Dalton, Dalton, Dalton. Probably the most divisive Bond to date (aside from the madness that occurred when Daniel Craig was first announced) Dalton only got two tries at Bond before legal issues shut his tenure down. The actor, who got the part after Pierce Brosnan had to turn it down due to some contract issues with Remmington Steele, definitely had a different take on the character from Moore and Xander and I come down on different sides of it.
What’s your take on Dalton? Too serious? Best Bond yet? His films are definitely unique and up until Craig the most serious in the franchise’s history. Do they work for you or not?
I’ve been rewatching the Bond movies ahead of writing these articles, and much as I love them, the Roger Moore era very quickly becomes a serious slog. Thank heavens for Timothy Dalton, the man who made Bond respectable again. The Living Daylights is a taut, exciting thriller with a strong political plot and a compellingly earthy performance from its leading man. Gone are the flickering eyebrows, never-ending quips, slow-moving kung fu and queasy relationships between twenty-year old blondes and a geriatric spy. In its place is Ian Fleming’s cultured killer, a man at once master of his craft and unashamedly indulgent of the finer things in life.
In some respects, the Living Daylights pre-titles sequence is faintly ridiculous, involving a training mission (with paintballs, a la GoldenEye 007 video game!) on the Rock of Gibraltar and Bond getting startled by a barbary macaque monkey. If this were a Moore movie, comedy sound effects would be running rampant, there’d be at least one ‘monkey business’ pun, and J.W. Pepper would be running around shouting racist obscenities about the Spanish. With Dalton at the wheel, though, the sequence opens with a cool skydive (no idea why M thought it would be a good idea to set up an office in the back of a plane though), sends an agent to his death and ends with Bond clinging to the roof of a speeding jeep, before parachuting away as it crashes over the side of a cliff. It isn’t once played for laughs, at least until Bond lands on the private yacht of a bikini-clad young woman bemoaning the lack of real men in her life (which is genuinely pretty funny), and I can’t tell you what a relief that is.
Dalton isn’t as nuanced here as he is in Licence To Kill, but still gives a startlingly assured debut performance. He’s often criticised for lacking humour, but it’s more a case of his wit being dry (especially compared to Moore) than non-existent. His grizzled delivery makes his best one-liners that little bit funnier by not playing for the laugh, such as when he justifies the destruction of a police car he’s just lasered apart as ‘salt corrosion’ to his baffled passenger, fugitive cellist Kara Milovy. During the same chase scene, he comes across a roadblock and activates crosshairs on his Aston Martin windscreen HUD. ‘What is this?’ Kara asks. ‘I’ve had a few optional extras installed,’ Dalton growls, turning the line into one of the most badass ever uttered as he clears the road ahead with a pair of missiles.
Plot-wise, the movie takes the Fleming short story of the same title and builds a world-spanning political thriller out of it. In the story, Bond is assigned to eliminate a KGB sniper from killing a British agent as he attempts to flee East Berlin. The sniper turns out to be a beautiful cellist from a local orchestra, and Bond spares her life by shooting the rifle out of her hands, stopping her from killing the British agent but leaving her alive for her KGB overlords to deal with. Although moved to Vienna and now involving a defecting Soviet general (Koskov), the movie plays this story out almost beat for beat following the title song, but expands it into a tale of double-crossing, arms dealing and political manipulation. Living Daylights is the first Bond since From Russia to exploit the political factions of its time (Octopussy came the closest of the Moore era, but any such elements were left simmering quietly in the background) and the global instability created by a Soviet regime gradually starting to collapse on itself. Bond teaming up with the Mujahideen is a little uncomfortable now that we have seen the catastrophic effects of Western intervention in the struggle for Afghanistan, but it’s a reflection of the movie’s scope and confidently gritty tone that the same series which had Roger Moore driving around Paris in half a car only one movie ago is now weaving its plot around such a thorny topic without seeming trite.
