I was asked recently by a reader, Patrick Anderson, why I had reviewed all of the James Bond movies but one, "Tomorrow Never Dies." The truth is, the movie was reviewed at the site by a former DVD Town colleague, Shawn Fitzgerald, who described it as "loud and soulless." But during the course of several site upgrades over the years, Shawn's review was inadvertently lost. Thus, to make the Bond reviews complete, I thought I'd say a few words about it myself.
"Tomorrow Never Dies," from 1997, was the eighteenth regular Bond entry in the chain, discounting the early TV adaptation and the later comic version of "Casino Royale"; and it was the second Bond entry to feature Pierce Brosnan as the world's most-celebrated superspy. It was also the first Bond picture from Brosnan to begin the trend away from a buoyant, tongue-in-cheek spirit toward a darker, more serious mood.
The two best things about the movie are its opening sequence and Bond's costar, Michelle Yeoh. First, the opening. Ever since "Goldfinger" back in 1964, the first ten minutes or so of a Bond movie have been given over to an introductory story that usually has nothing to do with the main plot to come. It simply gets the movie off to a rousing start, like the overture to an opera. In "Tomorrow Never Dies" we have a leadoff number about an arms bazaar that doesn't match the sly wit of the intro to "Goldfinger" but certainly gets the adrenaline pumping. I've often shown the first few minutes of "Tomorrow Never Dies" to friends just to demonstrate what the video and sound of a good DVD can produce. Now, if only the rest of the movie had been as thrilling as this introductory segment, we might have had something.
Bond's partner in the movie is one of the strongest women we've yet seen in a 007 outing. Michelle Yeoh, a celebrated star in her own right, plays Wai Lin, a Chinese secret agent sent in not to help Bond but to investigate the baddies of the operation on her own. Unlike the typical Bond girl who sleeps with the hero and is then devoted to him forever, Yeoh's character displays her independence from the start, as well as her intelligence, her strength, and her beauty. She is a martial artist with an arsenal of weapons at her disposal who would rather use her mind, fists, and feet to defeat her enemies. She's really quite a joy, and I wish there had been an even bigger role for her in the story.
The rest of film, though, is more of the same that we've come to expect from a formula Bond picture. The Bonds are nothing if not topical, so the bad guy in this one is a media tycoon, Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), bent on starting World War III for his own profit. (Bond has forty-eight hours to stop him.) Carver is a combination of William Randolph Heart, Charles Foster Kane, Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch, and the like, but as portrayed by Pryce, he is more mad than villainous. I could never build up much an anger or hatred toward Carver; he seemed too tightly wound and too watered down to me. And you know that even the filmmakers must have realized he wasn't the stoutest of Bond villains when he's allowed to be thwarted by Bond BEFORE Bond thrashes the guy's subordinate.
Among the rest of the cast are the usual gang: Judi Dench as Bond's boss, M; Desmond Llewelyn as the head of the gadgets department, Q; Samantha Bond (what a wonderful name) as the secretary, Miss Moneypenny; Joe Don Baker as the good-ol'-boy CIA agent, Jack Wade; a nice turn by Vincent Schiavelli as a hired assassin, Dr. Kaufman; Gotz Otto as Carver's monster-sized, blond (why are they always blond?) henchman, Stamper; and Teri Hatcher as Carver's wife, Paris, an old flame of Bond's. It is also good to see Ms. Dench's costar from the television series "As Time Goes By," Geoffrey Palmer, performing with her again, this time as British Admiral Roebuck.
There is the expected dependency on gimmicks and gizmos, the two most prominent here being a cell phone that does everything and a remote-controlled BMW 750. Every Bond film seems to feature a different make of car, usually British cars like Aston Martin, Lotus, or Bentley, but lately leaning toward German makes, and here we not only get a BMW motorcar, we get an extended sequence with a BMW motorcycle as well.
