The Living Daylights
There is a fairly vocal body of opinion that regards Timothy Dalton as the zenith of 007s. He was the Bond who got back to the basics – or, even, found those basics – of what Ian Fleming’s character was all about, discarding the silliness that infected later Sean Connerys and most of the Roger Moores. This was a Bond who took being James Bond seriously, and would never, ever, be seen with a duck on his head or donning clown make-up. I have some sympathy with the desire to see an iconic character resemble his original devising; I’m as prone to reacting that way with certain books or properties. But I’m not an aficionado of Fleming’s novels, so my allegiances extend only as far as whatever makes an entertaining Bond movie. And on that score, unfortunately, I find Dalton a bit of a washout. The Living Daylights isn’t a bad Bond movie – it’s one of the better ’80s entries – but its lead actor never seems very comfortable. Ironically, he would probably have made a much better fit a decade or so later, when he started having fun trading on the spy persona. If Dalton had brought a lightness of touch to the role, or even just managed to overcome the feeling he was “acting” Bond, his tenure might have been more enduring and illustrious. Who knows, he might have actually returned in Goldeneye.
Dalton, like Moore before him, was into his forties before he played the part. And, like Moore before him, he was first considered for the role during the 1960s. It didn’t take Rog two decades to snag 007, though. Dalton has said he thought he was too young back then, which is probably true. I’m less sure he would have been any stiffer or less sure of himself than he is here, though. He secured the part when the man who was Remington Steele became unavailable. The studio wouldn’t let Pierce out of his contract, so Brosnan would become the third straight Bond to lose out and only then win the prize. Something that didn’t happen to Sam Neill, who screen-tested and who was first choice; everyone but Cubby Broccoli, crucially, wanted him. To hear John Glen on the DVD documentaries, there’s a lingering discontent over the eventual choice. The director of both Dalton Bonds appears to damn his lead actor with faint praise.
Glen was hardly the most electric of the series’ directors, so emotionally he might have been a match for the least electric of the series’ lead actors. But even he could probably spot that his Bond wasn’t commanding the screen in quite the right way. Dalton is all present and correct but the charisma just isn’t quite there. He’s subdued, studied. His performance feels rehearsed. Credit to Dalton for going off and reading all the novels, and the seizing on the “tarnished man” idea for his portrayal… Or does he really deserve praise for that? Isn’t that the classic wrong-headed move of the serious actor who doesn’t understand that he’s playing a star part? Treating Bond as role from which to wring nuance and deep inner motivation from is destined for disaster. Or at best a distinct lack of fun on the viewer’s part. Brosnan would attempt to go there during his outings too, although his thesp-centricities were more lip service to the idea than carrying it through tonally (the screams of all his victims waking him up and a shoulder injury he carries around for an entire movie); this urge to make Bond human.
Advocates of Dalton’s brief tenure will say he was ahead of his time, that the movie-going public would finally embrace this mould of the troubled, moodier and grittier spy with the Daniel Craig reboot. This is what the series deserved all along; a studied, serious take that gets back to the Fleming roots. But the Craig movies (and I’d argue only the first really makes a success of this) are a direct reaction to the allure of Jason Bourne, not some noble attempt to depict the character accurately. And Craig, a beefed-up bruiser, is all massive man-tits and little in the way of natural debonair. By the time of his third mission boredom with the stony-faced approach is starting to creep in, but Craig is ill-equipped for quips, and the parts that try– increasingly desperately – to milk an emotional pint or two serve only to highlight how shallow and at odds with such manoeuvres the superspy’s world is.
Dalton began in reverse to Craig, effectively essaying a watered-down Roger Moore script with all the pitfalls that suggests. When Moore delivers a crap joke it invariably works because it’s Moore who is delivering it. Dalton has no such luck, and there are times he’s left high and dry in The Living Daylights. Licence to Kill is more directly the progenitor of the Craig Bond (and more specifically the out for revenge later pose of Casino Royale/Quantum of Solace ruthless bastard), which is a better fit for the actor (at least at that time), if a less successful film as a result (as much of the blame for this rests with Glen, and the producers’ then inability to hone a Bond film stylistically to meet the needs of the script).
