1987’s The Living Daylights, one of the most underrated entries into the Bond Film series, deserves a spirited defence.
Ask anyone to name their favourite Bond film, and you’re liable to hear some familiar titles – Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me, or Casino Royale – all depending on considerations such as when people first started watching the series, what they want from their Bond, and general movie-going tastes.
One title that’s unlikely to register as being overtly familiar is 1987’s The Living Daylights, and for good reason – few critics name it in their top five Bond films.
Over half a century, the Bond series has yielded plenty of pop-culture touchstones which has allowed individual films to achieve an immortal status for critics – from Bond Girl Jill Masterton covered in gold paint in Goldfinger, or the Union Jack parachute in The Spy Who Loved Me. Where The Living Daylights suffers is that, within its 131-minute run-time, there are no such iconic moments or funny names that we associate the Bond films with. Coupled with Dalton’s two-film run and his admittedly unpopular take on the character, there’s often seldom reason for many people to revisit this film.
To say this film is a critical and financial failure however would be inaccurate – when the The Living Daylights landed on audiences in 1987, it did not resonate as a disappointment in quite the same way as some other titles as Die Another Day or Quantum of Solace. Perhaps its biggest impression was in its 180-degree reversal on the Bond character from Roger Moore’s take in his seven films.
With most casual fans coming to the Bond films for a bit of escapist fun, The Living Daylights goes unnoticed during many a Bond-marathon at Christmas time, having comfortably achieved ‘middle of the road’ status in the pantheon.
29 years on from the film’s release, its strengths deserve to be celebrated. Speaking personally, it’s the Bond film I most enjoy re-watching.
So, why does The Living Daylights deserve your attention?
It’s not a great Bond movie – but it is a great spy film
One of the chief criticisms levelled at The Living Daylights is for its over-complicated plot. The story doesn’t become clear until the last 20 minutes, and even then, you have to put a lot of it together yourself.
In a nutshell, the plotline driving the film is as follows:
4. General Pushkin catches wind of Koskov’s plan, and orders his arrest for misuse of state funds.
5. To protect himself, Koskov uses his spymaster talents to convince MI6 that Pushkin is a psychotic madman, hellbent on assassinating Western spies around the globe.
*No one says $50 milllion in this film, but it’s assumed.
Did you notice something about that plot? It bears absolutely no resemblance to a regular Bond film. There’s none of the old familiars like a stolen nuclear weapon or plan to control the world’s supply of gold/microchips/oil. The simplest description of this plot is that James Bond is playing detective in the middle of a spat between two KGB Generals.
The Living Daylights’ complicated plot (and lack of any real MacGuffin) is a good reason for why this isn’t a more popular Bond film. It still carries some of the Bond essentials – the stunts, the gadgets, the Aston Martin and the martinis – but stripped of these elements, you aren’t left with Bond going after an outrageous villain with a hairbrained scheme. Instead, you’re left with a pretty good Cold War spy thriller.
When The Living Daylights was released in 1987, the Cold War was four decades old. The Soviet Union was embroiled in a war in Afghanistan, and tensions between East and West hit a peak four years earlier. But 1986 was also the year that Gorbachev brought Glasnost to the West, leading some to the optimistic view that the Cold War could be resolved peacefully. The Living Daylights takes a familiar character in James Bond, and does an excellent job of building on those insecurities about who could be trusted behind the Iron Curtain – in the years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Bond’s not here to stop an all-out war between the East and West, as he so often is (You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy) – he’s trying to ascertain the Russians he can trust from the ones trying to kill him. Doing so requires him to visit some key locations of the Cold War, lying about his identity all the while so that he can find the truth.
It’s easily the most ’80s’ of the Bond films
To illustrate this point, look at the following photo of The Living Daylights’ villains:
There were five Bond films released between 1980 and 1989 (six, if you count Never Say Never Again – which you’re not supposed to). The Living Daylights is arguably the definitive Bond movie of that decade.
Starting with its music, The Living Daylights’ title song is by Norwegian pop band a-Ha, which elsewhere gave us ‘Take On Me’. The Pretenders perform another two songs in the soundtrack. There’s also the small business of the Satriani-esque guitar riff heard in Q’s Laboratory. Other Bond films of the decade don’t quite achieve the same level of ’80s-ness’ in their soundtrack.
