This is the 18th essay in a 24-part series about the James Bond cinemas co-created by Sundog Lit. I encourage everyone to read the other essays, comment and join in on the conversation about not only the films themselves, but cinematic trends, political and other external influences on the series’ tone and direction.
Of [In]human #Bond_age_ #18: Chekhov’s Gun and Q Branch Expectation and Narrative in Tomorrow Never Dies
by James David Patrick
“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Anton Chekhov’s oft-cited dramatic principle has become the fiction writer’s favorite mantra. Thoughtful aunts have cross-stitched the phrase onto throw pillows and wall hangings. Those wall hangings hang next to MFA degrees and ornate lithographs of Ernest Hemingway’s ever popular “The first draft of everything is shit.”
In addition to his plays and short stories, Chekhov was also a prolific letter writer. And it was in a November 1889 letter to Lazarev-Gruzinsky, a one-time collaborator, that he first detailed the “Chekhov’s Gun” theory – though he lacked the foresight and egotism to dub it such upon conception. The principle functions as a reminder to every would-be writer about the importance of brevity and managing audience expectation. Chekhov uses a gun, an inherently dangerous item, in his example specifically because it solicits an audience’s immediate attention. Attention breeds expectation. Expectation can be skillfully usurped (a red herring) or met (the firing of the gun), but not ignored. The gun must be literally or symbolically fired.
And before I indulge my affection for Chekhov or Russian literature any further, let’s hang our own rifle on the wall. The “Chekhov’s Gun” theory has been written into the DNA of modern literature and, perhaps more transparently, cinema, where signs and symbols weigh even more heavily in a primarily visual medium that relies on the conservation of language and narrative. Consider how much narrative must be cut or abbreviated when adapting a novel to the big screen. Much is conveyed through visual shorthand and the language of cinema. As a result, the unfired gun becomes an even more egregious narrative misstep, magnified by the brevity required to tell a compelling story in roughly 120 minutes. The James Bond narratives are not excused from the theories of long deceased Russian authors, and since we’re speaking of guns, rifles and/or the distribution of rifles, one man specifically comes to mind.
A Brief History of the Q Branch
The Q character never appeared in Fleming’s novels, and Fleming only made vague reference to the super secret research and development division as “Q Branch.” The weapons and gadgets briefings thus were a purely cinematic invention.
In Dr. No, the “Q” character (also known as Major Boothroyd) was played by Peter Burton and only served to replace Bond’s .25 Beretta 418 with the trademark .32 Walther PPK. The specific line of dialogue, spoken by M, refers to Burton as “the armourer.” It’s not until From Russia With Love, however, that we’re treated to a proper Q Branch briefing and the first true “gadget” – the attaché case, fittingly distributed by Desmond Llewelyn in his first appearance in the role of Q/Major Boothroyd. Peter Burton, unable to reprise the roll for From Russia With Love, stepped aside for Llewelyn, who would play Q in every official film from 1963 until 1999 except Live and Let Die. The attaché case contained 40 rounds of ammunition (concealed in two tubes disguised as studs), a flat throwing knife (released by pressing a button under the clasp), an AR7 Folding Snipers Rifle with infrared scope, 50 gold sovereigns, and a tear gas cartridge disguised as talcum powder.
Due to the natural and playfully combative antagonism between Llewelyn’s Major Boothroyd and Sean Connery’s James Bond, the Q Branch scene quickly became canon. In Live and Let Die, it is M that issues Bond the updated Rolex wristwatch with magnet and buzz saw. Despite all the obvious changes in style and tone as a result of the Bond actor turnover, the most conspicuous change was the disappearance of Q. When Q failed to appear in either Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace, Craig publically expressed concern over the character’s absence from the series.
Though the gadgets and weapons increased in elaborate absurdity as the series continued (before being scaled back for Daniel Craig), the fundamental components of the exchange between Q and Bond has always remained largely the same. Q issues Bond a new gadget (or two) between jabs, witticisms and comic sight gags. So why has this simple exchange taken on such an essential role within the series?
