James Bond’s China conflict: is Tomorrow Never Dies the most chaotic, prophetic 007 film so far?

Pierce Brosnan as 007 and Michelle Yeoh as Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Die's famous motorcycle chase sequence - Keith Hamshere/Getty Images
Pierce Brosnan as 007 and Michelle Yeoh as Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Die's famous motorcycle chase sequence - Keith Hamshere/Getty Images

In a parallel world, Pierce Brosnan’s sophomore outing as James Bond would have been a wholly different film.

Its storyline would have been topical to an almost dangerous degree, revolving around the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. It would have featured a Rupert Murdoch-esque media tycoon sensing an opportunity to create chaos from the process. His intention is to create “fake news” from a skewed perspective of events in order to make it more entertaining to watch: a detail inspired by conservative American presentations of the Iraq War earlier that decade.

Yet, in our current time of Hong Kong democracy protests, militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea, rumours of the imminent invasion of Taiwan by China and a flamboyant, apparently unaccountable mogul in control of the world’s most powerful (or at least most discussed) broadcasting platform, the film is even more apposite than upon its original release 25 years ago. Tomorrow Never Dies may not be the best Bond picture, but it has a fair claim – even accidentally – to be the most prophetic.

This would have been a surprise to its makers at the time. Inevitably, most big-budget pictures undergo numerous changes and alterations during production. But Tomorrow Never Dies – the title changed from the original “Tomorrow Never Lies” because of a typo on a press release, and it was decided that it was more in keeping with the James Bond ethos – was an especially chaotic production. It was riven from start to finish by creative uncertainty, a hectic shooting schedule, schisms between the cast and the director and a continuing tension between old-fashioned ideas of a 007 picture and more contemporary expectations of what a Nineties Bond should be like.

That the finished film is a serviceable enough action thriller – with unexpectedly newsworthy political overtones – remains testament to how well-oiled a machine its producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson had created, and continue to maintain to this day. Its storyline concerns the dastardly media mogul Elliot Carver plotting to bring about nuclear conflict between Britain and China while on board a stealth ship in the South China Sea, in order for his Tomorrow media empire to cover it. 007 has to ally with a Chinese secret service agent in order to prevent Armageddon.

Tomorrow Never Dies leant more heavily into satire and absurdity than the series was used to, but still maintained the expected beats of a James Bond picture, even down to some truly awful one-liners. (The moment when Bond, seducing an Oxford academic, tells Miss Moneypenny that he is “brushing up on a little Danish”, is one for the annals of dreadfulness.)

After the first teaser trailer for GoldenEye debuted, to an enthusiastic response, in May 1995, the follow-up film was given the green light by United Artists, its production company. In the words of Jeff Kleeman, UA’s Senior Vice-President, there was a “tremendous awareness” of Bond, and so “we had to make the next movie very quickly”. The crime writer Donald E Westlake produced a 35-page screen treatment, including a pre-credits scene in Transylvania, but GoldenEye’s screenwriter Bruce Feirstein was brought back in early 1996 to work on the screenplay.

His initial conception, and one that reflected continuing uncertainty about the then-imminent Hong Kong handover, revolved around a media mogul called Elliot Harmsway, who the filmmakers wanted to be played by Anthony Hopkins. Angered by what he perceived as the cowardice on Britain’s part in returning their former colony, he planned to destroy Hong Kong entirely before the event: this would then be covered lavishly in his newspapers and on his satellite channels. Although it was widely assumed that Harmsway was based on Rupert Murdoch, Feirstein actually had the more rapacious – and helpfully dead – Robert Maxwell in mind. A hint of this survives in the final film, when M says, of the antagonist’s end: “Put it in the press release he drowned off his yacht.”

Hardly intimidating: Jonathan Pryce as the media mogul Elliot Carver - PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
Hardly intimidating: Jonathan Pryce as the media mogul Elliot Carver - PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Although Feirstein’s script was thought broadly acceptable, after Campbell turned down the chance to direct again – he would make the excellent Mask of Zorro instead – the veteran Hollywood filmmaker Roger Spottiswoode, director of action films such as Air America and Shoot To Kill, came on board. His first step was to ask the advice of none other than Henry Kissinger’s consulting agency Kissinger Associates whether the central idea of the Hong Kong takeover would work. Kissinger advised against including the handover as a plot point; as Spottiswoode recalled: “Nobody really knew whether it would be a peaceful handover. To come up with a fantasised version of an event that was only a few months old did not seem a very wise choice.” There had been some difficulties in the Russian production of GoldenEye, when the country’s military police had curtailed shooting a few days in, and nobody wanted such a repeat of that farrago.

