The 007 Collective is a bi-monthly column in which I revisit every official feature in the James Bond franchise and review how they hold up today. Along with a review of each film, each article in this 10-month-long series will dive into the historical place and production on each film in question. It will also feature a dossier i.e. a fact sheet with superlatives, ratings, rankings, best, worsts and other fun stuff in line with the format you’ve seen in my annual Year in Superlatives articles. This project isn’t meant to be the final word on the Bond franchise. It’s merely my take on the series. For previous entries, click here.
This week on the 007 Collective, I look back at Timothy Dalton’s first turn as a darker, grittier Bond in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS.
Mission Title: The Living Daylights
James Bond: Timothy Dalton
Release Date: July 31, 1987
Source Material: Based off the short story “The Living Daylights” by Ian Fleming
Tagline: Living on the edge. It’s the only way he lives.
After learning that KGB General Koskov, whom he helped defect from Russia, is kidnapped by the KGB and sent back to Soviet Russia, thus embarrassing MI6, James Bond suspects that something is amiss. Tracking down a beautiful cello player who tried to assassinate Koskov in Czechoslovakia, Bond unravels a convoluted scheme that involves an American Arms Dealer, a KGB assassin and the smuggling of drugs across international borders.
The key to the longevity of the Bond franchise has always been its ability to reinvent itself in the face of extinction. And over the course of the last 53 years, this series has had more than its share of lifelines. Just last week, I recounted how Bond producer Cubby Broccoli was forced to come up with the biggest and most extravagant Bond movie he could muster after the critical and commercial failure of The Man with the Golden Gun in 1974. There was also the Lazenby fiasco of 1969 and Connery’s much-publicized estrangement from the franchise in 1967. But perhaps the biggest game-changers came in 1995 and 2006 with the arrival of Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig respectively. Brosnan reinvented Bond as a smooth and debonair spy in a post-Cold War era with GoldenEye while Craig brought the ailing franchise back to its roots, re-instilling the grit, realism and killer instinct that the Brosnan years sorely lacked. Still, as much credit Craig gets today (and he deserves the lion’s share of it), he was merely fine-tuning what Timothy Dalton did over 20 years earlier in The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill.
In 1985, after playing Bond in seven films over a 12 year period, 58-year-old Roger Moore’s tenure had finally come to an awkward and embarrassing conclusion with the woefully bad and unintentionally hilarious A View to a Kill. While most accounts claim that the old chap simply traded in his 00 license for a retirement home, others claim that he was let go by producer Cubby Broccoli. Now, with Moore gone, the hunt was on to find a replacement. After briefly considering actors like Mel Gibson and Christopher Lambert, the uber-producer settled on four names: Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Sam Neill and Lewis Collins.
While Collins was quickly dismissed, the other three all curried favor with one or more of the producers. Neill, who is now best known for his performance in Jurassic Park, was well-liked by all the top brass save for the man at the top – Cubby Broccoli. Dalton, who was Broccoli’s top choice, had originally been offered the role in 1968 after Sean Connery’s departure but had correctly declined citing he was too young for the role. When Broccoli offered him the role again in 1985, he had to reject the offer once again due to scheduling conflicts. This turned the producers’ attention to television star Brosnan, who at the time was best known for starring in the romantic detective series Remington Steele which had just been cancelled. Brosnan, who had first caught Broccoli’s eye during the filming of For Your Eyes Only, a movie in which his wife appeared, was actually offered the part of Bond after a three-day screen test. But when a media storm erupted after news circulated that he had been cast as Bond, NBC cruelly renewed Remington Steele, thus causing him to decline the part. By the time the media circus had subsided, Dalton’s previous commitments had already been fulfilled, thus allowing him to finally accept the role.
