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Non-Review Review: The Living Daylights

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

The Living Daylights is a forgotten Bond film, sitting as it does between the twin “duds” of A View to a Kill and Licence to Kill (although I am not quite as critical of those films as most). It’s the first of the Bond films to feature Timothy Dalton, taking over from Roger Moore – who by this stage seemed as likely to be getting a free bus pass as he was to foil enemy spies. Although the word didn’t quite exist in media circles when the movie originally came out, there’s a strong smell of “reboot” about the film, as if the powers behind the scenes are attempting to consciously remodel the franchise in the wake of a disappointing previous film. Though not quite as obvious (or as far-reaching) as subsequent reboots in GoldenEye and Casino Royale, The Living Daylights isn’t a bad Bond film – it’s just a really poorly dated one.

Tim, you scared the Living Daylights out of me…

The buzz word seems to be “younger”. The casting of Dalton was always going to replace Roger Moore with a younger actor, but Dalton in the role looks younger than any other Bond (save maybe Craig, at a push). At the same time, Moneypenny was replaced with a younger model – now even more of a ditzy secretary as opposed to Lois Maxwell’s more worldly portrayal. As played by Caroline Bliss, Miss Moneypenny is blonder, younger and wanders around wearing her glasses, which Bond patronisingly readjusts for her. Whatever discussions we can have about Maxwell’s iteration of the character, her version of Miss Moneypenny gave as good as she got – and you got the sense that Bond playfully respected her, in a Mad Men “the secretary controls the office” sort of way. That classical aspect is gone, replaced with a stereotypical idea of what an eighties audience expects a secretary to look like.

I think that’s one of the film’s key weaknesses. It is literally too eighties for its own good. I can appreciate the ridiculous eighties camp of A View to a Kill in a “so bad its good” sort of way, but here the constant desire to seem hip or trendy just gets in the way of what’s a really good plot. For example, there’s just something incredibly (and inexplicably) eighties about Felix Leiter as played by John Terry to the point that it’s distracting as he attempts to be self-consciously cool. “He’s in,” the CIA agent remarks of Bond in a casually disinterested fashion as he stands there, sipping coffee with his honeys.

The soundtrack is just too much. Seriously, check out the revamped theme music during the car chase with Bond and Kara – which features a “rocket motor” on the car which makes it look like the Batmobile (Bondmobile, perhaps?). The theme song is perhaps the weakest in the entire franchise, to say nothing of any of the ambient soundtrack. Though, fair enough, it does set Q up for a rather brilliant “ghetto blaster” pun that almost makes up for it. Almost, but not quite.

Bond is an instrument of destruction…

The film’s climactic action sequence at a Soviet airbase in Afghanistan holds up really well (especially a showdown with the henchman), but it’s somewhat awkwardly undermined when Bond relies on the precursors of the Taliban to lend him some support. There’s something disconcerting about the rebels riding in as Bond’s cavalry, and the general presentation of the group as all-around nice guys – they never leave a man behind, apparently. The leader is a softly-spoken chap who describes his theatricality as “a hangover from my Oxford days.” It leads to the weird sort of values dissonance that I remember from the early Bond films. Bond himself actually manages to be (mostly) politically correct this time, but he does warn Kara that the rebels will likely “save you for the harem!” Ever the gentleman is our James.

The plot is actually quite good, underneath all this. It starts with Bond sneaking a defector out of the East into the West. He brings news of a campaign by the KGB to target American and British spies within the Soviet Union, before he’s captured again during a daring KGB raid. Bond is assigned the task of assassinating the officer in charge of this planned purge, but discovers that something strange is going on. It’s a wonder espionage tale set in the twilight of the Cold War – it lacks the punch of a more emotional story like GoldenEye, but it’s probably the most interesting storyline the series has had since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Incidentally, it makes perhaps the most faithful adaptation of an Ian Fleming story in quite some time. The Living Daylights was a short story – so there’s obviously more present in the movie than in the story itself – but it focuses on the sniper sequence at the start of the film. It’s hardly a literal adaptation of the text, but at least the writers didn’t simply lift a snazzy-sounding title and build the rest of the movie around it.

Bond gets an icy reception…

As a reaction to the excesses of the Moore era, the film takes itself considerably more seriously than a large number of the preceding movies. There’s a tense sniper scene and a plot surrounding drug-smuggling, for a start. Not to mention the movie’s somewhat modest scale – it’s more in line with From Russia With Love than Thunderball. That’s to the movie’s strength.

