The Living Daylights (1987) Review
With Roger Moore finally bowing out, for the first time in nearly fifteen years the producers were looking to cast a new James Bond. When NBC’s “Remington Steele” shenanigans put paid to Pierce Brosnan’s chances at Bond (for the time being, at least), it was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man. That man was Timothy Dalton, whose life story could easily have been called ‘The Man Who Would Be Bond’.
Dalton’s flirtations with the role began back in the late sixties when he was actually screen-tested by Albert R. Broccoli for “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. He turned down the role feeling he was too young, the same reason he gave when he turned down “Diamonds Are Forever” two years later. When it looked uncertain whether Roger Moore would return for “For Your Eyes Only”, Dalton turned it down again but through the Eighties he shadowed Moore, having to turn down both “Octopussy” and “A View To A Kill” due to other commitments. This would have been the case for “The Living Daylights” too were it not for NBC’s opportunistic meddling. Their ‘will they/ won’t they’ posturing over releasing Brosnan from his contract delayed production enough that when the role suddenly became available again, Dalton could finally accept.
“The Living Daylights” feels very much like the transitional film it is. The script, by series veterans Richard Maibaum and Michael G Wilson is carefully generic in its tone, a universal template to fit any Bond actor. The pre-credits sequence of a training exercise on the Rock of Gibraltar is a no-nonsense introduction to the new Bond with one key message: relax – it’s business as usual.
Bond is assigned to facilitate the defection of high-ranking KGB General Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) from Czechoslovakia but when Koskov is apparently snatched back by the Soviets less than a day later, Bond is determined to find out what is going on. His investigations lead him to Koskov’s lover Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo) and through her he discovers a far reaching plot involving arms dealing and assassination.
Following the success of “A View To A Kill”, another hot pop group were recruited to perform the theme song, this time Norwegian super group a-Ha. Unfortunately, long time Bond composer John Barry had as unhappy a time working with the Scandinavian trio as he had working with Duran Duran and he seems to have been much happier with the two additional songs he composed with The Pretenders as he bases much of his excellent score – his last ever Bond score – on those two melodies, largely neglecting the title song. A-Ha’s entry to the Bond catalogue is actually pretty good but Maurice Binder’s opening credits which accompany it are bafflingly water-based, completely disconnecting them from the story and locations of the film that follows.
This film completes a trilogy of Bond movies where the action has kicked off with the death of another 00 agent. This time it’s 004 who bites the dust as Koskov’s long game begins by faking the revival of a defunct KGB operation ‘Smiert Spionem’ – ‘death to spies’. It’s a call back to Fleming’s original novels and the opening scenes of the movie are a pretty faithful adaptation of the short story which gives the film its name. From there, Maibaum and Wilson extrapolate the rest of the story based into an original tale. It borrows elements of the background of “Octopussy” – a rogue KGB general embezzling resources to turn a profit on and spins it into an intriguing international game of bluff and double bluff before it ruins it with a muddled third act twist which serves only to shoehorn in another exotic location and undermine the good work done so far.
Koskov and his arms dealing ally Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) are lightweight and ineffective villains but the arms dealing plot keeps the film on track until Whitaker suddenly announces he will ‘tell Amsterdam to ship the diamonds’. These diamonds are then used to buy heroin which will then be sold for profit leaving enough to still by the Soviet weapons? It’s nonsensically convoluted and eventually results in a ridiculously disappointing showdown with Whitaker in his personal war museum, a scene which feels tacked on to the natural end of the story.
Up until that point, “The Living Daylights” is an excellent entry in the series and thanks to the chemistry between Dalton and d’Abo, one of the most romantic Bond films since “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. Director John Glen seems to have shaken of the funk he was in during the making of “A View To A Kill” and brings a renewed energy to proceedings, helped by the screenplays ‘back to basics’ approach to Bond. And by ‘back to basics’, I actually mean ‘away from basics’ because “The Living Daylights” brings back the gadgets in a big way, reversing the trend for having Bond rely not on technology and equipment but his wits and whatever he has to hand. The film boasts one of the Bond movie’s best ever chases as Bond and Kara make their escape from Czechoslovakia. No doubt if this had been a Moore Bond film, he would have been driving one of the Ladas instead of the Aston Martin. There are plenty of throwaway gadget gags too although Q’s demonstration of the ‘ghetto blaster’ may have seemed cute and funny at the time but now it just sounds vaguely racist.
Robert Brown returns as M alongside Desmond Llewellyn as Q to ease Dalton into the role but he’s not the only new face in MI6 HQ. With Lois Maxwell out of the picture, the role of Moneypenny falls to Caroline Bliss, but she’s so drippy and insipid you pine for Maxwell’s sparkly, flirtatious but business-like efficiency. Another notable return to the Bond films is smoking as Bond breaks out the tabs again, puffing his way through several of them throughout the film.
Dalton himself enjoys a great debut, tougher than his predecessor but capable of being just as charming. His Bond works best here, where he plays it darker but the surrounding story is still lighter. As we’d see in his next film, as the writers followed his darker portrayal, the series would lose sight of what it was meant to be. For now, though, he’d made a great impression, elevating the oddly disjointed story to a higher standard through his screen presence and charisma. A great Bond was born; Cubby Broccoli had finally got his man. It’s a pity they’d never be able to give him a truly great Bond movie.