50 Years of James Bond

The best of the Brosnan Bond movies, “Tomorrow Never Dies” features one of the only plausible villains in the entire franchise – the other two being “License to Kill’s” drug kingpin and “Quantum of Solace’s” water-mongering madman. Of course, “plausible” is a relative term in the world of Bond, where the series low saw a 7-foot henchman with steel-capped teeth leading an uprising in space with “Moonraker.” Here, screenwriter Bruce Feirstein (a former contributing editor for Spy magazine) serves up an intriguing twist on the usual mad billionaire – the only men rich enough to underwrite such elaborate schemes – by putting the latest scheme in the hands of media mega-mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce).

Despite the fact that newspapers have suffered enormous setbacks in the 15 years since “Tomorrow’s” release, the film feels especially prescient today, particularly after the spectacular disgrace of Rupert Murdoch following News of the World’s 2011 phone-hacking scandal. Until such time, Murdoch was well on his way to a very real form of global domination. To butcher an aphorism: He who controls the information controls the minds of men – a concept that’s as true when describing censorship in China and Iran as it is when applied to the likes of Fox News.

“Tomorrow Never Dies” takes the concept one step further, suggesting that Carver is less interesting than manipulating the news than he is in creating it. Quoting William Randolph Hearst’s promise to his Cuban correspondents, “You supply the pictures and I’ll supply the war,” Carver proceeds to invent a nuclear conflict between the United States and China – another timely notion, considering the latter’s rise on the world scene.

Fans of the series will recall that Bond has visited China before, most memorably in “You Only Live Twice,” when a chest waxing and some tacky eye makeup were deemed sufficient to make Sean Connery pass as Asian (though the hollow volcano finale remains the apogee of such setpieces). Back in China for “The Man With the Golden Gun,” Roger Moore had looked just plain embarrassing judo-chopping his way through a group fight. Now, in “Tomorrow Never Dies,” East-West tensions offer a handy excuse to update 35 years of clumsy stage fighting tactics with the latest in Hong Kong martial arts choreography.

Enlisting Michelle Yeoh as Bond’s Chinese counterpart Wai Lin, the film provides ample opportunity for the two to fight side-by-side, presenting the female agent as every bit his equal. Handcuffed to Wai Lin for a spectacular Saigon-set motorcycle-vs-helicopter stunt sequence, this Bond would never dare make the kind of sarcastic “Women drivers” crack that Moore did in “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Without sacrificing his seductive charms, it seems Bond has finally outgrown the character’s outdated misogyny (at least, until the series’ retrograde next installment). He’s also outgrown smoking – finally! – offering a terrorist arms dealer a light before punching him out in the white-knuckle opening sequence.

“Filthy habit,” he quips, suggesting in yet another way this Bond shares little more than a tuxedo and his license to kill with the spy Ian Fleming invented, trading even his signature Walther PPK for a new gun (the tougher looking P99) and showing no hesitation in grabbing a machine gun when the situation requires. By and large, the changes are improvements – with the exception of one major overarching shift: Eon had become so aware of Bond’s marketing potential that the product placement threatens to run away with the show, turning the films into feature-length car, vodka and accessory commercials.

In “GoldenEye,” Q models a then-new, Atlanta Blue BMW Z3 roadster, which later shows up in the field, but serves no purpose beyond making audiences covet the car. It’s a cute set of wheels, yet far beneath Bond’s Aston Martin standard. Either Q branch is cutting back (and who can blame them, given Bond’s track record with destroying everything he drives?), or he’s slumming it with entry-level sports cars. “Tomorrow Never Dies” does a better job of integrating BMW, featuring not only the aforementioned cycle, but also a car-park chase in which Bond remote-control drives a not-remotely-sporty BMW 750i using his Ericsson phone.

The scene closely follows another in which Bond is seen drinking Stolichnaya while waiting Paris Carver (Teri Hatcher). It must have taken every ounce of integrity the Eon team had left not to give him the line, “A martini: Stoli, not Absolut.” So, Elliot Carver may be crazy, but the greediest characters in this case were clearly the film’s producers, who weren’t content with global box office domination, tainting an otherwise stellar installment with all of their embedded advertising.

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