Alex, you were right.
My good friend Alex has argued with me for years that I've been too harsh in my evaluation of The Living Daylights. I've always regarded it as somehow less than the sum of its parts, as a film that seemed caught between Roger Moore era and (in my mind) the classic Licence To Kill.
Well, I'm ready to concede that I was wrong. Oh, TLD isn't a perfect Bond movie, by any means. And a couple of its flaws still bug the, well, living daylights out of me. But upon rewatching, I found TLD to be much better than I had remembered. And I will be moving it up the list accordingly. So, this one's for you, Alex.
This movie, of course, introduced Timothy Dalton as 007, and it was a fairly momentous change at the time. Roger Moore had been in the role for 7 movies and 14 years. And we were into the era of home VHS, so even those too young to have enjoyed him at the time were increasingly familiar with Sean Connery as Bond. So Dalton had the unenviable task of following two giants (and the other fella). Could a classically trained actor who was little known outside of England, who was given the role by default after the producers first choice became unavailable, be up to the task? And given the way other movie franchises were redefining the vocabulary of action films--and redefining box office expectations for them--how would the writers and producers respond?
Our answer comes quickly in the teaser, which is the best in (at least) a decade. No coy "aren't we cute" humor, no physically impossible stunts played for laughs, no Beach Boys songs...just a taut little mini-movie that also sets up the main plotline rather well. A routine training exercise at Gibraltar turns deadly as someone uses the occasion to spring a trap on the the Double-O section, as 004 gets offed right in front of Bond's eyes. Bond's relentless pursuit of the killer, while dodging paintballs and real bullets, immediately tells us that this isn't a Moore movie. The tense direction, the great stunt work, and the sheer physicality that Dalton brings to the role here, is something that had been missing from the later Moore era. Given that neither Connery's nor Moore's Bond actually appeared in a teaser until their third movies respectively, and that Lazenby's was nowhere near this exciting, I have little trouble declaring that Dalton has the "best first teaser" of any Bond (thus far...Brosnan and Craig will have something to say about that, obviously).
Oh, and about the "safe sex Bond." For those of you too young to remember, this was the first Bond of the AIDS era, and with the transition to Dalton a lot of hay was made in the press that we wouldn't see Bond sleeping with tons of woman anymore, and that in TLD Bond would be with just one woman throughout. Which just goes to prove that pundits and critics don't, you know, actually watch the movies, as Bond scores in the freaking teaser!! Tune in two weeks from now as we watch the media go wild in a similar way over Bond being a "sexist, misogynistic dinosaur."
The theme song...ahh, yes. I know a lot of you out there like a-Ha's take, and more power to you. But me, I don't cotton to it. While it does have a catchy chorus, everything else in the song is treacly and forgettable, just feeble and stilted Euro dance pop (uh oh, now I've done it). It feels like the producers were making a blatant attempt to recapture the success of Duran Duran's "A View To A Kill," but failed to notice that a-Ha was no Duran Duran. Most telling--when another song (by the Pretenders) is used more often, and much more successfully, in the score than a-Ha's tune.
The first scene post-teaser is straight of the Ian Fleming short story. In Fleming's version, Bond has to protect a defector escaping from Berlin, and when the sniper turns out to be a woman, 007 refuses to kill her, adjusting his aim so that he only shoots the rifle out of her hand. When a bureaucrat threatens to tell M, Bonds tell him to go ahead, and hopes he'll get fired for it.
The way this story is used in the opening is the most important indicator of how Dalton's Bond is going to be different. First, the writers Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson decide to use the whole story, and make it a lynch pin of the movie's plot. In this way, TLD is much closer to For Your Eyes Only than Octopussy or A View To A Kill, which used some Fleming stories for just background, or for a title only, respectively. There wasn't much Fleming left for the writers to use now, but they were going to use it seriously and make it integral to the movie.
Yet they also decided to broaden that short story out. The actual escape, with Bond and Saunder's competing plans, isn't from the story--that's original. And it sets the tenor for Dalton's brief stint. It was to be Bond vs. the Bureaucrats, 007 trying to do what's right while still accomplishing his missions. In both of his movies, everyone around Bond seems forced to act according to pre-ordained roles, with no free will: 007, we can't tell you the escape plan; James, you must murder Pushkin; James, you can't go after Sanchez; James, no questioning orders. It's a fascinating shift in the tone of the series, and maybe it couldn't have gone any farther after Licence to Kill pushed it to the limit, but it was damned interesting to watch while it was going on.