The first thing that struck me about Dalton, especially after watching back-to-back Roger Moore Bonds is how alarmingly different his take on the character is. It’s akin to someone playing seven Burt Bacharach songs and then playing N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police” as an encore. It’s more than striking; it’s a jolt to the system. As Bond, Dalton is tough, brooding and introspective but at the same time sexy and enigmatic too. You never really know what’s running through his mind but you’re always intrigued. It’s what made him dangerous and unpredictable. Dalton was a no-nonsense Bond who suffered no fools. Even his delivery of the immortal “Bond, James Bond” is done in a way that proved that he couldn’t care less about the name. Contrast that to Pierce Brosnan’s stupendously smug delivery of the same line and that’s all you have to know about where I stand on the two actors.
Dalton was the first Bond since Connery who I believed was capable of shooting you in the face and walking away without skipping a beat. It’s no wonder many dubbed his take the closest iteration to Ian Fleming’s character. But the Welsh actor had his limitations. Although he excelled with the grittier aspects of the character, he wasn’t very skilled at the lighter moments. For one, his efforts at quipping are, at best lame. He gives it all but he can’t help but sound like he’s still pissed off. He was also a bit of a stiff in the charisma department. The romantic parts of The Living Daylights are among its weakest scenes but that wasn’t necessarily his fault. Unfortunately, this is what his biggest critics honed in on in their critical barbs at him: That he had no sense of humor, he was too dark and too much of a stone-cold killer than a hero of escapist fantasies. Funny how time and perspective changes things. Today, Daniel Craig gets praised for those very qualities that Dalton was criticized for. As it turns out, he was just too ahead of the curve.
Like its star, The Living Daylights was a drastic tonal departure from the 10 movies that preceded it. Screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Michel G. Wilson eradicated all the campiness that had come to define and later devour the franchise in the Roger Moore years. There was an emphasis on grounding the film in the very real and dangerous world of the Cold War, which was rife with double-crosses and unreliable partners. And for the first time in over a decade, Bond was back to conducting actual espionage business. The post-credits sequence in which Bond helps General Koskov, a Soviet defector, escape from Czechoslovakia is pure Cold War spy stuff. They also decided to do away with the megalomaniac and over-the-top villains with aspirations of world domination. Instead, the villains were KGB agents and corrupt arms dealers. Real world politics also came into play again with a subplot involving the Mujahedeen as Bond’s allies in the struggle against the Soviets. Although this is rather tasteless when viewed today, that’s not a slight on the movie which was made in an era well before the situation in that country turned into hell on Earth.
The Living Daylights’ biggest problems are its workman-like direction, a convoluted narrative that never gains momentum, and its forgettable villains and Bond girl. Let’s start with director John Glen. This was the filmmaker’s fourth term at bat after cobbling together a trio of Roger Moore efforts. While I’m amazed that this is the same guy who directed A View to a Kill, Glen was always a gun-for-hire who slavishly followed the direction of his screenwriters and producers. With Cubby Broccoli and Dalton dictating the gritty tone, this film must have undoubtedly been a tough task for Glen. After all, it’s tough to shake off old habits after spending half a decade directing camp. One arena where Glen has no trouble adapting is the action sequences. But to be fair, Glen has always had flair with action (see Octopussy). Standout sequences include the Aston Martin car chase on ice, the opening sequence in Gibraltar and the tremendous aerial fight as Bond and henchman Necros hang off an airplane. Nevertheless, it’s the character moments that Glen struggles with most. There’s nothing remotely interesting about the way he places the camera or shoots the drama – it’s flat-out hackwork. And that’s what tends to separate the best Bond movies from the rest of the pack: Assured directional voice. And unfortunately, there’s none of it here.
It doesn’t help matters that the scheme concocted by its trio of lame-brained villains is a study in convolution. Although I watched the movie a mere 48 hours ago, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly the trio of General Georgi Koskov, Brad Whittaker and Necros were really up to. Drugs? Diamonds? Control of the KGB? I’d like to think about it but frankly, I don’t care enough. Unfortunately, the villains’ unmemorable scheme puts a damper on the pacing and stakes of the whole movie, thus causing the stakes to fizzle after a strong first act. This is especially disappointing considering how great Dalton is in the role. There’s also Maryam d’Abo’s pinhead Bond girl Kara who I found to be really irritating and annoying, despite being one of the few Bond girls who is given a strong character arc and being extremely integral to the film’s plot.
