Coate: In what way was Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin a memorable/effective Bond Girl?
Caplen: Wai Lin is a unique complement for James Bond. A Chinese spy trained in the martial arts, Wai Lin is much more skillful, strong, and assertive than Ling, another Chinese agent who made a brief appearance in You Only Live Twice. In effect, Wai Lin is a 1990s equivalent of Anya Amasova or Dr. Holly Goodhead, both of whom are assigned to the same case and must ultimately work together with James Bond to complete the mission.
Wai Lin successfully outmaneuvers Bond on several occasions, notably her gravity defying escape from assault and handcuffing Bond to the outdoor shower, and rejects his romantic overtures. Despite her mental acumen and athletic abilities (unlike the school girls in The Man With The Golden Gun who make one brief appearance, Wai Lin’s martial arts skills are prominently featured and recurring), Wai Lin is ultimately a Bond Girl. As such, Bond, not Wai Lin, is tasked with disposing of the villains and successfully completing the mission (with Wai Lin’s assistance, of course), while Wai Lin must be rescued. Here, Mr. Stamper’s preferred death method for Wai Lin is drowning (reminiscent of Dr. No, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and The Spy Who Loved Me). For all of Wai Lin’s independence and empowering attributes, though, she ultimately owes her life to Bond, who literally breathes new life into her while underwater. For those efforts, Wai Lin finally succumbs to Bond’s physical desires, ensuring that the gender paradigm within James Bond’s universe is progressive-lite.
Cork: Michelle Yeoh is a force of nature. While Eon considered a Jinx spinoff film, my vote would have been for a Wai Lin film. She is a joy to watch.
Funnell: Michelle Yeoh plays the strongest and most physically capable Bond Girl in the series. Not only does Wai Lin outfight and outshine Bond in all of the scenes that they share, but Yeoh performed her own stunts and even brought in her own stunt team from Hong Kong. Moreover, she is presented as being a co-hero to Bond and even a superior agent. This is achieved in two ways. First, she is not overtly sexualized and fetishized on screen even though the Bond Girl is a predetermined sexualized role. While sex and sexuality tend to bolster male heroism (serving as visual signifiers of heteronormative masculinity), these images typically work to diminish the heroic competency of action women (as it renders then passive objects of the male gaze). Lin remains focused on the mission at hand while Bond seems eager for a sexual distraction. Second, she is presented as a superspy with her own stash of Q-like gadgets. It is Bond and not Lin who is set up as the butt of a series of gags in which he accidentally sets off a number of devices. In the end, it is Lin and not Bond who is shown to be the superior spy. This might be one reason why she only appears in half of the film so as to not overshadow the title hero. This is, after all, a James Bond film.
O’Connell: She was the first woman for a while who was given that “she’s Bond’s equal” badge who actually deserved it. Yes, Wai Lin still needs rescuing by Bond more than once, but holding her own is clearly no problem for one of 80s Asian Cinema’s biggest names. Yeoh is more effective because she is allowed to be older, and have a momentum to her character that is already three scenes down the line when we meet her. And she is gifted that great fun moment when she is escaping Carver’s Hamburg printing house by using her inner Emma Peel, a piton wrist shooting thin and a slick leather catsuit. Yeoh always has great screen grace and dignity. It was maybe Tomorrow Never Dies that allowed her to share that with the movie world. And she is one of the few Bond actresses whose career shifted a gear after her time with 007 ended. From Bond actress to Star Trek captain is much deserved (with both productions boasting Wrath of Khan’s Nicholas Meyer on less publicized screenplay input duties).
Pfeiffer: The film was cutting edge in terms of presenting Wai Lin as a female kick-ass action hero long before this was deemed to be popular. For decades, female action heroes were considered to be the kiss of death to movie audiences but the Bond films help break that glass ceiling and pave the way for today’s current crop of action-oriented heroines.
Coate: Where do you think Tomorrow Never Dies ranks among the James Bond movie series?
