Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Living Daylights (1987)

Roger Moore left the series after A View To A Kill and as much as some people loved him, it was time for a change.  And what a change!  Timothy Dalton stepped in and made James Bond his own.  He read the novels by Ian Fleming and recreated the spy’s character. The result was a James Bond we have only seen a few times before.  Was the audience of 1987 ready for the gritty and deadly world of espionage presented in The Living Daylights?

British secret service agent, James Bond (Timothy Dalton) finds himself embroiled in a complex scheme when he helps Russian General Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe) defect.  Koskov enjoys freedom for a couple days but is smuggled from England by the mysterious Necros (Andreas Wisniewski).  Bond attempts to find out more about Koskov and encounters Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo), cello player and Koskov’s lover.  Things get really complicated when it seems that Koskov is not back in Russia at all, but is in Moracco!  And that’s just the beginning of this dangerous adventure that will lead Bond from Vienna to Afghanistan.  Joe Don Baker and John Rhys-Davies fill in key roles.

Good Points:
  • Timothy Dalton nails the role in his first outing.
  • Some of the best action scenes in any James Bond film
  • John Barry provides his swan song score – and it’s a doozy.

Bad Points:
  • The script is really uneven.
  • The villains are less then threatening
  • Wow, the opening theme… wow. 

When this movie is hitting it’s high points, it provides some of the best of James Bond. Dalton is excellent in the role. It’s a shame the script is such a mess. A plot that flails around with villains who aren’t very menacing ends up robbing the film of an effective punch. If the movies were feeling a bit stagnant, then this film provides a nice balance of the new and the old. Well worth revisiting if you haven’t seen it in a while.

Scores (out of 5)
Visual– 5
Sound– 5
Acting – 4
Music – 4
Script – 2
Direction – 4
Entertainment – 4
Total: 4

In Depth Review

The 1980s started off with the excellent with For Your Eyes Only.  Roger Moore delivered what can be argued as his best performance in a Bond film. But the films after that just weren’t able to follow up well. Octopussy is a mess of a film. Never Say Never Again feels lackluster in many ways. A View to a Kill is nearly as goofy as Moonraker. Moore himself was feeling long in the tooth and decided to bow out for the next film. The producers had to recast the lead, something they had been dreading ever since the perceived disaster of OnHer Majesty’s Secret Service.

Looking at it now we could have ended up with Pierce Brosnan in 1987. He could have carried on Roger Moore’s legacy.  The Living Daylights could have been a different movie in tone and feel.  But the fates aligned against Pierce and instead Timothy Dalton stepped up the part and grabbed it with both hands.  I think it was needed.  We got hard-edged and visceral.  The ‘80s closed with James Bond as a spy with a license to kill, not to quip.  He was dangerous in every sense of the word.  It was the first time the films were truly close to Ian Fleming’s creation as far as the character of James Bond is concerned.

Visually this is one of the more exciting James Bond films.  A concerted effort was made to bring the real life into the series.  It takes us back to the look from For Your Eyes Only and avoids some of the over the top elements of the two previous films. The sets by Peter Lamont are well done, and inject the film with some solid visuals.  These include the interior of the Hercules, Kamran Shah’s headquarters, and the interiors of the English retreat where Koskov is snatched up.

It is the stunning locations that make the visual work stand out.  The movie opens in Gibraltar, providing a gorgeous backdrop to one of the best pre-credit sequences of the series.  Vienna gets shown off with lots of great scenes especially the key scenes at Prater park. The city also doubles as Bratislava for the scenes where Koskov escapes from the Eastern Block.  Morocco was used to double as Afghanistan for the movies third half and is very effective. Let’s not forget Tangiers where Bond confronts General Pushkin, and the scheming Whitaker.  Each location is used with a balance of the exotic and the intriguing.

A return to reality requires more realistic sound effects.  Typically in James Bond films the actions scenes get the most attention.  The sound work is excellent in the pre-credit sequence, as well as the chase in the Austin Martin, and the final battle between Bond and Necros.  However quieter scenes offer plenty of atmosphere to the film.  The orchestra scenes in Vienna work wonderfully.  And the scenes in Afghanistan balance the action and atmosphere very well.

The big story with the acting was Timothy Dalton as James Bond.  I’ve already mentioned that Dalton’s take on the character was more serious and intense than Moore’s.  He has been called humorless, wooden, and uninteresting.  However, I think most of these are in direct comparison to Roger and Pierce’s work in the part.  Both Roger and Pierce chose to underline the humor of the part.  In their own way, they created a Bond persona that was charming and casual about his job. Dalton took it one step further.  He was a killer, and one who didn’t like killing.  He wasn’t afraid of his job.  He understood it all too well.  However, he knew that no amount of charm could hide the blood on his hands.

