Send my regards to Dalton


One of the most underrated entries into the Bond Film series – The Living Daylights – deserves a spirited defence.

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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 Daylightsand 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.

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Sometimes, the middle of the road requires you to veer off a cliff.

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:

1. Head of the KGB, General Leonid Pushkin (played by John Rhys Davies), authorises fellow KGB General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) to buy $50 million of Western weapons from Tangiers-based Arms Dealer, Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker).
2. Koskov and Whitaker instead conspire to spend the $50 million on diamonds, which they’ll use to buy opium from an Afghan drug cartel, turn the opium into heroin, and make a cheeky $500 million profit from its sale. There’ll even be enough profit to buy those Western weapons Pushkin wanted.
3. General Pushkin catches wind of  Koskov’s plan, and orders his arrest. To protect himself, Koskov tries to convince MI6 to kill Pushkin, by framing Pushkin as a psychotic madman.
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You’re still following me?

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.

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User experience of the Cold War may vary

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:

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Soft tones, slick hair, and a mobile phone with a 20-metre range. Not featured in this scene, but heavily implied: a veritable mountain of cocaine.

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.

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The file name for this image was ‘Bond_velour_tracksuit’.

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.

It’s the most Thatcher-esque of the Bond films (including the one Bond film  with Thatcher in it)
There’s a nationalistic streak through The Living Daylights that was rare for its time in British cinema. Few films of the period acknowledge being British as a good thing, at least not in the way that became popular in the 1990s with the ‘Cool Britannia‘ wave. The only British film of critical acclaim in 1987 was Withnail and I, following the the lives of unemployed actors in London during the 1960s. It’s a long way from The Living Daylights, where Bond takes his dry British wit and Aston Martin on a mission across the globe.
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Even his robes are from Savile Row.

Strange as it may seem, some of the Bond films are bereft of this ‘Britishness’ – 007 could almost be any Spy from a Western (read: American) agency. The Living Daylights is one of the films that puts 007 squarely from the British Isles. We get an action sequence set in an Oxfordshire Estate, and later Bond runs into an Afghan Resistance leader who just so happens to be an Oxford Graduate with the accent to match. They even pay out on the Americans – a milkman mutters “Bloody Yanks!”, and Q quips to Bond that the rocket launcher he’s building the Americans is called a ‘Ghetto Blaster’).
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Get it?

There’s a tremendous reliance on British military hardware throughout this film, too.The pre-title sequence is set on a military base in Gibraltar, with Bond parachuting from a Royal Air Force Hercules and having to beat the SAS Regiment to chase a stolen Landrover. Later, a Harrier jump-jet is used to help General Koskov defect to the West. This film couldn’t have more Falklands War icons if it tried.
This sense of British confidence at its place in the world comes in spite of it being, in reality, hopelessly outgunned by the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Living Daylights treats all the sides as equal players here. The only thing that exuded this confidence about Britain’s place in the world during the 1980s was the Iron Lady herself, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
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Also, Danger Mouse.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Thatcherism is a concept we should celebrate on screen. What I am saying is that The Living Daylights carries a sense that Britain’s duty is to make its mark on the world. This attribute makes it the most Thatcher-esque of the Bond films. That even includes the Bond film that Margaret Thatcher appeared in. Sort of. Comedian Janet Brown plays Thatcher in an end sequence of 1980’s For Your Eyes Only. It’s a joke scene that, thematically, contrasts poorly with the heavy tone in the rest of the film.
It has great action scenes
The Opening Titles has James Bond versus the SAS and KGB! Bond fights a guy whilst hanging from the ramp of a transport plane! He battles it out in an Aston Martin against the police on ice lake in Czechoslovakia! The bad guy disguises himself as a milkman and kidnaps a KGB General! There’s a rooftop chase in Tangiers!
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Hang on, James!

The action is nicely paced throughout the film, too. Because this film pre-dates CGI, it relied on miniatures and models that I have a hard time telling from the real thing. In many other places, the stunt work was done for real – meaning it still holds up on the screen today.
The movie pre-empted the Iran-Contra Affair
Remember when I said this film was complicated? It also bears a remarkable similarly to Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and the Iran-Contra Affair of 1987. Like Koskov, North was implicated in an illegal plot, in his case selling to the Iranian Government. The profits from this went to fund anti-communist guerillas in Nicaragua. Like Koskov’s plot, it was complicated, underhanded, and totally illegal.
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This byline is not a photoshop.

