Pierce Brosnan’s second Bond film is nearly his best, a movie that perfects the late 90s Bond action fantasy formula that brought the series back to life.
. . .AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Pierce Brosnan
SETUP: The HMS Devonshire sinks, seemingly brought down by the Chinese as it accidentally crossed their territorial waters. Tensions explode, but M (Judi Dench) suspects foul play. Specifically, she’s got her eye on Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), a global media baron whose conglomerate stands to make billions off the scandal. Bond gets the call to investigate Carver, starting with the mogul’s wife (and Bond’s jilted ex), Paris.
BUT IN REALITY: It was totally Carver. The mogul sent a scrambled signal to push the Devonshire off course and used a stealth ship to ensure it sank. The goal? It’s complicated, but it ends with a Chinese coup and exclusive broadcast rights to the communist nation for Carver’s company. Bond and Paris team up, but they only succeed in getting Paris killed. Thankfully, Chinese superagent Wai Lin arrives and the spies attack Carver, destroy his stealth ship, and stop a shooting war before it begins.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: Carver has no physical deformity, unless you count a shameful Susan Powter haircut. Aside from the usual megalomania, Carver’s real tic seems to be narcissism, as his scowling face is stamped all over his company billboards, logos, and banners. He’s made the news an entertainment show, starring him.
THE MUSCLE: Carver has a stable of henchman that includes bad-ass magician Ricky Jay as a cyber-terrorist and the awesome Vincent Schiavelli as a German pain specialist, but he instead relies on an expressionless lunkhead named Stamper (Gotz Otto) as his right hand. Stamper gets a few decent moments, but never really cuts loose. Forgettable.
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: Paris (Teri Hatcher) is an old flame of Bond’s, now married to Carver. She could help Bond by providing key information, but refuses, tragically accepting her choices and sticking with her unhappy marriage.
Yeah, right. That lasts for about a scene before Paris is knocking on Bond’s door and begging to be rescued from Carver’s clutches. Unfortunately for Paris, her disloyalty gets her killed and puts Bond on the run. It’s then that Bond meets up with Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese agent working to prevent the undermining of her government by Carver’s yellow journalism. Lin is, of course, a martial arts specialist and an all-around ass-kicker, and her performance turns into one of the film’s many highlights.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: Q, disguised as an Avis employee, equips Bond with a remote-controlled BMW, a very sweet ride and centerpiece of the film’s best action scene. Bond outmaneuvers a small army of thugs while hiding in his back seat and messing with what looks like a proto-PSP, firing missiles, dropping caltrops, and generally having the time of his life. Great car.
MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: I love Jonathan Pryce. I really do. Brazil, Glengarry Glen Ross, Infiniti commercials. Usually he’s such a great actor to watch, but he hams it up so hard in this movie, spoofing everyone from William Randolph Hearst to Rupert Murdoch to Bill Gates, and devouring any and all scenery that gets within his gravity. All he’s missing is a big twirly moustache and a bunch of rolled ‘R’s to complete his epic villainy. The movie survives, but his campy performance nearly derails the show.
BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: The villains get all the best lines in this movie, but Bond does all right with his send-off for Carver. As a drill closes in for the kill: “You forgot the first rule of mass media, Elliot! Give the people what they want!”
WORTH MENTIONING: The stealth ship is based on an actual Lockheed design, built in the 80’s, but officially turned down by the US government. . . The film’s original title was Tomorrow Never Lies. A typo on a script title page stuck and the film was renamed. . . A planned scene would have featured Ricky Jay flinging his trademark playing cards at Bond, but Jay claims that the scene was cut when he actually nicked Pierce Brosnan in rehearsal.
OVERALL: Pierce Brosnan’s first film as James Bond (which we’ll see on this project shortly) was a strange, iconoclastic blend of revision and self-loathing, a movie that looked to forge a new future while apologizing for its past. It was unusual and different, and it made a hell of a lot of money. Sensing the public’s acceptance of Brosnan, the Bond producers dumped all that messy guilt and decided to return to basics by making an unapologetic, ludicrous action movie.
This film is pure formula, a marriage of the classic Bond fantasyland nonsense with the bam whiz effects-driven style of late 90s blockbusters, and it works effortlessly. There’s no pretension or secret shame on display. It’s James Bond saving the world from a madman, armed only with a gun, a smirk, a one-liner, and a remote-controlled car.
The only real difference between this film and classic Bond is the choice of Carver and his media empire as the villain, a surrender to the digital age we all knew Bond had to face some day. Computers had been the enemy before (Oh, Zorin and his wicked microchips!), but this film correctly nails that the real threat of the internet age isn’t in the weapons, but in the words. When news is consumed and discarded at the speed of Twitter, well played misinformation can topple the best laid plans of even the world’s strongest government. Two words for the doubters: Death Panels.
The film’s plot is fanciful and far-fetched, but it retains credibility by hitting just a few inches from the bullseye. Someone like Carver could exist, and today headlines from major American news channels are ground to pulp within moments as bloggers search them for bias. We’ve lost our faith in the media, and it comforts us to think an agent like James Bond might be out there keeping the news as fair and balanced as possible.
The Brosnan films went downhill after this, moving first to the uneven The World is Not Enough before cranking out the awful Die Another Day. Brosnan would never again see a Bond movie this good, a near-perfect example of pop action and big entertainment that would make Ian Fleming proud.
11. Dr. No
14. Live and Let Die
15. Licence to Kill
22. A View to a Kill