However, the flipside of that is that there’s a considerable amount of time when the movie doesn’t take itself seriously at all, and the campness reaches levels almost as high as during Moore’s tenure. For example, the movie opens with M giving Bond a briefing. In his office. In a plane. And he’s surprised (“Blast!”) when his papers go flying as Bond jumps out. And there’s a final confrontation in a War Museum… of Doom! with ridiculously rigged explosive devices and weapons – who keeps a loaded cannon in their recreational room? There are times when the thrill excuses some of the excess – as in the scene where Bond and Kara escape into Austria… in a cello case! (waving the passport and throwing the cello itself over the barrier before catching it), but even then it takes the viewer out of the film a bit.

Dalton himself gets a bit of a bad wrap for his time as Bond – unfairly, I’d suggest. I’ll concede that his two films in the role aren’t great – they don’t even have the cult following of George Lazenby’s, for example. The role was originally intended for Pierce Brosnan at this stage of his career, but Brosnan was contracted to Remington Steele at the time and couldn’t get a break – similar to what happened to Tom Selleck with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Dalton was arguably the man who never should have been Bond, but – I’d wager – put Dalton in GoldenEye and you’d have had at least as much of a hit as you did with Brosnan.

“Sorry, no time for romance… I need to ring M and ask for something witty to say!”

Dalton is an entirely different animal from Moore. Moore was all pantomime – raised eyebrows, smart quips, humorous dispatching of the bad guy. Dalton is a completely different character. He can’t do the same things – and, when the script expects him to, it falls flat. He can’t deliver one-liners, for example, despite his best efforts. When he grabs the phone off a woman on a yatch and tells the person on the other end “she’ll call you back”, it doesn’t seem playful or smooth – it seems like a bit of a dick move. “Time to leave,” as he drives a car out of an exploding boathouse isn’t a pun and even Roger Moore could make it work. On the other hand, “he got the boot” is actually not a bad one-liner, showing signs of improvement (though “he met his Waterloo” is pure cornball).

Dalton isn’t helped by other factors surrounding the production. Apparently, as a result of the AIDS scare in the eighties, it was felt that a promiscuous Bond didn’t send the right message. Nevermind the fact that he killed people for a living or the fact that he drinks like a fish, it’s the promiscuity you need to worry about. There’s something telling in the way that the only females who Bond flirts with (outside Moneypenny, the pre-credits girl and the Bond girl) produce guns and threaten to kill him – there’s no subtext hidden there about how the lifestyle could kill you.

Anyway, it’s arguably not a bad move of itself – Bond is a bit of cad and could do with having a female interest who can match him for an entire movie – but it is when it’s executed without any real thought. The movie is written like any other Bond movie, following the pattern perfectly. However, the second love interest is just… missing, which leads the audience with a subtle feeling that everything isn’t right.It also has the effect (along with Bond’s more serious demeanour and increased competence) of making Bond seem like a far more “grown up” character. Despite the fact Dalton is younger than his predecessor, it’s like Roger Moore was replaced by his dad. It’s disconcerting.

Bond hits the wall…

This becomes incredibly obvious when the relationship between Bond and Kara isn’t the usual “suave international playboy and sexy, sophisticated lady”, it’s more like “henpecked husband and shy, retired wife”. When Kara refuses to leave without her cello, Bond – every inch the man in charge and the experienced secret agent – tells her, “No way.” One cut later and he’s already driven to her apartment and is helping her load the thing into the car. I guess we know who wears the pants in that relationship. There’s also something utterly hilarious about the scene where Bond tries to signal to her (by mouthing the words and using hand gestures) to ride the jeep into the plane. There are some communication difficulties, which exasperate both parties, like a married couple have from time-to-time.

However, this movie represents the first time in years that we actually believe that Bond could be a secret agent. During the defection scene, Bond is shown to have done his homework and to have put a lot of thought into it – he picks steel-tipped bullets because “KGB Snipers usually wear body armour.” This is in marked contrast to the incompetence with which his colleague handles the operation, which helps create the impression – for the first time in years – that Bond is actually more competent than his colleagues.

You also believe that Dalton’s Bond is capable of killing in cold blood. There’s a scene in the movie which hinges on the audience’s willingness to believe that James could kill an unarmed man in his bedroom as he begs for his life. I think we all know that Moore’s version of the character couldn’t, but Dalton manages to convince the audience, even for a moment, that it’s possible. That was the moment when I accepted Dalton as Bond – when I believed he could take the life of an unarmed man at the bat of an eyelid if it suited his purpose.

“Wait! I’ve got a one-liner! ‘It’s just been revoked!’… What do you mean it’s been done?”

Okay, so The Living Daylights isn’t perfect. It has some really strange stuff in there (my personal favourite weird moments are the unwholesome way that Bond tells Kara “we leave first thing in the morning” after the murder of a close colleague and the strange accent on the Russian prison guard), but it’s got a solid plot which returns Bond to his espionage roots. For my money, Dalton was a good Bond, who just never got the chance to show it.

