Wednesday, August 15, 2012

BOND-A-THON: The Living Daylights

There are quite a few people who don’t have much time for Timothy Dalton’s short-lived tenure as 007. Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of Dalton’s work in the franchise and I consider it a damned shame that he didn’t go on to develop the role. Another decade of Dalton would have at least prevented the Pierce Brosnan titles and that alone would have been cause for celebration.

The most commonly cited criticism against Dalton is that his two outings don’t feel like Bond movies. That’s debatable for ‘License to Kill’ – and I’ll have that debate in about ten days time when I review it – but I just don’t see where said criticism can be levelled against ‘The Living Daylights’. If ever a cinematic outing for Ian Fleming’s immortal creation had “Bond movie” written all over it, it’s ‘The Living Daylights’.

Like ‘For Your Eyes Only’, ‘Octopussy’ and ‘A View to a Kill’, it takes its title from one of Fleming’s short stories. Unlike ‘AVtaK’ – and to a considerably greater extent than ‘FYEO’ and ‘Octopussy’ – it retains a fidelity to the source material that hadn’t been seen in a Bond movie since, arguably, ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. Fleming’s story – published as part of a slim posthumous collection – has Bond contracted to the dirty job of gunning down a Russian sniper in order to safeguard a defector. Forced to work with an obsequious head of station, and discovering the sniper to be an attractive woman posing as a cellist, Bond disobeys orders and merely wounds the girl instead of shooting to kill and the story ends with his career in the balance as his superior insists on reporting him.

With a few tweaks to update it from the early 60s to the mid-80s (but with the whole Cold War vibe still very much in evidence), the short story provides pretty much the entire first act of the movie as Bond (Dalton) finds himself in conflict with jobsworth Saunders (Thomas Wheatley) during the extradition of the defecting General Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe). At this point, Richard Maibaum and Michael G Wilson’s script develops in its own direction as Koskov is promptly re-appropriated by one-man-army Necros (Andreas Wisnieski), to the abject humiliation of M15 – “our first major coup in years” as a disgruntled M (Robert Brown) puts it, in tacit admission that Britain is no longer a key player on the world political stage.

Koskov’s snatch-back is assumed to have been authorised by General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) and M instructs Bond to terminate him. This is the second affront against British intelligence, following the murder of two Double-O operatives during a training exercise on Gibraltar. (Does all this seem a bit harder and more cynical than the last few outings? Hell yeah, baby!) Bond reluctantly accepts the mission, but first pursues his own investigation by tracking down the glamorous sniper – cellist Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo) – whom he wounded but refused to gun down earlier.

Blithely posing as a friend of Koskov’s, with whom he has discovered she is involved, Bond persuades Kara to leave the Eastern bloc with him (prompting an ice-bound chase scene that ends with the rather improbable use of Kara’s cello case and her beloved Stradivarius taking a bullet) as he tracks down Pushkin and discovers that Koskov’s motives are becoming more and more deceitful.

The Bond entries I enjoy the most are those that (a) shitcan the juvenile humour in favour of a harder edge, and (b) feature some actual espionage. It’s a point I’ve made before – it’s my blog and I’ll repeat myself if I want to – but far too many Bond movies forget that their protagonist is a spy. Far too many reveal the megalomaniac villain’s identity and entirely tip the audience off to their plans for world domination way in advance of the halfway mark. The formula thus becomes: M gives Bond a briefing, impressing upon him that something nefarious is afoot and the fate of the free world is in his hands; an early lead tips Bond off to a billionaire industrialist/scientist/jeweler/media mogul [delete as applicable]; Bond rolls up at a casino frequented by said interchangeable bad guy, announces himself as “Bond, James Bond” (way to go, dude; blow that cover!) and then fleeces him at cards or dice and/or sleeps with his girlfriend. Villain dude spends Act Two trying to kill Bond. Bond blows his fully-kitted out secret base to shit in Act Three. This, friends and neighbours, is not spying. This, frankly, is the kind of stuff that would have George Smiley or Harry Palmer laughing their socks off before they pour another cup of tea, spend forty-eight hours studying their nemeses’ files, then pull off a brilliant coup de theatre based entirely on intelligence, fieldcraft and patient enterprise and not even the hint of an explosion or a car chase.

‘The Living Daylights’ lets Bond do some spying. It leaves him in the dark for a while vis-à-vis the plethora of double- and triple-crosses playing out in the background. It keeps him on his feet and tests his wits. These are all positive attributes. And it manages these things while remembering to dish up some big-budget action: the ballsy Gibraltar pre-credits sequence in which Bond’s first bit of hand-to-hand sees him headbutt an antagonist; the aforementioned wintry chase scene involving some ‘Goldfinger’-like modifications to a cool-as-fuck Aston Martin; Bond hooking up with some Mujahideen freedom fighters (essentially making this the ‘Rambo III’ of Bond movies; oh, how the political landscape has changed!) to attack a Russian air force base; and Bond’s vertiginous duel with Necros inside (and outside) a military aircraft with a ticking bomb on board.