This was the James Bond of the novels.  He was a gentleman, but he was a killer.  He knew it and the reader knew it.  In Dalton’s two films, the audience knows it too.  I think that made people uncomfortable.  This is not a James Bond you could hang out with by the pool and strike up a conversation with (Moore and Brosnan were more accessible).  This would be a man you saw sitting in a bar with a vodka martini, intriguing, alluring, but dangerous.  Some have argued that this is all well and good, but it’s not something the movie going public wanted to see.  I don’t agree. I think Dalton does an excellent job.  He’s believable and honest in his portrayal.  We can read so much in his acting because he is doing more than following the script.  He’s invested in the character.  The big difference between Dalton’s first film and the first films of Connery, Lazenby, Moore and Brosnan is that Dalton was James Bond from the moment we see him in The Living Daylights.

Dalton’s new take can either be seen as fresh and exciting or as a selfish attempt to change what was a winning formula.  I find the “selfish” theory amusing.  He would not have been hired if the creators of the series had not wanted to take the character in a new direction. The same thing happened in 2006 with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale.  The series needs to be refreshed or it will grow stale (see the early 70’s films).  Most James Bond fans can go back and watch Dalton’s films and enjoy them.  It’s only the actor-centric fans that can’t let go.

Maryam d’Abo plays Kara Milovy in the film.  I’ve encountered a real mixed reaction to her performance and the character.  Some have called her a bimbo along the lines of Goodnight from Man with the Golden Gun.  Others have called her strong and independent.  Instead I think we have one of the most normal Bond women in all of the movies.  She’s an average girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances.  She’s not a CIA operative, or a diamond smuggler, or a circus pilot.  She just plays a cello in an orchestra, and has fallen in love with a General.  She’s not a bimbo.  She’s just naïve and maybe a little desperate.  Any normal girl put into her situation would probably react in a similar way.  D’Abo plays the part with a mixture of sweetness and naiveté that suits the character.  She also plays the romance scenes with enough believability that we can see her falling for Bond, even if she’s still faithful to Koskov. In response we can understand Bond’s desire to protect her (even if her good looks first catch his eye).  In some ways, this normal character can become lost among the more glamorous and assertive Bond girls. I can’t fault the acting, d’Abo plays it perfectly.

We get a trio of villains in this film.  Let’s start with the henchman, Necros first.  The name alone implies two things.  He is death and he sounds more at home in a less serious Bond film.  But look beyond the name and you have the best henchman of the 80’s.  Andreas Wisniewski was a dancer by trade and his stature, presence and movement make him the perfect physical foil for Bond.  We see him in action early in the film when he snatches Koskov away from M16, and we understand just how deadly he is.  He doesn’t say much but he doesn’t need to.  His motivations are a bit murky, but really he’s just around to be the blunt instrument to get things done.  Wisniewski executes his part perfectly.

Jeroen Krabbe makes an interesting villain in Koskov.  He’s slick, he’s smarmy and he’s only out for himself.  As the part is written, Krabbe plays it to the hilt.  He’s amusing in several early scenes, especially when interacting with Bond.  But once the plot begins twisting and Koskov’s motives are revealed, he is still played for laughs.  I’m not sure how much of this is due to the written character, or the performance.  Koskov is never threatening.  He’s more of sleaze than anything else.  It would have been infinitely more effective if his slickness was an act, and he was a cold cruel person underneath.  Then his fate to shipped home in a diplomatic bag would have been more effective.

And then there’s Whitaker, the egotistical American arms dealer played by Joe Don Baker.  Baker’s got about one speed, but he’s good at it. He’s a blowhard in this part, full of bluster and aggression, but acting more like a big kid than a big threat. He’s more likable than Mitchell, but he’s not a terribly interesting character. Baker got to do more in Goldeneye.

There is a large supporting cast to help balance out the weakness of the villains.  John Rhys-Davies is one of my favorite character actors.  He well cast as General Pushkin.  His first appearances in the film imply menace (with no dialogue).  Once the plot has twisted and we realize he is on Bond’s side, he does a great job, even making a key appearance at the end of the film.  Art Malik is also good as Kamran Shah, leader of the Afghan resistance.  It’s a bit uncomfortable now to be rooting for this likable leader.  In the back of your mind you wonder if this type of man would have become one of the leaders of the Taliban.  As MI6’s man in Vienna, Thomas Wheatley injects the character of Saunders with enough stodgy British-ness to play well off Dalton.

The London crew in The Living Daylights returns with a minor twist.  Robert Brown has played M since Octopussy.  He’s a bit dry and crusty, but he works well as a grumpy foil to 007.  Desmond Llewelyn is still reliable as Q.  It’s Caroline Bliss as Moneypenny that seems strange.  I don’t know what it is about her performance, but she is often forgotten when the London cast in mentioned, and I can see why.  I always forget about her till she shows up in the Dalton films.