All in all, The Living Daylights is a mixed bag. Although Timothy Dalton makes a remarkably assured debut as Bond – smoldering, dangerous, dashing, and a striking departure from Roger Moore – it’s the rest of his creative team that ultimately lets him down. Although it’s far from a bad film—the Cold War setting, strong action and glob-trotting nature of the story ensure it’ll never be less than mid-tier Bond—the movie never really builds to anything substantial. Perhaps the filmmakers were still trying to find their footing after spending two decades making campy action movies instead of dark spy thrillers. Whatever it was, they sure took their missteps to heart and decided to rectify it by the time they started work on Dalton’s second and what would unfortunately prove to be his last film, Licence to Kill.
Like the movie that follows it, The Living Daylights cold open isn’t exactly very memorable but it isn’t dreadful either. It’s just workman-like. Set in Gibraltar, it follows Bond and two other 00 agents as they partake in a training mission to penetrate the radar installations on the Rock of Gibraltar. But an enemy assassin out for blood infiltrates the mission, killing the two other 00 agents before Dalton’s Bond – first shown in a striking close-up shot – takes chase. Once the assassin makes his escape in a jeep full of explosives, Bond takes chase, eventually jumping into the jeep to take control of it. After a bunch of close shaves, Bond is able to light a fuse of a bomb inside the jeep and manages to wrestle control of the vehicle for long enough to drive it over a cliff… but not before parachuting out from the back of the vehicle, thus leaving the assassin inside the jeep which explodes shortly. Landing on a yacht belonging to an heiress named Linda who complains of not finding any “real men,” Bond quickly does away with his “Bond, James Bond” line before taking up Linda’s offer to “socialize” with her. Cue credits.
Title Designer: Maurice Binder
Title Song: “The Living Daylights” performed by A-Ha
Famous Quote: “Set your hopes up way too high/The living’s in the way we die”
After the great success of Duran Duran title track for A View to a Kill, Cubby Broccoli and John Barry were keen on capitalizing on a hot band whose association with the title song could work as a marketing tool for the film. When the Pet Shop Boys declined the chance to perform the title song after realizing they would only get to compose the song and not the entire soundtrack, the producers chose Europop Norwegian band A-Ha whose song “Take on Me” had become one of the best selling singles of all time in 1985. Composed in collaboration with Bond series staple John Barry, who was composing his last score for a Bond movie, A-Ha’s title track is a thoroughly mediocre effort. Although catchy and featuring a nifty string arrangement that puts the Bond effort to good use, the track suffers from some really bizarre lyrics and a rather meek falsetto vocal by lead singer Morten Harket.
Maurice Binder’s credit sequence is an equally rote affair with the Bond staples of women and guns appearing alongside dancing gymnasts, women wearing aviators, car headlights, and pools of water – none of which play a role in the movie. It’s a dated sequence that feels like Binder had completely run out of ideas.
The Big Bad: Two of them: Corrupt KGB General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) and American arms dealer Brad Whittaker (Joe Don Baker) – neither who make much of an impression. A better idea would have been to combine the two characters into one instead of splitting them into two characters who both feel half-baked. Koskov, a skilled manipulator, uses his girlfriend Kara as well as MI6 to further his scheme and unwittingly dispose his KGB superior General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies). Whittaker, on the other hand, is a slimy egomaniacal arms dealer (and former U.S. army man) who is obsessed with war-mongering and weapons in general i.e. a stereotypical American.
Henchman: The tall, blond and ripped underwear model-like KGB assassin Necros (Andreas Wisniewski). A master of accents, Necros is a cold-blooded killer whose weapon of choice is strangulation by wire, although he also shows a penchant for using bombs. He also loves to listen to The Pretenders.
Organization: KGB, the Mujahedeen
World Domination Plan: To betray both, the KGB and MI6 and then sell weapons from the KGB to the Mujahedeen in exchange for opium and diamonds too. Honestly, I have no idea what the evil scheme of these guys was. Whatever it was, it’s convoluted as fuck and on top of that, ill-conceived and illogical.
