I’VE ALWAYS THOUGHT that, as exciting and underrated as it is, Tomorrow Never Dies probably features a bit too much action for a Bond picture, which have always leant towards the “adventure” side of action/adventure – it’s a noticeable difference if you compare the series to such Bond competitors/derivatives as the Indiana Jones, Batman or Mission: Impossible series, or Marvel’s brand-new stab at the long-dormant “black 007” genre in Black Panther.
For a long time, though, I’d been mistakenly thinking of it as a film that’s overly keen to ape violent American films, in the manner of Licence to Kill or Quantum of Solace. After defining its own subgenre in the 60s, the series has occasionally, and rather sadly, borrowed from other genres, many of them partially derived from the Bond formula itself: blaxploitation in Live and Let Die; Kung Fu in The Man with the Golden Gun; Star Wars in Moonraker; Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and their ilk in Licence to Kill; Batman Begins in Casino Royale; Bourne in Quantum of Solace. What hadn’t struck me previously is that Tomorrow Never Dies represents the Bond series’ attempt to piggyback on Hong Kong action cinema of the sort codified by John Woo. That’s the real meaning of Bond dual-wielding a P99 and an MP5 as he mows down Carver’s henchmen, not to mention the use of pre-Matrix bullet-time showing off Wai Lin’s cartwheels and high kicks.
Wai Lin, of course, is played by the Hong Kong star Michelle Yeoh, who had already submitted an audition tape for this precise rôle with her appearance in Police Story 3: Super Cop. In that film, Yeoh plays a no-nonsense Chinese policewoman, an orthodox communist who bickers with the partner she’s assigned: Jackie Chan as a policeman from (then still-British) Hong Kong. In Tomorrow Never Dies, Yeoh plays a no-nonsense Chinese spy, an orthodox communist who bickers with the partner she’s assigned: James Bond, a spy from Britian. (An earlier draft of Tomorrow Never Dies would actually have revolved around the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, which was scrapped when a) production took too long for the issue still to be relevant, and b) the handover went very smoothly and afforded little opportunity for action set-pieces or communist-vs.-capitalist quipping.)
It isn’t only the character dynamic between Bond and Wai Lin that feels borrowed from Police Story. After about eighty minutes of standard Bond stuff, the film sends us to Asia, after which the action is nonstop for about a solid half-hour. Among the setpieces are Bond and Wai Lin rappeling down a skyscraper by clinging to an enormous and slowly-tearing poster adorning its side, and a rooftop motorcycle chase for which the pair are handcuffed to one another for the duration. The combination of eye-popping action and physical comedy comes straight from Jackie Chan, and it’s a shame that Pierce Brosnan is an actor and not a stuntman, for scenes like these work best when they’re done fully in-camera, without swapping between actors and stuntmen.
Wai Lin was apparently one of the series’ more popular Bond Girls, though I always found Yeoh a little stiff and awkward here compared to some of the wonderful performances she’s given in Chinese and HK films. Still, a spinoff was originally intended for her character who, of several Bond Girls set up as female counterparts to Bond (The Spy Who Loved Me‘s XXX, Die Another Day‘s Jinx) is the most convincing. Yeoh was already used to such spinoffs, having starred in one of her own featuring her character from Police Story 3: Super Cop. That spin-off was confusingly marketed in various territories as Supercop, Supercop 2, Police Story 3 Part 2, Supercop, Police Story IV, Project S or Once a Cop. I wonder whether the producers would even have started thinking about spinoffs if the Police Story series hadn’t gone there first.
And I wonder if the Police Story series first came to their attention with the wide release of Police Story 4: First Strike, aka Jackie Chan’s First Strike. It takes the series away from Hong Kong cop action in favour of a globetrotting plot obviously intended to launch Chan’s character as a Hong Kong alternative to Bond, and was seen by plenty of international audiences previously ignorant of the series. Once again, Bond was borrowing from its own imitators.
As for the Wai Lin spinoff, it never materialised, and the producers turned their hopes to Jinx in Die Another Day, envisioning a “Winter Olympics” scenario in which her films and Bond’s would alternate. After the rough reception given Halle Berry not only in Die Another Day but also X-Men, Swordfish and (especially) Catwoman, the spinoff idea was once again abandoned, and I have to wonder: does anyone really want or need to see Bond without Bond? If they do, they already have a rich array of alternatives from which to choose.