The good, the bad, and the Bond: Re-evaluating 007 – The Living Daylights
With the spectre of…SPECTRE looming ever closer, we carry on with a weekend of Dalton as we cover his short-lived run as the iconic spy. Here we cover his debut film, 1987’s The Living Daylights.
Niamh Keoghan: The Living Daylights is an interesting footnote in the history of James Bond. Often overlooked in favour of earlier, more iconic fare in the series and overshadowed by the 90s era Brosnan run, Timothy Dalton’s debut as Bond was the final film in the series to feature the Soviet Union before the regime’s collapse in 1991. Whilst License to Kill is technically the final Cold War era Bond (released in 1989), it is 1987’s frantic pan-continental espionage race that truly closes the era of Cold War Bond. It’s the final film to feature the Soviet Union as a still-in-existence political entity.
Where to begin with the positives of this film? It features an excellent script; a rare, true ‘spy’ narrative in the series as opposed to the action set pieces that dominate other films. It features the best and most criminally underrated portrayal of Bond. It has the spectacular stunt work that defines the 1980s Bond films. It features stunning cinematography, incredible on-location set pieces, and offers a fascinating window into the geopolitics and peculiar alliances of Western powers in 1987.
Beginning with a parachute jump onto the rock of Gibraltar, the stunt set pieces of this film never fail to impress. The tightly choreographed chase around the winding trails of the Rock, to a botched assassination on the streets of Bratislava and then to a wonderfully silly plot to smuggle a defecting Soviet General to the West via firing him through an oil pipeline. The scenery in The Living Daylights is stunning, its locations also including Morocco and Vienna portraying both itself and Bratislava.
Dalton is the Bond that Brosnan could have been: A dark, but not overly brooding interpretation of an iconic killer works well with a cast of eccentric military nuts and a Mujahideen fighter that today is rather uneasy considering it was nakedly based on then-US ally Osama bin Laden. References to colonial Hong Kong and the Iron Curtain setting overall give one of the best time capsules of the late 80s era, and the plot featuring the internal power struggles of the Soviet higher ups gives a great picture of a regime in crisis and collapse. This was also the final film to feature a score composed by John Barry before he retired from the series and is arguably Barry’s finest work.
In The Living Daylights, you get the very best of classic Bond along with a harsher edge than even the Daniel Craig offerings can produce; still retaining though the touch of Bond class and sophistication that was so lacking in the Dalton follow up, Licence to Kill. With a tight script full of twists and tense moments, this isn’t just the best of the 80s Bonds – it’s one of the best Bonds overall.
Jozef Raczka: So after trying to find the positives in two of the worst Bond films, here I am trying to provide the negatives for one of my favourites. I’m going to assume that Dan has accurately covered all of the ways that this film succeeds, especially Dalton, no one has quite has efficiently covered both the dark bruiser and the smarmy charmer Bond as well as he has. Overall there’s a lot to love about this film: it’s wonderfully shot, (yes, this again) John Barry’s score is great and the supporting cast are overall pretty great. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some major problems.
It takes a while to get going, and while that first chase sequence does link well into the rest of the story, it’s a bit dull by itself. We know that Bond’s going to survive, that’s never in question, but it never goes big or fast enough to generate any tension. Ultimately, the most you can say about it is it gets the job done. Also the women on a boat – “I wish I could have a real man” – cue Bond crashing through her boat roof – sequence is naff. Overall, in fact, the comedy is very hit and miss with more of a miss than hit quota.
A-Ha’s opening theme is fine in that it’s just a weaker rehash of ‘A View To A Kill’ (AKA possibly the best Bond theme) but it’s over one of the least interesting opening sequences. The major problem with A-Ha’s work is actually that The Pretenders put in much better efforts wither two contributions, it’s clear the producers want ‘A View To A Kill’ clone to sell. For the first 15 minutes of this film, I worried that this was just Bond going through the motions. It seems almost a stylistic choice after the divisive incredulity of Roger Moore’s era to make the hallmark of Dalton and Brosnan’s era to be a certain feeling of watching a pleasant cover band running through the greatest hits.
As with 90% of Bond films, it hits a mid-point lull. For some reason, there ‘s been a decision – since the very beginning – to keep about half an hour of extraneous footage. Had they cut the film down to around the 100 minute mark, it could have been a lean, sharp thriller with a strong sense of global intrigue. As it is, it’s a tad flabby round the edges.
It’s hard for me to hate this film but, upon rewatching, the flaws are exposed. At its worst, I have to say this film isn’t maybe as good as I remember it being but, then again, nothing ever really is. It’s odd but, in the end, this is a Bond movie featuring the book’s Bond. He’s a darker, more brutal character but still trapped in the escapist adventures of Connery and Moore. This tonal dissonance can work for some but for others it might just be alienating. But, still, at least it’s not Thunderball.