One of the most underrated entries into the Bond Film series – The Living Daylights – deserves a spirited defence.
Ask anyone to nominate their favourite Bond film, and you’re liable to hear some familiar names. Goldfinger, if they’re an old school traditionalist. The Spy Who Loved Me, if they’re a child of the 70s who grew up with Roger Moore in the titular role. Casino Royale (the 2006 edition, naturally), if they have good taste. One title unlikely to register is 1987’s The Living Daylights, and for good reason – few sane critics would have it in their top five Bond films.
We have plenty of pop-culture touchstones from the 24 Bond films released between 1962 and 2015 – from Bond Girl Jill Masterton covered in gold paint in Goldfinger, or the Union Jack parachute in The Spy Who Loved Me. During the 131-minute run-time of The Living Daylights, there are no iconic moments or funny names we associate this series with. When the movie landed on audiences in 1987, it did not resonate as a great success or dismal failure in the franchise’s history. Because of this, The Living Daylights escapes notice during many a Bond-marathon at Christmas time, comfortably achieving ‘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 setup for this movie is as follows:
Did you notice something about that plot? Like how it bears absolutely no resemblance to a Bond film? That’s right. There’s none of the old familiars of a Bond plot. Nobody is stroking a white cat and conspiring to control the world’s supply of gold/microchips/oil. Instead, Bond is a detective trying to figure out who the bad guy is and how best to stop him. The simplest description of this plot is that James Bond is caught in the crossfire of an internal spat between two KGB Generals.
The complicated plot and lack of any real MacGuffin to this story is probably what audiences don’t like about this as a Bond movie – it’s not your regular escapist fantasy. The Living Daylights 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 a good Bond film – you have a pretty good Cold War spy film.
When The Living Daylights was released in 1987, the Soviet Union was still embroiled in a war in Afghanistan, and the Cold War was still in effect. The tensions between East and West had hit another peak just four years earlier. But 1986 was the year that Gorbachev brought Glasnost to the West, sewing some of the seeds that would lead to the end of the Cold War. As a spy film, The Living Daylights does a fine job of playing on the audience’s optimism and pessimism about what to make of the Soviet Union in the years before its collapse.
Bond’s not here to stop an all-out war between the East and West, as he so often is – he’s trying to ascertain the Russians he can trust from the ones trying to kill him. Doing so requires him to jump between both sides of the Iron Curtain, lying about his identity all the while so that he can find the truth. The Russians who meet him are either greeting him with open arms or Kalashnikovs.
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. The title song is by Norwegian pop band a-Ha (of ‘Take On Me’ fame), whilst The Pretenders perform another two songs in the soundtrack. The film’s main villains have more in common with Gordon Gekko than Ernst Stavro Blofeld, being motivated not out of any desire to rule the world or lust for its destruction, but solely out of making a profit (they eschew volcano bases for a poolside bikini party with a seafood buffet). The plot is driven heavily by Cold War tensions, with the third act taking place almost entirely within Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union was embroiled in a conflict from 1979 right through until 1989.
Admittedly, all of the Bond films of the 80s have some style or plot anchor in the decade, but none of them capialised 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. Where A View To A Kill loses its credibility is with a 57-year-old Roger Moore as James Bond, who is so out of shape that he has to fight thugs who look like Columbo. The film might have come out in 1985, but Moore’s age brings its weighted average back to 1976.
The Living Daylights earns top billing as an 80s Bond film on account of its nostalgia value. 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 come (Connery essentially spends his films committing a string of sexual assaults). The Living Daylights strengths as a movie of its decade is important considering just how strong our 80s nostalgia is today.
Movies like Top Gun, or the collective works of John Hughes, work so well because they are rooted in that decade. We return to these movies so frequently that they are quotably familiar, neverminding the fact that during the intervening years, our lives have become unrecognisable from what’s on the screen. In this respect, The Living Daylights has become a period piece – essentially the last true Cold War era Bond film – that belongs in this pantheon of 80s nostalgia.
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 in Bond himself – whether he’ll keep investigating the case further, or go ahead and pull the trigger on someone.
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.
The trouble with this 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 wanted to be both distracted and reassured when they watched a James Bond movie. 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, about to be confronted by a KGB heavy, grabs the girlfriend of General Pushkin and strips her top off so she’ll be a distraction.
He’s also a dick to General Koskov’s girlfriend – and the Bond Girl of The Living Daylights – Kara Milovy (played by Maryam d’Abo). She has none of the token 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. Kara has no talents than being a professional cellist and knowing how to catch a tram in Bratislava. To her credit, she is the closest thing the Bond films have come to having a normal person be a Bond Girl. So it comes as a bit of a shock to Kara (and the audience) when Bond tries to dump her in an Afghan village.