Friday, 1 June 2012

Tomorrow Never Dies

Immediately, one thing is obvious. Tomorrow Never Dies is much more relaxed and self-assured than GoldenEye. The great success of Brosnan's first film appears to have lifted the terrible weight of expectations, and the result is a better, more enjoyable film. 

Unfortunately, no matter how enjoyable, TND hardly feels like a James Bond adventure. What we have here is a decent action movie, with all the requisite crashes and bangs, but with very few of the flourishes that make 007 differentTrue Lies (1994) and Mission: Impossible (1996) had been stomping all over Bond's territory whilst the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series had redefined the action genre. Against all that TND merely blends into the wider miasma of quips, explosions and snogs.

Too often the action, although exciting and well-executed, feels generic. The PCS sets the tone, with Brosnan dressed as.. well, I don't know what that's supposed to be (right). It's such a vague 'adventure hero' outfit that it might as well be from any number of films: The Mummy, Serenity, a war movie, take your pick. Thus attired, Bond sets about shooting up some terrorists, stealing a plane and forcibly ejecting his unwelcome co-pilot through the fuselage of his pursuer. But even that neat reversal of fortunes barely cuts the mustard as a 007 special move when all his competitors are doing similar things, and the resulting quip is, again, just par for the course. The other, admittedly excellent, action set pieces follow suit. The motorcycle chase is inventive (with Bond and Wai Lin handcuffed) and brilliantly executed - but it could be from any number of non-Bond films. The HALO jump - rather a big deal in real life I imagine - is flattened on screen into a few seconds of choppy, seen-it-before free-fall. The final battle gives up all pretence and turns Bond into a full-on Schwarzeneger-style commando, complete with remorseless robotic walk.

This would all matter less if it wasn't for Brosnan - or rather what I call 'the Brosnan Project': throughout his tenure there is a concerted effort to stretch the role of James Bond with a view either to creating more narrative options or to providing Brosnan with some 'acting' opportunities, or both. This is largely achieved by drawing on a pretend past that we haven't previously seen, hence 006's treachery in GoldenEye and here the 'return' of Paris Carver, Bond's old girlfriend.

There are several problems with this, not the least if which is that it smacks of desperation, like the writing in the ninth season of a sit-com. It feels all the more ludicrous to introduce new 'old' characters from Bond's past because we have been watching since 1962! Minor acquaintances like Zukovsky are one thing, but surely we would have noticed if he had had a girlfriend?

The biggest problem is that Brosnan hasn't got the chops to pull any of this off and invariably a raw 'emotional' scene means Pierce pulling one of his pained expressions, brows furrowed, jaw clenched, as if he were trying to stop an unfortunate accident occurring in his pants. There's nothing inherently wrong with that as an acting technique - taste is subjective - but such expressions are unfortunately similar to the ones he makes when he's being garotted or dangled from the exhaust of a cruise missile, and so Bond's emotional range is somewhat compromised.

The essence of the Brosnan Project is to square the circle: to combine the emotional coherence of OHMSS and LTK with the 'fun' Bond good-times of TSWLM. In other words to please the widest possible audience whilst still trying to portray Fleming's character on screen. It doesn't work. In TND the two contrasting styles are smashed together side-by-side, most notably at the end of the Hamburg sequence. The relationship with Paris (albeit having a manufactured, ersatz quality because we have never heard of her) is played dark and emotional, with Bond clearly angry and upset at her death. Dead lovers are familiar territory for 007 (and for us) but the face-off with Dr Kaufman - clever, sinister and with a black sense of humour - is probably the most authentically Flemingesque part of the whole film. But all this is blown out of the water - within a few minutes Brosnan is giggling away to himself in the back of his BMW as he visits comedy carnage on some hapless henchmen in the hotel car park.

I don't mind the fact the all the gadgets and stunts in that chase are done for laughs and cheap thrills. I don't mind that it's one long BMW advert. I don't even mind that the convoluted chase adds nothing to the story and is devoid of tension. But what is unforgivable is that Paris's death is immediately meaningless. Despite all that sniffing and gurning from Brosnan, seconds later both he and the audience have forgotten that the woman ever existed. Without consequences such events mean nothing and Bond remains as uni-dimensional as ever.

Putting all that to one side, there are some interesting aspects to TND. The full-throated quest for relevance continues - both for Bond and for Britain. The demise of reliable Cold War villains requires new reasons for MI6 to leap into action and the choices made here by the production team are fascinating. 