Caplen: I think Tomorrow Never Dies is Pierce Brosnan’s second strongest James Bond film. That said, I believe it cannot compare to several pre-1997 films or Casino Royale, Skyfall, and SPECTRE.
Cork: For me, it ranks #10, which is pretty high among fans. That’s just above GoldenEye on my list.
Funnell: I might be in the minority here but I really like Tomorrow Never Dies. It is not in my top 5 but certainly ranks in my top 10. This is primarily due to the performance of Michelle Yeoh who is utterly captivating on screen. The depiction of strong and capable women enhance Bond films. This is where the last two Craig era films — Skyfall and SPECTRE — fall short for me.
O’Connell: For this Bond writer it is easily Pierce Brosnan’s best turn as 007 in easily his best 007 movie. GoldenEye shook off the cobwebs of Bond’s enforced six-year sabbatical. But Tomorrow Never Dies is where he really settles into the role and the swagger of it. Despite the strange bitey kissing thing he has going on more than once, he totally commands the screen. The audience is glad when he is there amidst the arms bazaar. The audience is glad he wanders into the heated exchanges with a flash of a Carver newspaper and an “it might be too late for that.” There is a great beat of Bond checking the strength of a glass ash-tray whilst being beaten up in a sound proofed recording studio in Hamburg. It is one of the defining tics of Brosnan’s time in the role. The pace of the movie is worth noting too. Twenty years on, and having caught it again recently, this a sleek, fast Bond movie that rarely drags. Spottiswoode certainly knew how to condense the tropes to keep the film — rather than perhaps the franchise — moving. Despite a purportedly hard shoot, Spottiswoode and his editors on this one deserve better credit for that.
Pfeiffer: Certainly not in the top ranks but there are enough good and impressive elements to it to make it rise above the lesser entries in the series. The film benefits from a good score and two good songs over the opening and closing credits. There are other compensating factors but the film’s second half diminishes noticeably in terms of plot and for me that seriously mitigates the potential that the first half of the movie promises.
Coate: What is the legacy of Tomorrow Never Dies?
Caplen: Tomorrow Never Dies firmly implanted Pierce Brosnan in the role of James Bond. GoldenEye was a hard act to follow, but the 1997 installment offered enough realism to complement the fantasy that rendered Tomorrow Never Dies a tremendous success.
Cork: The film showed that GoldenEye was not a fluke, that Bond was not only back, but beloved. It came out a few months after Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, which in its own way helped introduce a new generation to James Bond. Just as importantly, it came out four months after the launch of the GoldenEye 007 video game, a game that had tremendous influence on the video game market, and primed the pump for more Bond mania.
Also, at the time, a lot of artists were incorporating music from Bond films into their own compositions. The Sneaker Pimps had a huge hit with Six Underground, which sampled music from the Goldfinger score. One of the biggest albums of 1997 was Portishead’s self-titled album, and their sound was a loving homage to John Barry and the spy film sound. And that brings us to David Arnold. Although John Barry had been unofficially announced as the composer a year before the film was released, when negotiations broke down the filmmakers turned to David Arnold. At the time David Arnold was creating a James Bond tribute album with the spectacular Propellerheads version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Arnold’s score is not only a trip down memory lane for Bond soundtrack lovers, with numerous hat-tips to prior Bond film scores, but it is a brilliant score on its own. While many dismiss the title track by Sheryl Crow, I love it. And Arnold’s swipe at a title song, which was retitled Surrender just lifts up the entire ending. He knocks it out of the park. Nor should we forget Moby’s version of the James Bond Theme. I’m not sure David Arnold much liked it, but it made 007 feel absolutely of the moment. Music is such a vital part of the legacy of James Bond, and Tomorrow Never Dies, for me, defines the entire decade of the 90s for the Bond sound. I listen to that score as often as many of the 60s Bond scores.