Primary: Renowned cellist and naïve pinhead Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo) who is unwittingly thrown into the center of an international conflict thanks to her idiotic and scheming boyfriend General Koskov. Although undeniably sweet, a genius at playing the cello and important to the plot, d’Abo’s entire performance is comprised of her looking confused, scared and lost. Moreover, she keeps making foolish decisions and annoys Bond to no end. Although light years ahead of the Bond girl that preceded her, she’s unfortunately still an irritating and annoying character. In fact, the only time she looks convincing is when she’s playing the cello.
Kamran Shah (Art Malik): The Oxford-educated Mujahedeen leader (and probable future terrorist) is saved by Bond when they are both imprisoned at the Russian air base in Afghanistan. To return the favor, Kamran and his armed band of freedom fighters/terrorists destroy the arms/opium deal between Koskov, Whittaker and a rival Mujahedeen organization on the air base.
KGB chief General Leonid Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies): After General Gogol retired as the head of the KGB, Pushkin took his place. Koskov frames Pushkin as an erratic killer hell-bent on killing British spies. Working with 007, Pushkin stages his death in order to surprise Koskov and eventually arrest him.
Saunders (Thomas Wheatley): The stuffy MI6 agent disapproves of Bond’s ways and gets into constant verbal tussles with him. Eventually the two settle their differences, shortly before meeting a tragic end at the hands of Necros.
CIA agent Felix Leiter (John Terry): Bond’s ally in the CIA finally pops up for the first time since 1973 but his role is miniscule and unmemorable with actor John Terry making his first and last appearance as the character.
Sir Frederick Gray (Geoffrey Keen): The Minister of Defense returns in his final of six appearances as the character. He shows up earlier in the movie to lament MI6’s embarrassing display of incompetence after Koskov is rescued by Necros from the clutches of MI6.
KGB head General Anatol Gogol (Walter Gotell): Like Keen, this was also the last of six appearances by Gotell and the character of General Gogol. The General is revealed to have reassigned himself to a cushy position as a Russian diplomat in the U.S.
Miss Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss): After 14 films and 23 years of playing Miss Moneypenny, the incomparable Lois Maxwell retired from the role of Moneypenny. Her replacement was Caroline Bliss, who like Timothy Dalton only appeared in two movies. Alas, she was far from a memorable replacement.
M (Robert Brown) who makes a comic appearance during the film’s opening sequence and who chides Bond after the later disobeys his orders to assassinate General Pushkin.
Q (Desmond Llewelyn)
Night-vision Binoculars: Used by Bond to spot an assassin during Koskov’s attempt to defect from Soviet Russia to England.
Whistle-controlled Keychain: Upon whistling a specially-coded tune, the keychain would either emit sleeping gas or a small explosion. It also has the capability to open any lock.
Aston Martin Volante: The gorgeous Volante that comes equipped with a police scanner, laser beams, tires that can drive on ice, ski rigs, missiles, bullet-proof windows and a freaking jet engine!
ODDS & ENDS
Most Memorable Quote:
[Bond deliberately missed his target – Kara – after she had tried to kill Koskov]
Saunders: I’m telling M you deliberately missed. Your orders were to KILL that sniper.
James Bond: Stuff my orders! I only kill professionals. That girl didn’t know one end of a rifle from the other. Go ahead. Tell M what you want. If he fires me, I’ll thank him for it.
Dalton doesn’t waste a moment in establishing his Bond as a rogue who disdains authority. And his delivery is brilliant!
Most Embarrassing Quote:
[Upon showing Bond a boombox that doubles as a rocker launcher]
Q: Something we’re making for the Americans. It’s called a “Ghetto Blaster”.
