Film Review: The Living Daylights (1987)

Every James Bond film involves a battle, and not just against a flabby big bad or an impending global catastrophe. Instead, the primary battle of the James Bond franchise is one of relevancy.

Each adventure must answer some very big questions. How do you take a dinosaur of a character and make him feel fresh? How do you help a character that is inherently sexist, nationalistic, and (at times) sadistically violent change with the times? Finally, how do you accomplish these goals and still respect the character’s basic ethos?

These fundamental questions percolate at the core of the long-running series, rising to the surface most clearly during times of recasting. By the mid-80s, the Bond series was in just such a period, marked by the retirement of geriatric funnyman Roger Moore, and the hiring of Timothy Dalton as his replacement in 1986.

This shift proved to be a minor Godsend. During the later years of the Moore tenure, the Bond character had experienced a profound creative degeneration. This was a period where audiences were forced to watch Bond literally become a clown (in Octopussy), and shamelessly attempt to capture a little of that Star Wars magic (in Moonraker). Thus, Dalton’s casting seemed destined to positively shake up the series, not just stir around the old formula.

1987’s The Living Daylights was the first film of this new era. Although fueled by Bond’s recasting, not to mention several inspired set pieces, the film unfortunately often feels laborious. With a torpid pace, forgettable villains and a plot that makes you wanna just scratch your head in confusion, The Living Daylights is little more than a serviceable Bond installment. It hardly shakes the dust from the ol’ misogynist’s bones.

Even worse, The Living Daylights doesn’t capitalize on the promise of its premise. As a film that premiered when the world was on the cusp of seismic change, where the dissolution of the Soviet Union was fast approaching, The Living Daylights had the potential to parse something truly topical. It could have showcased a modern Bond who was contending with modern-day problems.

To some degree, that is what it attempts to do. Expanding upon a 1966 short story by Ian Fleming, The Living Daylights follows Bond as he foils an assassination attempt on a Russian defector by a beautiful cellist. However, the film then sees the spy become mired in a bizarre plot involving a jovial arms dealer, and something to do with the Soviets’ 1980s misadventure in Afghanistan.  The film is interesting in its depiction of a pre-Al-Qaeda Middle East, not to mention the way it highlights Britain’s status as a regional power (the Afghan resistance openly chortle when Bond is revealed as an agent of the British government). Still, there is a narrative incoherence that pervades the proceedings. This significantly limits the film’s ability to communicate about a time when the balance of power in the world was changing.

These quibbles aside, the most egregious failing of The Living Daylights is that it doesn’t rejuvenate the franchise, at least not with the same potent electricity seen in the freshman efforts of other Bonds (Live and Let Die with Moore, Goldeneye with Brosnan and, most spectacularly, Casino Royale with Craig). Much of the traditional formula is here, including an action-packed prologue, Q-lab gadgets, hammy villains, and obligatory chases and fights. It all feels rather perfunctory, so much that even the classic Bond theme feels like a lullaby rather than part of an action movie score.

In my humble and perhaps worthless opinion, many of the problems found in The Living Daylights have to do with the casting of Dalton. However, these problems have nothing to do with what the actor does wrong with the role. Instead, they are precipitated by what he does right.

Dalton’s Bond is by far one of the most interesting takes on the character. Non-traditionally handsome, angry and possessing a flagrant disregard for institutional authority, his version of the character feels startlingly real and deeply burdened. He has some traces of the debonair charisma found in other versions of Bond (most palpably in Brosnan’s version), and some of the character’s world-famous sexism. Yet, Dalton’s performance makes the character his own. He isn’t the sexual monster that Sean Connery’s Bond could be (watch the first third of Thunderball), nor is he the thuggish automaton that Craig’s performance flirts with throughout his three (and soon to be four) films.

the living daylights

Yet, this engaged, grounded work feels disconnected from some elements of the film that surrounds it. This is most obvious in Bond’s interactions with women throughout the story. Aside from an implied hookup with a buxom woman on a yacht (shown in the clip embedded above), the other “Bond girl” present in the film is Maryam d’Abo’s Kara, the cellist and sniper who Bond faces off with early in the film, and who is undoubtedly one of the series’ worst female characters.

Characterized as almost entirely dependent on men, Kara does little to push the gender relations of the series forward. But even more egregiously detrimental is that her pairing with Dalton’s Bond simply makes no sense. It’s unclear why this incarnation of the character (with his extreme lifestyle and outlook) would even be attracted to her in the first place. In fact, much of the film seems to have this issue, where Dalton’s believable performance is cruelly paired with the series’ rather outrageous formulas. This is also glaring during interludes at Q-lab, and in scenes that require the Bond character to be at his wise-cracking worse. The effects of these juxtapositions are powerful, ultimately turning a film that could have modernized Bond into something not only antiquated, but deeply awkward.

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