The script unambiguously calls out Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch as the super-villains of our time and it's true that they tick a lot of the tradtional Bond villain boxes: self-made millionaires; men who switch nationality for personal gain or have complex, mixed nationalities (Hugo Drax, Blofeld, Mr Big, Dr No, Goldfinger...); men with ostensibly immaculate public reputations; who nurture an animus against the traditional elites; who seek to dominate and crush the opposition. The idea that 007 could be put up against such a man is thrilling and clever (especially with what we know now - see here for a Bond take on it) - but entirely fails to be either of those things on screen.

It's a shame that Elliot Carver is so pathetic. He's a truly insipid Bond villain, who manages to annoy me every time he moves or speaks. His mockery of Wai Lin's martial arts is one the worst few seconds from any Bond film and even the man's one-handed typing is excruciating. Carver is about as menacing as a slice of cake. His minions are not much better: both Gupta and Stamper are utterly forgettable, but worst of all is the captain of the stealth boat. With his earpiece, his black pullover and his appallingly earnest manner he evokes a rather harassed floor manager on a live TV show. He doesn't get a name but I call him Tony. He looks like a Tony and he is a total waste of space. 

And whilst Bond is being deployed against that bunch of numpties, Britain is managing, once again, to punch above its weight. Throughout the film (indeed throughout the '90s) the Bond films are busy carving out an imaginary niche for the UK in global relations. At first glance it may seem that this is a simple continuation of the post-imperial subtexts of Thunderball or YOLT, but in fact it is subtly adapted to promote new prejudices. Back in '60s the USA was a proud ally, rich but lacking the sharp edge with which to successfully bring its advantages to bear. In TND it is a blundering behemoth, quick to flex it muscles and prone to costly mistakes that Britain must undo. The USSR started off as an implacable but easily out-witted opponent and became, in the '70s, a somewhat cosy enemy, riddled with internal divisions and as noble as it was sinister. In TND (and GoldenEye) it is an incompetent mess, reliant on British help. And then there's China. In the '60s and '70s, China was a mysterious and unseen foe, (the off-screen sponsor of evil schemes in GFING, YOLT and TMWTGG). Here it is the burgeoning superpower, slowly realising its potential - but importantly it is presented as being morally neutral. Although headed for war with Britain, it has been duped by Carver and, at the end, withdraws from conflict with (presumably) no ill-feelings. And again it is almost invisible on screen. Unlike in, say, FYEO, there are no scenes in Beijing where M's opposite number discusses the British threat. China is still an unknown factor. Importantly though it does have a human face in Wai Lin - ultra competent, professional and almost entirely unobjectified she tends to go unnoticed, but as China rises she may prove to be the mjost significant Bond woman ever. She has total parity with 007, is able to outwit him and, pointedly, has perfect English whereas Bond looks with embarrassed confusion at her Chinese keyboard. She even shoe-horns into conversation that she doesn't carry a little red book. Her alliance with Bond proves to the audience that it is possible for us to do business with China and her abilities suggest that we might it might be a good idea if we play nice whilst we're at it. 

Given China's heavy-weight credentials, it is all the more amazing that Britain should pick a fight with them. But for course, this is the proof that TND really is a James Bond film after all. Once again that trusty Bond metaphor for British power, the Royal Navy, is rolled out to show the world that we are still have what it takes. It's telling, also, that (at least to British eyes) our men and women are all top-notch. Dame Judi, already literally acting aristocracy, is joined by Julian Fellowes as the Minister for Defence and Geoffrey Palmer as Admiral Roebuck. The Devonshire and the Bedford are crewed by, amongst others, Hugh Bonneville, Gerard Butler, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Michael Byrne and with actors of that calibre then, hell, maybe Britannia can still rule the waves? 

Of course not. And odd, isn't it, that this bubbles up in the same year that Hong Kong, that distant outpost of Empire, is regretfully handed back? This has long been part of Bond's role - to sell us, and the world, the lie of British puissance. I'm never sure if the rest of the world is taken in by it - but then it's always easier to delude ourselves then it is to pull the wool other the eyes of others.

*   *   *

Pre-Credits Sequence: One of the better ones: a full-on mini action movie that sets up a lot for the rest of the film. There's even room for some character-led interplay amid the explosions. One minor gripe - Bond here saves the day by ignoring his orders and proving everybody wrong: it's all very slick. When Connery, Dalton or Craig show us an insubordinate Bond it's an interesting character flaw. With Brosnan it ends up instead as something more like Papal infallibility.