The Living Daylights is the closer to the “real” world of For Your Eyes Only and, credit where its due, Dalton at least has a footing in that milieu in a way he simply wouldn’t in the majority of the Moore era. The scale and the stunts have been toned down accordingly (not necessarily in terms of technical prowess, but rather as events that have the veneer of the possible). It’s not a movie – for the most part – where memories of copious back projection linger, and hamper the effectiveness a sequence. The villains are more localised; still caricatures, but not bent on global domination. The détente theme (and Gogol) is picked up from the previous era, and the attempts to recognise the changing political landscape of the times illustrate a growing problem for the series. From now on, it will be constantly looking over its shoulder, worried about whether it is still relevant, out of touch, when this was never the primary concern anyway. In some respects, The Living Daylights is all over the place, attempting to address the East-West thaw and dropping in on Afghanistan but discussing such matters in a crude, comic book fashion. The tone is frequently misjudged, because the producers don’t really have a clear idea what it is they’re aiming for.
We see that with the new, improved and chaste(r) Bond. A response to AIDS, this lack of decadence was an out-of-character sign of the times. Probably fortunate, as Dalton can’t pull off the suave, bed-hopping antics. But the only way to succeed with this monogamy, as with the politicking, is to lay the groundwork, not blithely hope an affecting relationship will be magicked into existence. They (might) have been aiming for something approximating Rigg but there’s no sparkle here and, without the gallivanting distractions we usually get, the whole thing fizzles. It’s weird to see ’80s Bond smoking too. Dalton may well have been a chuffer at the time but it comes across as forced, as if the political correctness in certain areas demands a counter-rebuke in others.
The Living Daylights isn’t a bad movie, but it shows a series playing catch-up, struggling to find a place in the mid-80s movie world having been, if not quite on comfortable auto-pilot for the best part of a decade, under no illusions that it didn’t have to try very hard when its aging star ensured a guaranteed audience base would turn up. It knows it has to change, but fundamentally lacks the daring to go for broke. To an extent the series has had one eye on the zeitgeist since at least the early ’70s (Live and Let Die). Casino Royale is a success despite the burdensome mishmash of jackdaw instincts that brought it into being; faddish reboots (Daylights, curiously, was conceived similarly in its initial stages) and gritty action sequences. A willingness to be original (within its own limits) absented itself following the experimental phase of the late ’60s and early ’70s and the changes that went on behind the scenes. After that, there were tonal shifts (farce, for example) but little in the way of challenging ones.
Brosnan’s era is roundly and regularly demolished these days. As much of that is too do with how smoothly unchallenging Brosnan is in the role (I like the actor, and initially enjoyed his Bond, but he’d run out of routines two movies in; he had all that time to build up to getting the part, yet was left looking for something interesting to do with it when he got there) as it is the slick formula construction of his era. Licence to Kill and Goldeneye both mess with the plan a little, but they probably should have switched the areas that didn’t. With a lacklustre director, Licence to Kill flounders where it most needs a short in the arm; it should be short, sharp and punchy. Goldeneye, for this so staid of series, is stylistically refreshing and arresting, complete with a score that thumbs its nose at tradition; when Martin Campbell returned the results would be similarly successful. But in between there’s an unwillingness, or an inability, to go with anything distinct or unusual. Which is why you end up with an anniversary movie like Skyfall, perhaps visually the most interesting of the series but with a screenplay that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Brosnan era (indeed, it suffers from main of the excess and errors of Die Another Day, right down to its hero’s journey).
Which brings me back to The Living Daylights. It’s premised deriving from the Fleming short story of the same name, this is an uncertain Bond movie, one that is neither fish nor fowl. When it works, it works very well but Daylights’ powder keg rarely ignites, and there’s no tension in watching the fuse burn. I give John Glen stick because he’s such a pedestrian director, the very definition of the safe, loyal, pair of hands; the chap the producers knew would not rock the boat, would do as he was told and never dare to suggest anything original or disruptive to, you know, make the series actually distinguish itself (it’s ever ironic that someone like Sam Mendes – who I’d call a wannabe auteur rather than the real thing but still, he has a sensibility – comes in and makes the most successful movie in the series; a slap in the face to producer power, even). Yet Daylights might be his best work during his decade-long residence at the reins of the series. He can’t rely on flabby asides during action sequences because Dalton can’t do what Moore can do. As a result, a couple of the set pieces rank up there with the best of the series to that date.