Most Memorable Moment:
Although there are a few memorable moments where Dalton establishes his new tough and brutal Bond, I’m going to go with the thrilling and death-defying fight/stunt in which Bond and Necros hang off a net in the wind outside of a cargo airplane, while still trying to kill each other. It’s the one scene in the movie where the stakes are continuously raised with every passing moment. Not only does Bond have to kill Necros but he has to survive the net that is slowly tearing away. On top of that, there’s still a ticking bomb ready to go off inside the plane. But perhaps the most impressive part of this sequence was that the stunt was performed for real by Bond stuntmen.
Most Cringe-Worthy Moment:
After pushing the self-destruct button on his Aston Martin, Bond and Kara escape from the Czechoslovakian army by snowboarding on her cello case. It’s a scene right out of the Roger Moore era – cheesy, ridiculous and awkwardly out of place in this movie. I guess Glen, Maibaum and Wilson simply couldn’t help themselves to a cheap visual gag. Thankfully this isn’t as bad as a flying magic carpet scene they apparently cut from the film for being too ridiculous.
[after escaping from a small jail cell at the Russian airbase]
Kara Milovy (naïvely): You were fantastic! We’re free!
James Bond (annoyed): Kara, we’re inside a Russian airbase in the middle of Afghanistan!
Most Shocking Moment:
I was tempted to go with the whole thing about Bond partnering up with the Mujahedeen but I don’t think that’s fair to the filmmakers. A better moment for this category would be the scene in which Bond, after witnessing Saunders get brutally murdered by Necros, is suddenly absolutely consumed by rage and revenge, and then desperately chases after Necros in order to gun him down. Once Kara catches up with him and naïvely asks him if everything is okay, Bond gives her a death stare – instantly blaming her (and her boyfriend) for what has happened. Until that scene, you had never seen Bond fueled with that much anger and blood-boiling rage. In that very moment, you could see the filmmakers sparking on the entire concept of Licence to Kill.
Best Pun/Double Entendre:
[After an intense fight with Necros ends with Bond cutting off his boot to allow Necros to fall to his death, he returns to the cabin of the airplane.]
Kara Milovy: What happened?
James Bond: He got the boot.
Worst Pun/Double Entendre:
[After Whittaker is killed by a statue of the Duke of Wellington, General Pushkin asks Bond what happened]
James Bond: He met his Waterloo.
Best Stunt/Action Scene:
The big fight with the tankers in the desert is certainly the film’s biggest set-piece but for pure fun, I’m going with the fast-paced car chase in the snow and over an icy lake starring Bond, Kara and his gadget-loaded Aston Martin Volante.
Most Dated Reference:
Why, Bond helping the Mujahedeen of course!
Number of Times Bond Has Sex: 3 (twice with Kara and once with Linda, the lady on the yacht)
Number of people Bond kills: 5
Bond killing Necros by giving him the boot!
Locations visited (In order of appearance): Gibraltar, Czechoslovakia, England, London, Vienna, Tangiers, Afghanistan, and New York City
Misogyny Meter: 5/10
Typical to the Bond franchise, Kara is written as a helpless buffoon who needs to be constantly rescued by Bond. Although the character is supposed to be scared and confused, did she have to be written as such a weak and naïve dolt?
Racism Rating: 3/10
There are some comments made by M and General Gogol about the Mujahedeen fighters having trouble at the airport in the U.S. but other than that, nothing overt.
Box Office: $51.1 million ($106.2 million adjusted for inflation; the third-lowest grossing Bond movie of the series)
007 Chronological Listing: 15/24
Director: John Glen
Screenwriter: Richard Maibaum, Michael G. Wilson
Cast: Timothy Dalton, Maryam d’Abo, Jeroen Krabbé, Joe Don Baker, Art Malik, John Rhys-Davies
Producer: Albert R. Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson
Running time: 130 minutes
Companies: EON Productions, MGM/UA
The 007 Collective will return in:
Previous entries in The 007 Collective:
- Goldfinger (1964)
- A View to a Kill (1985)
- Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
- The World is Not Enough (1999)
- Die Another Day (2002)
- Quantum of Solace (2008)
- On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
- Octopussy (1983)
- Thunderball (1965)
- GoldenEye (1995)
- The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
- The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)