Rupert Murdoch asshole wants to manipulate world events through his news empire. Which consists solely of television, magazines (quaint!) and newspapers (double quaint!). There is no mention of the internet, which while fairly nascent had to appear a little promising even back then. I can just picture all of the 75 writers sitting in a room grinning with self-satisfaction while they discuss how novel the idea of a movie’s plot hinging on how the dopey masses just follow the media blindly sounds. When the reality of news manipulation as a quiet bought-and-paid-for concern of those in power has existed since the beginning of time. And that the really insidious stuff isn’t manufactured nonsense but the suppression of actual news, most often by burying very outrageous and sad happenings in so much technical jargon as to make them deathly dull to the public and too much of a hassle for most journalists.

The crowning achievement of Tomorrow Never Dies has to be the BMW scene. Let me recap it for you as succinctly as possible.

Bond is trapped in hotel. Goons (hired goons) wait outside trying to break into his getaway vehicle on the top floor of the hotel parking garage. Q has already shown Bond (i.e., the audience) that the car can be driven by a remote control phone which might be legitimately cool if it was about to actually serve a purpose. Bond starts car with remote, downs window and leaps into back seat. A furious and ridiculous chase ensues where cars and trucks and guys with guns fire upon the vehicle despite it being fairly obvious that nobody is sitting up in the car to be hit by anything. The best part is when a goon uses a rocket launcher at point blank range and fires the rocket right through the blown out windows and hits the car chasing 007, you know, instead aiming at, I don’t know, the wheels, the engine, or any part of the car that might be hurt in a massive explosion. Not the gigantic hole in the windshield.

The car races down to the entrance where they are only just now closing the gate. But close it does and here we go, back up through the garage and up onto the roof where Bond leaps out just before sending the car over the edge and down into the street below. He ends up in the exact same corner he started. The next shot is him tip-toeing out the front door of the parking garage after what, quietly hitting the elevator or something. This is embarrassing stuff.

Later a handcuffed Chinese colonel Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) rides with Bond on a motorcycle. In order to “get a better look at what’s behind them” Lin is forced to wiggle around and sit on Bond’s lap facing him. This affords many “don’t you get any ideas!” jokes and Lin’s long hair mysteriously ceases to be effected by the wind which should cause it fly right in Bond’s eyes. Lin returns to her seat behind Bond as they fly over some roofs but then climbs back around onto 007’s lap for no other reason that I can think of other than to remind the audience that arranged this way the two might possibly have sex.

I’ll close by moving from pointless ouroboros-action sequences to the downright baffling. The end of the film. The Media magnate guy has Bond at gunpoint. Bond activates a large evil looking drill that slowly begins to move toward the villain’s back. Villain becomes aware of its slow moving approach and is distracted by Bond’s one-liner breaking the fourth wall (even more-so than usual) when he says (I guess, to the audience?): “You forgot the first rule of mass media, Elliot! GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT!” Whereupon Bond jumps out of the way, Elliot turns and waits patiently for the drill to buzzsaw him to pieces making no effort himself to jump out of the way.

Bond grade: 001 (out of 007)

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Responses

  1. Oh man, I’d forgotten everything in this film, except how bafflingly stupid the ending is. I remember trying to No-Prize it by thinking that, his plans ruined by Bond, the villain just sort of gives up and accepts, like the protagonist of Camus’s “The Stranger” his grisly demise.

  2. thus endeth the first and last cross-pollination of James Bond and Albert Camus in recorded human history. (In unrecorded human history, Camus and Fleming are playing baccarat in Heaven: Level 4)

  3. I can’t imagine a just God letting a Grade A asshole like Fleming into heaven, but I do imagine he occupies a very suave and exciting corner of hell

    • Yeah, and something tells me Camus wasn’t much of a believer in a heaven, however oddly spiritual he could get at times. Let’s just cross out heaven in my previous comment and write in “jumbled up afterlife sector 7G”


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