Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) – Film Review
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Michelle Yeoh, Jonathan Pryce
by @Roger Crow
If I had to pick one 007 pre-credits scene to watch every day for the rest of my life, this would be it. A perfect mix of cast, stunts, effects, editing and score slotting together like elements of a beautifully crafted puzzle.
From the opening shot of a terrorist arms bazaar and MI6 agent Robinson’s (Colin Salmon) brilliant exposition dump, what follows is testament to Vic Armstrong’s skills as an action director, and David Arnold slotting perfectly into the Grand Canyon-sized gap left by John Barry. The likes of Marvin Hamlisch, George Martin and Michael Kamen all did a good job on scoring duties, but Arnold is THE natural successor to Barry. ’White Knight’ is in my top 10 of all-time highs in 007 orchestral cues, along with ‘To Hell with Blofeld’, ‘African Rundown’, ‘Bond Lured to Pyramid’ and ‘Bond 77’.
“Symphony of chaos”
We already know Brosnan is a super cool Bond, but the joy of this intro is setting the scene without him before all hell breaks loose. It’s all the more poignant since the magnificent Geoffrey Palmer left us. His Admiral Roebuck is a reminder of what a showbiz legend he was. “Can your men cope with that kind of ‘fahr pahr’?” he asks Crossroads veteran Terence Rigby, a Russian dignitary.
When Robeuck decides to “take the Naval option” and send a missile to the area and wipe out all manner of bad guys, they don’t realise a nuke is on site which will “make Chernobyl look like a picnic”. Thankfully ’White Knight’ is on site, and proceeds to hit, punch and shoot anything with a pulse. At this point I’m like a kid on Christmas morning as Armstrong, Arnold, Brosnan, Judi Dench, Salmon, Palmer and all those other unsung geniuses craft one of the most exciting things you’ll ever see.
It’s a symphony of chaos orchestrated by those Mozarts of action cinema, and if the whole film were this good, I’d be bouncing around like Tigger. But once Bond steals the nuke plane, escapes a lethal explosion, and then fends off the groggy enemy pilot sat behind him, things shift gear. I never tire of the wry smiles of Dench and Salmon as Bond asks where they’d like the nukes putting after pulling off feats of jaw-dropping bravery.
Sheryl Crow (no relation) does a great job with the title song. The credits are splendid, and the film makers get something absolutely right: exposition on the move. In previous 007 offerings, most briefings took place in M’s office, at a sort of leisurely pace like they had all the time in the world. When things are urgent, and the world’s fate is on the line, you don’t hang around in an office telling your best agent what’s going on.
Samantha Bond also has one of Moneypenny’s best ever lines as sex pest Bond carves another notch on his bedpost. “You always were a cunning linguist”. (If Moneypenny had a mic, she could have happily dropped it, years before it was a thing).
After the stratospheric highs of those pre-credits, the rest of Tomorrow Never Dies struggles to even come close. Teri Hatcher is splendid as the sexy sacrificial pawn, Paris, wife of Jonathan Pryce’s psycho newspaper man Elliot Carver, who basically massacres sailors on the HMS Devonshire so he can create headlines.
Once Bond plays catch up with Mrs Carver, she winds up dead, and the scene is set for one of the funniest moments in any 007 movie. Dr Kaufman (brilliantly played by Ghost veteran Vincent Schiavelli) is a professional assassin who killed Paris, and is about to bump off you know who. Problem is his associates can’t get a gizmo from Bond’s car, so he makes the fatal error of using James’s phone. Bad mistake, and before long he’s an ex assassin.
Which paves the way for the second best action scene as Bond jumps into the back seat of his Beamer and operates it via his phone. With a thumping track by David Arnold and Propellerheads (‘Backseat Driver’), the chase round a German car park (actually Brent Cross shopping centre) is splendid stuff. A wondrous mix of snappy editing, terrific score and a wordless Brosnan reacting to the carnage. The moment that Bond theme kicks in as the Beamer emblem buzz saw cuts through a high tension wire is cinematic nirvana. And that shot of the driverless car slamming into a rental shop window is the perfect end as Bond chuckles his way to the next scene.
And that, may as well be that. But we’re about half way through a film which just peaked, and what follows is just good, not great. There is one laugh out loud funny line when Bond propels a villain into a newspaper press, generating a wash of red. “They’ll print anything these days,” made me laugh in 1997, and is still as brilliant today.
Joe Don Baker returns as 007 ally Wade, but has very little to do as we’re introduced to the HALO jump which would later be re-engineered for Mission Impossible: Fallout.
Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin is a terrific heroine, and her martial arts skills are quite the sight. A shame she shares little chemistry with Pierce, but it hardly matters.
Jonathan Pryce is always good value for money, but he’s just too nice to be the psychopathic villain. “I’m having fun with my headlines” is pure ham, but at least he has more depth than some one-note bad guys.
The obligatory Aryan henchman, Stamper (Gotz Otto), adds menace, but lacks the certain something that Robert Shaw brought to a similar role in From Russia with Love decades earlier. There’s a fun chase on a motorbike, though that line “Trapped!”… “Never”, should have been left on the cutting room floor. And that finale on a stealth ship feels so generic and a little cheap compared to the peerless The Spy Who Loved Me 20 years earlier.
The shadow of genius production designer Ken Adam looms large over the series. Though TND looks great, without the HUGE scale of Adam’s sets, this can’t compete. And that third act feels rushed, ending with such an abrupt cut off, I feel like I’m watching a pre-record that stopped prematurely.
On the plus side, there’s no cringeworthy For Your Eyes Only-style epilogue involving a parrot and a comedian impersonating then-PM Tony Blair, so that’s a bonus.
If you like star spotting, Julian Fellowes, Hugh Bonneville, Julian Rhind Tutt, Jason Watkins and Gerard Butler all pop up at some point, and it’s great to see ’James Bond island’ again from The Man With the Golden Gun.
So while Tomorrow Never Dies is uneven, with a first half that totally eclipses the second, it’s still terrific entertainment with THAT score. I don’t recommend playing ‘White Knight’ while driving as it might lead to a spot of heavy footed 007 emulation, but if you’re a gamer, it’s a splendid accompaniment to any action video game.
Pierce’s tenure as Bond obeyed the law of diminishing returns, and though it may have its faults, Tomorrow Never Dies is a masterpiece compared to what followed.