Q remains perhaps the most beloved character in the Bond series (including even Bond himself). Part of this appeal stems from Llewelyn’s longevity in the role. While the entire Bond universe changed around him, he remained the stoic rock at the center of a maelstrom of shifting cinematic styles and trends. Desmond Llewelyn performed Q Branch duties for five different James Bonds and three Ms and Moneypennies. The other part of Q’s appeal is that he appears to be the only character that endeavors to understand the real man behind the 00 suit of armor (until Bond’s relationship with M in the Craig era). Though they spar, and Bond shows more than a measure of disrespect for Q Branch property, Major Boothroyd functions as a doting and concerned fatherly figure to the more juvenile Bond. Pay attention, 007! Grow up, 007. Do bring it back in one piece, 007. Try to be a little less than your frivolous self, 007. I’m in no mood for juvenile quips. But it’s clear that their relationship could and likely would extend beyond the top-secret briefings in the bowels of government laboratories. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Q pledged his continued service, despite James planning to leave MI6. Bond typically uses humor to deflect attempts to probe the human beneath the 00-status, to diffuse tension, and to display presence of mind while under duress. Bond’s quick, quippy exchanges with Q show something else entirely – James Bond without his armor or latent distaste for authority. If their relationship falls short of qualifying as father-son, it’s certainly that of an uncle that visits every Christmas.
Nostalgia-born affection aside for Llewleyn’s contribution to the EON Bonds, the Q Branch scene doesn’t serve merely to gawk at gadgets and new technology – an element of the franchise that is often dismissed (perhaps shortsightedly) by critics. Natalya’s “boys with toys” speech from GoldenEye even reflects some of the growing condescension for the fetishistic relationship between Bond and his gadgets. I would argue, however, that the romance has been oversold. Using the term “fetish” places the technology on par with the more traditional objects of the gaze – the Bond girls. The gadget acts as a device – specifically, in the scope of this essay, a narrative device a la Anton Chekhov. The weapon/gadget/car that Q gives Bond functions explicitly as “Chekhov’s gun.” A (nearly-literal) rifle is hung on the (figurative) wall in most every James Bond movie. Keeping with the fundamental nature of the principle, the gun will fire and audience expectations will be satisfied, some more brilliantly and with greater payoffs than others.
The early Connery films were modest affairs – new guns, the attaché case – before growing more elaborate and eccentric in the name of one-upmanship, reaching critical mass during the latter Brosnan films when the whole enterprise became momentarily unhinged beneath the weight of unlimited possibility. CGI allowed filmmakers to thumb their noses at the traditional thresholds allowed under suspension of disbelief. Bond has always been grounded, beholden to the daring do of stuntmen and prop wizards. The homing pill from Thunderball? Good for all occasions, no elaborate scheme necessary. The laser Polaroid camera from Licence to Kill, however, seems like an impossibly niche item, reserved, perhaps, for running amuck at theme parks and scenic overlooks. And indeed the camera remains merely a gag during Q’s non-traditional field briefing just before the final act of the film. In Q’s more traditional slot, after the first act, the audience can’t help but wonder how James Bond might require these devices on his charged mission. Excluding the Looney Tunes gizmos from Die Another Day, the items remained potentially useful with only a small concession made to logic and reason. The question for seasoned Bond viewers became: “What kind of jam will Bond get into that would require assistance from this doohickey?” We’ve been around the block. We know that if Q dispenses a hi-tech device it must serve Bond at some point in the movie. The “Q Branch gizmo,” thus, functions narratively in precisely the same fashion as “Chekhov’s Gun.” Brothers from another mother, perhaps.
Of all the great gadget payoffs, there’s one in particular that I think best represents the three-way relationship between Bond, his gadgets and the audience. And since you’re likely aware that this particular essay concerns Tomorrow Never Dies, you’re also probably aware of the scene to which I’m now referring.