The use of Gibraltar for the war-gaming opening seems like a curiously prescient choice given adverse publicity Death on the Rock brought to the island the following year. It sets a pace the rest of the movie can’t quite live up to; a one-on-one close quarters sequence rather than the overblown carnage we’re used to. But it also establishes that Daylights will keep fudging its follow through, resorting to comic asides that seem borderline apologetic now Moore isn’t there to commandeer them (Craig’s comic chops are similarly absent from Skyfall). John Barry’s use of synths complements the action beats, and feels fresh. Okay, there’s rock ape, and the Brit characters are a bit stolid, but things only begin to look really awkward when Dalton lands on a yacht occupied by a sexy lady in a bikini. Dalton doesn’t look like he’s up for a good time. He’s no lothario.
Bond: I’ll join you in an hour.
Sexy lady in bikini: Won’t you join me?
Bond: Better make that two.
This is uneasiness extends into the titles. Courtesy of the now running-on-empty Maurice Binder, they are unwelcomely juxtaposed with a really rather good but underrated A-Ha title song. As with Duran Duran, the contemporary boy-band flirtation comes unstuck, as the surroundings reflect none of their youth and energy. No wonder Barry and the pop combo butted heads. This is most transparent in the body of the movie, where the composer repeatedly references The Pretenders secondary theme in what can only be viewed as an overt snub.
After this we’re off to Bratislava where Thomas Wheately essays the blandest of tight-arsed British agents (Saunders), who kicks off by reprimanding 007 in the most wooden of ways (is this to give Dalton some contrasting edge? It doesn’t really fly, it just makes the movie seem even more hopelessly out of touch). Bond won’t shoot a girl (“You missed, deliberately!”), and naturally he falls for her. We also encounter the first of the movie’s series of visits to public urinals. There are surely better ways to suggest earthy realism.
Particularly when the object of endeavours, the removal of “defector” Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé, who is good value throughout; at least the tepid villains in this film are played by actors who know how to have a bit of fun), happens to involve sending him along a “pipeline” to the West. Glen even seems keen to point out how silly this is, showing pipes that veer at alarming right angles; they couldn’t possibly transport Koskov. On the plus side there’s also Julie T Wallace, fresh from The Life and Loves of a She-Devil as Bond’s Czech contact. Hers is the kind of era-spanning cameo, the butch Eastern European femme whom Bond has no interest in, that would have been comfortable in any iteration of the series.
This Bond alternates very PG-passion for his job (“Stuff my orders. I only kill professionals”) with genuine head-in-hands, groan-inducing dialogue that even riffs on the title (“Whoever she was, it must have scared the living daylights out of her” he quips after he shoots the gun from Kara’s hands). There’s little to say about Maryam d’Abo as Kara. She’s utterly inconsequential. Winsome, pretty, and forgettable. Bond may be a one-woman man here, but his woman is devoid of independence, characterised by whichever man she is devoted to at whichever point. D’Abo gives good reaction expressions during action scenes, but the attempts at establishing passion between her fragile beauty and Bond’s glaring stoicism are doomed to failure.
The inability of the series to divest itself of the old continues into the introduction of the regulars (this problem is alive and well with Craig’s incarnation, dragging the behemoth that is Oscar Winner Dame Judi Dench into the reboot purely because she is Oscar Winner Dame Judi Dench, and consequently manufacturing inappropriate interludes to trade on her Oscar Winning Judi Dench status). Q, half dead and continuing to decompose over the next decade, makes a really bad granddad pun (“Something we’re making for the Americans – it’s called a ghetto blaster”) He does have a very cool people-eating sofa, though.