Then there’s the film’s main villains, who have more in common with Gordon Gekko than Ernst Stavro Blofeld. They’re not motivated out of any desire to rule the world or lust for its destruction, but solely out of making a profit. Koskov and Whhitaker eschew volcano bases and space stations of their forebears. Instead, they plot from the comfort of a poolside bikini party with a seafood buffet.
Lastly, the plot is driven heavily by Cold War tensions, with the third act taking place almost entirely within the Soviet War against Afghanistan. Admittedly, all of the Bond films of the 80s have some anchor point in the decade, but none of them capitalised on it to the same extent as The Living Daylights. The closest contender is 1985’s A View To A Kill, whose highlights include the invention of snowboarding; Duran Duran singing the title song; and Christopher Walken as the yuppy douchebag villain wanting to control the world’s supply of microchips.
Where A View To A Kill loses its 80s credibility is with a 57-year-old Roger Moore as James Bond. Whilst he was a good fit for the role in the 1970s, Moore is so out of shape in A View To A Kill that he’s pitched in fight scenes against thugs and minor henchmen who look more like Columbo. The film might have premiered in 1985, but Moore’s wheezing presence brings its weighted average back to 1976.
The combination of plot, cast, and style earn The Living Daylights a status as being the Bond film that’s most representative of the 1980s aesthetic. For better or worse, all of the Bond films have aged – some have become great style pieces of their decade, whilst others illustrate just how far our values have evolved (for example, Connery spends his films essentially committing a string of sexual assaults). The Living Daylights’ attitudes towards sex, power, and style are all deeply rooted in 1987. Whether you consider that a strength of weakness is likely contingent on how much you enjoy the Top Gun soundtrack, or quoting along to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
One of this film’s harsher critics, Jay Scott of The Globe and Mail, said of Dalton in The Living Daylights that “you get the feeling that on his off nights, he might curl up with the Reader’s Digest and catch an episode of Moonlighting“. I can only assume Mr Scott skipped out on actually watching this movie, because Dalton’s Bond is the vision of 007 that the character’s creator, Ian Fleming, described – a cold-blooded, flawed, and violent public servant.
Dalton is a classically-trained actor, and as such, approached the character in a literal sense, making him the first to bring James Bond back to Fleming’s creation. The net result is a character who is not the suave clothes horse that Sean Connery’s Bond was, nor the walking punchline that was Roger Moore. Dalton’s Bond is both a detective and a paid government assassin, and is reminded of the latter fact by his employers constantly. One of the chief conflicts of the film is within Bond himself – whether he’ll pursue his instincts to investigate the case further, or go ahead and pull the trigger on his orders.
The Living Daylights isn’t even the worst of it – in Dalton’s follow-on film, 1989’s Licence to Kill, the violence gets turned up to 11 as Bond acts out a revenge fantasy on a Latino Drug Cartel as he only knows how. It’s a long way from Roger Moore wearing a clown suit.
The trouble with Dalton’s approach is that, in the late 1980s, audiences were still used to James Bond films being escapist fantasy. Easygoing Roger Moore had a marathon seven-film run as James Bond during the 1970s and early 1980s, the tone of which took the audiences mind off of what was going on in their lives (especially in Britain). After having dealt with Vietnam, the Oil Crisis, Watergate, Revolutions in the Middle East, and fresh peaks of the Cold War, the public of the time had grown used to James Bond taking their mind off of global troubles. Worse yet for the Bond producers, other action films were redefining the genre in the late 1980s – namely with Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Predator.
Dalton’s characterisation of Bond was therefore a blessing and a curse. 20 years later, Daniel Craig would be celebrated for taking a similar track on the role – Bond as a detective and an assassin. Arguably, the audience’s reception to Craig’s performance had a lot of groundwork laid by Matt Damon’s Bourne films, but for Dalton, there was no such luck.
As much as I enjoyed Dalton’s fresh take on the character, his 007 is an arsehole. Take the scene where Bond commits sexual assault. About to be confronted by a KGB heavy, he grabs the girlfriend of General Pushkin and strips her top off so that she can be a distration.
He’s also a complete dick to the Bond Girl of The Living Daylights – Kara Milovy (played by Maryam d’Abo). She has none of the skills we see in Bond Girls from the series – she’s not an ace computer programmer, can’t fly the Space Shuttle, and is not an international jewel thief. Her talents run to being a professional cellist and knowing how to catch a tram in Bratislava, and you can’t help but feel that Dalton’s Bond treats her less kindly because of it, evidenced by the shock to Kara (and the audience) when Bond tries to dump her in an Afghan village once she’s of no further use to his mission.