The Relative Bondness of Tomorrow Never Dies
One of the common criticisms of Tomorrow Never Dies is that “it’s not really a Bond movie.” Tomorrow Never Dies is, first and foremost, an action film. Indeed, TND contains more than the customary amount of spectacle set pieces for even the most fast-paced Bond film. James Chapman suggests “the pre-title sequence contains enough explosions and spectacular destruction to provide the climax to most action movies, but here it serves as a prelude to a succession of action sequences and extended chases which punctuate the film at regular intervals.” The motorcycle chase through Saigon impresses especially because of the novelty of having our hero and heroine (Wai Lin played by Michelle Yeoh) handcuffed together – a gimmick borrowed from Hitchcock’s 39 Steps where the chuffed couple must spend the night handcuffed together. Here the handcuffs become a logistical conundrum – how to drive a motorcycle while shackled.
Negative reviews of Tomorrow Never Dies don’t go as far as citing this action – despite clever staging and thrilling results – as the reason that the film fails. They longed for the clever wordplay and simple weaponry of the Connery years. Alexander Walker of Evening News says, “For all its new-fangled computerized, multiscreen razzmatazz, Tomorrow Never Dies can’t match the bold hokum of the cartoon-styled classic 007 adventures.” The problem I have with Walker’s review and many others much like it, is that they’re unwilling to allow for the evolution of the series. I agree that much as been lost since the days when Bond opposed Red Grant on the Orient Express. The times have changed, however. Cinematic tastes have shifted and modern Bond movies should be judged on the merits of the individual films without weighing them down with decades of baggage. Tomorrow Never Dies deserves consideration as one of the best pure actioners of the last couple decades. Its relative Bondness has always been debatable, but if you go back and place TND up against the Bond blueprint, the results might surprise you. The “how” and “why” Tomorrow Never Dies fails the critical litmus test is fodder for another conversation. In lieu of badgering misplaced criticism, let’s instead dissect one specific scene that speaks to the inherent Bondness of Brosnan’s second outing as Bond, a scene that, in my opinion, represents one of his two-trademark moments in the role.
Let’s start with the car. Compared to prior Bond automobiles, the BMW 750iL should be found wanting. While at least more impressive than the hamster-powered baby blue Z3 in GoldenEye (that I can only assume James was more than happy to turnover to Jack Wade), the 750iL still seems more like an accountant’s midlife crisis than a Bond car… until Q works his magic. The dispatch scene has Q again appearing in the field, “surprising” Bond in Germany with his “insurance damage waiver” upon arriving at an airport rental agency.
“Will you need collision coverage?
“I hope not… but accidents do happen.”
“They frequently do with you.”
The BMW emerges from a shipping crate with “all the usual refinements.” The usual refinements being the weapons and gadgets that have come standard with all Bond cars pretty much since Goldfinger – rocket launchers, machine guns and GPS tracking. The in-car female assistant (voiced by an award winning stage actress, Nichola McAuliffe, no less) proves to be a nice touch. Clearly Bond wouldn’t go for the Yoda or Snoop Dogg (Lion?) voice module for his GPS.
And then Q prefaces his next round of introductions, “And this I’m particularly proud of…” He’s showcasing the Sony Ericsson phone that flips open to reveal a remote control tablet for the car itself. What technological chicanery! Kidding about the 1990’s technology aside, the phone (complete, of course, with personal fingerprint security and, more notably, a taser) becomes the 1990’s version of the From Russia With Love attaché case. The gadget acts as facilitator, rather than contributing any specific “wow” factor itself, much like the BMW.
I had to dig back into the history of mobile phones to confirm that there was nothing especially noteworthy about a flip phone in 1997. My memory, though foggy, recalls disappointment at the reveal of the cell phone. Though considered nifty gadgets by new-tech lovers, as a Bond gadget the phone appeared rather mundane. The Nokia 9000 Communicator– the first widely available consumer clamshell phone with a QWERTY keyboard – had been made available to the public in 1996 (and introduced the technology that evolved into today’s smartphones). Val Kilmer even used the Nokia 9000 as Simon Templar in The Saint – which opened eight months prior to Tomorrow Never Dies.
After Q fumbles with the controls of the BMW for a brief moment (“It’s surprisingly difficult to drive, but with practice…”), Bond takes control (“Let’s see how she responds to my touch, Q.”), maneuvering the 750 with the dexterity of a man who’s played 100,000 hours of RC Pro Am. The frivolous use of the traditional brassy Bond theme certainly doesn’t hinder the moment. After a furious spin around the warehouse, Bond stops the car inches from their shins.
Q’s ambush at the rental agency functions as a surprise for the audience only. Even though Roger Spottiswoode shoots the scene as if Bond might have been unaware (Bond must react in order to bring the audience along with him in a state of surprise), logically one must assume that Bond knows he’s to rendezvous with Q in Germany before beginning his mission. It’s a fun variation on the traditional Q Branch scene, a spontaneous meeting on foreign soil, but without the payoff later in the film, the cell phone gadget and the remote control showboating would have been nothing more than a frivolous sideshow.
Tomorrow Never Dies opens at a Soviet arms bazaar. Bond (“White Knight”) has infiltrated the encampment and placed cameras in strategic locations so that the government officials can remotely identify all involved nefarious parties from the safety of their control room. After identifying a number of high-profile deviants, the powers that be order a missile strike. Shortly thereafter, they spot two stolen Russian nuclear missiles parked at the swap meet. Should the incoming missiles strike the camp, the warheads would detonate, making “Chernobyl look like a picnic.”
With the speeding missiles now out of communication range, Bond takes it upon himself to commandeer the MIG with the attached warheads. He dispatches one heavy by offering a light for his cigarette. “Filthy habit,” Bond says, just as Brosnan’s face is first shown on camera, a stellar reveal – and one accompanied by some of the finest action scoring (courtesy of David Arnold) ever done for a Bond film. Bond starts lobbing grenades, racing to the aircraft amid a shower of AK fire. After knocking the co-pilot unconscious he closes the hatch and turns the MIG’s guns on the assembly, clearing a path to the steep, sloped runway. Just as the plane lifts off, the missiles arrive at the site. Control’s monitors turn to static, their eyes on the ground blown to smithereens.
Bond’s MIG emerges through a plume of smoke and flames with another unfriendly MIG on his tail. If the difficulty level hadn’t already been extreme enough for the viewers at home, the co-pilot regains consciousness and wraps a cord around 007’s throat. Struggling to steer the plane through the mountainous nether regions of Russia, the tailing MIG launches two missiles. The stakes re-raised. Red warning light flashing, Bond takes the stick with his knees and rolls out of lock just as the missiles pass and collide with the mountainside. Still evading, a wire around his neck, controlling the aircraft with his knees, Bond ends up beneath the unsuspecting MIG, now invisible to the aircraft’s radar. Fighting the cord with one hand, he reaches down with the other and flips the co-pilot ejector switch, firing his assailant into the air overhead where he crashes through the floor of the overhead MIG.
The plane explodes.
Bond quips, “Backseat driver.”
The afterburn of Bond’s jet shatters the screen, launching the title credits.
Anyone who has seen the film recognizes how prescient the line will become later in the film. In fact, the idea of “backseat driving” becomes a recurring theme throughout Tomorrow Never Dies. The aforementioned motorcycle chase with handcuffs features Wai Lin sitting in front of James Bond and facing behind them as Bond drives the bike. Less apparently, Elliot Carver’s scheme to create headlines in order to catalyze real life drama to fuel his media group could be interpreted, from a certain perspective, as backseat driving world events. But all of that is more or less supercilious to the “backseat driving” scene that pays off the Q Branch dispatch of the otherwise prosaic cell phone and remote-control BMW.
Backseat Driver Part II
Bond discovers the body of Paris Carver in her hotel room, the ex-flame he seduced in order to dig up information on media mogul Elliot Carver. As he leans over the body in a brief moment of mourning (it appears that Bond had legitimate, squishy, borderline Douglas Sirk feelings for this woman), the news of her death is broadcast over the TV and Carver’s assassin, Dr. Kaufman (Vincent Schiavelli) steps out from the shadows. “I have a clear shot at your head, Mr. Bond,” he says. In a German (?) accent that only Vincent Schiavelli could make both menacing and comedic, he shows 007 the VHS tape that contains the pending news story – a lovers tryst gone wrong, a murder suicide.
