Light Bondage: “Tomorrow Never Dies”

Bond, James Bond. For fifty years that has been the cinematic calling card of one of films most enduring heroes. Sure, Bond was born in books, but it was through film that he became a household name and one of the movies’ most enduring legends. He is a character so archetypal that he is bigger than the half dozen men who have played him across nearly two dozen films, and that kind of longevity is both unheard of and a little bit magical.

Light Bondage is my attempt to rewatch the series and try to recapture some of what made these movies worthwhile. I might not always succeed (I’m looking at you, Roger Moore!) but in this biweekly series of articles we’re going to take a ride through the time capsule of the last half century with the world’s most famous spy/action star.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

I remember seeing Tomorrow Never Dies in theaters, the first Bond movie I ever saw during its initial theatrical release. I even remember owning the novelization, because I was a very precocious 12 year old. It was one of those movies I really liked, for a time, but then eventually decided as I ‘grew up’ into my teen years that it was really really terrible. And revisiting it for the first time in years, I’m not entirely sure why I turned on it so harshly. Tomorrow Never Dies isn’t great, but it’s a solid, action-heavy Bond movie.

The plot involves a media mogul type guy (played by Jonathan Pryce)  who manages to get his hands on a GPS sync device, which allows him to feed bad location data to anywhere in the world with his newly launched news channel satellite. He uses this to confuse a British ship and some Chinese planes out of territorial waters where he uses his super-secret stealth boat to sink the ship and blow one of the planes up. Both governments panic, thinking the other has initiated hostilities, as Pryce swoops in to steal a cruise missile from the sunken ship to use to further initiate hostilities as the two fleets slowly maneuver into a standoff.

That seems pretty typical, really. And it is. Hell, that’s kind of Kevin Bacon’s ultimate plan in X-Men: First Class. So this is well trod spy-style ground at this point. What’s more interesting, actually, is just how plausible it all seems. Jonathan Pryce is delightfully evil here, but his goals seemingly are simply more power and control over the news, which allows him power and control over governments. It’s a cult of media with him as the center. It speaks heavily of a Rupert Murdoch type mogul, a creator as much as a reporter of the news. But the banners with his face all over them and the totalitarian way he runs his operation also feel very Steve Jobs looking at it today. Hell, there’s even a bit of resemblance going on, with Pryce fairly trim and dressed always in all black.

I know that these movies try to present at least moderately plausible villains and situations in order to increase investment, but this is the first one where as I was watching it thought to myself ‘not only is this reasonable, I feel it’s become more true since the movie came out.’ The role of news in shaping the policies of nations has only increased, with technology making everything reduced to sound clips and news bites cutting along as fast as they can be written. If someone dared to make the news and write about it before anyone was around to see it, of course they would be famous. Who sticks around anymore long enough to figure out how the media and events are mixing together? None of us, probably.

This barely seems like a bad guy anymore.

Anyway, as expected Bond steps in to try to stop Pryce from starting World War III for profit, and in doing so stumbles across Michelle Yeoh (more on her later, of course) as his opposite number with the Chinese government. Together they set out to stop all this from going down, and it mostly results in a whole god damn boatload of gunfire and explosions. Of all the Bond movies we’ve seen so far, this is by far the most action-heavy, from beginning to end a cavalcade of endless goons mowed down by Bond and causing all manner of property damage. I can only imagine given Goldeneye’s more limited scope but huge success, they decided to see what a big budget would get them. The result is honestly very little spying, a whole lot of fighting and jumping and shooting.

Not that that’s bad, mind you. This is very much in the world before handheld  and CG steamrolled the genre and most of the action is fairly well staged. It’s heavy on the big set-pieces, to be sure, with a car chase in a parking garage and a leap off the side of a skyscraper some of the best moments. The problem is a lot of it feels pretty unnecessary, things ending after each bit of action exactly where they began. Stuff happens, but it doesn’t mean a whole lot. That’s a problem with all but the best action films, though, so I’d hesitate to bash it too hard for indulging in a little pointless spectacle. This is James Bond we’re talking about. Unfortunately, so much of it happens that by the final action scene it all starts to feel a little samey. Some more spy stuff, or even just a few quieter moments between Bond and Michelle Yeoh would have helped offset that ending and made it less of a numbing, perfunctory cacaphony.

Oh, that’s right, Bond’s technically a soldier. You always forget until he puts on a uniform and people go around calling him Commander like he’s Will Riker or something.

The Theme Song/Opening Title:
The opening theme for this is sung by Sheryl Crow of all people. It’s pretty good, too, with a gritty glamour sensibility that speaks to the kinds of intrigue and spy-stuff that the movie is admittedly almost fully lacking. I know opinion about this one is all over the place, but I think it’s one of the better Bond themes. Add to that another really beautiful, abstract style opening involving the mixture of guns and technology, with tableaux of x-rayed looking weapons and women made up of circuit patterns, and it’s a pretty striking opening. Haters can hate, I like it.

Most Ridiculous Gadget:
This one gets included because it actually isn’t that ridiculous: Bond’s typical Aston Martin gets replaced by BMW 750i. With it Q comes along with a cell phone that, get this, flips open to reveal not only a video screen, but a touch pad! It’s used to control the car remotely, which is cool and all, but what’s most striking about this is that this technology could totally absolutely exist today without much trouble. Sure, rigging up remote steering might require a custom car, but putting a camera in the front and streaming controls and video to your iPhone or other such device? Seems not only relatively easy, I’m pretty sure that already exists. Bond gadget become reality.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:
Michelle Yeoh takes a turn as a Bond girl with Colonel Wai Lin of the Chinese government. I really like Yeoh in movies outside of this, but she seems kind of poorly used here. Not her fault, and not even really the script’s fault, because she’s given some great bits where she is charming as all hell. But really, it seems like there needed to be a couple more scenes with her in them to establish who she was and why on earth she’d fall for Bond. Because she does, of course she does, but it comes at the end of the movie through little more than plot necessity. She had spent most of the rest of the movie being almost stereotypically formal. Some nuance would have helped a lot.

Michelle Yeoh: way cooler than James Bond. I don’t care which Bond we’re talking about.

On top of that, as much as the action in this movie mostly works it’s very western action. She gets a pretty neat bit in the movie when she’s fighting off a bunch of guys with martial arts, but it’s not shot by someone who knows how to sell that kind of fighting. And in the end, when she’s running around with machine guns blowing guys away? That’s cool, but seems like a bit of a waste for an actress who not only could easily kick the ass of everyone (including Bond), but looks like she could in the movie, too. Instead she gets to show up, be fleetingly awesome, and then spend a good bit of the finale as the damsel in peril before throwing herself at the hero. She’s better than that, and we all know it.

Best Bondickery:
This is kind of a bigger picture Bondickery, but hear me out. Fairly early on, Bond infiltrates Pryce’s big giant media skyscraper business to try to figure out what he’s up to. It’s absolutely trespassing, and he runs in and grabs equipment and tries to escape. Then he gets in a firefight with the guards who respond to the call. Now, this isn’t some government installation filled with soldiers. These are private contractors, guys who signed up for what’s essentially glorified security work and ended up at the blunt end of the deadliest government operative (barring acts of genocide) in history. It just seems a little shitty that these guys, who are totally doing the right thing by trying to stop him, end up suffering when they’re just guys working for a paycheck.

Of course, this all breaks down when every hired gun Pryce has outside of these big scenes is laden with military equipment and usually psychotic and evil, but it still seems like a really shitty thing to go around doing when you aren’t sure if you’re blowing away an evil thug, or just a single dad with two kids trying to keep his job.

JAMES BOND will return in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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