You Only Live Twenty-Thrice is Nick Rogers’ look back at the James Bond films.

Each Friday until the release of the 23rd official Bond film, Skyfall, Nick will revisit its 22 official predecessors from start to finish, with a bonus post for the unofficial films in which James Bond also appears.

You were very good on the bike.

Wai Lin, Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997

That’s a result of never growing up.

James Bond, Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes, a kiss is just a kiss. And sometimes, James Bond is just a kid.

An impeccably tailored, quick-witted, sexually mature, martini-swilling kid who throws a hell of a tantrum when he feels tortured. But still, in heart and mind, a kid for whom boats, planes, trains and automobiles are but life-sized Hot Wheels, imaginatively smashed together in hellacious spectacles of steel and smoke.

There’s barely room any grains of subtext in the multimillion-dollar sandbox of 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies. It’s got two white-knuckle sequences for the books, Bond litters the ground with more shell casings here than ever before, and the climax is all a tangle of wires and fires. All that’s missing from the most action-packed 007 adventure yet is our hero using his mouth to add exaggeratedly childish sound effects to explosions, gunfire and accelerating cars.

Still, while Alec Trevelyan of GoldenEye is no longer a physical threat to our Commander, his sobering words forever echo in the ears of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond. Here, as 007 pushes a wife into infidelity for the first time in any film, it’s Trevelyan’s crack about finding forgiveness in the arms of willing women for dead ones he failed to protect.

There are consequences to Bond’s cuckolding, which let Brosnan flash a few glances of guilt amid the gangbusters action. A pity he doesn’t play these scenes opposite an actress better than Teri Hatcher. Thankfully, for the brunt of the movie, he’s alongside the most bellicose, good Bond beauty we’ve ever seen— Michelle Yeoh’s Col. Wai Lin, a Chinese spy collaborating with 007 who is, like none before, every bit his heroic equal.

Together, Bond and Wai have only 48 hours to expose and extinguish a third-party threat to engineer World War III between China and the United Kingdom. This is one of Bond’s toughest deadlines yet, and it mirrors one of the tightest, more tumultuous shooting schedules any Bond film had faced.

Coincidentally, it was the first without the franchise’s progenitor, Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, who died of heart failure in June 1996 and to whom Tomorrow is dedicated. Even on GoldenEye, Broccoli’s health was failing, leaving his daughter, Barbara, and stepson, Michael G. Wilson, to take production reins. Here, the duo’s first time on its own was a real thunderball.

Apart from the implicit expectation that each subsequent Bond film trump the last, Barbara and Wilson were under extra pressure from billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. The latest owner to hold the hot potato that was MGM/UA, Kerkorian wanted a successful follow-up to GoldenEye that would correspond with an IPO for studio stock.

This rush job drove Tomorrow’s production budget to $110 million (nearly double that of GoldenEye), saw filming commence with neither a finished script nor a complete cast, and reportedly provoked on-set squabbles among principal crew shaped the story last-minute.

Hatcher and Jonathan Pryce, the film’s villain, hadn’t been cast when main photography began in April 1997, merely eight months before the film’s release date. It’s rumored Pryce filled a vacancy left by Anthony Hopkins, who bailed on the bedlam of getting new script pages each morning after three days.

Plus, Tomorrow didn’t seem in the most prestigious directorial hands. Canadian Roger Spottiswoode’s last three theatrical films were Turner & Hooch, Air America and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Yeoman’s work as it may be to deal with Sylvester Stallone’s comic timing, corralling a runaway Bond is a whole other animal.

So, Tomorrow had a ramshackle production and a threadbare, make-it-up-as-we-go plot. It’s more than made up for with slick, blazing action craftsmanship — with adrenaline and aggression the likes of which a Bond movie had never seen — as well as a significant jump in visual effects from GoldenEye and a hellzapoppin tempo that makes it feel like the devil is at Bond’s back.

The pre-credits sequence finds Bond — or “White Knight,” as he’s generically codenamed — atop another snowy Russian mountaintop a la GoldenEye. Here, he’s infiltrated a terrorist swap meet, where bad guy Henry Gupta (Ricky Jay) has bought a GPS encoder produced by America’s military. Meanwhile, M (Judi Dench) and the British brass that supersede her influence watch remotely from MI6.

