Friday, July 3, 2009

James Bond review: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Bond is back.

BOND, JAMES BOND: My personal favorite of the series. I think I may have said that before, and when I’m not actually watching this one, I might give the nod to From Russia With Love or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or The Man With The Golden Gun. But when I am watching this, I have such an irrepressible grin on my face that I can’t honestly say it’s not my favorite.

Why? Everything I wrote in my GoldenEye review about how the advantage of three decades of 007 mythmaking works to Pierce Brosnan’s advantage is still true of this film. Brosnan’s performance captures the Ideal Bond that has been taking shape in our collective imagination through all these movies. And even more so than in the previous movie, the filmmakers give him a film that supports that performance perfectly. The story, the settings, the secondary characters, the cast, the camera work, the art direction, the music all epitomize what a James Bond movie should be. Stylish, dark, witty, sexy. The quintessence of cool.

Last time we established that Brosnan has the look. Here the whole film has the look. Bond’s brawl with Carver’s thugs at the party in Hamburg, everybody in suits in a black room with a single overhead light; Bond making his escape through Carver’s headquarters building, all white walls and black girders; Bond and Wai Lin in a junk on the South China Sea at dusk; Bond and Paris in the hotel room, and those garters…the film is full of carefully chosen visual elements, each striking in its own right, that collectively live up to the Bond fan’s wildest fantasies.

What is all lives up to is Monty Norman’s original “James Bond Theme.” It was barely heard in GoldenEye, but here it pops up repeatedly. And it’s the highest compliment I can think of that the visuals are worthy of the music every time.

What Makes Bond Bond: When M suggests he exploit his previous relationship with Paris Carver to get at Elliot, Bond resists. Whatever his critics may say about him, Bond is not a woman-hater. This is crucial. He’s a playboy but not an exploiter. That’s why the best Bond girls are those who match him in sophistication or brass.

What Makes Pierce Brosnan Pierce Brosnan: Drinking alone in the hotel room, waiting for Paris. It’s a nod to two scenes in Dr. No: the one where Bond drinks vodka alone in his hotel room and the one where, having already dispatched Miss Taro, he’s waiting for Dent so he can kill him. Here Bond is drinking alone, looking dashing in his slight deshabille, waiting for some one of Carver’s goons to come for him; part of him hopes it’s Paris, part of him dreads that it might be. And of course it is. Brosnan handles the scene with just the right note of bitter determination. Check out the way he flicks the last few drops from his glass. The quintessence of cool.

BAD GUYS: Back to the classic Goldfinger/Blofeld Bond Villain template. Charismatic lunatic with a mad plot to take over/destroy/extort the world. Actually Carver’s plot isn’t all that much more ambitious than Janus’s in GoldenEye, or Whitford’s in The Living Daylights, but Jonathan Pryce plays it larger than life, unlike Sean Bean, and he’s up to the job, unlike Joe Don Baker. From his veneer of unctuous sincerity to his ridiculous chop-socky mockery of Wai Lin, Pryce is just pure fun to watch. The best Bond villain since Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Largo.

(It helps that Carver’s plot is a very relevant satire of the media’s relation to world events; in that sense Tomorrow Never Dies gets better with every passing year.)

Götz Otto as Stamper, Carver’s main muscle, is at the very least memorable, with his Billy Idol looks. But he has to share henchman duties with two other guys who are more fun to watch. One is the inimitable Ricky Jay as Gupta, Carver’s tech wizard; his deadpan delivery is a perfect foil for Pryce’s fulsomeness.

The other is Vincent Schiavelli as Dr. Kaufman, the courtly pistol marksman. In everything from his silly mustache to his leather gloves to his overwrought German accent, Kaufman is an original, and deserves a seat in Henchman Valhalla right next to Messrs. Wint and Kidd.

GRATUITOUS SEX: GS3 again. Once again we start out with a throwaway Bond girl (one more thing to love about the Brosnan Bonds is that they brought back truly gratuitous sex). This time it’s his Danish teacher at Oxford (Cecilie Thomsen), by which we learn that Bond is a “cunning linguist.” (One of the great double entendres.)

Teri Hatcher’s Paris Carver (a desperate housewife if ever there was one) is the damsel-in-distress type of Bond girl. Hatcher was at the peak of her appeal here, and she has the beauty wattage and the cool to convince you of her hold over 007’s emotions. And she’s every bit as good as Brosnan in their last, doomed love scene.

Then there’s Michelle Yeoh as Wai Lin, a rival Chinese agent. It hardly needs to be said, but Yeoh is the real deal. She's the only actress cast as a fellow spy in the series (and there have been many: I’m looking at you, Halle Berry) who has ever looked like a convincing rival or partner for 007. She more than holds her own both on the motorcycle and in that evening dress. Glamor and guts: she’s got it all. Bond Girls don’t come any better than her.

AND VIOLENCE: The precredit action sequence sets a new standard for the series; they’d go out of their way to top it over the next few films. The motorcycle chase through Saigon is also brilliant, reminiscent of the similar scene in Octopussy but making up for that one’s jokiness. The BMW chase in the garage is also a classic, striking just the right balance of light notes and thrills. And speaking of that garage: here’s why we love James Bond movies, when they’re done right. A bunch of thugs are trying to get into Bond’s car, and they can’t, so they start whaling on it with sledgehammers. But they’re impeccably dressed in suits and ties. They don’t even loosen their ties. The quintessence of cool.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Okay, so it’s too bad that the ‘90s series ditched the Aston-Martin for a BMW, and it was worse that we saw so little of the Beamer in GoldenEye (there’s a Woody Allen joke in there somewhere). At least we get a lot of the car here: that chase through the parking garage. Remote control driving, reinflatable tires, on-board missiles, and best of all a cable-cutter at just the right height. Awesome. I mean, we’re approaching You Only Live Twice levels of grooviness here.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Supercool Hamburg and Asian Tiger-era Thailand (standing in for Vietnam); yin and yang. Both shown off to excellent effect.

ETC.: Once again the opening credit sequence is a stunner, with all those x-ray effects adding a touch of paranoia to the sensuality. If you’ve ever seen the video for the Sheryl Crow theme song, though, you may agree that it could have functioned equally well as the title sequence; its visuals are just as striking. The theme song itself is all that and more, a heartbreaker, perfectly catching the romance and foreboding that Brosnan brings to this movie. Meanwhile, k.d. lang’s end-titles song is just as good – it’s a barnburner, sleazy horns and all… I’m aware that in rating this the best of the Bonds, I’m kind of alone, and I don’t know quite how to explain that. In the end, perhaps there’s just no accounting for taste; but I don’t really believe that. I don’t think tastes are necessarily either universal or exportable, but you can try to account for them. In fact, you have to try, if your discussions of art are to be anything more than just thumbs up or down. This whole series of reviews is an attempt to do that…

RATING: 007.

No comments: