The exit of Roger Moore from the James Bond franchise opens the door to better films, a return to espionage plots and an outstanding new lead.
I am a big Timothy Dalton fan. Detractors of Dalton are lunatics. There, I said it. He is two parts Connery, one part Lazenby, and one part Moore, shaken not stirred. He combines the toughness and masculinity of Connery, the vulnerable romantic of Lazenby, with the refinement of Moore.
He is, in a word, “dashing.”
We get a fine introduction to Dalton, as the camera pushes in on his windblown, handsome features as one of his colleagues meets his doom at the hands of a KGB assassin. Bond goes right to work as he chases down the assassin and struggles with him in a jeep careening down the rock of Gibraltar. He dispatches the assassin, parachutes down to a boat, landing as the answer to any woman’s dream in most athletic fashion, and proceeds to leap into bed with her with his rakish smile.
Most of all, Dalton plays Bond barely tolerating the orders he is handed, and he does not suffer fools gladly. We meet a great supporting character in Saunders, an uptight by-the-book agent who had arranged Koskov’s defection. Dalton is all business as he prepares to handle potential KGB assassins, obviously irritated by Saunders, and hijacks the defection with his own plan. Dalton’s Bond is not afraid to get his hands dirty, whether it be putting a bullet in Pushkin’s head with steel-eyed determination, leaping across rooftops, skiing in a cello case, fearlessly posing as an Afghan unloading opium in a Russian truck, going mano-a-mano with a bulky Russian prison guard, or engaging in a outgunned shootout with Whitaker.
On the romantic side, Dalton is a consummate seducer, balancing his handsome features and sexual prowess with the ability to appear totally genuine. Despite lying to Kara about going to meet Koskov, he turns on the charm big time, and we aren’t sure that he may be falling for her himself. He’s playful and wry – “glad I insisted you bring that cello.”
Most of all, Dalton is an outstanding actor – and by “actor,” I mean actor in the truest sense of the word. Not to take anything away from all the others who have played Bond, but Dalton has quite a background in Shakespeare and other rather lofty works. He spent a lot of time in the theater. In short, his portrayal grounds Bond in a reality that is only matched by Daniel Craig’s interpretation. The result of his approach is that one-liners that might have been played for laughs by Moore carry a different tone with Dalton. Most of them are delivered to Kara, and because she is an innocent outsider, for him to say, “I gave him the boot” is more for her and our benefit. In short, Dalton tries to find an actual emotional motivation for the line rather than just tossing it out as a wink to the audience.
He is, to me, a complete James Bond.
This was a return to the espionage-style plot which I prefer. The filmmakers wisely moved away from the cackling villain who wants widespread destruction, instead focusing on Cold War dealings. It’s a good plot – with Koskov faking the revival of Smert Spionamto stoke tensions between the US and the Soviet Union, all so he and arms dealer Whitaker can make a lot of money. Richard Maibaum is one of the writers, and he and Michael G. Wilson crafted a strong story, albeit lacking in the kind of thematic skeleton that held some of the earlier films together.
This is also a strongly structured film. By that, I refer to the fact that the movie can be divided into several self-contained sequences (usually numbering eight). Each sequence offers a central dramatic question, which gets answered and leads us to the next sequence. The pre-credit sequence establishes Smert Spionam (and obviously the Soviets must be pretty good to have landed an assassin right in the middle of Gibraltar) and Dalton’s athleticism as the new Bond.
From there, we have a sequence where the central question is, “Will Bond carry out the defection successfully”? He does, and in doing so, we get introduced to one of nice supporting character in tight-assed Saunders. There’s a nice tension between the two as Bond disregards protocol and orders, deliberately misses Kara, and institutes an alternative plan.
The next sequence’s tension revolves around Koskov’s debriefing, which provides a clever way of providing exposition. The standout action sequence is Necros’ kidnapping of Koskov, singlehandedly causing mayhem inside an MI6 safe house. First, it establishes that Necros is going to make for a great nemesis in this movie. He’s damn good at what he does. We are treated to a rare sight – a knock-down, drag-out fight between the nemesis and a minor supporting player in the safe house kitchen.
That Bond is not involved in this fight is actually a rather bold move. I like it because, as with Saunders, it just fills out the MI6 world a little bit more. The explosive “milk” bottles are a great trick, the score really soars here (alas, John Barry’s last), and the arrival of a fake medical chopper to whisk off Koskov ends a tightly edited sequence. Plus it’s a black eye for MI6! Again, it’s a self-contained sequence with its own dramatic tension that advances the story.
And so it goes through the rest of the film. It’s one of the reasons the cut feels tighter and the storytelling more solid than the most recent Moore entries.
