We continue our mission to review every James Bond film ever released as we make our way towards the release of Skyfall in October…
Originally Michael G. Wilson conceived The Living Daylights as an origin story, telling the tale of a younger, possibly pre-00 Bond, but Cubby Broccoli had no interest in telling the tale of an inexperienced Bond, believing that an audience would not be interested either. You can see Wilson’s logic, coming off of the hugely popular Moore era, a pre-Bond Bond would avoid any potential Lazenby-esque pitfalls, but you can also see Broccoli’s logic that people expect certain things from Bond and a twenty-something actor just wouldn’t make it in the role, no matter what spin you put on it.
Taking over the role of James Bond from an actor who was well loved in the role is a difficult task. Just ask George Lazenby. If The Living Daylights has a major fault, it’s that it wasn’t written to the specific strengths of the actor in the lead role. It’s to Timothy Dalton’s credit that he makes Bond his own, given that he is working from a script written for Pierce Brosnan (who took the part when Dalton couldn’t, only to be forced out later by his commitments to Remington Steele, allowing Dalton to return).
Dalton’s only real shortcoming is his obvious discomfort when delivering the pun-heavy quips. Brosnan’s style is much closer to the laidback, quip-making Bond that Roger Moore made popular, and Dalton is much more in keeping with the Bond of Ian Fleming’s books. Where Dalton excels is with the colder, darker side of Bond, particularly in the scenes involving the death of fellow agents and Bond’s confrontation of Pushkin (you can see the genesis of Licence To Kill in these scenes). This is Dalton’s real strength in the role and it shows that he took the time to research the character and read the Fleming books to truly get a handle on the role and how it should be played.
It’s clear that the makers are keen to show off their younger, more physical Bond and you have to admire the way Dalton throws himself into the action scenes. The pre-title sequence on the rock of Gibraltar is a stand out scene, both in the film and within the entire series. The fight in the jeep is so stand-out that it was recreated (either deliberately or by accident) by Christopher Nolan in Batman Begins when Batman escapes from the falling train carriage during his fight with Ras Al Ghul (it is virtually shot for shot identical).
Plot wise, this is probably the most low-key film since From Russia With Love. Unlike the older film though, there aren’t enough moments of intrigue to really drive the story on or make it particularly compelling to watch. Expanding on the central set piece of Fleming’s short story from which the title is taken, the plot incorporates defecting KGB agents, arms dealers, diamonds and the threat of a potential war. The plot is actually pretty good and is filled out with some pretty decent set-pieces including the aforementioned pre-credits scene, Koskov’s escape, a car chase, a rooftop chase and a fight on the cargo net hanging out of the back of a plane in mid air.
What really lets the film down is its characters. For one there just aren’t any particularly memorable bad guys in this film. Jeroen Krabbe’s Koskov is a smarmy middle man who is there to set the plot in motion, but offers no real threat when his character is called upon to step up. Joe Don Baker’s Brad Whitaker is the man behind the scenes who does little more than bark orders and talk loudly. The only one with any real menace is Andreas Wisniewski’s Necros, but once you figure out that he is simply a pretty boy redux of Robert Shaw’s Red Grant, he just suffers by comparison. That’s not to say though that any of the actors are bad in these parts, it’s just that the characters have nothing really going for them that is memorable once the film is over.
Then there is Maryam d’Abo’s Kara. Given that she is the only Bond Girl in the film (with the brief exception of the pre-title sequence); it is odd that more wasn’t done when writing the script to make her a stronger and more outstanding character. Apart from a couple of moments of strength she is largely there to be the pretty (and occasionally ditsy) damsel in distress in the style of the Tanya Roberts character in A View To A Kill. However, she plays the part well and there is a sweetness and naivety to her character that is an appealing change from the normal sort of Bond girl, but you just get the feeling that her character has more potential that is never explored.
The Bond family are all here and after 25 years, we are finally given a new (and overdue) Miss Moneypenny in the form of Caroline Bliss. Unfortunately this recasting is something of a non-event as there is none of the spark that was brought to the character by Lois Maxwell and none of the sexual chemistry that Samantha Bond would later bring to the role. Instead, this new Moneypenny is given little more to do than pine after Bond and sigh lustfully when he rejects her offer to come over and listen to her Barry Manilow records. You wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turned out her Moneypenny had a Bond shrine in her flat complete with a life-size Bond dummy made up of clothing and hair she has stolen from him over the years.
Both Robert Brown and Desmond Llewelyn return as M and Q respectively. While both are great in their roles, what they are called to give is pretty much the standard fare that has become the norm, with no call for them to do anything more than give Bond his orders and his gadgets. The film also sees the return of Felix Lieter to the Bond films having not been seen since Live And Let Die. Again John Terry is fine in the role, but largely the character seems to be there as nothing more than an afterthought. Also returning is Walter Gotell as General Gogol, now a diplomat and another link with From Russia With Love…
The direction by John Glen is as reliable as you’d come to expect from what had by then just become the current go-to Bond director. He is every bit the director-for-hire, bringing in a pretty solidly directed film that is to nothing more than the standard you come to expect from a Bond film by that point. It would be unfair to claim that the films pretty much directed themselves by that point, but it is fair to say that these films are very much Cubby Broccoli films and anybody hired as director is largely there to bring Cubby’s vision to life.
A genuine standout highlight of the film is its score, which is fitting as it marks the last time John Barry would score a Bond film and he does at least get to go out on a high note. The use of instrumental versions of The Pretenders songs in the score add for some great musical moments and it’s clear that Barry favoured those songs over the a-ha song chosen as the main title song. It’s also great to see Barry make a cameo in the film as the orchestra conductor at the end. A fitting send-off to a long-standing staple of the series.
What you are left with is a lot of decent performances (most memorably, perhaps, John Rhys-Davies as new KGB chief General Leonid Pushkin), trying to break out from a script that doesn’t really let them shine in their roles. Given that the main problem with the film is its script, it is to its credit that The Living Daylights is a hugely enjoyable Bond film but one that doesn’t know what it wants to be, like a mid-regeneration Doctor Who, but acting as a nice bridge between the Bond we left behind and the Bond that was to come…