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Tomorrow Never Dies is a film balancing on a thin metaphorical edge. While the previous entry, Goldeneye (1995) was an explosive and celebrated return to the James Bond franchise after a six-year absence, introducing a well-cast Pierce Brosnan to the iconic role, Tomorrow Never Dies had the unenviable task of choosing a direction, either to cling to the established legacy and stay the course or attempt to prepare the series for the new millennium. It tried a little of both. In so doing, the movie employs a lot of the old standards that came to define Bond, such as extravagant gadgets, over-the-top actions sequences, hyper-sexualized women, and most importantly, an indomitable hero with a witty repertoire. But it also got continued to improve a few of those women’s roles, giving them some added depth beyond their immediate appearances and abilities.
The story itself centers on a modern media mogul named Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), who wants to be the world leader in the media business but is denied access in China to allow his programming and influence to be heard. Being an insane megalomaniac, he decides the best way to remedy that situation is through legitimate diplomatic channels in an effort to secure broadcasting rights through peaceful and mutually beneficial practices. No wait. What I am saying? He sinks a British warship in Chinese waters, steals the deadly payload inside, fakes hyped coverage of the incident through his media conglomerate and sparks an international incident in hopes of starting a war. That sounds more like a Bond villain.
To stop this of course, it all comes down to one man. Well, actually, one man and one woman. British Intelligence sends their best agent from MI6, James Bond, whose first order of business is sex because where else would you start? Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher) just happens to be one of Bond’s ex-girlfriends, though at this point, there’s a significant statistical probability that nearly everyone’s wife is an ex-girlfriend of Bond’s. When that fails, especially for Paris, Bond meets up with Chinese super spy Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) who is also on the case, assigned by the Chinese government to put a stop to the media madman.
The two engage in a plethora of action scenes and sexually aggressive action-movie innuendo, including a sequence where, handcuffed, they get chased on a motorcycle by henchman in Range Rovers. It’s a decidedly Bond-ish moment, but what comes before is why we are here today, an escape scene that truly defines the film’s nostalgic-bent mentality in keeping Bond stuck in the past rather than pushing it forward.
Without saying how, Bond and Lin are captured (here’s where they get handcuffed) and brought to the top of Carver’s skyscraper headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City. There, Carver, knowing them both and the power they have in toppling his empire, immediately kills them, er, no, he remembers his role and instead talks for a long time explaining things. He introduces his nasty blonde lead henchman with specialized body-harming skills involving seven Chakra points and gouging tools and trusts him to torture them until they die a long and horrible death that will end with Bond’s beating heart on a stick and is in no way easy to escape, deciding to walk away and not see any of it. Right? I mean if you’re going to have a guy on staff who is a henchman specializing in body-harming skills involving seven Chakra points and has the right tools to do it, what are you going to do? Not use him?
It seems like the end for Bond and Lin but fortunately the other henchman in the room, whom are all armed with submachine guns, aren’t at all ready for Bond and Lin’s edgy and totally unexpected super-spy technique of kicking a table. Seriously, look at that guard. He’s thinking, “That’s an edgy and totally unexpected super-spy technique I’m not at all ready for.”
It sends the room into chaos, which leads to to fight where men with guns are no match for two people handcuffed to each other. They dispose of the guards with ease because super-spy kicks are either fatal or coma-inducing. Bond even gets a bit of ironic right-back-atcha by throwing one of the torture devices at the nasty blonde henchman, though he obviously wasn’t listening to Carver about where the Chakra points are because he just impales it in the man’s leg.
Now with his own machine gun, Bond starts lighting up the room as a stream of Carver’s gun-toting guards roar through the door like lemmings, none able to hit the two people standing upright and walking toward them.
The spies head for a window, blow it open and leap down onto the ledge below and take shelter behind a ventilation unit, deciding their next move. Obviously that means jumping over the wall and scaling the building using the enormous banner draped over the face of the tower. This is what Lin suggests, to which Bond somehow doesn’t reply, “Okay, you first.”
But you’re thinking, “How? How could they possibly cut the thick ropes binding the banner to the building?” It’s a good question, and you’ve every right to ask. Here’s the answer. Right at their feet is a little wooden toolbox. And right inside that little wooden toolbox is an actual meat cleaver. Why is their a meat cleaver in a little wooden toolbox at the top of a tower in Ho Chi Mimh City? James Bond, silly.
And so, Bond cuts one rope, that somehow cuts two, and they take hold and hurl themselves up and over, using the banner as a way to sort of unfurl themselves down the building at near free-fall speed. Keep in mind they are still handcuffed together.
For the sake of time and your patience, let’s skip the physics and just enjoy the sheer lunacy of this stunt and take a moment to add some symbolism to the mix as Bond and Lin quite literally split Carver in two, marking the start of his eventual collapse. It’s a nice little visual that shows how the two spies are at their most vulnerable but will still have power to end the corrupt mogul. Hey, even Bond can work in a little nuance there and again.
The two ride out the banner until it reaches its end, which, good for them, doesn’t shred and send them plummeting to their squishy ends or leave them with any permanent shoulder injuries. Bond quips that next time he will take the elevator. I wish I made that up.
So now Bond and Lim are suspended a few hundred feet up in the air. Whatever will they do? Well, as luck would have it, they have come to a stop precisely at the only place in the entire building where there is a window unlike any other window on any side of the structure that is in now way one installed there by the prop department to allow stunt people to smash through.
With tennis shoes and two kicks with what looks like the combined applied force of a gentle nudge, the two manage to explode the window and burst through safely, even though the exterior shot shows them leading with their feet and the interior shot that immediately follows has them coming in with their hips.
There’s also this shot that occurs just before they go in that gives us a close-up of the actual actors, with them suspended in front of a fake front that doesn’t match the actual building the stunt people are on and even shows the safety harness line (top right) used for the brief sequence.
Either way, they break through the tempered glass with ease and emerge wholly unscathed without even the slightest scratch, mug for the shocked onlookers and then race to the bottom floor that is somehow not already loaded with guards and henchmen waiting to mow them down. Their escape continues.
The thing about Tomorrow never Dies is it that never shies away from the Bondness it embraces. This entire moment is a testament to that effect, knowing that at every step, it is adhering to a well-proven formula that is so tantamount to the success of the Bond series, tampering with it in any way would mean its demise. At this time in the Bond history, audiences were just beginning to want something more out of their heroes in movies as sensibilities were shifting to more enlightened and grittier tones. That’s not to say escapism was dying, far from it, but rather many were wanting more authenticity.
Tomorrow Never Dies would mark the start of the decline for the Bronsnan Bond as the next three film would all see a decline in viewer investment as producers pushed more for fantasy than that aforementioned authenticity. Still, in moments like this tower escape, we see the classic Bond holding on, doling out the unbelievable with tongue in cheek and high ambition. It might not work today, but is fun to watch for all its charming lunacy.