It’s always fun to see the Aston Martin brought back into service, except maybe in Skyfall where the gags go down like a lead balloon (blame the writers and natural un-funny man Craig for that). The action here works well, although the same problem as earlier exists throughout the sequence; it’s impossible to avoid thinking how much better Moore would be delivering lines about salt corrosion, safety glass and “optional extras” (very ’80s). Still, Dalton can’t spoil the splendid sight gag of a hut driving across a frozen lake; it’s more a problem that it’s in the wrong movie. This should have been in a late ’70s Moore not a mid-80s Dalton. The cello-toboggan chase is also the kind of bit built for a less austere framework than this; Dalton’s “We’ve nothing to declare” fizzles.
John Terry, best known now as Jack’s ghostly dad in Lost, might be the most non-descript of the seven Feliz Leiters up to that point. Which is saying something, as he’s persistently been a character the writers have given short shrift to, except maybe in his original Jack Lord incarnation.
The new Moneypenny is a extraordinarily average attempt to reheat the simmering designs of Lois Maxwell on Connery and Moore. Caroline Bliss isn’t to blame, it’s the slavishness to tradition. One thing Bond has rarely understood is that with a ready audience there’s a myriad of potential different directions if only the producers weren’t so damned faint-hearted. I mean, is there any reason why a Bond shouldn’t embrace the kind of intrigue more associated with John Le Carré?
As such, the pretend-defection plot device would have worked better if it had been less obvious. It has all the hallmarks of writers who don’t know how to treat a good twist because they’re only used to traversing from A to B, in order get to the next set piece. Why wouldn’t Koskov consider the possibility that everyone else would find something a little suspect about a talented cellist attempting to assassinate him? Wouldn’t it be common sense to use someone a little less conspicuous? It’s an element that might be used for suspense and intrigue, but Glen is no craftsman and the Michael G. Wilson/Richard Maibaum screenwriting duo, who handled all the Bonds of that decade, churns out consistently unvarnished, personality-free material.
For proof, look no further than the Bond villains of the decade. How many are memorable? Maybe Christopher Walken in A View to a Kill, but that’s in spite of the lousy characterisation. I’ve mentioned Krabbé’s Koskov, who makes an impact in an appealingly weasely way. But he isn’t really a star attraction villain, more of a supporting wheeler-dealer. He’s no match for Bond in ruthless scheming. As such, it’s fitting that he elicits one of the movie’s better lines, reliably delivered by Walter Gotell in his last appearance as Gogol (“Put him on the next plane to Moscow – in the diplomatic bag”).
Elsewhere Andreas Wisiniewski warms up for the following year’s Die Hard (a whole different class of action, one that really rubs the Bond series’ nose in how antiquated it has become in basic filmmaking terms) as Necros, the picture’s heavy. A hit man who scoots from country to country listening to a Walkman (because this is 1987) as he fulfils his missions, but only seems to ever play The Pretenders’ Where Has Everybody Gone (because it’s the tie-in song, and because Barry hates A-Ha). Wisiniewski has presence, and suitably silly Bond henchman surname, but he isn’t iconically memorable the way Odd Job or Mr Kidd and Mr Wint are. It’s that kind of Bond movie, where everyone just sort-of blends in with the inter-continental wallpaper rather than making a mark.
So there’s John Rhys-Davies, brought to moviegoers attention at the start of the decade as Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark. General Leonid Pushkin is introduced at the star as Gogol’s replacement, but “sick like Stalin” and who “hates our new policy of détente” (to be honest, even the earlier Moore movies seem more topical, so piecemeal is the political context here). This has potential as a plot thread, with Bond having Pushkin’s back instinctively (“He’s tough and resourceful, but I can’t believe he’s psychotic”), and it leads to possibly the picture’s strongest scene. Reluctant assassin 007 arrives to execute Pushkin (“Get down on your knees”) but the conversation that ensues isn’t one of archenemies or the revealing of a deranged maniac. It elicits carefully coded language that leads Pushkin’s faked death.
Bond: As long as you’re alive, we’ll never know what he’s up to.
Pushkin: Then I must die.