Meanwhile in the parking garage, Carver’s goons attempt to break into Bond’s BMW to retrieve the “red box” – the GPS encoder that Bond has just stolen from Carver’s safe, otherwise known as TND’s Macguffin. They bash the windows with a crowbar and a sledgehammer. They pepper it with some intense firepower. Nary a dent.
The cross-cutting between Bond and Dr. Kaufman and the car’s parking lot resistance builds tension. We know that because Bond is Bond he will A) escape Carver’s assassin and B) somehow evade the goons. The great question with Bond is always the how. How will he survive this particular pickle? Including the concurrent action in the parking garage does not necessarily propel the narrative forward; it teases our expectations and provides a standard comic vignette (inept henchman provide endless hours of entertainment). What they actually want out of the car is irrelevant. The goons laboring, slugging the impenetrable BMW remind us of the car’s introductory scene with Q at the airport hanger. We begin connecting the dots. We begin anticipating what will come next.
The frustrated goons call Mr. Stamper, and Mr. Stamper in turn interrupts Kaufman’s speech of self-aggrandizement to break the news. Stamper informs Kaufman that they want Bond to unlock the car, and Kaufman is to torture him unless he agrees. Bond hands over his Sony Ericsson phone, but of course Bond doesn’t tell Kaufman the code to unlock the car, he tells him the code to activate the taser (minor payoff!). With Kaufman momentarily disabled, Bond lunges, grabs Kaufman’s gun and turns it against the good doctor. The result is arguably Brosnan’s most cold-blooded execution.
“I’m just a professional doing a job.”
Bond finds the henchmen loitering around the parked BMW in the garage. He removes the cell phone from his inside jacket pocket and remotely starts the engine. The first notes of David Arnold’s electronic-fueled score slips into the background. Another button push. The BMW spews tear gas (a carry over from the FRWL attaché case, if you recall) from the wheel wells causing the goons to recoil and double over. Bond spins the touchpad and accelerates the car around the corner. The rear window drops, and as the car passes Bond dives inside.
Nichola McAuliffe’s friendly in-car assistant chimes in. “Welcome. Please fasten seatbelt.”
The car picks up speed around the next turn. 007 remains hunched in the backseat with his remote control, trying to gauge the situation on the small video screen, bounding around like a pinball. In this brief moment, Bond hasn’t yet figured out the next step. He is not yet in control of the situation.
“Reduce speed. Pedestrians in roadway.”
The thugs line up, five abreast awaiting Bond’s car. Their Colt Model 727s* assault the front of the car. Sparks fly. A 40mm grenade launcher-attachment shreds the now weakened front windshield. Bond shakes off a hailstorm of glass and descends a level in the garage. Carver’s men obstruct his route with a parked car. Bond reveals the arsenal of short-range rockets stowed in the roof. He launches one into the parked car, knocking it backwards and on top of an innocent Volvo station wagon. A second car, a black Mercedes, now pursues. As Bond checks the rear camera, gunfire blows out the glass at the rear.
Bond descends another level. He’s gaining confidence with the controls and his status in the firefight, bouncing around less in the backseat. He releases caltrops – dozens of spiky tire murderers – from behind the rear bumper. The Mercedes hits the caltrops and spins out of control into the line of parked cars. Arnold cranks up the score, signifying an amplification of the stakes (OMG ACTION!). The door to the parking garage descends, blocking Bond’s most immediate exit. (ACHTUNG HALT!)
“Driver alert. Obstruction ahead. Reduce speed now.”
Quickly, 007 unleashes another roof rocket. The door ignites in a fiery blaze but as the smoke clears, Bond sees that the door remains intact. He spins the 750iL, bracing himself against the front seat, and speeds back up the ramp from which he came and back across his own caltrops. For a brief moment, the audience thinks that Bond has miscalculated, a victim of his own cunning devices, but as the car clears the spikes and rounds another corner, Bond pushes another button, re-inflating the tires and accelerating out of the turn. After the tires re-inflate, the camera cuts back to Brosnan’s face through the glare in the rear left window. He cracks the most infectious smile ever recorded in a Bond film (if I were waxing hyperbolic I’d suggest it was the most infectious smile in the history of cinema). In this moment, Bond and the audience have merged, thoroughly entertained by his cunning. I’ve gone as far to suggest that this moment represents the essence of Brosnan’s Bond. His Bond films never took themselves too seriously, both to their early benefit and latter detriment. At his best, Brosnan borrowed part of Timothy Dalton and part of Roger Moore. Pure entertainment wrapped in a pristine package that could play both a lovable fop and an action-minded mercenary. When that balance became unsettled the movies suffered. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as that’s a conversation for my next entry in this essay series.
