The Bond franchise had been many things over the years, but one it had suddenly and almost unexpectedly become after the success of Goldeneye was a guaranteed money maker. But, like a small American child slapped in too much make up and thrust uncomfortably into a beauty pageant and a series of commercials, Bond’s new parent decided to use their favourite offspring to try to boost their upcoming stock offering. MGM wanted Bond, and it wanted it quick; in the Sixties, churning out a Bond film a year was never an issue, but the requirement for more extensive post-production, and the lack of Fleming heritage to be able to call on, gave the second Pierce Brosnan Bond a somewhat troubled birth.
The difficulty of that gestation and the rush to get the film onto screens is right up there on screen for all to see. The opening sequence, self contained and with just a little set-up for the rest of the film, is a cracker and up there with the best pre-credits sequences of the whole series. It’s after another of Daniel Kleinman’s superb title sequences that things start to go rapidly downhill. The main problem with Goldeneye seems to have gotten even worse, with both Brosnan and the film itself unsure of the tone they need to pitch, and instead both end up veering more wildly between brutality and banality. The cheeky one liners which Moore tossed off feel ever more cheesy and uncomfortable emerging from Brosnan’s mouth, while the way in which everyone from Teri Hatcher’s weak Bond girl to a bunch of British soliders are casually slaughtered feels more Dalton era than anything else. Thanks to the unevenness of tone and the short development window, Tomorrow Never Dies never feels fully formed, but there are enough enjoyable moments to make it a modest success.
While legacies are becoming ever more thin on the ground in the rather stagnant Brosnan era, there’s still some fun to be had, not least from the Spot The Famous Face drinking game. If you can spot Julian “I wrote Downton Abbey” Fellowes as a minister, take a sip; the likes of Julian Rhind-Tutt and Hugh Bonneville in the navy also deserve a brief swig, but spotting Gerard Butler in a blink-and-miss-him scene on the boat deserves at least a mouthful and if you pick out Alex Reid outside Carver’s party as a German policeman, then finish your drink immediately. Spotting all of those famous faces might not make TND more enjoyable, but hopefully the strong drink will, and if not then Vincent Schiavelli’s entirely over-the-top henchman should still provide a few chuckles.
All this, though, is a distraction from the real business here, which is whether or not Tomorrow Never Dies has had a lasting effect on either the Bond movies themselves or action films in general. While the law of diminishing returns is definitely kicking in, Tomorrow Never Dies does mark a couple of key moments in the franchise.
1. You’re on your own now, 007
Tomorrow Never Dies is the first film in the entire series to take only the recurring characters: M, Q, Moneypenny, raging innuendo, etc. from Fleming’s novels or backstory. Admittedly we’d already reached the thin end of the wedge, as Licence To Kill was falling back on the short stories for ideas as well as the novels, and Goldeneye was simply the name of Fleming’s house, but Tomorrow Never Dies marked the first time that the films had to exist beyond what Fleming had provided, to prove that they really could stand on their own two feet.
Key to that is the idea that the legacy has provided, a framework to which it should be possible to stitch any appropriate story and turn it into a Bond film. Tomorrow Never Dies does that, but in a way that’s part of its problem: occasionally sticking too slavishly to a formula almost as a cinematic comfort blanket. It will be a few films yet before the Bond producers feel confident enough to start letting the series truly off the reins, but certain elements, for better or worse, will always be a part of Bond; hopefully, that in turn means that Bond will outlive all of us.
2. A man with a score to settle
A musical score in this case; after the catastrophe of the Goldeneye score from Eric Serra – which I still firmly believe is not only a fantastic score in its own right but also the worst Bond score ever, apart from the one bit he didn’t write – the producers were looking for someone to replicate the musical success of John Barry, who had scored eleven of the previous seventeen Bonds. Those which weren’t Barry scores, from the likes of George Martin, Marvin Hamlisch and Michael Kamen, had met with decidedly mixed success, so it needed someone who could not only write well for the blockbuster, but also understood the musical needs and heritage of Bond.