Spottiswoode accordingly assembled a writers’ room which included Nicholas Meyer, who had saved the Star Trek series with his second instalment The Wrath of Khan, and Daniel Petrie Jr, the screenwriter of Beverly Hills Cop. This particular brains trust – nicknamed “the w--- tank” by executives at Eon – came up with a variety of ideas both clever and outrageous. The major second half set-piece, a motorcycle chase through Saigon, was brainstormed during these weeks, but another, more daring development – a scene of Bond in drag, perhaps subconsciously inspired by Cyril Connolly’s parody Bond Strikes Camp – was swiftly rejected.

By March 1996, a rag-tag script was assembled, to Brosnan’s horror; filming was due to begin and he considered it unacceptable that there was no finished screenplay. He said: “It was not articulate or cohesive enough. I spoke to Barbara and Michael and said that it was inappropriate that at this stage of filming we should be in such a fragile state. It was just a joke.”

Partnership of equals: Pierce Brosnan with Michelle Yeoh - Keith Hamshere/Getty Images
Partnership of equals: Pierce Brosnan with Michelle Yeoh - Keith Hamshere/Getty Images

In desperation, Broccoli and Wilson hired Feirstein once again, and he was commissioned to write a screenplay that continued to be changed and altered throughout production. His final draft was dated 18 August 1997, a mere three weeks before filming ended. Unsurprisingly, his impression of production was that of chaos. He later recalled: “I was writing in a tent outside the Bond stage, sending in pages as we were shooting, where Pierce was standing on the deck of the stealth boat, asking ‘Which way do I go? Do I turn left or do I turn right?’ The answer was ‘Wait, we’ll have the pages in a minute.’”

The casting of Michelle Yeoh, as Wai Lin, an unusually adept Bond girl who was every bit 007’s equal, was an undeniable coup, and launched Yeoh’s Western film career. According to Feirstein, Spottiswoode was keen on finding a character who was both a female Chinese agent and a match for Bond, rather than the British character, Sydney Winch, who had originally been written. Yeoh, though, professed herself unfazed by the constantly changing script: “Hong Kong films are known to be very haphazard. The scripts are never ready… it’s chaos. So I felt right at home from the moment I started on Tomorrow Never Dies.”

The appearance of Teri Hatcher as Bond’s former lover Paris – and wife to Jonathan Pryce’s villainous media mogul, now named Elliot Carver – was a less happy one. Hatcher, who was pregnant, did not hit it off with Brosnan, and Kleeman tactfully referred to the relationship between them as one in which “emotions [got] very raw.” Brosnan had screen-tested with Monica Bellucci, and had asked that she be hired, but the studio had insisted that the role be played by an American instead. Bellucci, of course, eventually got her chance to appear in a Bond film when she appeared opposite Brosnan’s successor Daniel Craig in 2015’s Spectre.

'Raw emotions': Bond girl Teri Hatcher did not hit it off with Pierce Brosnan - Moviestore/Shutterstock
'Raw emotions': Bond girl Teri Hatcher did not hit it off with Pierce Brosnan - Moviestore/Shutterstock

There is, nonetheless, more emotional depth to their relationship than usual, despite or perhaps because of the unhappy pairing of Brosnan and Hatcher. Both actors capture a sense of regret at lost opportunities, and when Bond discovers Paris has been murdered on her husband’s orders, his underplayed, grief-stricken response is one of Brosnan’s finest moments as 007. In the course of an otherwise emotionally lightweight picture, it intriguingly looks forward to the more psychologically complex Craig films, which majored in themes of betrayal and loss. 

The other major “Bond girl” was, of course, Judi Dench as M, returning from GoldenEye. In her first appearance, she had famously described Bond as a “sexist, misogynistic dinosaur… a relic of the Cold War”, but here, unfortunately, she was to be denied any put-down quite so memorable. Dench found herself as irritated by the constantly changing script during production as everyone else. She complained: “It was very off-putting indeed to have learnt the script, and at a quarter to ten the night before to get a loud knocking on the door by the courier with a new script… that’s not fair.”

The supporting cast includes the eclectic likes of Julian Fellowes, Hugh Bonneville and Gerald Butler in tiny supporting parts, but two roles particularly stand out. As Paris’s murderer, the assassin Dr Kaufman, the character actor Vincent Schiavelli all but steals the show in his highly memorable brief appearance. When he declares, preparing to fake Bond’s suicide, “I am a professor of forensic medicine… I could shoot you from Stuttgart and still create the proper effect”, and notes, “I am especially good at the celebrity overdose”, he’s such an outrageously fun character that it’s almost a pity he has to be killed off. And, as Carver’s well-built and deadly henchman Stamper, Gotz Otto deserved the role for his deathless introductory line at his audition: “I’m big, I’m bad and I’m German.” All of those things are ably borne out by his performance.

