The Living Daylights Review
It’s 1987 and the winds of change have been blowing throughout the Bond franchise. After the wild excesses of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, producer ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, writers Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson and director John Glen, wanted to bring the character ‘back to earth’ by having him rely far more on his wit and ingenuity rather than gadgets. While this worked well for their first outing, For Your Eyes Only, the following two subsequent instalments were rather poorly received, due to lacklustre plotting, scripts and above all Moore’s age – put simply he was too old to by playing the suave Bond character. Initially conceived as a reboot (it still is, of sorts) The Living Daylights was to employ a new actor for the part of Bond in the guise of Timothy Dalton. It proved to be an inspired choice, for just like Patrick Stewart was to bring presence to the captain of the Enterprise in the same year, so too was fellow Shakespearian actor Dalton able to bring a hitherto unseen menace to his interpretation. I remember an interview at the time with Dalton saying on his taking on the part that (paraphrased), “Half the world loves Connery, the other half Moore, it could be that everyone hates me! So what do I do, the only thing I know, go back to the books.” And indeed this proved to be fertile ground, for Bond was written as a thug in a dinner suit, cunning, deceitful but with charm and wit, something that all previous actors had touched upon but never really plumbed the depths of his psyche (very early Connery was close). Dalton took it upon himself to give Bond a very hard edge, tough and uncompromising, but with a keen intelligence – able to size up a situation and make split second calls, his instinct more often than not proving correct. A rebellious streak, sure, but one that has a headstrong sense of justice – something that would come to the front in the subsequent film, which while a terrific interpretation and an awesome film is not typically ‘Bond’. In fact, so good is his take that there is a very strong argument to be made for a direct link between him and Daniel Craig’s celebrated return to form. It could be said that without Dalton there might never have been a Craig. There’s a thought.
So with a new actor on board a script cobbled together from various ideas in Flemming’s original writings, what else was changing? The girls. Due to the widespread fear of AIDS and the message of safe sex, the decision was made to reduce Bond’s intimate relationships to one. Well, nearly, if we ignore the opening gambit. This was a radical departure from the womanising character that previous incarnations had adopted. However, in the confines of this film, the relationship really works – Bond forms an attachment out of obligation to the mission, at first, only later does it become somewhat more serious. At this point it is not one step too far, and the film constantly reminds us that we are dealing with the same character, Saunders hints at his past and even the bomb in the key ring answers to a wolf whistle! However, with everything now in place let us take a closer look at the greatest Bond that never quite made it, Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights.
The opening, pre-credits, sequence is our first introduction to the new face of Bond. The set up involves three MI6 ‘00’ agents being tasked to infiltrate an army outpost on Gibraltar to test the security, with everyone firing paint ‘blanks’ to simulate a death shot. Trouble is, the Russians have infiltrated the rock and their own assassin is picking off the agents one by one, and it’s up to 007 to stop him. This is a fairly standard opening with gunshots, explosions, action and excitement – it sets up both the theme of the film and the character of Bond, reminding us that while the face may have changed the character has not. It is, perhaps, why this small section sticks out, because Dalton’s interpretation is nothing like the Bond’s we’ve seen before, except that in this brief opening he is exactly how he’s always been – down to lucky escape, fortuitous landing and beautiful lady to boot. But I suppose it does accomplish what it sets out to do.
Our next meeting with Bond is a far more satisfactory affair. Decked out in a black tuxedo looking every bit the gentleman about town, it is only when he opens his mouth that we discover he’s not quite what we’re expecting. His refined speech is laced with an energy, an underlying edge that, at this juncture, remains quite enigmatic – could he actually be the ‘thug in a dinner jacket’? Obviously being gibed about his past and the fact that he’s out ranked riles Bond and he’s not afraid to show it, quips about ‘eyes on the job, not on the girl’ don’t go unchecked, for example. However, when it comes to getting the job done, Bond is definitely the man for it. Dalton does an excellent job of looking thoroughly professional as he buttons up his jumpsuit, and in his handling of the rifle. We see a look of reflection in the task at hand – to protect a Russian defector from snipers – when he sees that the sniper in question is the same girl he saw playing cello in the theatre. Disobeying direct orders to kill, he nevertheless incapacitates the shooter (exactly how did Saunders – the other operative – know that he missed deliberately?) enabling the escape of their target. And now Bond takes charge, so easily does the role of leader come to him, his air of authority and confidence is plain for all to see, even Saunders, his superior in rank, differs. The makers take this opportunity to go with the ‘realism’ they are seeking for the character; the escape plan is both out of this world but eminently plausible and all without a shot being fired. We’re getting to see how Bond operates now, he’s tough and clever, instinctive but rebellious; we’ve yet to see the charmer, but that will come in time, then the character will become fully rounded.
The initial set up of the plot, before twists, is very neat. In 1987 the cold war was still going strong and the Russians were still seen as the ‘baddies’. Defectors were seen as escaping to a better place and those with knowledge of KGB plans were treated with high regard. Thus the elaborate measures that MI6 go to, to extract KGB General Georgi Koskov, though slightly fanciful are to be entirely believed. His information pertains to the death of the agents in the beginning of the film – a Soviet plot to eliminate western agents under the newly revived Smert Spionam (death to spies) directive from General Leonid Pushkin. Top brass take this information as gospel, but Bond, knowing Pushkin from past encounters, believes otherwise – the missing link being the girl sniper. Koshov’s re-capture by the KGB further enforces the idea and MI6 instruct Bond to stop Pushkin by any means; a task he reluctantly takes due to his nagging doubts. Again we are privy to Bond’s ideals, he is not ‘mindless’ and he reiterates that he is not a killer, merely an instrument, but an instrument with purpose and intuition. His taking of the case is to investigate first and to kill second; he wants to put the pieces together to solve the puzzle rather than shoot first and question later. The rebellious nature is tempered by the desire to do the right thing. A quick stop off to Q Branch seems him furnished with a gadget key-ring, well, it's wouldn’t be Bond without something, right? Though a skeleton key and exploding key fob isn't quite the stuff of legend, but it is great to see the Aston Martin back as the car of choice, complete with updated versions of previously seen gadgets.