Dalton and Rhys-Davies make a good fit, although the latter is a bit too instantly cuddly to suggest the possibility of questionable motives. Pushkin is only a step towards the main baddie, and so much time has been spent setting up half-villains (Koskov) and non-really villains (Pushkin) that Joe Don Baker’s Brad Whitaker is unable to really make his mark. Baker’s a fine actor, and his Jack Wade in the first two Brosnan movies is the kind of relishable supporting turn (“Jimbo”, indeed) that would have made Felix Leiter a great character if he’d been envisage that way rather than as a name check. But Whitaker has about two scenes. One might view his ex-military corporatised mercenary operation as prescient of Black Water and the like, if it actually had any muscle or thought behind it.
Whitaker is set up as a so-so baddie, expelled from West Point and with only delusions of being a great war monger to inform of us of his nature. There’s a nice little speech during his first scene where he corrects the suggestion that the military leaders are butchers (“Surgeons – they cut away society’s dead flesh”), but ultimately his penchant for self-styled pictures and waxworks dressed in previous legends’ regalia and messing about with dioramas undermines his effectiveness as an adversary. He seems like an afterthought, and his confrontation with Bond is more of a postscript than something to build towards (I’d be surprised if many in the audience thought there was anything left to come after the aeroplane stunt). Worse, it comes across as a weak distillation of Man with the Golden Gun’s hall of mirrors, with a final quip even Moore couldn’t have pulled off (“He met his Waterloo”).
Action-wise, it’s ironic that the best fight doesn’t even feature Bond. It’s illustrative of where the picture is going wrong throughout, in fact, under-emphasising its key ingredients (lead character, villains, action) to make for something anti-climactic as a whole. Bill Weston, who had been performing stunts for the series since the Connery era, plays a butler embroiled in a particularly bruising altercation with Necros at a country retreat. It has the feel of no-holds barred desperation that Dalton himself could have done with if he was to sell his more “legitimate” 007. Later, there’s a rooftop chase in Tangiers, another indication that this movie is full of good ideas, but lacks the guiding force to use them wisely (The Bourne Ultimatum and Inception would feature the location much more effectively twenty years later).
Kara: Where are you going?
Bond: To defuse a bomb.
The plane sequence is a strong one, as Bond attempts to deactivate the bomb he planted on a plane full of opium (ultimately the drug dealing aspect has as little “substance” as it did in Live and Let Die) and it includes a highly unlikely (but a rather good model shot) moment where Bond blows up a bridge to help the Mujahedeen. Well done! Striking victory for the Afghans against the Russian menace! The jeep’s exit from the plane is a great idea, but as with most of Glen’s tenure, the camerawork and editing fail to make the most of it. There is also a fair share of ropey lines (“I just hope we can make Pakistan!”) and a few classically Bondian ones (“I know a great restaurant in Karachi. We can just make dinner”).
The Mujahedeen as Bond’s friends and allies now seems either charmingly quaint or ridiculously naive, depending on your mood of the moment. Rambo III adopted a similar “enemies of our enemies” approach the following year, as the big villain of the era, the Soviet Union, still just about struggled to represent a nice cosy force to be reckoned with. One might hopefully suggest The Living Daylights has an entirely respectful attitude towards the Afghan people, except that it doesn’t. It makes the implication that any good leader of a Middle Eastern country requires an Oxbridge education, as embodied by Art Malik’s charismatic (and quite good fun, up to a point) Kamran Shah.
Malik would strike further blows against anti-stereotyping as a rent-an-Arab in years to come, most notably in James Cameron’s wantonly racist True Lies (it’s okay, Cameron’s now all about ecology and spirituality, via mass-devastation). There’s a prison scene amidst this, with more strong Barry music (at least, it stands out amid a generally indifferent score) and a rather inept commentary on attitudes to women (“Don’t worry. They’ll save you for the harem” Kara is told; because all Arabs have harems, obviously). But then the Bond girl shows these foreign devils a thing or two about bravery, riding off on a horse to rescue James. In response to which Shah sighs “Women” and gallops after her with his men. It’s quite toe-curling.
Shah is a drug dealer, but a nice drug dealer because he sells to the Russians (“I couldn’t care less if the Russians die from his arms or his opium”). Maibaum and Wilson both pull their punches and make their Afghanis incredibly clichéd, no mean feat of ineptness. In the Moore era, stereotyping looks self-conscious even if it isn’t. Here it looks plain ignorant. Worst of all is the arrival of Shah and the Snow Leopard Brotherhood following a performance by Kara. It’s just awful (not the performance). What do Glen and company think this is? Blazing Saddles? On the positive side, this isn’t as awful as Thatch and Dennis appearing at the end of For Your Eyes Only, but it’s a close-run thing.