Step forward David Arnold, who had not only enjoyed blockbuster success and acclaim for his work on Roland Emmerich films such as Stargate and Independence Day, but had also put together a Bond album of cover versions called Shaken And Stirred, featuring everything from Pulp’s cover of All Time High to a Propellerheads version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Arnold scored every movie through to Quantum Of Solace, bowing out for Skyfall due to an unfortunate clash with his Olympic commitments, but in the five films he’s scored he managed to successfully mix the traditional Bond theme orchestral sound with his own music and innovation, even including his own motif (known as “Suspense” in four of his five films).
His work on Tomorrow Never Dies guaranteed him a decade of work on the series, doing just what Barry did so well, including in this case taking k.d. lang’s version of his own song Surrender and weaving its themes through the rest of the music, as well as another collaboration with Propellerheads on the music for the garage car chase. Here’s hoping that we’ve not seen the last of Arnold and Bond working together.
Next time: The World Is Not Enough, apparently. Well, that’s gratitude for you.
Previous Bond legacy posts: Dr No / From Russia With Love / Goldfinger / Thunderball / You Only Live Twice / On Her Majesty’s Secret Service / Diamonds Are Forever / Live And Let Die / The Man With The Golden Gun / The Spy Who Loved Me / Moonraker / For Your Eyes Only / Octopussy / A View To A Kill / The Living Daylights / Licence To Kill / Goldeneye
Clicky here for The BlogalongaBond collective, courtesy of The Incredible Suit.
The Review: Yuen Woo-Ping is a name that should be well known to any lovers of Western movies from the last ten years or so, his choreography being key to the fighting styles of The Matrix movies, as well as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill. He’s had a much longer career, starting out as an actor and then working steadily as a director up until the mid-Nineties. This is his return to directing after a long break, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that he’s chosen a sweeping historical epic, packed with opportunities to show off the fighting styles he’s become so well known for.
The movie itself falls so neatly into three acts that it’s almost like watching three separate short movies with the same characters, stitched together one after the other. The first is effectively a war movie, with large scale battles and multiple fights taking place on screen, but the second narrows the focus to a single character, Su Can (Vincent Zhao), the general from the first part, and the family conflicts and dangers represented by his former ally and adopted brother Yuan (Xan Zhou), now bent on revenge. Su almost dies at Yuan’s hand, but unbeknown to all but his wife is saved by a reclusive doctor (Michelle Yeoh) and, when he discovers the “God of Wushu” in the nearby countryside, vows to improve his skills to return and confront Yuan once more.
The twists and turns in the narrative structure will feel familiar to anyone who took in Crouching Tiger and its contemporaries in the last decade, with high drama and personal loss being recurrent themes. There is certainly a slightly lighter feel to this, especially around the mid-section, with the God of Wushu sequences being shot in 3D and consequently having an otherworldly feel to them. The consequence of this is that some of the dramatic weight of the rest of the drama feels lost in the process, the whole movie feeling just slightly more lightweight as a consequence, but there’s enough to keep the interest and Yuen doesn’t let the pace flag. The money certainly feels like it’s up there on screen, the first two acts both being sufficient in scope to justify your continued interest.
The final act is when things take a turn for the truly strange. There are a number of familiar faces to Western audiences in the movie, not only Michelle Yeoh but also Jay Chow as the God of Wushu (soon to be seen alongside Seth Rogen in The Green Hornet), and even David Carradine, in one of his last roles as the master of a wrestling arena surrounded by tigers. So if historical martial arts epics with 3D fantasy sequences which culminate in fights with wrestlers above a pit of tigers are your thing, then True Legend is well worth your time. If that last sentence has sent you running for the hills, then I probably can’t blame you, but in this slight curiosity of a movie its the martial arts, as ever, that make it worth the effort.
Why see it at the cinema: Epic vistas, sweeping camera moves, and a large screen allowing you to capture all of the bone-crunching action. The early sequences are packed with detail and will benefit from the size of the cinema screen.
Why see (bits of) it in 3D: As entertaining as anything in the movie was the fact that most people at the screening I went to didn’t realise that the whole movie wasn’t in 3D – there was much embarrassed guffawing when the “put on your glasses” logo appeared before the first fantasy sequence. (That maybe doesn’t say much for other 3D movies, that people couldn’t tell, of course.) The sparing use of 3D and the manner of it’s use actually makes it more effective and complements those sequences well, although to offset the brightness issues of 3D, those sequences have been made very bright – expect to lose sight for a day or two if you inadvertently take off your glasses during these sequences.
The Score: 7/10