Though played less broadly, the series’ traditional elements are all in play: Bond is back in a tricked-out Aston Martin and gets an all-purpose keyring (teargas, skeleton key, explosive charge, you name it, it’s there) in lieu of an arsenal of exotic gadgets, there’s a wide variety of locations (one moment sledging down a mountain in a cello case, the next leading a charge across the Afghan desert) and some sensational stuntwork, particularly the fight between Bond and henchman Necros while both are hanging from a cargo net dangling from the back of an aircraft in mid-flight. The set-piece where Necros attacks the MI6 safehouse is another winner, featuring a surprisingly brutal fight scene and explosive milk bottles to add that a twist of Bondian weirdness, but played for dramatic effect to prevent the scene from seeming over-the-top. The Living Daylights nails the tone of a perfect modern Bond: up to date and reflecting the politics of the time, with just enough fantasy to be fun but all delivered with the straight face of a serious action thriller. The Fleming influence is clear and respectful, without being so beholden as to seem old-fashioned.
There are a couple of flaws: considering Kara is the only Bond girl, a reaction to both the AIDS problem at the time and dialling back Roger Moore’s insalubrious habit of getting with at least three women per movie, she’s too naive to feel worthy ofBond‘s attention despite being at the centre of the plot. (I’m also not exactly sure what she thought she’d be getting out of pretending to be a KGB sniper, or how Koskov convinced her she had a purpose in his plan other than getting shot). Maryam d’Abo is very sweet in the role, and while a certain wide-eyed innocence is necessary in the character, she’s very passive and lacks anything in the way of personality. Easy choice between her and Mary Goodnight, but she’s still not in the top tier of Bond girls. The villains are similarly underdeveloped: Jeroen Krabbé plays Koskov with too much relish considering the dangerousness of the plots he’s involved with, while Joe Don Baker’s war-obsessed arms dealer, Brad Whittaker, has a lot of potential as a main villain but isn’t given any room to grow. Necros, despite being involved in some of the movie’s best action, is as boilerplate as Bond henchmen get, right down to being tall, blond and carrying a soupy foreign accent.
Regardless, The Living Daylights is a stunning return to form for the series, driven by a formidable performance from Timothy Dalton in the lead role. It may have taken until the Pierce Brosnan era for the series to become the behemoth it once was, but had Dalton not been there to prove the character still deserved to be taken seriously, chances are we would today be living in a world without Bond – a scary notion indeed. Anyone who enjoys Daniel Craig’s performances owe it to themselves to check out Dalton’s run, as while many non-fans decry his work as too violent and dark, Dalton’s performance is the most faithful to the source material yet seen and his movies much better balanced than the likes of Quantum Of Solace, which turned Bond into a cold-eyed psychopath. Tomorrow, we’ll look at how to properly handle a Bond on a roaring rampage of revenge in the series’ most powerful movie since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
So far Xander and I have had our differences here and there, but the overall feeling on films has been close enough. I may enjoy some aspects of a film more than him here or there, but out right disagreement about a movie hasn’t really happened. I think this will be the one that divides us. I promised Xander that I’d re-watch the Dalton movies to see if he stuck better with me this time around. I hadn’t seen them in a bit and figured my attitude may have changed since the last screening. Dalton is a much more serious Bond and I figured my taste may have changed in the past couple of years since I watched them last. Turns out they haven’t really, and so I’m still not that big a fan of Dalton as Bond. He’s a great actor, no doubt, but hisBond doesn’t gel with me at all. He’s all edge and no charm and it makes for a Bond I find almost unpleasant. His arrogance isn’t endearing like Connery’s, but condescending. His quips aren’t fun like Moores, but harsh (though he does pull a few off). He doesn’t move with the effortlessness of Brosnan and compared to Craig he feels pretty one dimensional (that dimension being anger). It also annoys the hell out of me how flippantly he delivers “Bond. James Bond” the first time. Cinematic moments like that deserve some damn gravitas.