There are a couple of good quips along the way, as Bond films are not so much about dialogue anymore as they are about one-liners. Carver is delighted when he hears that a piece of major software he's releasing is plagued by bugs, so that people "will have to upgrade for years." Carver's motto is "There's no news like bad news"; and like Citizen Kane he announces a "declaration of principles." The specially equipped BMW automobile proclaims that "Unsafe driving will void the warranty." And on a more cogent note is a reply from M to Admiral Roebuck: When the Admiral asks about one of Bond's especially daring moves, "What the hell is he doing?" M responds, "His job."
Unfortunately, most of the movie is not about people or dialogue or even witty repartee; it's about action, and plenty of it. Admittedly, the pace is brisk, director Roger Spottiswoode ("The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper," "Turner & Hooch," "Air America") keeping things moving along at a healthy clip, but that doesn't preclude the movie getting tiresome from repetition. There is much punching, shooting, chasing, and things blowing up that not even the beautiful location shooting in London, Hamburg, Paris, and Bangkok can overcome. Fact is, much of the film is redundant or nonsensical, even more so than usual in a Bond outing. Bond, for instance, gives himself away the moment he's introduced to Carver. Why? To expedite the action, naturally.
Hardcore Bond fans will not be disappointed in "Tomorrow Never Dies." Nevertheless, those of us who would like to see the series improving with each addition will not find this entry innovative enough to move it far in any new direction. Except, as I said at the beginning, toward a more somber tone and an attendant loss in fun.
The picture quality on this disc is very good, among the best Bond transfers to date, and this despite an ordinary bit rate in the process. The screen dimensions show up close to its theatrical-exhibition size, measuring an approximately 2.17:1 anamorphic (enhanced) ratio across my television. The screen is very clean, and object delineation is quite sharp. Colors could be a tad deeper on occasion, but they are natural in appearance, and unnecessary grain is most welcome by its absence. About the only concern I have is the frequent appearance of fluttery horizontal lines, especially in things like striped shirts. A higher bit rate would have undoubtedly helped diminish these moiré effects, but it's really not much of a distraction.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sonics are state-of-the-art, and they make this a good disc for showing off one's home theater. Directionality in all five speakers is very precise when needed, placing bullets and missiles in left or right front or rear channels for a realistic conveyance of the surround experience. Added to this effective use of all the channels is a tremendously deep bass and a very wide dynamic and frequency range. The result is that the sound reproduction will give you and your speakers a workout.
As with most of MGM's Special Bond Editions, this one is loaded with bonuses. For instance, there are two separate audio commentaries, one with director Roger Spottiswoode and another with second-unit director Vic Armstrong and producer Michael G. Wilson. Then, there's an in-film storyboard overlay that compares six action-scene concepts as initially conceived with the final scenes in the film (watch for the "007" logos to appear if you choose this option).
The best of the extras, however, is a forty-five-minute documentary narrated by Peter Coyote, "Secrets of 007," explaining the evolution of the Bond series. It was clearly made for TV as a promo at the time of the film's production, but it works fine, in any case. Then, there the other usual things: a music video, "Tomorrow Never Dies," with Sheryl Crow; a two-minute interview with composer David Arnold; a four-minute digital effects reel; an informational booklet insert; twenty-eight scene selections; and an original, widescreen theatrical trailer and teaser. The spoken languages provided are English and French; the subtitles are English, French, and Spanish.
I have to agree with my old DVD Town associate. As Shawn said, "Tomorrow Never Dies" comes off as ultimately "soulless." The filmmakers appear to have started with a series of stunts--sliding down the side of a skyscraper, leaping between buildings on a motorcycle, etc.--and built a script around them. The movie's got a great opening sequence, a few good action segments, and a particularly strong crime-fighting partner in Michelle Yeoh. But it simply isn't as much fun as many of the old Bonds were; it hasn't the same flippant, devil-may-care attitude that combined vitality and weight with humor and wit.
Oh, well. As Carver would say, "Let the mayhem begin."