Bond’s idea is to woo the girl sniper, actually Kara Milovy a cello player, whose amateurish efforts with the rifle provided Bond with the intel he used to save her life. Posing as a friend of Koskov’s Bond charms his way into her life in an effort to discover if she knows where Koskov has vanished to, or any other information she might have. It soon dawns on him that she is nothing but a pawn in some deadly jigsaw puzzle of which he only has a few pieces. Milovy is played by new Bond girl Maryam d'Abo and, as such, is somewhat against type. Presented as quite plain, ordinarily dressed with bare minimum of make-up she is nothing like previous Bond girls with their sexual allure firmly on show. D’Abo plays the character something like a bunny rabbit, all wide eyes and soft; she has a natural innocence and makes for a convincing pawn in a much bigger game – she can’t play the cello for toffee though! During these scenes Dalton is magnificent as Bond, using a combination of charm and wit, but hidden behind the eyes is that fierce intelligence that is simply using the girl for his own means. Some of the dialogue is obviously a legacy of when Moore was thought to be continuing laced as it is with comedic tones that don’t quite sit right with Dalton; but nevertheless do maintain that ‘Bond-ness’. It is during their escape that the most notorious scene took place – escape by cello case; it is somewhat trite and, again, not quite what Dalton’s interpretation deserves but it does lighten the movie somewhat.
Following on we get glimpse of where the Bond franchise was heading with Dalton in the lead. When Saunders is murdered, in a rather horrendous fashion, we see Bond turn the corner from level-headed agent to revenge seeking thug. Watch as he can barely contain his rage when Milovy asks him what has just happened and which leads directly to his confrontation with General Pushkin. Look at the terror in Pushkin’s girl as she cradles herself in the centre of the room and how Bond ruthlessly strips her to provide a distraction for the incoming henchman – this is something that no Bond before had attempted. And yet, in the same scene we see the calculating coolness resurface as he and Pushkin hatch a plan to discover the actual motive behind the defection and agent murders.
The film now opens up to show its political sub-plot. In 1987 the Russian/Afghan war was actually winding down somewhat and with the benefit of hindsight we know a little more of the political wrangling and money/weapon smuggling that was occurring to proved the Mujahideen with the might it needed to destabilise and affect the invading Russian forces. While the film doesn’t go into such touchy subjects it does show underhanded dealing in a slightly fictitious way; diamond payments/opium smuggling and weapons dealing. Of course Bond has to get involved, not for the bigger picture, but to damage the organisation that has caused such consternation. It is here that we are introduced to the most out of place character in the film: Kamran Shah. Actually, what I mean to say is the most out of place actor in the part. Art Malik is a pretty good actor and has quite the résumé and could have been great in this role – but for some reason he was ‘Oxford educated’ giving rise to his absolute Queen’s English speech; it stands out like a sore thumb; how did this character become such a highly acclaimed leader of the Afghanistan resistance? Indeed his entire character seems underwritten and trite; dismissing Bond’s plea with “It’s time to rest”, or exclaiming “Women!” when Milovy rides off after Bond with a rifle intent on rescuing him (and where exactly did she learn how to ride a horse?) If one takes a critical examination of these latter situations and character choices many of them don’t actually make much logical sense and fall fairly and squarely in the contrivance camp and, if I’m honest, appear to be more in keeping with a Moore interpretation of Bond; this is kind of understandable since the script was initially intended to be a Moore vehicle and a number of such elements have remained. The writers even threw in a number of one liners that could have been out of a Connery film (I so wish Bond had said, “I gave him the boot”, instead of the, “He got the boot” line), or indeed any of the action heroes around in the eighties. It, therefore, at times, feels as if the script wasn’t quite finished or, at least, not quite the vehicle Dalton needed to make him Bond.
Having said all that the film was a huge success and critics at the time were quoted as saying it, “Breathed life into an ailing franchise” (that one was Barry Norman, and why not). Even now, looking back, the film has much of what makes a good Bond film great: action, exotic locations, political intrigue and a terrifically on form actor in the titular role. It could be argued that there is no one overriding villain in the piece, and while KGB assassin Necros is quite formidable, he is never given the chance to really shine and the one fight he and Bond share hanging outside the aeroplane, whist exciting, never gave then the close-quarters rough and tumble that Bond needed to put to rest the demons of his actions (such as in From Russia with Love or The Spy Who Loved Me). But the whole is, I feel, greater than the sum of its parts. Dalton makes for a spectacular Bond, ruthless, uncompromising but with wit and intelligence. The franchise would turn distinctly darker in tone with his next and final outing, which was a daring turn for the makers and while it made for a fantastic film it wasn’t really ‘Bond’, though the seeds were well and truly sown here. Machinations outside the franchise would conspire to deny Dalton the chance to continue in the role, which is a huge shame as he had the potential to become the greatest Bond ever, paving the way for the latest instalments; but to see where it all began spin The Living Daylights, it comes highly recommended.