That isn’t to say I hate Dalton, he’s just probably my least favorite of the Bonds. I do respect him for what he was trying to do, and believe it was absolutely necessary to do it or the franchise would have died out and ground to a complete halt. The Living Daylights is my favorite of the two Dalton films because it still feels like it’s a Bond movie whereas Licence to Kill just goes way too dark to for its own good. As an introduction to Dalton’s new, more serious Bond it does actually do a better job than I remembered of easing the viewer into the character. While scenes like Bond‘s interrogation of General Leonid Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) are some of the darkest the series has ever seen, with Bond forcefully ripping the clothes of a woman and Dalton violently threatening Pushking, there’s also the goofier scenes like sledding in Kara Milovy’s (Maryam d’Abo) cello case or the decidedly humorous and well done chase sequence in Bond‘s gadget laden Aston Martin V8 Vantage Volante. These scene definitely hearken back to Roger Moore, which at least gave the film a somewhat familiar feel at for audience at the time. In contrast with Dalton’s tougher Bond though they feel awfully out of place sometimes.
One of the other consequences of this more serious, book-based Bond was that Bond only has one lady friend (not counting the woman on the boat in the beginning) throughout the entirety of the film. That’s a big shift from all the previous Bonds(Lazenby’s mountain top full of women Bond would have gone mad), but did reflect the changing attitude towards sex in the 80s as the AIDS epidemic came into full public consciousness. I’m not sure it was the wisest decision as it put a lot of pressure on Maryan d’Abo to carry the female aspect of the film with a character who was neither strong nor that interesting. Clearly going for a throw back to the likes of Bond women like Tatiana Romanova, d’Abo falls for Bond hard, but is never anything more than some pretty scenery. The connection between d’Abo and Dalton often seems forced, and her pandering to him never has the same charm as it did with Daniela Bianchi’s Romanova. That may be because the times changed and it feels a bit out of place to have this woman stay pat with Bond, but for me the relationship never really gets going. It may also be because Bond is so intently focused on the mission that you never feel he actually cares about Kara Milovy outside of using her. It makes the romantic conclusion of the film all the more forced as Bond shows up to treat her to some drinks.
Two things the more serious tone does improve on are the action and the plot. Bond once again returns to Cold War tensions and actual spy affairs, and the story, as usual, benefits wonderfully from it. It’s one of the most relevant Bonds to the era it was shot in, and even plays incredibly well today thanks to its Afghanistan location later in the film. It does get a bit awkward as Bond aids Afghan rebels to fight the bad guys with the help of a western educated rebel leader, as one could see parallels with Osama Bin Laden, but it’s a fantastic look into how Afghanistan at the time, even if it’s an action movie look. The story is tight, intriguing and loops around itself without getting lost. It also excuses some of the best travel Bond has done in ages, and eschews being a travelogue by taking him to actual places of political intrigue. There’s plenty to like about the plot as a whole and it definitely delivers some very thrilling stuff.
The Living Daylights also marks the return of action set pieces instead of the focus on big stunts we got in A View to a Kill. Also a sign of the progression in the action movie genre throughout the 80s The Living Daylights feels like it’s light years ahead of what Moore was doing. Part of that might be because Bond is light years younger, but it’s also because the action is taken more seriously. Xander already detailed the opening scene, but emphasis should be put on just how truly spectacular it is. There’s a bit of dodgy model work near the end, but Bond hanging on to the top of that truck is incredible. Even more incredible is the fight hanging off the end of an aircraft carriers cargo net as it flies through the air. How the stunt men did anything but hang on for dear life during that sequence boggles my mind. The fact that its sandwiched into one long, tense action sequence makes it all the better.
While I don’t find The Living Daylights as enjoyable as Xander I do know how important it is that it exists. This was a step in the right direction for Bond and one that helped define him going into the 20th century. The movies opening song by A-ha also gets stuck in my head like none other.