Finally, there was an awareness of the outside world that had seemed lacking in the Moore era. The Trans-Siberian pipeline was big news in the day, and a development of some controversy (and still is today, thanks to Europe's growing dependence of Russian natural gas). Yes, they made it a bit humorous yet never over the top. And it was the first time in a while that they had tried to take a real-world issue and Bond-ize it (and let's give credit--it was pretty clever and well done). LTK would take a much more real look at the war on drugs and its implications than the cartoonish Mr. Big of Live And Let Die ever did. Not everybody approved of this approach, but it was clearly the modus operandi of the Dalton films--no more genocidal billionaires, just some real world issues given a 45 degree twist and turned up to 11.
Dalton himself had re-read much of Fleming before taking on the role, and it shows. Just as in the TLD short story, his Bond comes across as very world-weary, very blase. He's seen a lot of death, and he doesn't have time for the comedy antics anymore. He is a killer; can you imagine Roger Moore being sent on an assassination mission? In some ways, his portrayal of Bond is closest to Fleming's conception--a no-nonsense killer who questions what he's doing, who uses the martinis and woman to make bearable the life he leads. He's burned out on those, too--look at the way he almost has to talked into a dalliance with Linda (the boat lady) in the teaser--"I'm no nonsense, I've got a mission, another comrade dead--oh, all right, if you insist!"
Some have said Dalton doesn't do humor as well as Connery or Moore, and to an extent that's right. But if you've seen other films he's down, it's clear that he can do conventional humor. It might be more accurate to say that he just does the comedy differently.Whereas Connery used the death quip as a bitter, sarcastic taunt at a fallen foe, and Moore practically turned to the camera and wiggled his eyebrows in an attempt for a laugh, Dalton plays it very much in his conception of the character--it's a desperate (but failed) attempt to lighten the burden after yet another death, a vain cry against the darkness of the spy's life. It's almost as if he's trying to laugh at himself, but failing miserably.
Dalton's conception of Bond is one of the reasons the romance with Kara works so well. Her innocence and optimism is such a stark contrast to Bond's cynicism and weariness that it makes their relationship much more interesting than many of the ones in the later Moore era. Kara may not be the best Bond girl ever, but this is surely the sweetest romance of the entire series. Just watch how she gradually transforms Bond, from the cold woman-manipulator a la Roger Moore to a man who feels guilty about what he's done to her to caring for her. And after the climax, after he has already been sent off on his next mission, he comes back to see her--this is the first time we've ever seen this in the franchise!!
Maryam d'Abo, much to her credit, finds the right note to make all of this believable. She's a civilian, but she's not a helpless screamer, as was Stacy Sutton. She's game enough to stand by her man, Koskov, even things get difficult and she's hassled by the KGB. She's frightened by events around her, but summons up enough courage to muddle through and be a real help (mostly) to Bond...just don't let her fly the plane. Her performance helps set the standard for the category "innocent civilian swept into events beyond her control" of Bond girls.
The producers also step up the globetrotting aspect of Bond. After being almost completely confined to France and San Francisco last time out, this time we're on a whirlwind tour of Gibraltar, Czechoslovakia, rural England, Vienna, Tangier, Afghanistan, Pakistan...the locations are mostly used to good effect, and (until the last half hour really begins to drag) keep the audience interested during the lulls in the action.
A special shout to Thomas Wheatley as Saunders, one of the series' greatest sacrificial lambs. Presented as essentially a snooty weasel in the opener, the script has enough confidence in itself not to leave him as a one-dimensional character. Saunders and Bond develop a grudging respect for each other, and the audience actually begins to like him, which make's Saunder's death all the more painful. Wheatley's performance makes the transition believable, and his death...well, ouch, what a way to go. (Unfair question department--maybe this is a European thing, but how many places have their automatic doors' workings exposed like that, so anyone can get to them? Just asking...)