It wouldn’t be such a stretch to suggest the Bond screenwriters decided ‘What if Ollie North was a KGB General instead?” Bond movies are known to borrow from the headlines to guide their stories. Except for the fact that The Living Daylights started principle photography in September 1986, and the Iran-Contra Affair didn’t break into the public until November 1986. Unless The Living Daylights screenwriter Richard Maibaum had an inside role in shipping missiles to the Iranian Government for Lieutenant Colonel North, then it’s an awfully big coincidence.
The Soundtrack is outstanding.
John Barry is a name synonymous with the James Bond scores, because he composed 11 of them – more than any other. He didn’t compose the original Bond theme (that honour goes to Monty Norman). But what John Barry is credited for is being the guy who invented the Bond ‘sound’ we associate the movies with today – the guitar ‘twang’, and many of the series themes. So he’s a pretty big deal in this space.
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Nobody can write an accompanying piece for paratroops like John Barry

The Living Daylights was the last Bond score that he composed, and he even got a brief cameo in the end as a composer. Some of it’s a dated synthetic mess, but other parts are stirringly orchestral. In this film, the Bond Girl is even a cellist (which has little real bearing on the plot), and we go to the Opera House in Austria, treating us to numerous clips of actual classical and operatic pieces.
Outside of the Bond films, John Barry also picked up five Oscars (one for the Dances With Wolves score). Sadly, he passed away from a heart attack in January 2011, aged 77.
Dalton gets too little credit.

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.

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Only one of these men would rather be watching ‘Moonlighting’ in this scene.

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.

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This guy getting around in a cello case was just too far ahead of his time.

There’s some bad bits…
 

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.

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That’s low, Bond

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.

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That’s low, Bond

 

Needless to say, there’s little in the way of strong female characters in The Living Daylights. But if it’s any consolation, he’s also a bastard to his enemies – more than he needs to be. Towards the end of the film, Bond faces off against the henchman Necros (played by Andreas Wisniewski, the terrorist in Die Hard whose feet are smaller than John McLane’s sister’s). The fight takes place on netting hung from the cargo ramp of a Hercules transport plane, and concludes with Necros hanging from Bond’s boot, begging for his life. No, really. As Bond cuts his shoelaces with a knife, Necros becomes the first Bond villain who pleased not to be killed. Necros’ final words are  “No, please….” before being dropped 15,000 feet to his death.
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That’s low, Bond

That’s low, Bond.
….but it deserves your attention
Any Bond film will require you to make your peace with their shortfalls in order to enjoy it. Indeed, there’s a tendency for some Bond films to be celebrated when they have almost no redeeming qualities (Live and Let Die, and The Man With The Golden Gun, being two prime examples). There are no outrageous names or bad innuendo in The Living Daylights. The movie is rooted heavily in its time, and the stunts are all largely the real deal. If The Living Daylights is guilty of anything, it’s that it isn’t over-the-top in the way Bond movies are.
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Bond, pictured here taking public transport.

If you can get past this fact, then you’ll see The Living Daylights is worthy of more attention than it typically receives. It’s 29 years too late for this film to become a classic in the series, but if you haven’t taken time to view it with fresh (or even new) eyes, then it’s definitely worth your time.
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About eamonh

Air Mobility enthusiast and Star Wars fancier. All writings my own opinions and not those of my employers or associates.
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2 Responses to Send my regards to Dalton

  1. Martin Johnson says:

    Interesting to note that strictly speaking Necros wasn’t actually the first villain to beg before termination. Not if you count the bald wheelchair bound man in the pre-title sequence of For Your Eyes Only who pleaded to make a deal and buy Bond a delicatessen in stainless steel. I have no idea what the phrase means by the way. This is implied to be Blofeld’s last stand though they couldn’t identify him as such for legal reasons.

    Furthermore at the end of the very first movie technically Doctor No begs for his life. True it is so very faint but if you take the time to listen as he starts to sink clawing vainly at the metal poles his last words are “Help me.” Of course even if he had survived it’s implied by the sequels that Blofeld would have had him executed anyway for failure.

    But putting these digressions behind I would like to say this is an excellent analysis of one of my favourite Bond films. It has both its good and bad points, but I enjoy it.

    • eamonh says:

      Re: Delicatessan in Stainless Steel – listen to the For Your Eyes Only episode of James Bonding Podcast (https://itun.es/au/SOKEP.c) because I *think* they recap it. The short version is that it’s a very, very 1981-specific reference, and obviously hasn’t aged terribly well.

      Thanks for your comment too – I’ll go back and revisit the climax of Doctor No tonight!

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