Our Word Is Our Bond is back, with Shawn Gordon offering his insights into The Living Daylights (1987) staring Timothy Dalton, Maryam D’Abo and Joe Don Baker.
The fifteenth James Bond adventure for Eon Productions would represent both a new beginning and the end of an era for the long-running franchise. Audiences would have to say goodbye to Roger Moore (who was one of the most popular Bonds) and the tongue-in-cheek comic shtick that he had used to define the series in recent years. Classically trained Welsh actor Timothy Dalton assumed the role after an exhaustive search (that included Sam Neill, Mel Gibson, Christopher Lambert, Sean Bean and future 007 Pierce Brosnan), and brought with him a new direction to the franchise. This Bond would bring back realism and grit to the series.
Assigned to aid in the defection of a KGB general named Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe), Bond comes to suspect that all is not what appears and he is being used as a pawn. Koskov’s would-be “assassin” turns out to be a cellist (Maryam D’Abo) from a Soviet orchestra, who is also Koskov’s girlfriend. Suspecting the whole defection is staged, Bond convinces the girl, Kara, that Koskov sent him to retrieve her and together they head for Austria, outwitting and out-muscling the KGB who are in hot pursuit. Eventually they end up in Afghanistan where they find that Koskov is brokering a drug and arms deal involving rogue American general Brad Whittaker (Joe Don Baker) and embezzled Soviet funds.
After Moore’s self-parody threatened to cause the series to self-destruct, the edgier brooding Dalton Bond was a breath of fresh air. Dalton redefined the role, bringing an intensity to it which embraced Bond’s dark side, which Dalton continued to explore into the next instalment, the equally good Licence To Kill (1989). It probably would have continued to develop in additional films if they had materialized, but Dalton’s tenure ended after a mere two movies. The actor brought a maturity to the role that had been greatly missed during Roger Moore’s self-parody inducing ten years. He also went back to the source material to find his voice as 007, Dalton really fits the Ian Fleming’s physical description of the secret agent. but his only problem is an inability to tell a joke: his humor is deadpan to the point that it appears he doesn’t even know he is kidding. The humor in the role inadvertently comes from the occasional absurdity in observing how seriously Dalton takes some of these antics. Dalton only played the role twice, a loss for sure, as he was an excellent Bond who top-lined in a pair of great vehicles.
Returning to the director’s chair was John Glen, who had started in the series as an editor and progressed to second-unit director before helming all five of the 80s Bond movies for long-time producer Albert R. Broccoli and his step-son Michael G. Wilson. He is not a particularly remarkable director, except in his ability to carry out the transition so effortlessly from the Moore years to Dalton; his films, though, are by all means separate movies each with their own style. Glen was good at action scenes and keeps this picture moving at a swift pace, despite a running time of over two hours.
Once again New York-born screenwriter Richard Maibaum adapted Ian Flemying’s story, which he had done for all-but- three of the previous movies. Maibaum had been kicking around the film industry since his stage play Gold Diggers Of 1937 (1936) had been turned into a film by Busby Berkley starring Dick Powell. Maibaum found his calling in bringing the character of James Bond to the screen, beginning with Dr No (1962).
Always embracing the sexy, action-packed side of the character, Maibaum is in many respects as instrumental to the success of Bond on screen as anybody else. Here, working with Wilson as co-writer, he delivers a first-class polished script. Very much a 1980s movie, this is a genuine action-thriller, made in response to the fact that the James Bond films were losing ground to popular action heroes of the decade such as Indiana Jones and Rambo. The Living Daylights shows a renewed interest in big action set pieces and world politics, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, for example. We also get the “safe-sex” 007 In response to the AIDS crisis that was very much a part of contemporary anxiety. For the first time Bond has only a single love interest in the film, provided you discount the woman on the yacht in the pre-credits sequence.
Dalton is great and carries the entire film, which is good because he gets little help from his support team. D”Abo is one of the most beautiful yet least charismatic Bond girl:, she is so dull that she is nearly ignored even when on screen. The villains are played by solid actors like Krabbe and Baker, but are get to do very little which amounts to much consequence. Other familiar faces like John Rhys-Davies show up to fill screen time, not to play characters.
Another failing is the distinctly 80s title song, performed by Norwegian New Wave pop band A-Ha. The tune is catchy, but extremely dated and forgettable, kind of like the barely remembered band themselves. The theme is co-written by long-time Bond collaborator John Barry, who did not get on with members of the band. Additional songs were provided by Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders to a slightly stronger effect.
The Living Daylights would also be the last Bond movie to be scored by long-time composer John Barry, the last in the series to feature Walter Gotell as KGB General Gogol, and the last to use an Ian Fleming source novel or story until the 2006 series reboot Casino Royale. Most significantly though, this would be the last Bond film set to the backdrop of the Cold War. The Living Daylights marks the first time an actress other than Lois Maxwell played Miss Moneypenny, here replaced by the younger Caroline Bliss. Also, Bond’s famous Aston Martin car makes its first appearance since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).
Ultimately, The Living Daylights may be the most under-appreciated Bond movie of the lot. I love it very much, as do most fans when faced with it. Still, it is rarely mentioned amongst the best of the series, which I would argue that it deserves to be. I have a a substantial interest in 80s action pictures, and for me the Dalton/Bond films find themselves more in tune with the era’s popular films that the the dated, childish Roger Moore adventures. Like George Lazenby, as time progresses Dalton’s contributions to the character are more greatly appreciated.
MoM Rating: 8/10