We’ve got full reviews of all of Timothy Dalton’s Bond films, if you want to check ‘em out:

The following bloggers have reviews of this film as part of James Bond January:

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12 Responses

  1. I honestly liked both of the Dalton films. This one was basically a Moore picture with a younger, tougher 007. Dalton gets to be his own man in “Licence to Kill.” It’s really too bad the screenplay was so awkward.

  2. You’re spoiling me with your latest posts Darren… 300, now this, both starring two of my fave actors 😀

    I agree with everything you said here, it’s not flawless but to me, Dalton more than makes up for it. Yes he’s the only Bond who seems believably ruthless enough to kill in cold blood, it’s that element of danger combined with his tremendous good looks and swagger that sets him apart from the other Bond actors. Thanks for this excellent write-up!

    • I aim to please!

      I’m fonder of this than most, but it’s a good Bond film. I’ve always appreciated Dalton and I think he does good work here – but he knocks it out of the park in Licence to Kill.

      • Oooh I’ll be reading that one later today. I clicked on the LTK link last night but it wasn’t up yet. Your writing talent is off the charts, Darren, seriously, do you do this professionally? Because you should!

      • I wish I could do this professional! Nah, it’s a hobby. Sorry about that, I just pre-planned everything because I work and thus can’t be around all the time. So there are links to stuff which might not be on-line yet, alas.

  3. I think Timothy Dalton is the best Bond ever. And after Roger Moore’s cartoon character, it is even more obvious that he is the most serious and technically accomplished actor to have played Bond. There is nothing Roger Moore did that Timothy Dalton could not have done. He just did not want to do it! Because he would have been as pathetic as his predecessor. Whatever flaws one might find in the movie, Mr. Dalton is not responsible for them. Anyway, the part was obviously too easy for him to play, but this does not mean his performance was not excellent.
    I became a Timothy Dalton fan after seeing his two Bond movies. I did not know anything about his work before. But after seeing his two Bond movies, I immediately realized he was much more than just James Bond, as an actor. And this has nothing to do with the way he looks, he is simply a brilliant actor.

    • I like Dalton more than most, but I’d go with Connery. But that’s think about Bonds – there’s no wrong answer. I have friends who would choose Roger Moore, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. Franchise is big and diverse enough that there’s something for everybody.

      • You are right, the franchise is big, but maybe not big enough to change Bond’s image so much, each time when the actor is changed or when times change. For example, I think Daniel Craig is a very good actor, but he is simply not Bond. He’s too blond, too short and … has moo many muscles showing on his body. Why not Hugh Jackman? He would have been perfect. But he’s Australian….
        As far as Sir Connery is concerned, I simply love him and I always will. I prefer Mr. Dalton movies maybe because the first ones in the franchise are a little too naive, so it’s probably just a matter of times changing…

      • I’d respectfully disagree. I think that each actor brings their own – and Craig and Brosnan both build a lot off Dalton, who himself built a lot more off Connery than either Lazenby or Moore did. But then, each’s own.

  4. I know you are right, but I am a woman. And my image of Bond is … tall, dark and handsome … to begin with. This is a must. Of course, it is not enough.

  5. I believe Dalton was approached before Brosnan for the role. Cubby Broccoli wanted him for the replacement for Moore, but Dalton was filming “Brenda Starr” at the time, and turned them down. They then approached Brosnan and he took the role. But Remington Steele was still up for renewal, even though it was cancelled after the 4th season.

    The network, seeing the moneymaking opportunity of having James Bond playing Remington Steele, offered to adjust Brosnan’s schedule to whatever Broccoli needed, but Broccoli said Brosnan would be Bond, or Remington Steele, not both. The network had 60 days to decide, and on day 60, they renewed Remington Steele, and Brosnan was forced to back out.

    The length of time it took to determine whether or not Brosnan could do the role gave Dalton enough time to finish “Brenda Starr”, and Dalton, the original choice, was then able to take on the role.

    A little further trivia. Dalton was approached to play Bond as far back as 1968, when Connery resigned. Dalton was tested for OHMSS, but was in his 20s, and turned down the role because he felt he was too young for the part.

    You have to give him credit. Bond was obviously a star-making role, but Dalton recognized that he wasn’t fit for the part at that time. Still though, since Dalton is my favorite Bond, I have to admit it would have been interesting if he’d thrown caution to the wind and had taken the part.

    • I did not know that.

      I knew he was originally intended to debut in For Your Eyes Only. Which is strange, because it’s the one Bond movie that works well with Moore’s advancing age.

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