Which leads us to Necros, a great henchman. With his ubiquitous Walkman playing the scary "Where Has Everybody Gone?" whenever he's in action, he brings an air of badly needed menace to the proceedings, even though he doesn't have much dialogue, or much to do besides kill, kill, and kill again. He's a worthy opponent for Dalton's first outing, the relentless killer who gives James one hell of a fight after building up the audience's desire to see him taken out.
One major misstep with Necros, however, is during the "kidnapping" of Koskov from the safehouse. Don't get me wrong...it was very well done, and exciting (milk bottles as grenades??). And the kitchen fight was wonderful...thrilling and innovative, reminiscent of the legendary train car battle between Bond and Red Grant in From Russia With Love. Except...who the hell was Necros fighting? Much of the impact of this great, great fight scene (which took 3 days to film!) is diluted because we have absolutely no idea whom he is fighting. It's a character we've never met, never had a single line of dialogue from...we don't even know his name! (Hint: it's stuntman Bill Weston, credited only as "Butler, Blayden"). It's not Bond, it's not someone we know or have any emotional investment in. I'll grant you, there might be some level of cool in the argument that "this proves how tough MI-6 is, when even their anonymous butlers are badasses." But from a dramatic standpoint, I don't think it helps your movie when the film's most exciting physical conflict takes place with our hero (played by a new actor) is nowhere to be seen. Given the time and energy they invested in this one scene, they should have re-jiggered it either to include Bond (having Necros "defeat" him there would add extra juice to their final fight later), or made sure the butler was a character the audience had some reason to care about.
The second misstep is the "ice chase" in Czechoslovakia. After going to such lengths to give us more realistic action scenes in Gibraltar and Blayden, we immediately descend into the nadir of bad Roger Moore set pieces. Things happen not because they make sense, or are physically possible, or are remotely believable, but because they're "funny"--which completely takes us out of the mood the movie had set for us. Using the laser to somehow cut completely through the police car so it can fall apart in a funny way? Driving in a circle on the ice to cut a hole to sink another one? Now we're back in Bugs Bunny territory, or Pink Panther territory, not James Bond.
Another difficulty is that, like most 1980's Bond films, TLD is too long for the story we're given. Maybe the producers were paid by the minute, because Octopussy, VTAK, TLD--they all go on at least ten minutes too long. After the "assassination" of Pushkin, the pacing of the film just feels off, flat and distended. The stuff in Afghanistan, while all well done, just goes on far, far too long--it lasts for over 35 minutes!! Despite all of the excellent stunt work, and all of the lovely pyrotechnics, do we really need to see every explosion in the battle, every bag of heroin loaded, every shot fired by both sides? It goes on for so long, in one continuous crisis after another, that the audience is exhausted when we get to the final shot-out with Whitaker, which now comes across as a total anti-climax. Throw in the fact that there is absolutely NO transition to that final fight (Bond and Kara escape from the plane, then suddenly Bond is back in Tangier stalking Whitaker. No explanation, no transition, no Kara...it just suddenly happens!), and the whole ending feels tacked on, instead of being a natural development.
(Just to show that I'm not merely a complaining backseat director, I offer the following suggestions how to pep up the films last half hour. While it's good to see Felix Leiter finally return after 14 years, John Terry gives a horrendous performance, and Leiter's presence adds literally nothing to the proceedings. Cutting his scenes costs nothing and speeds things up. And cut at least 5 minutes out of the Afghanistan business, including the circling back to blow up the bridge business. And throw in some kind of transition scene, maybe with M recalling Bond but he insists on going to finish off Whitaker.)
The ending also feels a bit squishy because the villains' plans aren't terribly exciting. It's a fairly prosaic plot--trick Bond into killing Pushkin so we can make money selling drugs--that doesn't lend itself to a thrilling conclusion. There's no bomb to disarm, no catastrophe averted...just a bunch of bags of heroin dumped out of the back of a plane (not even destroyed!!) and the rest blown up in a plane crash. Yes, Bond did avert the evil scheme...but somehow it just doesn't feel like a significant victory, does it? Because there was no tension from a countdown of any type, and because the stakes were so low, we don't get the sense of relief that we're used to from Bond thwarting the bad guys' plan.
