Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

When it’s on: Saturday, 20 December (8.00 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

I’ve watched Tomorrow Never Dies three times – once upon release, second when I bought it on DVD and finally for the purposes of this write-up. Three viewings is a healthy total for most films, but not for Bond, many of whose entries I’ve seen on numerous occasions.

It took me a little while to work out just what the problem was. After all, Tomorrow Never Dies ticks most of the boxes – a charismatic lead, really strong heroine, a decent plot that presents media moguls as villains (and not before time if you ask me), some fantastic action scenes, topped off with a blistering chase across the rooftops of downtown Saigon.

But then it hit me – Tomorrow Never Dies is nothing if not safe. It’s made as though by committee, working on the findings of endless focus groups all tasked with discovering what people want from their 007 adventures. Set piece stunts – yes. Gadgets – indeed. How about, oh I don’t know, a car that can turn invisible? Well, that’s a real stretch, maybe for a future film, but can we suggest a car driven by remote control instead? There’s an evil henchman, but he doesn’t do very much until the film’s closing stages and only then because Bond has to see off someone beyond the usual string of foot soldiers.

It’s all a bit of a shame, because Goldeneye promised so much in terms of reviving the franchise after the post-Dalton wilderness years. In Pierce Brosnan, they seem to have stumbled upon the ideal man for the job – handsome, suave, one of the few actors who continued to look the part in beautifully tailored suits, old enough to have Connery levels of authority yet not too long in the tooth to fall into the trap of the later Moore entries. He made it look so effortless, as though he wasn’t even acting but had in fact become James Bond, and in Goldeneye that was a real strength as he needed to convince audiences there was still life in the old Saville Row. One of the main accusations against the series, that Bond had become something of a misogynistic relic in these politically correct times, was turned into a strength as Brosnan was matched with Judi Dench as an M who was licensed to take no nonsense.

Looking back, however, one wonders how much of Goldeneye’s success was down to the superb performance by Sean Bean as the film’s villain. Bean played a former British agent who’d turned rogue and offered up the perfect mirror to Bond’s hero, with all the emotional fallout such a character suggested. In Tomorrow Never Dies, we get Jonathan Pryce as a psychotic media baron, creating international diplomatic crises in order to get the news scoop and full coverage. Pryce, made up to look like a slightly unhinged Sven-Goran Eriksson, has very little to work with and seems to be on hand solely to give the film a villain, no matter how two dimensional he may turn out to be. Again a pity, as Pryce is a fine actor, his schemes have diabolical potential, and the chance to turn Rupert Murdoch into a megalomaniac mastermind should have turned into a real crowd pleaser. Instead, his threat is dealt with all too quickly.

There’s even less screen time for Teri Hatcher, playing Pryce’s wife and having a history with Bond that is used to gain our man information and access. Once that’s done and her part in the plot is over, she’s out. Instead, the main Bond girl is Michelle Yeoh’s Chinese agent, Wai Lin, kind of their version of Bond himself, and she turns into one of Tomorrow Never Die’s genuine highlights. Already a star in Eastern cinema and making her breakthrough here, Yeoh is a fantastic action hero, every inch 007’s equal and far more graceful with her Karate fighting techniques that make Brosnan’s fist-first style look a little lumbering in comparison. Both are involved in the film’s best scene, a chase in Saigon that involves Bond and Wai Lin pursued by cars and a helicopter whilst on a motorbike. Handcuffed together, Yeoh continually has to maneuver herself around Brosnan as the action demands, making for great fun and increasing levels of electric tension between the pair.

Perhaps the real problem with it is Brosnan himself. He makes it appear easy to be Bond, to such an extent that he more or less floats through the production, fired at with endless bullets but never hit. Obvious it becomes that he will never be hurt, damaged, cracked or spilled on any level, a far cry from Goldeneye’s story that pitted him against someone who was just like him, in many ways facing himself. It’s no fault of the actor, but Brosnan has to make minimal investment with a hair rarely out of place.

Canadian director Roger Spottiswoode at least keeps everything moving at such a pace that it’s possible to get swept along without worrying about the paper-thin plotting and weak characterisation. Fans of poor CGI will be satisfied with some rather terrible special effects (the miniature work is noticeably better). There’s a string of cameo appearances from British actors – playing cut-glass accented seamen or government officials – to savour, unless you blink and miss them – Gerard Butler, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Michael Byrne and Hugh Bonneville all pop up fleetingly on the screen.

Tomorrow Never Dies: **

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

When it’s on: Sunday, 29 April 2012 (1.30 pm)
Channel: Dave
IMDb Link

Gladiator claimed Best Film at the 2001 Academy Awards, but in the list of nominees was a bit of an oddity – Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dagger, or Wo hu cang long as it’s called in China. The characters spoke in Mandarin, filmed against a range of Chinese locations and sets, on a production with American and Chinese money behind it. In the end, it had to be satisfied with technical awards and one for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year, which was something of a fob off because it’s a better film than Ridley Scott’s Roman epic.

That said, the signs weren’t promising. Sure, the martial arts looked incredible, but these scenes were mixed in with long passages of people talking in that overtly mannered way that appeared to be the way of things in medieval China. Would people really go for it?

They did, transforming the film into the first foreign language picture to gross $100m at the American box office. That’s because it’s saved by several elements, beginning with the martial arts. Woo-ping Yuen had already earned plaudits for choreographing the fight sequences in The Matrix, following years serving Chinese cinema as an actor, stuntman, action director and indeed any suitable hands-on role. For Crouching Tiger, he choreographed a form of martial arts based around balance and meditation, the former to give its fighters the balletic speed that makes the combat such a delight, the latter to suggest they can achieve such a high level of awareness that they can actually fly. Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat and Zhang Ziyi – its principal combatants – can’t really do the things they do in the film, but there is a logic underpinning their fighting ability that holds it together. The scenes are filmed beautifully by Peter Pau, the film’s cinematographer, who somehow stops it from becoming a confusing mess. Edited before the current fashion for quick, dizzying cuts, every kick, parry, block and blow is there on the screen, and these people are going at each other with incredible speed.

Crouching Tiger is a wuxia film. This is a Chinese genre of fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists. The earliest stories are more than two thousand years ago, written by artists who took full advantage of their country’s dramatic landscape to create epic visions. Lee and Pau replicated this in their location choices, whether filming in the Gobi Desert or the Anji bamboo forest to depict wildly differing backdrops to the action. Whatever its politics, China is a country with areas of breathtaking natural beauty. Its climactic scenes, set in the Wudang mountains, are just ravishing, and this is merely the last throw of a film that knows where to point its camera.

The film is based on a book by wuxia author, Wang Dulu, who stopped writing after the Chinese Civil war and eventually died in poverty, relegated to the role of farm labourer as a result of the Cultural Revolution. His books focused on the tragic element of the martial arts life, in this story the unspoken love between Li Mu Bai (Chow) and Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) that has been suppressed by a life in service as warriors. At the same time, Jen (Zhang) is preparing for marriage, but yearns both for the mountain bandit she came to love years ago, along with a life of adventure that seems epitomised by Yu Shu. In disguise, Jen steals a famous sword, whilst her old Master in the arts, Jade Fox, is chased by the authorities by her previous crimes.

There’s lots going on, most of the exposition emerging through conversations that steadily become more barbed and suspenseful as the web of relationships emerges. It works because of the quality of the actors, too often an issue with previous, low budget wuxia productions that simply couldn’t afford the calibre of performers. The three principals might have spoken different languages, making the Mandarin dialogue torturous for all concerned, but despite this there’s no mistaking the lingering looks, facial expressions and repressed yearning.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: ****