When Bond tries too hard to make a statement or promote an angle with its Bond girls, or extract an emotional heartbeat, it’s usually in danger of coming a cropper. As adored as it is, I never fully bought into the Bond-Vesper relationship in Casino Royale. If the unlikely success of the Lazenby-Rigg combo is the yardstick against which all “deep” Bond movie relationships must be judged, the intentionally celibate approach of The Living Daylights is an abject failure. The best stint of Bond girls might well be the ’70s, not because the characters are progressive but they are generally imbued with personality. Increasingly the series, by being aware of the importance of the leading lady, and second-guessing inevitable charges of sexism that have (rightly) dogged the history of Bond, has made its characters ineffectual and, worse, no fun whatsoever.
This is the case with Kara, who might well be the blandest Bond girl of them all. Worse, in an era where Bond being accused of a misogynist sexist dinosaur is just around the corner, she’s the most regressive, undynamic need-a-man-to-be-fulfilled character imaginable. Is this the new, more mature 007? Really? Bond is either sappy in response (it undercuts him that she go back for her cello, since there needs to be some kind of spark between them to explain why he’d do something so daft) or his devotedness spirals into charmlessness (“Why didn’t you learn the violin?” doesn’t have the delivery of a man who is instantly smitten). Kara has a nominally crucial role in the narrative (“The girl’s your only chance of getting Koskov”), and the scene in which she spikes Bond’s drink is an untypical instance of the two interacting in a manner that advances plot and character (“I was the man who was sent to kill you”). Even then, Bond’s sincerity grates and seems. It’s rather embarrassing to see Bond, Dalton’s Bond, taking Kara on a roller coaster and winning her a toy elephant. The unlikely romance angle wouldn’t improve instantly; Brosnan’s Bond’s relationship with Natalia in Goldeneye is similarly languid and unproved although, for all their faults, he actually has a couple of well-conceived relationships in his mid-period movies.
The Living Daylights is an uncertain transition movie. John Glen directs serviceably, but it has been pre-fitted with too many Moore elements that are ill suited to Dalton. Pretty much any given quip is Swiss-cheesed into tumbleweed territory by the actor (“We have an old saying, Georgi, and you’re full of it”), while the areas that try to do something different (the relationship) fail due to lack of chemistry between the leads and an absence of verve in the writing. It’s as well they decided not to equip Bond with full ribald abandon, as Dalton has a difficult enough time with anything requiring a light touch. As such, it isn’t so surprising the public weren’t noticeably enthused, even if the die-hards welcomed this new more respectful take. A View to a Kill had been greeted less unequivocally than previous Moore outings, and Dalton didn’t appear to bring audiences in droves back to the cinema.
While it is quoted as being one of the most successful in the series up to that point globally (I take that with a pinch of salt, as it wouldn’t account for inflation), The Living Daylights didn’t gain traction in the US. The States has never been the be all and end of all of the franchise, but it’s a crucial market (just look at the wooing of Connery back for Diamonds are Forever with its girl and setting). Bond was out of its Moore comfort zone and struggling to make an impact. The producers weren’t going to admit they might have made a mistake, even when Licence to Kill did a complete belly-up in the States two years later. They were to be commended for trying something different with that movie, but lacked the confidence to really go all out. The result was a hard-edged Bond movie without enough bite. Dalton was all set for a third outing in 1991 until the legal dispute between UA/MGM and Eon nixed it, and set to return in Goldeneye until he reconsidered. It seems strange in retrospect that they were going for business-as-usual, and the eventual return was seen as a much-needed shot in the arm (the 1991 edition would no doubt have been more of the same with Glen helming). Licence to Kill is the superior of the two Dalton outings, but it lacks the courage of its convictions. It falls between too many stools in too many areas. The stiffness of its leading man means it lacks the charm of previous incarnations, while the undemanding scripting and direction ensures it is unable to break the mould where it counts.