The other reason the denouement falls so flat is that we one again have villain misuse, as we did in Octopussy. To begin with, we have pretty weak villains this time out. Georgi Koskov, with all his hugging and sputtering, comes off more pathetic than evil. But I will defend Jeroen Krabbe to this extent--watch Koskov when he drops off Bond and Kara in Afghanistan. He's no longer a buffoon--he's a mean bastard, someone you could almost buy as a true villain. It's only when he's around people he's trying to trick--Bond and MI-6 early on, or Pushkin--that he adopts the aspect of the fool. Krabbe is portraying Koskov as acting. The only problem is, Krabbe is not very good at it, taking Koskov's "performance" too far over the top, weakening the character in our eyes. And the script doesn't do him any favors, not letting the true Koskov show through until 3/4 of the way through the movie, and then for only a couple of minutes.
As to Whitaker, well, I've never been a Joe Don Baker admirer, so I'll just restrict my critique to the fact that the script gives him absolutely nothing to do. He has very few scenes, and only two (one each with Pushkin and Bond) where he does anything more than growl orders at people. And then he just keeps spouting off his faux military cliches. The writers never elevate him above a brief character sketch--and neither does the performance.
But the problem is, as in Octopussy, Bond settles up with the wrong villain. Until the finale, Bond HAS NEVER EVEN MET Whitaker. So there is no sense of a plot culminating, no sense of an ultimate confrontation between enemies--just two guys who've never met stalking each other in a dark room, and even then they never come face to face. You feel as though someone should have stepped in and introduced them first. The final confrontation, as a result, is completely lacking in any dramatic tension. Meanwhile, the villain Bond should really want to settle with is Koskov, who lied to him directly and used him and left him to die in Afghanistan. But just as with Orlov in Octopussy, Bond doesn't get to deliver the coup de gras to Koskov. Pushkin does, and the final blow (presumably?) is delivered off-screen by anonymous KGB agents. Terrifically unsatisfying. (Not to mention the actual resolution to the fight with Whitaker---dropping a statue on him--is pretty lame)
A final reservation I have is the whole Afghanistan business...it just feels...off, somehow. No, I don't have the post-9/11 reservation some folks do. Applying 20 years of geopolitical hindsight can be foolhardy thing to do to a fantasy adventure series, and in 1987 few foresaw the Soviet withdrawal and its consequences coming. And frankly, Kamran Shah sure doesn't seem like the Taliban type.
No, my reservations stem from the contemporary implications that the movie seems to not have a firm grasp on. Afghanistan was a huge battleground of the Cold War. But it's kind of hard to tell that from the movie's treatment of the issue. Yes, Koskov and Whitaker were evil, but only at the margins--Russia was trying to get more weapons to kill the Mujaheddin. Pushkin was just pissed because those two were trying to enrich themselves first, rather than immediately buying weapons. When Bond was trying to convince Kamran to help, by saying the drug money would be used to buy weapons....well, hold on, so would the original $50 million they got from Russia!! Yet Bond doesn't want to kill Pushkin--even though it was British policy to oppose the Soviets in Afghanistan, Bond doesn't want to stop it, unless someone gets greedy and kills a couple of British agents? Meanwhile, after he escapes, Bond circles back with the plane and blows up a bridge full of Soviet tanks and troops who aren't part of Koskov's plot. Some would consider that an act of war, for heaven's sake--yet Pushkin and Gogol never so much as shrug at it! When M presented Kamran to Gogol in Vienna, that should have been a major diplomatic incident, akin (in Soviet eyes) to presenting an al-Qaeda representative to the U.S. ambassador!! And even if she was an innocent dupe, is it remotely plausible that a Czech defector who had helped fight Soviet troops would be given an unrestricted emigration visa? None of what happens rings true to how the parties should have behaved.
Earlier I praised TLD for taking a topical issue and giving it a Bond twist. Here, they fail. The fiction of the Bond movies--that the USSR and the West were basically friendly competitors except for the occasional nutty general--completely falls apart when you set your movie in the hottest battleground of the end of the Cold War, and still try to ignore the Britain and Russia were on opposite sides there.