The BMW comes back around to find a henchman with a LAW 80 94mm rocket launcher hoisted atop his shoulder. Without a better plan, Bond ducks as the rocket flies through the cabin, in through the non-existent front windshield and out through the non-existent back window, finally striking the pursuant vehicle. The goon dodges Bond’s oncoming BMW with what appears to be a deft cartwheel. Another henchman barks an order into a radio in German. A tow truck loops a metal cable around a pylon, pulls the cable taught. Bond whips the car around another corner. The acceleration again tosses him around the backseat, suggesting again that perhaps Bond is unsettled. If you’ve bought into the scene thus far, you’ll have to suspend disbelief one time further to enjoy the final, inherently absurd gadget remaining up Bond’s sleeve. The BMW logo folds back. From beneath rises a saw-tooth cutter at precisely the right height and angle to cut through the cable. I know I want to roll my eyes here, but I can’t. It’s all been too enjoyable and I want desperately to continue along for the entire exhausting four minute and nineteen second spin around the garage.
“Reminder. Unsafe driving will void warranty.”
Bond climbs yet another ramp, retrieves the red box/Macguffin from the glove compartment. Unseen by his pursuants, Bond rolls out of the car just clear of the next corner. He ducks between the parked cars and remotely continues the chase, leading the high-speed parade up to the roof. Bond aims the car at the guard wall, accelerates and sends his BMW flying off the roof, horn blaring (to warn innocent passersby, most surely, because Bond is doting when it comes to collateral damage), and into the Avis car rental agency below.
“Congratulations on a safe journey.”
In this scene – the parking garage scene – and in this individual moment, Tomorrow Never Dies brings about the ultimate payoff. The audience’s expectation for the gadget-laden BMW, established (but still doubtful) during the Q Branch dispatch scene, has been rewarded with an escape scene that creatively and gleefully incorporates the showcased accoutrements. Even though it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, let’s just go ahead and rename this whole “gun must be fired” theory. “Q’s gadget” has a rather nice ring compared to “Chekhov’s gun.” Chekhov could use a day off after all. Those hard days and nights teaching writing students (considering their verbose tendencies) how to direct a reader’s expectation through a conservation of language has got to be exhausting. Furthermore, Q Branch has been doing a fine job for more than 50 years now and it’s about time that Q and the “secret” division of the British research and development team got a little bit of much deserved recognition.
It’s true that perhaps the Tomorrow Never Dies narrative sags a bit between the spectacular set pieces and the movie followed a bit of a paint-by-number Bond pastiche (past Bond films backseat driving TND perhaps?) culminating in a retread of the conclusion to The Spy Who Loved Me. But in isolated fits and spurts, Tomorrow Never Dies churns out thrillingly elaborate action set pieces, including one that happens to duly satisfy the most recited dramatic principle this side of Aristotle, all without any of the weighty side effects of reading The Seagull.
*I’ve pulled all weapon info from the Internet Movie Firearms Database because I would otherwise lack the necessary vocabulary to describe the guns. I’m not trying to show off my knowledge. Just the opposite in fact. I’m completely f’ing inept at gunspeak or armstalk or whatever it is I’m doing here.
Previous James Bond #Bond_age_ Project Essays:
Dr. No / From Russia With Love / Goldfinger / Thunderball / You Only Live Twice / On Her Majesty’s Secret Service / Diamonds Are Forever / Live and Let Die / The Man with the Golden Gun / The Spy Who Loved Me / Moonraker / For Your Eyes Only / Octopussy / A View to a Kill / The Living Daylights / Licence to Kill / GoldenEye / Tomorrow Never Dies / The World Is Not Enough / Die Another Day / Casino Royale / Quantum of Solace / Skyfall