The subsequent action scene is driven by an idea hinted at in GoldenEye: Observant boots on the ground like those belonging to Bond trump the more dispassionate, drone-based destruction. (It also finds 007 in rare PSA mode, referring to smoking as a “filthy habit” before slugging a cancer stick from of a nameless thug’s face.) That’s because the admirals order a cruise missile strike — not noticing, as Bond has, nukes mounted on a jet, whose detonation would “make Chernobyl look like a picnic.”

There’s a smoothness to Brosnan’s choreography with heavy-duty firearms that we’ve simply not seen in other Bonds. Preceding characterizations were undoubtedly more judicious with their bullets, but again, the upped stakes come calling. In this sequence, as 007 storms the jet to hijack it and hightail it out before the cruise missiles arrive, Brosnan treats his weapon like a lithe, familiar partner, with whom he effortlessly wipes out bad guys in a ballroom dance of bloodshed.

Chips and circuits burrowing and reconstituting into flesh lend the opening credits a cybernetic fluidity. It’s a jump into the pool of zeroes and ones overseen by the film’s media-mogul villain, Elliot Carver (Pryce), and a precursor to the darker side of digital data in the credits of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake. Technically proficient and ominously unsettling, the images are nevertheless diminished by a deadly dull Bond theme. 

Sheryl Crow eventually adapted her juke-joint voice to fit in on Top-40 radio, but the smoky-nightclub vibe simply doesn’t suit her. Her gravel and grit work lamenting love lost over a sparsely strummed acoustic guitar, but you can hear the uncertainty in her delivery, and the shredding in her vocal cords, as the chorus swells.

As with the three previous Bond films, a dueling song plays over the end credits. Its name is “Surrender,” but as kd lang repeats “Tomorrow never dies” ad nauseum, you sense it was only so named for lack of another option. Better than Crow’s number if still exceptionally predictable, lang’s is simply the lesser of two evils. One can’t help but think there wasn’t a strong roster of songs from which to choose.

Tomorrow would have been better off mimicking On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — forgoing a vocal theme for an instrumental number. Composed for the film, Moby’s reworked version of “The James Bond Theme” is as high-tech, harried and hurried as Tomorrow itself, but it’s strangely unused. (That said, composer David Arnold fuses the era’s techno style to classical elegance far better than non-John Barry composers before him.)

Moby’s cultural ubiquity awaited a few years later. But before that, he essentially envisioned an all-new movement to a longstanding theme. And by sequencing Brosnan and Sean Connery together in samples, he respectfully bridges past and present.

It would make a far more frenetic musical counterpoint to Carver’s plan, for which he’ll use the GPS encoder Gupta snatched. Carver’s plot hatches with shades of The Spy Who Loved Me (his stealth ship much like Stromberg’s Atlantis) and For Your Eyes Only (his sea drill scissoring through British frigate HMS Devonshire).

Carver then orders the destruction of a Chinese jet observing the frigate, the theft of a nuclear missile from the sinking Devonshire, and the death of any survivors using Chinese firearms. All of this from his German ivory tower, where he writes up a newspaper headline for the horror he’s just orchestrated, his face alight from the glow of an omniscient, Orwellian bank of TVs.

With both nations on the brink of war, M tasks 007 to investigate evidence she’s kept silent — a signal from one of Carver’s communications satellites, which she suspects guided the Devonshire into Chinese waters. (Again, Dench excels at bulldog bursts in which M defends her power in this new regime against shouting men.)

On the hubristic posters that drape his skyscraper, Carver boasts a menacing scowl. But Pryce has a hoot and a half, leaving Carver giddy and breathless over his psychopathic exploits. He puts a Peter Lorre-esque hitch of glee in his throat when he gets excited. He slaps and slams a portable keyboard with one hand (and must have one hell of a spell-check). And no Bond villain has ever gotten so mockingly (or offensively) loosey-goosey before.

Carver is provoking war not only for ratings but to stage a coup in China; in exchange for the power Carver provides, his puppet government will grant him exclusive broadcasting rights there for a century. If Bond can’t stop him, well … maybe the Internet will in a few years.

In the grand scheme of Bond villains’ dreams, Carver is no Goldfinger or Blofeld. And his eventual demise is somewhat of a letdown.

But Carver develops an uncommonly personal stake in seeing Bond suffer. See, Bond has wooed away mistresses, assistants, henchwomen and pilots of bad guys before, but never their wives. Just when it seems Walther and Smirnoff will be Bond’s two most loyal bedside companions in the movie, Paris (Hatcher) — with whom 007 had a fling years earlier — gives up her body and information to infiltrate Carver’s offices. In an uncommonly horndog moment, Bond raggedly gnaws at her body.