I've probably spent way too much time dwelling on the plot's shortcomings, because I do feel that the film's good points outweigh them, by a fair margin. But TLD could have been a GREAT Bond movie, instead of merely a good one. The romance is one of the series' strongest; they keep the plot slowly unfolding, so the audience is never sure what the villains' real plan is until late in the film (which might explain part of the disappointment--all this murder and defection and kidnapping and skulduggery, only to have it turn out to be a glorified drug deal?!?); aside from the ice chase, the action scenes and stunt work are top notch, a definite step up from the late Moore era; and Dalton makes a very effective debut as 007. Better villains, better pacing, and a stronger ending would certainly have made this one of the top rated Bond films ever. Without those, though, the movie falls short of classic.
Still, it is pretty good. Satisfied now, Alex?
Tune in next week, when for Bond, this time it's personal!!
SNELL'S RANDOM NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS
**How did Koskov and Whitaker know about the training exercise at Gibraltar? Sure, it probably wasn't top secret or anything, but it also probably wasn't widely advertised, especially to the Russians. Did they have a mole in MI-6?? And for that matter, how did they know about that safehouse at Blayden, and that Koskov was stashed there?
**Speaking of which, maybe they should have left a more obvious clue to inspire MI-6 to kill Putin. The little "smiert spiomun" tag was found "near the body," apparently much later; Bond doesn't even hear about it until after Koskov re-escapes. If there had been a stronger wind, the tag would have blown away, and no one would have known...
**Since the mission is to penetrate the RADAR installation at Gibraltar, may I suggest that parachuting in from a plane might not have been the most effective infiltration route? Those things show up on radar...
**That's probably the best mobile office for M ever...
**After not hearing anything about other Double-O agents for a while, suddenly they're name dropped every movie, and also dropping liked flies. 009 dies in Octopussy, 003 in VTAK, now 004...and 008 gets a mention.
This is also the first time we get any actual face time with any of the other OO's, and, well, given what we see here, they're not terribly impressive, are they? 002 is tangled in a tree and shot with a paintball 10 seconds in? 004 makes no real effort to save himself and screams like a baby on the way down? Is James really that much better than the rest? Or has he just been incredibly luckier over the years??
**Given that Koskov and Whitaker are trying to keep things hidden, isn't buying a $150,000 cello at a public auction just a little bit too conspicuous? It was the only link that led Bond to Whitaker...and surely someone in Kara's orchestra would have noticed that she suddenly had a freakin' Stradivarius, wouldn't they? Certainly the sudden appearance of such a capitalist luxury would have led to some investigation by the Czech secret police or the KGB (Yes, I know they planned for Kara to die, but the cello would have still been around, right? And it would have led the KGB to Whitaker...).
**Speaking of being too conspicuous...isn't the use of the VTOL to blast upwards from the inside of the building where Koskov exits the pipeline a bit too attention-getting? Everybody, including the Czech border guards, turns to watch it take off. Doesn't that kind of give away the game? Now everybody knows the terminus for this escape route, so they can figure out the beginning...the fancy plane has ruined it for future use, haven't they? Koskov was already in the west...why not just drive him to the airport or military base, instead of flashing a big neon "look how we escaped" sign??
**This is a top KGB assassin??
Exploding teddy bears??**Just asking--they still had milkmen in England in 1987? And they'll let any old yob claiming to be his sub into a high security safe house??
**That evil scheme has one heckuva profit margin--from $50 million (which wasn't even theirs) to half a billion? S.P.E.C.T.R.E. could learn a thing or two here...
**Speaking of which, where exactly were they planning on selling heroin? Did Koskov and Whitaker already have a deal set up? Was the Soviet army in the drug dealing business?
**Caroline Bliss never did much for me as Moneypenny...despite it being 1987, she always seemed more clingy and dependent than Lois Maxwell did 25 years earlier....
**Walter Gottel was too ill for the demands placed on the role, so Gogol was "promoted' to the foreign service (really? That was a promotion?) and John Rhys-Davies as General Pushkin takes over his old job. JRD does a fine job, too, bringing the right mixture of authority and understated menace to the role. He has a good chemistry with Dalton; it's a shame that they don't get more screen time together.
**Ladies and gentleman, the first bird flipped in James Bond history:
**Bond Score: 2. Linda and Kara. Cumulative Bond Score: 43
And as always:
Tune in next week as 007 just says "NO!" to drugs, and makes a Hemingway joke no one ever gets...