'It was just a joke': Pierce Brosnan returned as 007 for Tomorrow Never Dies but was unimpressed with the disorganisation - Moviestore/Shutterstock
'It was just a joke': Pierce Brosnan returned as 007 for Tomorrow Never Dies but was unimpressed with the disorganisation - Moviestore/Shutterstock

Another major production issue was also Spottiswoode’s fault, albeit tangentially. He intended to shoot the film’s second half in Hanoi, which would have made it the first major Hollywood picture to have been filmed there since the Vietnam War. Locations were scouted, permission was obtained from the prime minister to shoot in the country and Spottiswoode and the production team were waiting to board a flight to Ho Chi Minh City, a matter of a few weeks before filming was due to begin, when the prime minister suddenly rescinded permission for shooting to take place.

The director recalled: “They completely turned around and tore up the agreement we had made. The real generals in charge of Vietnam thought they were not properly consulted… we were stuck at the airport with 60 people and we were supposed to start shooting in three weeks. A third of the movie was on locations we no longer had.” Bangkok was hastily drafted in as a replacement, but, as Spottiswood said: “Vietnam, I must confess, was my suggestion, a bad one.”

One aspect that the film did not stint on were action set-pieces. The pre-credits sequence, in which Bond disrupts a terrorist arms bazaar and engages in a dogfight with another jet fighter, was choreographed by veteran Bond second unit director Vic Armstrong and stunt pilot Marc Wolff, who worked on a dozen 007 films. Wolff commented: “Most of it was real. The missiles that fire and explode on the cliff face were CGI obviously but all the flying was real.” It took several months to prepare and many weeks to shoot, and the effect was undeniably worth it; it has a verisimilitude entirely lacking from the dismal later Brosnan Bond films.

Much the same could be said of the major chase in the second half as Bond and Wai Lin, handcuffed together on a motorcycle, are pursued through the streets and rooftops of Saigon by helicopter. Wolff called filming this “great fun”, and said of it that “The gunners had to be careful because the guns fired real blanks and we needed to make sure the spent cartridges didn’t go into the engine intake or hit the rotor blades, especially the ones at the tail.” It’s a thrillingly kinetic scene, and the absence of obvious special effects makes it one of the picture’s true highlights.

Judi Dench as M in Tomorrow Never Dies, her second Bond film - Moviestore/Shutterstock
Judi Dench as M in Tomorrow Never Dies, her second Bond film - Moviestore/Shutterstock

The film finished production on September 5 1997, in a sombre atmosphere: a planned visit by Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed to the set, organised by his friend Barbara Broccoli, during the final week of production inevitably never took place. And amidst public mourning at their deaths, Spottiswoode faced a manic post-production schedule to finish the film before its December 9 premiere date. He had begun his career as Sam Peckinpah’s editor, working on films such as Straw Dogs and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, so he knew something of chaotic working environments, but this was a new and challenging one. He described it as “horrendous… normally I’d have liked four months to fine-tune it, condense, focus and perhaps find it anew in the cutting room, [but] it hasn’t been possible here.”

It was even virtually impossible to show it to test screening audiences; the only preview that took place, in Slough, was described by Spottiswoode as “without doubt the worst [one I had]… everyone seemed to be asleep, not a single laugh, not a titter, not a gasp. I thought we were at a funeral.” To his great surprise, the studio were delighted, saying that it was a terrific preview, and not a thing was changed.

The film was released at what the studio head Lindsay Doran called “a very very scary” time; it opened opposite Titanic, the behemoth to end all behemoths, but continued to maintain the box office success that GoldenEye had established two years before. Its final gross was $333 million, slightly less than its predecessor’s $356 million, but still a respectable and profitable amount nonetheless. The gamble had paid off, once again: the Bond franchise was still in business.

Viewed now in the context of both Brosnan’s 007 films and the grittier, more introspective Daniel Craig entries, Tomorrow Never Dies seems both lightweight and old-fashioned, the last gasp of a bygone era: it is probably no coincidence that “Cubby” Broccoli, the original Bond producer, died during its production. Although there are undeniable strengths – David Arnold’s terrific score, commissioned after the producers could not agree on a fee for the veteran Bond composer John Barry to return, is one of the series’ best, and the interplay between an assured Brosnan and Yeoh is unusually grown-up for the franchise – it never settles on a coherent tone, presumably as a result of its chaotic and rushed genesis. What could have been a great film turned out to be merely an entertaining one.

Today, Tomorrow Never Dies exists somewhere between timely provocation and old-fashioned paranoia. Although the internet is present in the film’s world, there is a touching faith – for journalists, anyway – in the pre-social media primacy of television news and newspaper sales as a means of delivering information.

Jonathan Pryce’s wryly witty but hardly intimidating performance as Carver puts him in the mid-tier of Bond villains. But it does at least enable him to be compared to the Zuckerbergs and Musks of this world: the kind of people who were probably bullied at school and have taken it out on the world ever since. As Carver remarks: “The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success.” He wasn’t wrong then – and, a quarter of a century on, he’s even more right now.