John Glen, in his fourth consecutive spell in the director’s chair, makes amends for the tired, sloppy and horribly labored ‘AVtaK’. Maibaum and Wilson invest their script with a seriousness (by Bondian standards, anyway) that ruefully regrets the dumb one-liners and eye-rolling tomfoolery of much of the Moore years. Dalton plays it straight, giving his characterization of Bond a sense of purpose and a hint of ruthlessness that recalls the Bond of the novels.

On the minus side, however, the globe-trotting is excessive (Czechoslovakia, Austria, Tangier, Afghanistan, Bond hopping between locations as if attached to a globe-spanning bungee cord), the plot threatens to get a little too labyrinthine at times, and the film juggles its plethora of villains – including Joe Don Baker as an arms dealer with a war-games fetish – as if indecisive as to which one is 007’s actual nemesis. The final confrontation thus comes as something of an anti-climax, particularly after the extended Bond-goes-jihad/airbase-gets-blown-to-hell/bomb-on-a-plane set-piece. The ushering in of a new Miss Moneypenny is also something of a let-down: no disrespect to Caroline Bliss – she’s easy on the eye and brings an admixture of playfulness and intelligence to the part – but (a) it was never going to be easy stepping into Lois Maxwell’s shoes (Maxwell had been, until ‘AVtaK’, the only person to appear in every official Bond movie); and (b) the script gives her absolutely bugger all to work with. Which is shame, given how effectively Maibaum and Wilson had striven to introduce a new Bond.

The jury’s still out, as far as I’m concerned, on Maryam d’Abo as a Bond girl. Kudos to all concerned for breaking with tradition and not only making Kara integral to the plot rather than just window dressing but presenting her as a genuine romantic heroine. A pawn first in Koskov’s machinations and then equally duped by Bond as he drags her along in his pursuit of the defector, Kara is for all intents and purposes the innocent betrayed. Maybe this accounts for d’Abo’s unfailingly annoying repertoire: frightened mouse, fluffy bunny, kitten with its claws out, and deer wondering what those two rapidly approaching luminescent orbs are. And before the film’s out the otherwise commendable script pulls a barrel-scraping rehash of the last act reduce-the-heroine-to-brainless-bimbo volte face that scuppered Jill St John’s character in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and Barbara Bach’s in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’.

Perhaps the most telling thing about ‘The Living Daylights’ is the post-credits assurance that “James Bond will return”. That’s all it says. For the first time since ‘Dr No’, there’s no teaser of the next film’s title. It set a trend; no Bond movie since has trailed it’s successor’s title. There’s a sense here of the producers hedging their bets. They needn’t have worried; pulling in $191million from a $40million budget, Bond was still box office. He’d be back.

ADDENDUM: Since I went live with this review, it's been pointed out to me that 'A View to a Kill' was actually the first Bond movie not to trailer the next film's title. My bad. I'd ejected the disc as soon as the credits rolled on 'AVtaK' and taken myself off to a public house to wash the memory of the film away. The paragraph of strikethrough above essentially leaves this review somewhat unconcluded. Ah, well, them's the breaks. The Agitation of the Mind will return ...


Michael Grover said...

I always liked Timothy Dalton as well. The guy's a serious actor (although one who can also be incredibly funny - see Hot Fuzz), and he definitely brought a gravitas to the role that had been missing. By the way, it was actually Rambo III that featured Rambo teaming up with the Mujahedin in Afghanistan.

Neil Fulwood said...

Well spotted, Michael. Correction hastily made!

I love Dalton's turn in 'Hot Fuzz' - you can tell he was having a lot of fun with the role.

David Pascoe said...

Sorry to bung in another correction but, A View to A Kill was the first Bond movie not to trailer its successor's title. I bet you turned off in relief once the credits started and missed it ;0)

This was the better of Dalton's two movies by a long way. Mainly because I cared for and rooted for Bond in this movie, in a way that I didn't do in Licence to Kill. In that movie, he was virtually indistinguishable from the bad guys and it didn't sit well with me.

Crucially Dalton looked like a secret agent, in a way which Roger Moore hadn't done for ages.

Neil Fulwood said...

David, you're absolutely correct - the moment the 'AVtaK' credits kicked in, the DVD was off and I was down the pub! Addendum published to this effect.

(Two mistakes in one article! I'm slipping!)

Franco Macabro said...

I remember seeing this one as a kid and not knowing what the hell was going on in it! But I knew I liked it. I loved that first opening action sequences with the car jumping off the cliff, and the scene where he's hanging from the plane full of opium.

Agree with you, this one plays it straight, and I too like Bond better that way.

Michael Grover said...

It just occurred to me that this film was a milestone of sorts in that it was the last Bond film to feature a score by John Barry.