Theme: It is a bit lacklustre, but it's not as bad as you think: there's a nice guitar line and some husky vocals from Sheryl Crow. Famously many artists submitted versions, including Marc Almond, Saint Etienne and Pulp. Bond music ace David Arnold also wrote one called Surrender, which, sung by k.d. lang, appeared over the end titles instead. That one's a corker. Daniel Kleinman's visuals are great again, full of inventive touches that gently underpin the subject matter of the film. It is all a little incoherent but it is still a vast improvement on the Binder years.

Deaths: 224. That's an all time high. The on-screen tally is actually only about average but then the HMS Devonshire sinks with all hands (there are 17 survivors but they are all promptly shot). Although a fictional ship, the Devonshire is a Type 23 frigate and therefore would have a full crew complement of 185.

Memorable Deaths: Elliot Carver is rather gratuitously fed into his undersea drill, but even that is only the least boring demise rather than being genuinely memorable. 

Licence to Kill: 26. That's high too and it might be even higher because I can't confirm any kills during the initial PCS battle, which seems unlikely. After two films, Brosnan's average kills per movie is higher than any other Bond. 

Exploding Helicopters: 2. Definitely two. I know it looks like just one (the one from the bike chase) but there was another one in the PCS, clearly namechecked by Robinson as a Panther AS565. And it was hit by a cruise missile, therefore it exploded. 

Shags: I'm saying two. He definitely sleeps with Paris and he is pretty much in flagrante delicto with his Danish teacher. But I'm not counting Wai Lin. Although she and Bond are together at the end, and lip-locked (it's their first kiss of the film), they are also clinging off of some burning flotsam following the destruction of Carver's boat. I'm not convinced that even James Bond wouldn't actually just wait ten minutes until they were safely aboard the HMS Bedford.  

Crimes Against Women: Not bad really. There is yet more sexism in the work place, but it seems to be evening out at last. M and Moneypenny seem to find Bond's sex-life amusing when they discuss Paris Carver, and when he fires the feeblest of come-ons at Moneypenny she simply blanks him, as if the comment wasn't even worth rebutting. Meanwhile, at CMG, Carver's employment strategy is to hire good-looking women who will acquiesce to his advances in return for promotion. Even so, he frequently refers to his wife as being his property. On the plus side, Bond does manage to work alongside Wai Lin without any of the usual 'women drivers' type comments that he needed to salve his ego in TSWLM. However, it is clearly supposed to be funny that Bond's sat-nav has a women's voice.  

Casual Racism: Tricky. There's a lot of jingoism on display ("The Empire WILL Strike Back" and so forth) and a lot of Chinese cultural stereotyping in the scene in the People's External Security Force's version of Q Branch. Carver mocks Wai Lin's martial arts too. There's plenty of gentle carping: the Russians "can't keep anything locked up"; the Americans are bumbling idiots; the Germans are efficient professionals (Kaufman, the sat-nav again) and sadists (Stamper).  

Out of Time: Given the pace of technological development, Bond's phone of choice in each movie allows the films to be dated very precisely - this one, an Ericsson JB988 apparently, must have been in the shops for nearly as long as its stated battery life. Funny that this film, featuring a Sino-British flashpoint in 1997, never mentions the handover of Hong Kong.Well it was going to, but it was felt that a film released in November couldn't be about something that had happened in July. Teri Hatcher is pure 1997 too, having just finished making Lois & Clark. Kaufman has a video cassette. Remember them? And Carver wasn't the only media mogul doing business in China in the '90s - read this and try and keep your lunch down. 

Fashion Disasters: Bond's PCS outfit, as discussed. He can't wear the Naval uniform either, especially the hat. Wai Lin gets a leather suit too - do secret agents not sweat? Wade's shirt! Also, the waiters at Carver's party are wearing suits printed with newspaper pages. It is the saddest thing.

Most Shameless Advertising: Smirnoff (Red Label this time), Avis and Ericsson all have their moment of prominence, but the winner here is clearly BMW. The new car is the 750i (perhaps the least suitable car for Bond since the Sunbeam Alpine) and it has its own extended chase scene. There's also the long bike sequence, featuring a BMW R1200C, so the combined BMW screen time is around 50 minutes. The clincher, though, is the chain-cutting tool which is hidden underneath the BMW badge on the 750i. Really classy and not at all gratuitously obvious. 