John Barry came back for his final scoring job in a James Bond film.  For many people this is one of the best James Bond scores that Barry ever did.  It’s a great mixture of brassy orchestrations, and the introduction of electronic sounds to a Bond score.  It’s the precursor to what David Arnold ended up doing when he took over scoring duties in Tomorrow Never Dies.  In addition to the score, Barry helped write three pop songs for the film.  Ah Ha performs the theme song The Living Daylights.  Musically it’s OK, but the lyrics are stupid and the singer’s voice just doesn’t work for a Bond theme.  Better suited are The Pretenders with Where Has Everybody Gone.  This theme is used for Necros and can be heard when he strangles his victims with his headphones.  But my favorite pop piece is If There Was a Man, also performed by The Pretenders.  This tune is played during the end credits, but it also appears (in orchestral form) during the films more romantic scenes.  Barry combines all three themes really well and also manages to use the classic 007 sound for the rest.  The balance achieved is really one of Barry’s best.  Just be warned that the oh-so-‘80s drum machine is in full force here.

While the movie does tend to get a bit plot-centric at times, that doesn't mean there is a lack of action. The pre-credit sequence is one of the best, with Bond attempting to stop an assassin from escaping from the cliffs of Gibraltar.  The stunt work is impressive and Dalton is quite obviously involving himself as much as possible. The next big set piece is the car chase, with the classic gadget mobile versus an entire Soviet army. You get driving on road, on ice and into the snow with this one. The final set piece is where Bond faces down Necros on the airborne Hercules. Again, the stuntwork really shines, as both men end up hanging on a net as it flaps behind a real plane. A great scene, well filmed and executed.

The major weak point of the whole film is the script.  So much potential is here, but I wonder if things ended up getting diluted in rewrites (especially since they ended up switching actors at least three times).  The script spends so much time setting up and resolving the plot is that characters suffer.  The villains are the ones that get it this time.  Both Koskov and Whitaker are rough sketches and don’t ever present a threat to anyone in particular.  Also suffering are characters like Pushkin and Saunders. A plot point that seems to be completely lost is the one involving Felix Leiter watching Whitaker.  I always forget that Felix is even in this movie.  Overall the script could have used some good streamlining and trimming of characters.  Most people when they are asked about the plot of the movie don’t remember much of it.

On top of it is the fact that some of the humor in the film feels very much targeted toward Moore or Brosnan. Remember Brosnan was hot off of Remington Steele  at this point, and a lot of that show focused on humor. Dalton’s lean mean style is completely at odds with some of the really poor one-liners here. He has some really bad lines during the excellent car chase. We wouldn’t get a script really written for Dalton until Licence to Kill.

John Glen was a veteran of the Bond franchise.  He’d directed the three final Moore films.  The best of these was For Your Eyes Only.  In this film he goes back to that mold.  He directs the action with plenty of excitement.  The scenes in Gibraltar, the car chase in the ice and the final battle aboard the Hercules are excellent.  He also manages to bring tension to key scenes, especially where Bond confronts Pushkin.  Things seem to get a little off track during the battle at the Russian airbase, but for the most part he does a good job with the film.

For entertainment this entry into the James Bond series is above average, but falls a bit short of perfect.  This is mostly because of the faults in the script and the impact they have on the pacing of the movie.  This is one of the longer Bond adventures and it feels like it.  The momentum stalls out when Bond and Kara leave Vienna.  With some script work this could have been the best debut of the original 20 films (Goldeneye has that honor in my book).  As it stands, The Living Daylights is an excellent James Bond film, one that gave us a glimpse of where the series could go with its new star.  It seemed like ‘80s Bond films were going to end on a high note.


  1. As I recall this didn't do particularly well at the box office -- for a Bond film, that is. I'm not sure why. Dalton presaged Craig's darker Bond and the violence is pretty gritty. Maybe audiences weren't quite yet ready for the shift to that from Moore's self-mocking humor. Or maybe it was something else. I also recall folks noting that this Bond cut back on the bedhopping. The freewheeling 70s (which, culturally slopped over into the early 80s) had come to a screeching halt a few years before this film thanks to the nasty STDs floating around; perhaps they didn't like being reminded of this.

    I'm not the biggest of Bond fans, but I end up seeing the films eventually -- the movies are too much a part of the culture to miss, unless you do so intentionally -- and I liked this one more than most.

  2. I believe this one did better in the UK and worldwide than in the US. I think the shift to the more serious Bond was a big issue. I remember word of mouth on this one was mediocre at best and some folks just saying that Dalton was bad. But I think it was more like, Dalton wasn't Moore. ;)

    Yes, the bed hopping was greatly reduced for just that reason. In this flick there are just two ladies, the one at the end of the pre-credit sequence and Kara. It seemed rather un-Bondian, but it was a conscious choice for just the reason you sited, AIDS. It just seemed in bad taste. But when Brosnan came into the role in "Goldeneye" the bed hopping came back.

    But that is another connection between Dalton and Craig. Both of Craig's films have kept the girls down to two - just like Dalton. Never noticed that before. It will be interesting to see if the trend continues in "Skyfall".