Hatcher took the role to fulfill her husband’s dream of being married to a Bond girl. (They later divorced. Shocker, right?) Later, Hatcher said, “It’s such an artificial kind of character to be playing that you don’t get any special satisfaction from it.” In no actress’s hands would Paris be a tragic figure. But Hatcher never even tries summoning Paris’s potential fear and conflict before Carver has her murdered.

Some good comes from Paris’s exit, though. First, there’s a blast of morbid humor after the fact from late, long-faced character actor Vincent Schiavelli, playing a forensic scientist who specializes in hits that can’t be traced. (“I am especially good at the celebrity overdose,” he brags.)

Most importantly, the movie never looks back afterward. Tomorrow’s second hour is one furious action setpiece after another — each one terrific, many letting a Bond girl steal the show and a couple of them acknowledging 007’s adolescence.

First, Brosnan lets loose an exuberant, boyish laugh as he literally turns his BMW 750i into a toy in a chase as limber as it is intense. Then, there’s a HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening) jump, which took 80 attempts and is impressive in any language — even the Spanish one in the clip below.

But those are just a floor show before the aerial fireworks once 007 pairs with Wai to foil Carver’s plan. Yeoh was introduced to American audiences a year before with the American-dubbed reissue of Jackie Chan’s Supercop. And to protect 007’s sacred vanity, Tomorrow could have neutered her natural martial arts skills.

Instead, Wai is sexy because she’s so breathtakingly self-reliant — skittering and scrambling high and low while filling out a catsuit that would make Emma Peel beam. Even with a gun in her face, Wai will go down kicking. And Tomorrow lets her intimidate 007 a bit, Brosnan pausing for some jumpy hesitation around her.

Albeit with a sexual spark, there’s an element of The Defiant Ones as Bond and Wai, handcuffed together by Carver, evade his clutches and bicker who will drive their escape motorcycle. (This sparring for position is real, as Spottiswoode independently told each actor to not let the other gain control.) 

It’s merely a bonus that the ensuing juggernaut action addresses a very real problem of how two people shackled to each other sit on a motorcycle. This rough-and-tumble rollick through Vietnam plays like an Old West showdown with a helicopter. And it’s not just a big blockbuster payoff once the helicopter tilts vertically like an urban assault blender, it’s yet another bold embodiment of 007’s brave craziness.

Sure, Tomorrow excels mostly as a go-go-go thrill machine. But it’s a lot like one of the canon’s more cleverly naughty entendres, uttered here by Moneypenny: “You always were a cunning linguist, James.” Obvious and crass enough to please everyone’s inner schoolboy, but presented with just the right touch of eloquence and ingenuity.

Sometimes, James Bond is just a kid.

Next week

The World is Not Enough


  • The competition to perform the official Bond theme was fiercer than usual, with a dozen submissions. Among the un-chosen: Danish rockers Swan Lee, a lesser-known (read cheaper) spin on the Cardigans sound, whose number wound up in the Hitman: Blood Money videogame; British band Pulp, whose take isn’t bad once it gets past frontman Jarvis Cocker’s usually indifferent, sneering, piss-take introduction; and British dance band Saint Etienne’s bongo-bouncing Sixpence None the Richer knockoff, which lacks either edge or grandeur until the last minute.

  • Tomorrow Never Dies is the only one of Pierce Brosnan’s four Bond films not to open atop the American box office. By a $3.5 million margin, it was bested by a delayed-from-summer, $200 million blockbuster that some pundits predicted would end its director’s career. You may know it as Titanic.
  • Let loose in the 1920s, 007’s aggressive sexuality would give the Crawleys the vapors. However, Tomorrow has two connections to Downton Abbey. Hugh Bonneville, Downton’s Earl of Grantham, briefly appears as an HMS Bedford crewmember, and Downton Abbey’s creator, Oscar winner Julian Fellowes, plays the British Minister of Defence.
  • Long before he played Dracula, the Phantom of the Opera, King Leonidas or Tullus Aufidius, Gerard Butler was just a Leading Seaman on the doomed HMS Devonshire.

  • The original title was Tomorrow Never Lies, in reference to Tomorrow, the film’s newspaper in the film. However, an error in faxing the title to MGM led to its interpretation as Tomorrow Never Dies. The studio liked that so much it stuck.