There’s a good range of leading and supporting work this time around. Maryam d’Abo is appealing as Kara. The role is underwritten, and she’s just handed the easily duped damsel role, which is a shame. At least she’s given a small arc – her desire to play cello in the big leagues – which she achieves. I’ve always like Joe Don Baker, and the idea of an arms dealer so vain that he has wax figures of the world’s greatest leaders done in his likeness is amusing and very Bond-ian. Alas, the producers always seem to want to make us Americans look like buffoons, so that’s how he comes across. I liked Jeroen Krabbe’s choices as Koskov – a Soviet general who is slimy, smarmy, and really nothing more than a con man. He isn’t driven by ideology, as Necros appears to be, but just to fatten his own bank account.
Speaking of Necros, Andres Wisniewski joins the long line of German assassins to face off with Bond. He’s given several disguises and roles to play while carrying out his job, which makes him a fine nemesis. Fans will also recognize him as a henchman in “Die Hard,” and you’ll all be amused to learn he’s a practicing Buddhist.
John-Rhys Davies is one of the most reliable actors you’ll find. He’s great as General Pushkin, and the scene where Bond corners him and prepares to shoot him is just stellar. It showcases Bond’s seriousness as an assassin. Dalton is great here – demonstrating the same stone-cold demeanor Connery has when he offs the duplicitous doctor in “Dr. No.” The scene has a subtext that would’ve been even more powerful had the actor intended for this role been able to appear – Walter Gotell. Pushkin was originally supposed to be a role reprisal of General Gogol, whom Mr. Gotell had portrayed in several films.
That Bond is now preparing to kill Gogol, with whom a kind of friendship had developed, would’ve really made this scene soar. Still, it works and works well.
Thomas Wheatley gets some good screen time as Saunders. Even he gets a little character arc, eventually joining Bond as a rule-breaker (“Why not? It’s only my pension”), providing him with some vital intelligence. The score telegraphs his death at the hands of Necros’ sabotaged glass door, and Bond’s anger mirrors ours at his death. There’s nothing worse than a character achieving his transformation, then getting killed.
The irony of the Mujahideen as Bond’s ally is likely not lost on readers. It’s a strange world sometimes. Art Malik makes for a fine ally that Bond uses in his Afghanistan adventure. Handsome, educated, a good host to Bond, and a leader – very reminiscent of the rogues we often enjoy Bond associating with.
A quick shout-out also to Ken Sharrock, who makes the most of his few minutes of screen time as the jailer. Genre fans will notice John Terry from “Lost” as Felix Leiter; Virginia Hey (the white-clad beautiful “Warrior Woman” from “The Road Warrior”) as Pushkin’s mistress, and Nadim Sawalha as a police chief in Tangiers (he played Fekkis in “The Spy Who Loved Me”).
This is a great location film — Gibraltar, England, Bratislava, Vienna, Morocco, Afghanistan. Deserts. Snow. Rock above the ocean. The sweeping nature of the locales really establishes the film as a globe-hopping adventure. There’s plenty of action, Mr. Dalton apparently did a lot of his own stunts, and there’s some good humor and clever gadgets in Q’s lab.
John Barry’s final score is a strong one. He made use of synthesizer overdubs for the fist time, and it enhances the music to give it just a teeny bit of a contemporary feel. “Exercise at Gibraltar,” the first cue in the film, is filled with his traditional strings, harps, and a bit of the James Bond theme during the climbing sequence. Somber horns come in as danger builds and the assassin begins taking out his targets, the tension rising as 004 realizes he’s up the creek. As Bond investigates the murder, his theme fills the soundtrack, then – BOOM – he’s off and running, and so is the score. Call-response between horn sections kick in with the synthesized overdubs as Bond pursues the assassin and the fight on the Land Rover begins.
The music during the safe house attack (“Necros Attacks”) incorporates all the things that make Barry’s scores so transcendent. The melody and tension builds, plateaus, then soars again as the attack rises in its severity. There’s the use of Bond-associated wah-wah trumpets, but this time Mr. Barry incorporates them in call-response mode with the melody of The Pretender’s underutilized song “Where Has Everybody Gone.” This is used in counterpoint with tubas and strings and a slower tempo when the action is not peaking.
This is a very strong entry in the Bond series. I really enjoy it on almost every level. It does weigh down a bit towards the end, and the multiple villains muddies the plot just a bit. The first half is stronger than the second, so it isn’t a perfect film, but totally enjoyable.
3 STARS for THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS.
(Please note: per my reserved right to change my mind, I am dropping “Man With The Golden Gun” from 4 stars to 3; “Never Say Never Again” from 1 star to 2.)
“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”
“For Your Eyes Only”
“From Russia With Love”
“The Man With The Golden Gun”
“The Living Daylights”
“Diamonds Are Forever”
“The Spy Who Loved Me”
“Never Say Never Again”
“You Only Live Twice”
“Live and Let Die”
“A View To A Kill”
James Bond will return in “License to Kill.”