Eh?: The fleet is able to sail to China within forty-eight hours. Which is amazing when you consider that the first vessel to reach the Falkands in 1982 (HMS Conqueror) had taken 21 days to make the journey from Faslane. >> Why on Earth does Gupta have a satellite sitting in his office? He didn't assemble it there. Would it even fit through the door? >> That tabloid headline "The Empire WILL Strike Back" is odd. It's in quotation marks! Firstly, tabloids don't use quotation marks on headlines. Secondly, if it is a quote, who said it? Someone from the government? That's hardly diplomacy is it? (Perhaps they're quoting this?) >> I know this is a James Bond film, but it is a STAGGERING coincidence that 007 should bump into Wai Lin inside the wreck of the Devonshire. >> Why is the fisherman on the boat killed when Bond and Wai Lin surface? The only reason seemingly is for dramatic effect. >> Bond and Wai Lin escape from the penthouse of Carver's skyscraper and crash through a lower window.. and then run out of the ground floor doors! Is it not possible to telephone the security teams in the atrium when there are spies trying to flee the building? >> If, according to YOLT, Bond has a first in Oriental Languages from Cambridge (clue: he doesn't) then how come he can't handle a Chinese keyboard? >> Hang on, I may be being stupid, but Bond whacks a set of detonators on the bottom of the cruise missile - not explosives, detonators. So considering that the bottom of a launching missile is a whoosh of flame anyway, why do the detonators do anything? >> Stamper's peccadillo - that his senses of pain and pleasure are reversed - is never referenced other than in promotional material and is, frankly, all over the place. Another wasted idea that will resurface, recycled, in TWINE. He definitely grimaces when Bond rips the knife from his chest, but maybe it's his O face? >> The cruise missile explodes and destroys the boat whilst Bond and Wai Lin are ten feet or so underwater below - and yet they are not squashed or otherwise discomforted by the inevitable enormous shock wave that doesn't materialise.

Worst Line: Quite a few. A lot of excruciating exposition from 'Tony': "A stealth ship may be invisible to radar but the sea drill isn't!" he helpfully explains to his crew mate, who presumably also has to be reminded to keep breathing. Carver's dialogue is as awful as the rest of him: "Delicious!", "There's no news, like bad news!" and so on. Bond is back to delivering very bad quips, even when there's nobody there to talk to: "Backseat driver!" is bad but "They'll print anything these days!" is especially dreadful. "I've always been a fan of Chinese technology!" isn't even a joke. Worst of all is the series of puns with which Bond tells Carver that he knows what he's up to. 

Best Line: M and Moneypenny are on top form, almost a fully-formed double act. Dame Judi also gets paired up to great effect with her screen husband Geoffrey Palmer who plays Admiral Roebuck. He carps at her: "With all due respect, M, I think you don't have the balls for this job." M fires back, "Perhaps. But the advantage is, I don't have to think with them all the time." And 'expert pistol marksmen' Dr. Kaufman makes the wonderful claim that "I could shoot you from Stuttgart and still create the proper effect!"

Worst Bond Moment: He looks like a right wally in his naval uniform. 

Best Bond Moment: It's supposed to be the PCS, or the car chase or the bike chase - and fifteen years ago I would have agreed. But there's really very little about any of these which is genuinely 'Bondian'. No, not for the first time it is the music that makes the man. David Arnold's first score is very good, blending traditional Barry-esque orchestrations with Propellerheads' jet-fuelled modernity. But it is his understanding of the importance of the Bond theme itself which is so impressive. During the escape from the Hamburg newspaper offices, the music is fast and desperate - but then there is a sudden lull as Bond temporarily eludes his pursuers and the theme kicks in, casual and almost Connery cool, as Brosnan relaxes and straightens his tie. Then the guards turn up again and - bang - we're back into the chase. But for a moment there we were watching a Bond film and it was all thanks to Arnold. 

Overall: Competent, with some exciting set-pieces. But it is totally lacking that crucial Bond element, the savoir faire that allows 007 to stand out from the pack of imitators.   

James Bond Will Return: in The World is Not Enough. And if I had my way that would be the last of the Brosnan films but apparently there's one more after that which, luckily, I seem to have forgotten all about.

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