Tomorrow Never Dies, reviewed 12/23/1997
What is it that makes a really successful James Bond film? Yes, there’s that classic action hero — suave, driven, ironic, you know him. And every Bond flick has the egomaniacal villains, exotic locales, more exotic women, and Q-made equipment that is both high-tech and tongue-in-cheek… all these are constants.
What isn’t? The music.
What happened was, during the first 10 years of Bond films (from Dr. No to Diamonds Are Forever), John Barry scored six of the seven official Bond films, and he nailed James Bond musically. His brassy jazz was cool, hip, spiced with that classic Vic Flick guitar, and tacky in the best way, in keeping with those sets that were always big-budget yet cheesy.
However, in the 1970s and ‘80s Barry did about half the Bond films — and George Martin, Marvin Hamlisch, Bill Conti and Michael Kamen scored Bond with music that was either naked or out of place, bizarre-for-the-sake-of-bizarre (like the late-era disco Conti wrote for For Your Eyes Only).
Last time out, with 1995’s GoldenEye, this uneven-but-interesting attempt to invent a ‘90s Bond had one uber-bizarre feature: the mostly electronic score by Eric Serra. That score almost caused seizures among Bond fans, though Serra has since redeemed himself with his strange-yet-catchy work on The Fifth Element.
Today, after literally 35 years of James Bond on the big screen, we get the most worthy 18th entry: Tomorrow Never Dies. For the second time, Pierce Brosnan tries Bond on for size, and he’s promising; he’s a more emotionally self-aware Bond than the classic Sean Connery incarnation — which I’m sure will make some Bond fans cry foul — but he has the edge that Roger Moore rarely had and the humor that Timothy Dalton never had (though he wasn’t helped by License To Kill’s lousy dialogue).
Bond is busy keeping World War III from breaking out, as always, and he makes sure to enjoy himself, as always (he sleeps with three women this time). His new enemy is Carver (Jonathan Pryce of Evita) a power-hungry mogul whose media empire includes a tabloid paper, Tomorrow.
"Words are the new weapons, satellites the new artillery," says Carver as he explains his grand plans (they always do) to Bond and partner-in-fighting-crime Wai Linn — played by the kicking-ly wonderful Michelle Yeoh, the most popular actress in Hong Kong cinema. In keeping with other high-powered Bond villains, Carver has a personal fighting force and a cool "Stealth Boat" (played in the film by a real U.S. Navy ship!). He has manipulated news coverage to push the Chinese and British fleets into a crisis, and has stolen one very big missile that he’ll use to ensure a war.
This is all over-the-top and funny, though to varying degrees; there’s one action scene early on that almost feels like the sort of fast-edited action The Rock had — which was great for that film but not quite right for Bond — and the ending action gets a little too incoherent in its attempt to go out with a bang. But the wit is there. In one scene Bond walks in on a dead character — and hears of this death from a Carver Network news report, which goes on to mention how a certain British agent (um, him) was found dead there as well…
What deserves special mention is the music, written by a Young Turk named David Arnold. You’ve heard his stuff: he scored Independence Day, Stargate and the TV series pilot The Visitor for his friends Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. His hiring on Tomorrow Never Dies marks a first: a Bond movie scored by someone who grew up with those films. And it is like he has reincarnated the musical ensemble — the guitar, the "wall of brass" sound—that John Barry put together in the ‘60s.
Arnold takes compositional cues from Barry as well, with long melodies that develop like songs, and he uses parts of the "James Bond Theme" that not even Barry was using by the 1980s. (There are at least 16 appearances of all or part of the theme.) He also spices it with interesting synthesizer effects to add a ‘90s touch. It’s a big improvement over his rousing but shapeless score to ID4, which was a bunch of musical explosions.
David Arnold didn’t write the title song—that’s by Sheryl Crow, and it’s passable but not a Bond classic — but in a clever touch, he hired lyricist Don Black of Thunderball to write another song with "Tomorrow Never Dies" in the lyric. (Why not? It’s a good line.) It’s called "Surrender"; k.d. lang sings it over the end credits, and Arnold uses the main melody ("To-MOR-row ne-ver diiiiies — surr-en-der") as one of his main themes. It’s the best Bond tune since The Pretenders’ love ballad "If There Was A Man," written for 1987’s The Living Daylights, the last Barry-Bond score so far. Arnold also provides an almost-tragic love theme for Bond and his former lover Paris Carver (Teri Hatcher — blink and you’ll miss the reason she’s in the plot, though she does get to show plenty of her very nice skin). This is surprising for such a devil-may-care franchise as Bond, but it works better than the attempts to add tragic weight to GoldenEye.
Tomorrow Never Dies is a strong blend of James Bond past and present. The longest-running franchise in movie history is in good hands.
The World Is Not Enough, reviewed 11/23/1999
What I was thinking by the end of the screening was, "And…?"
In other words, I was left feeling not quite fulfilled by what is usually a great source of sheer grin-inducing entertainment. This 19th official Bond film is just OK — and Bond films should be better than that.
For the third time, Pierce Brosnan is James Bond 007 — and hey, with a name like "Pierce Brosnan," obviously he was born for the role. He’s also clearly growing into it, managing to touch on both the intensity of Sean Connery and the flippancy of Roger Moore with some wrinkles of his own.
As the film begins, Bond is helping to retrieve billionaire heiress Elektra King (Sophie Marceau of Braveheart) from people trying to sabotage her family’s oil pipeline across the former Soviet state of Azerbaijan. But Bond, of course, discovers a plot. The battle between competing pipelines is about to go violent…as in a nuclear explosion that villains plan to set off in Istanbul, to devastate a major trade route and completely reroute the world economy in the villains’ favor.
Meanwhile, Bond of course romances some Bond women — three this time, including Marceau’s Elektra, nuclear scientist Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) and Dr. Holly Warmflash, played by Serena Scott Thomas, Kristin Scott Thomas’ sister. After Teri Hatcher was almost entirely cut out of Tomorrow Never Dies — the same film where action star Michelle Yeoh was not allowed to show any of her sex appeal — we needed an infusion of Bond babes, and in two of the three cases this film doesn’t disappoint, Marceau especially. She’s elegant, exotic, natural, and a smooth operator.
Denise Richards appeals to an evil part of me, the part that liked her kinky character in the guilty pleasure Wild Things (which probably was the film that made the Bond producers think to cast her), but other than that immense bust of hers there’s not much to her character. She has exactly one good line: "Could you translate that into English for those of us who don’t speak Spy?"
Strangely, even though this movie improves in part on 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies — the action feels more like Bond-style action, for instance — it still doesn’t seem better overall. There’s too much unfulfilled potential.
Consider the latest Bond villain Renard (Robert Carlyle of The Full Monty and Trainspotting). Renard, you see, is a renegade Russian with a bullet lodged in his head that has severed his brain’s connection to his nervous system. This makes him stronger because he’s completely impervious to pain — but when he is with a woman, you can sense his emotional pain at not being able to feel pleasure, either. But that’s the only time this crucial character detail is really touched on (excuse me). They could have done so much more with it.
And I wish Michael Apted, the director this time, had brought more style to the proceedings because he has brought style to his other work. I liked how his 1992 movie Thunderheart looks — there was an almost natural flow to that film’s photography and editing — but here he seems reined in by the Bond Way Of Making Movies, and this results in too many by-the-numbers scenes that just don’t take off or pay off.
Rarely do I totally dislike a film, and there is lots to like in The World Is Not Enough. The best part is a boat chase through London, which made me grin big with its escalating madness — especially a Roger Moore-ish moment Brosnan has underwater.
As always, the photography is great; the story takes place in a larger-than-life world that’s fitting for these larger-than-life characters.
Monty Python’s John Cleese has two scenes as a new "young" assistant for gadget guru Q, and he runs with them.
Composer David Arnold (Independence Day, Godzilla, and Tomorrow Never Dies) again blasts away with music that feels like Bond music: bold, brassy, driven and fun.
But it comes down to scripts, scripts, scripts. The quality of writing is important; all of the gadgets and acting moments only provide seasoning, but the script provides the meat of the meal. I felt that Timothy Dalton had a real shot at making an impression as Bond in the 1980s, but the script for The Living Daylights was just OK and the script for License to Kill was terrible.
Please, let them pull out — no, blow out — all the stops on Bond #20, and surprise us. Brosnan deserves that, and so do Bond fans.