The Living Daylights (1987) – BlogalongaBond #15
Attribute it to the silver anniversary, or call it ‘the Dalton effect’; either way, Bond gets his edge back and packs up the camp.
The Living Daylights
(John Glen, 1987)
Here’s a sobering thought. The Living Daylights is as old now as Dr No was when The Living Daylights was released in 1987. It’s worth bearing that in mind, because that marks Timothy Dalton’s inaugural outing as 007 as the series’ silver jubilee film. Perhaps this explains why, belatedly, we finally got an Eighties Bond movie worthy of its heritage.
Effectively, it’s the film that For Your Eyes Only was meant to be at the beginning of that decade, before the producers bottled in by giving Roger Moore a pay rise. The story about a fake defection recalls From Russia With Love and is probably Bond’s best plotted adventure since that film, with a narrative that withstands scrutiny and has genuine, espionage-related reasons for its globe-trotting. Bond is here a genuine spy, who takes calculated risks and is unafraid to lay low in anticipation of making a breakthrough. It’s often closer to John Le Carre than Ian Fleming.
Somewhat disconcertingly, the film moves from familiar Bond tropes – the opening Gibraltar set-piece, a cello case ski chase – to joining an actual real-world conflict in Afghanistan, with villains who don’t want to rule the world but make a fast buck selling arms and dealing heroin. As bubble bursts go, it’s one hell of a ‘pop.’ The closest Bond ever got to Vietnam was pissing about in neighbouring Thailand during The Man With The Golden Gun.
Here, though, like John Rambo would a year later, Bond is supporting the muhajeddin (and likely future Talibanistas) as if the cartoonish grace notes involving terrified mountain monkeys had taken place in a different era, rather than an hour before. It’s a good job the Afghan warlord Bond meets is an Oxford-educated Anglophile rather than a rabid West-hating fundamentalist, even though that’s only because the producers owed Art Malik for their baffling failure to cast him in Octopussy.
It’s easy to lay the praise at Timothy Dalton’s feet, the most established actor (as opposed to star) to take the role to date. There’s a cold edge to Dalton that Moore never got close to, and occasionally goes beyond even Connery’s no-nonsense Bond. When he seduces Kara on the famous Viennese Ferris Wheel, it’s not because he’s a lecherous womaniser but out of pragmatism: he needs her on-side for duty. And while Dalton never gets to grips with the more blatant quips in the screenplay, he offers a subtler, more brittle wit. Check the moment when Bond reveals he’s switched the champagne bottle in Koskov’s Harrods hamper for a more expensive vintage. As written, it’s a return to Bond’s snobbish gentleman; as played, Bond is having fun at M’s expense.
But consider this: the film is made by more or less exactly the same team who turned out A View To A Kill two years ago, which rather suggests everything that happened in that film was deliberate. So this is as much about changing tastes, and the Bond film’s perennial difficulties with balancing the broad brush strokes of a blockbuster with the bracing clarity of the original Ian Fleming novels. Clearly, the pendulum had swung too far in one direction, and this begins the move back the other way towards Licence To Kill’s altogether darker take on the character.
All of which makes The Living Daylights one of the few Bond movies to hit the centreground, although the way the elements are mixed together is much like Bond’s favoured way of making a vodka martini. Why stir everything together when the film can be shaken? So the transition to something approaching realism is bumpy, especially when it comes to women. The attempt to break cosy conformity by recasting Miss Moneypenny is an abysmal disaster, while Dalton spends much of his performance compensating for the simpering wetness of Maryam D’Abo. It’s as if the film wants to ditch the Carry On innuendo and bimbo Bond girls but hasn’t figured out what kind of woman to replace those stereotypes with. On the other hand, the theoretically ridiculous set-pieces involving exploding milk bottles and sliding door assassinations – which would have been played for laughs during the Moore era – have a startling, surreal edge to them that borders on disquieting.
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