WARNING: AS IN ALL THE OTHER ESSAYS, SPOILERS ABOUND.
1. It was supposed to be Pierce Brosnan in that poster, a decade early from when he finally took over as James Bond*; however, due to Remington Steele being renewed by NBC at the eleventh hour, Brosnan was forced to drop out, and the third actor considered for the role, Timothy Dalton, ended up taking the role. And, while it turned out to be the wrong choice in the long run, it was the best choice in the short term, as the stupid excess of the Roger Moore era (not to be confused with excess in general) was wiped away in favor of a tougher, grimmer James Bond. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I am a very big fan of Dalton’s interpretation of Bond; he apparently read the entire Fleming oeuvre prior to filming, and decided to play things as straight as possible. This is a Bond that never looks anything less than realistic in his fight sequences, with a sniper rifle, or on horseback; this is a Bond more than ready to chuck his job as a secret agent if he feels his moral code is being infringed upon; this is a Bond more ready to make a snarled remark than a stupid pun (though we get a stupid pun or two, of course). In other words, this is as polarizing a Bond that’s ever existed (other than the one we have now, and I’d say only a precious few question Daniel Craig’s Bond at this point), and the world wasn’t ready for him in 1987. Given the reaction to Craig’s Bond movies, the world probably would have been much more ready for him in 2006. Timing really is everything.
2. It really is worth the extra paragraph to figure out why this portrayal of Bond never really caught on (especially since the rest of the main cast is filled out with fine performances, from Maryam D’Abo’s vulnerable Russian cellist to the always good John Rhys-Davies; only Joe Don Baker’s cartoon of an arms dealer falls flat because the film doesn’t treat him seriously enough for us to treat him seriously in turn). I can’t imagine it’s because the movie wasn’t thrilling enough - there’s plenty of thrills in this movie, as we’ll note below. And I also don’t think that people would care that much about Bond’s relative chasteness in this movie; Bond movies were never all that hot and heavy to begin with, and Dalton’s Bond *does* land a woman at the beginning of the movie, lest you think he’s some kind of eunuch. So was it really just that people weren’t ready for a more dour and truer to life Bond, one less interested in seducing everything that moves and more interested in doing a job? Were people really that beholden to Roger Moore’s interpretation, all plummy one-liners and droll suavity (up until his age really began showing, at least)? Maybe it really was just the times being less adequate for a serious interpretation of James Bond, everybody more interested in a good time than a grim face. Add that to the list of reasons why the 1980s sucked.
3. The Living Daylights begins with a slam-bang action sequence right out of the gates, as Bond stops a rogue agent killing MI6 agents during a training sequence; the sheer violence of the fistfight in a Jeep, as well as Dalton’s stuntwork (he did many of his own stunts in the film, and it shows), immediately sets this movie apart from Moore’s final movies (maybe even his best ones). The movie’s actual plot actually stays on the right side of realistic this time; KGB officer Kozlov fabricates a plot to defect to the West, only to be retaken to Russia, in order to set up a major arms deal and eliminate an unfriendly Russian general in the bargain. And the movie, as noted above, has no share of explosive sequences, the best of which is a souped-up Goldfinger throwback with Bond & D’Abo escaping a snow-covered Czechoslovakia and a host of machine-gun toting soldiers via a new-style Aston Martin and, um, a less conventional means of sledding down an icy hillside. Nothing else quite matches it - the final battle between the Mujahideen and a Soviet battalion in Afghanistan, along with Bond battling the movie’s (cookie-cutter, but whatever) henchman in a cargo plane, comes closest - but there’s certainly no shortage of thrills to be found here. Not only that, but the rest of the plot moves very fluidly, just like Connery’s best movies - Kozlov’s “defection”, the budding romance between Bond and the cellist, the fake assassination of the Russian general, and a prison breakout in Afghanistan are all filmed with a minimum of muss and fuss. You won’t see a damn bird doing a damn double-take here, I can guarantee you that.
4. One interesting aspect about this movie, at least in the modern age, is how the shift in global politics has rendered the subplot of the Mujahideen, or Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation, both entirely outdated and even a little uncomfortable (“look at all those heroic fighters who very easily could have joined Al Qaeda a decade later!”).** The obvious thing to point out is that, back in 1987, audiences would have been totally cool with this portrayal of the Mujahideen as noble good guys fighting to protect their land from outside forces; hell, that’s pretty much how one would describe the American colonists way back in 1775. If watching this movie makes you uncomfortable now, it’s worth taking a moment to remember how different things were in those days, and about how worthy that battle against the Russians was to Afghanis, and how easily a curdled hatred towards the West for that battle ending badly could lead to the creation of splinter cells and the path to September 11. I know that’s some heavy shit, but considering how many battles America has fought since World War II, it’s worth thinking about. We’ve always been at war with Eurasia, you know.
5. With the benefit of 25 years of hindsight (as well as the changing views on what makes a good James Bond movie), it seems entirely obvious that this is a higher-level James Bond movie, retaining the action sequences, stuff-of-Popular-Mechanics-dreams, and cool globe-hopping locales, while also offering a Bond that could exist in real life and still seem as cool as any of the other Bonds.*** With that same benefit of hindsight, it also seems apparent that Dalton was the wrong choice for Bond, with his more grounded action hero an anachronism in the pumped-up roided-out action hero landscape of the time. Well, at least we still have this movie to make us think of what could have been. There are many different ways to make a James Bond movie; this movie hews very close to the way of making one that I prefer.
MY BOND MOVIE RANKINGS, UPDATED POST BY POST:
1. From Russia With Love
2. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
4. The Living Daylights
5. The Spy Who Loved Me
6. Dr. No
7. For Your Eyes Only
9. Live And Let Die
12. You Only Live Twice
13. Diamonds Are Forever
14. A View To A Kill
15. The Man With The Golden Gun
* Or Sam Neill, which is pretty crazy to think about.
** Via this fantastic article about how Hollywood has portrayed Middle Eastern politics from the 1980s to Zero Dark Thirty: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/hollywood-and-the-holy-land-zero-dark-thirty-isnt-the-1st-to-play-politics/267150/
*** It doesn’t hurt that Timothy Dalton is a really good actor, as well.