The Living Daylights (1987)
The Living Daylights was the debut of Timothy Dalton as James Bond on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the franchise. It also marked a distinct shift in tone from Roger Moore’s more light-hearted approach, and brought Bond back closer to the core of Ian Fleming’s character. With Dalton came a more dangerous Bond who carried more weight and urgency with him, and it is a portrayal that I very much enjoy. While this first outing was generally well received, I believe Dalton’s two film run with the character was unjustly maligned, and I hope this review and that of the following film will detail why.
After James Bond (Timothy Dalton) helps Russian officer Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) make a daring defection to the West, the intelligence community is shocked when Koskov is abducted from his remote hiding place. Bond leaps into action, following a trail that leads to the gorgeous Kara (Maryam d’Abo), who plays Bond as easily as she plays her Stradivari cello. As they unravel a complex weapons scheme with global implications, linking up with arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) and Russian General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies), James and Kara escape first to Vienna, then to Morocco, finally ending up in a prison in Soviet occupied Afghanistan as they track down the elements in this mystery.
The opening action sequence is very smart and exciting. M sends three Agents to test the security of a military installation on Gibraltar, but are ambushed by an assassin. I’ve always liked the touch by the filmmakers to cast two other actors who resemble previous Bond actors George Lazenby and Roger Moore before revealing Dalton himself. Obviously, with marketing of the film and all, the trick loses its intended impact, but it’s a clever idea to keep an uninitiated audience guessing as these other agents fall by the wayside. Regardless, this sequence sets the tone for this more action packed and daring approach of this new Bond. It’s really a perfect start to a very promising film that does deliver in many satisfying ways.
The opening credits sequence for The Living Daylights is nothing special or distinct. Watery images and silhouettes really don’t have much to do with the title song from Norwegian pop group A-ha. It’s not particularly bad, just very uninspired. While this musical track doesn’t have as much punch as Duran Duran’s had for the previous film, the high pitched vocals and melodic quality are still catchy and appropriately Bond-esque. I like it quite a lot.
Timothy Dalton injects a seriousness into the role of Bond that I find very compelling. He carries himself with sophistication and integrity creating a strong screen presence. He firmly grounds Bond while still giving him charisma, wit, and a subtle depth of emotion. He can be humorous and charming while never betraying the dramatic intent of the portrayal. Dalton’s Bond is one that grasps the seriousness of situations, and acts with due intelligence and action. There’s definitely a gritty vigor he brings into Bond that makes the film instantly more energetic and exciting. It’s a dimensional performance that is thoroughly enjoyable, and creates a James Bond that can smartly weave in and out of the world espionage. Beyond everything else, Dalton makes 007 a character that can be taken seriously, and allow for serious stakes to be highlighted in his films. While there is room for fun, it is ultimately a better film when there’s real tension and risk at hand. I think Dalton did an excellent job stepping into this role bringing realism back into the fold. Timothy Dalton likely did many of his own stunts, and it really shows through, benefitting the quality of the action immensely.
The action of the film is excellent. The chase sequence through the snowy landscape with the Aston Martin showing many of its “optional extras” is very thrilling and fun. Plenty of explosive moments and clever twists and turns make it a memorable highlight of the film. The foot chase across the rooftops of Tangier was very well done, also. All of the action sequences are very fun and inventive using the unique locations, from the snow to the desert, to great effect. The climactic action scene where Bond hangs off the back of a cargo plane, set to explode in a matter of minutes, while battling the Russian mercenary Necros is very tense and exhilarating. Yet, it doesn’t end there as we get further explosions and a dangerous mid-air escape. Then, Bond still has to finish off Whitaker in a great firefight. It’s an immensely satisfying conclusion that does not hold back on the thrills.
Maryam d’Abo is probably not as alluring or sexy as most other Bond girls, but she is definitely a good actress that had a lot to bring to Kara Milovy. She’s very likable and relatable as an innocent and talented young woman deceived by her deceitful boyfriend Koskov. Maryam brings a strong will to the role, but also finds the vulnerability in Kara. Kara and James share some moments of strong emotion that d’Abo conveys remarkably well. She was a very good fit for this initial outing for Dalton as she satisfies on stronger levels than mere sex appeal.
I feel the only downside to the film are the villains. Joe Don Baker is decently charismatic, but never really develops into a serious threat. Opposite a more formidable acting talent in John Rhys-Davies, whose character is implicated as the true villain by Whitaker and Koskov, it’s even harder to perceive Whitaker as someone to contend with. He’s portrayed as a man who doesn’t take anything too seriously, but any hint of arrogance or ego that could have been there, simply is traded off for a character that’s lacking in formidable competence. Thankfully, he’s not a forefront villain. Jeroen Krabbé’s General Koskov does definitely go down the path of arrogance, but it takes quite a while before he becomes intimidating at all. He’s certainly the better quality villain of the two, ultimately, and at least has more of a detestable element to him due to how he eventually treats Kara. Yet, he still could’ve used a lot more work. I feel it’s more the near insurmountable odds that Bond faces which make the film tense and exciting than the villains he faces. They are nothing major to contend with. It’s just the forces they command are what create the danger the film needs.
I really like that the plot features a tangled web of deceit for Bond to unravel. He has to tread cautiously amongst those he encounters before he can determine who he can trust, if anyone at all. He works his way through a deceptive abduction, a faked assassination, opium trade, arms deals, and rebel fighters in the Middle Eastern desert to uncover the depth of this plot, and to stop it dead in its tracks. It’s an excellently crafted story that never falls into a lull. There’s a consistent development and progression of plot while never leaving our main characters of James and Kara in the dust. Their motivations remain clear, and their relationship develops very solidly. Despite James having to lie to her while attempting to determine her role in Koskov’s plan, Kara is able to eventually trust him, and they forge a convincing romantic relationship. Everything is smartly wrapped together in a very satisfying package making for an entertaining ride.
I was very pleased by John Barry’s score for this franchise entry. He gave a little more edge to the traditional Bond theme in a few of the action scenes, and nicely incorporated the melody of the opening title track into the score during the third act. It’s a very tight, very good piece of orchestration that complemented the film’s tone and pace strongly. It was a very fine and respectable final bow for Barry as this was the last James Bond film he worked on.
Ultimately, The Living Daylights is a very good film in this franchise. There is more than enough action to spare while still delivering a very smart and well plotted story. It brings espionage more skillfully back into Bond’s world, and the film is better off for it. The real cog of success was Timothy Dalton who made the character honest and real, again. Between his presence and beautifully deeper voice, you get that sense of dramatic tone from him throughout the film. He simply made the film more exciting and interesting. While there is a more gritty, dark style to this film, it still has plenty of fun moments to smile at that do not betray the tone veteran Bond director John Glen was going for. If the film had strong villains, or simply stronger performances from the villains, I could really give this a very strong endorsement. They just lack that edge of intimidating and formidability to push them over as a major threat on their own. The excitement and engaging narrative is due to the twisting and turning mystery Bond has to weave through, and it’s all done with expert quality and precision. The Living Daylights is definitely a big step up from A View To A Kill, and for those desiring a more traditional Bond film from Dalton, this is definitely the one to check out. I do very highly recommend the film despite any shortcomings it has with the villains. It’s a fun, thrilling ride that will entertain you. Next up, James Bond will return in Licence to Kill.