Watching Tomorrow Never Dies today, the cynical view of the press is deeply reflected in the attacks on the media by folks like Donald Trump with his cries of “fake news,” (a term he co-opted from the name given to the Russian government’s effort to generate completely fake news to influence elections not only in the U.S., but throughout Europe). Those on the political left see diligent efforts to re-shape our reality by outlets like Fox News and Breitbart and through sub-rosa efforts by Vladimir Putin. Those on the political right believe the press has always had a Liberal tilt, and regularly attack outlets like CNN and MSNBC. If I were teaching a course on the public perception of journalism, I would show Tomorrow Never Dies along with films like All the President’s Men, Spotlight, and The Post. It’s not that the film explores public cynicism toward the press in depth, but it plays into all our greatest concerns that we are being played by media barons with some agenda. I can think of no other film that does this so seamlessly and with such casual bitterness.
Most Bond films exploit our fear of criminal organizations or morally corrupt moguls bent on world domination. Tomorrow Never Dies is the only Bond film to make one of the West’s most cherished freedoms — the press — its target. It is unique in that. And, with the massive (and unfortunate) increase in distrust of the press over the past 20 years, it is also somewhat prescient.
Funnell: Tomorrow Never Dies explores the impact that a media mogul and his various “news” outputs can have on social consciousness and political decision-making. This remains an important issue 20 years later given the rise of bias and punditry in mainstream corporate news media with an emphasis on clicks/clickbait (rather than, say, accuracy and objectivity). It offers a warning of the ways in which those in positions of power can select, distort, and promote stories/narratives that fit their viewpoint of the world and financial objectives.
O’Connell: As the millennium approached, Bond ‘97 heralded a new era for 007 movie making. David Arnold came on board with what is his best Bond score (a close tie with Casino Royale). The film proves that Bond has many templates. But here it is one of utter contemporary steel. Tomorrow Never Dies operates in a coyly-constructed world of grey Europe cities, curbside newsstands, yellowing Tomorrow logos suggesting a history to the brand, dull high street car rental units, neon midnight parties in laser show hangars, and a cacophony of naval personnel and panic — these all lend a current nature to the piece rather than the classical Europe motifs of other Bond movies. The whole film also has a constant silvery palette — almost suggesting a sci-fi mentality without taking Bond into space. The media mogul backdrop was a natural fit for a Bond villain (and the Robert Maxwell “suicide at sea” press release idea from M was delicious at the time). The film also kept a grip of its multiple characters and sub-villains with slick aplomb. It could be argued the side figures of Brosnan’s subsequent Bond outings had less focus and usage than the fun and brilliantly pitched likes of Dr. Kaufman, Admiral Roebuck and Paris Carver here.
There is often one Bond film that is the definitive adventure of its decade. Goldfinger in the Sixties, The Spy Who Loved Me for the Seventies, and A View to a Kill for the Eighties all receive differing fan responses, but physically they are the films where their decades infiltrate everything about them. Tomorrow Never Dies — released at the height of Brit Pop, with musical contributions from Moby, The Propellerheads, Sheryl Crow and KD Lang, the end of British empire with the ‘97 handover of Hong Kong and the first marked use of cell phone technology in a Bond film — is easily the Nineties equivalent. That it is also about clickbait, fake news, media “likes” and ratings before some of those terms were even coined suggests Q gave Bond a crystal ball along with that BMW.
Pfeiffer: I don’t think TND has shown the staying power that most of the other Bond movies have. It isn’t widely discussed nowadays but that shouldn’t diminish the fact that it was a major hit at the time of its release, even though it was directly competing against Titanic. I suppose its major importance was in cementing Pierce Brosnan as the James Bond of that time period — a responsibility he fulfilled very successfully.
Coate: Thank you — Robert, John, Lisa, Mark, and Lee — for participating and sharing your thoughts about Tomorrow Never Dies on the occasion of its 20th anniversary.The James Bond roundtable discussion will return in Remembering “Casino Royale” on its 50th Anniversary.
Selected images copyright/courtesy 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Eon Productions Limited, Danjaq LLC, MGM Home Entertainment, United Artists Corporation.
- Michael Coate