Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Living Daylights

The year is 1987 and you are Albert Broccoli, producer of the extremely successful James Bond 007 movie series.  Roger Moore has retired from Bond-ing after twelve years, and you have chosen Timothy Dalton, the male lead in Brenda Starr, to star in the fifteenth James Bond film, The Living Daylights.  Think carefully...who do you get to sing your title theme song?  You could go with some Guns 'n' Roses, fresh off their huge debut; U2 was touring for The Joshua Tree that year; Los Lobos did a great job with the La Bamba soundtrack; Whitney Houston wanted to dance with somebody who loved her; and it was the original year of the RickRoll --- Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" was a worldwide smash.  Who do you choose for the sure-fire commercial success of a Bond theme song?

If you guessed a-ha, then you really are Albert Broccoli.  They even had The Pretenders record a song --- not the title song --- for the movie, and instead had a-ha perform "The Living Daylights."  This is after their last album peaked at #74 on the US charts and their last single soared all the way to #50.  Don't get me wrong, Broccoli, I see the conflict; Chrissie Hynde is is an awesome singer with a lot of stylistic range, but a-ha kind of sucks and has a lead singer that can hit a high note as long as he's an animated pencil drawing.  Boy, I hope the "success" of this single (the title track hit #113 on the Billboard charts) isn't a bad sign for Dalton's first time out as Bond.

The Living Daylights has one of the less straightforward Bond plots.  The new head of the KGB, General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies), has apparently revived the old KGB policy of "smert' shpionam" (abbreviated to SMERSH for us stupid Americans), Russian for "death to all spies."  What's the big deal about that?  Isn't that kind of how being a spy works?  Apparently not.  If the Russians start killing spies, the English/American side will reciprocate, which will inevitably lead to war.  Really?  Well, okay, if you say so.  I kind of thought that spies were the most expendable of assets, but maybe it's different in England.  The first signs of this policy are seen at a 00 training session, where an assassin kills a 00-agent and several soldiers before Bond kills him.  Bond's immediate next move is to land on a yacht, where he "befriends" a spoiled rich woman.  And if this was a fortune cookie, you would say "in bed."

Justifiably concerned with a note they found on the crime scene (it said SMERSH), British Intelligence is intent on helping KGB General Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe) defect, if only to get more intel on this whole SMERSH business; James Bond's (Timothy Dalton) job is to kill the sniper that intelligence says is going to try to kill Koskov as he defects.  As Koskov is sneaked through Berlin and toward Democracy, Bond spots the sniper (Maryam d'Abo) leaning out a window, as most snipers do --- but wait...she is a pretty blonde that Bond noticed playing the cello earlier that night at the orchestra.  Never one to shoot what he can later screw, Bond opts to wound her instead of killing her.  Back in the free world, Koskov confirms the rumors of Pushkin's SMERSH policy and gives the Brits a list of British and American spy targets.  That is when an assassin, disguised as a milk man, infiltrates the heavily guarded MI6 (the British CIA) complex, killing and incapacitating about a dozen soldiers before burning the list of targeted spies and kidnapping Koskov.  The head of MI6, M (Robert Brown), gives Bond the assignment to kill this evil General Pushkin and avert a world war.  Naturally, with the safety of the world on the line, Bond's first instinct is to investigate that leggy blonde cellist.  What is her connection to Koskov?  Why did the Russians kidnap Koskov instead of killing him?  And how does egomaniacal arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) fit into all this?  How many plot twists are in this movie, anyway?  I won't spoil the movie by answering those questions, but if you're a fan of using a cello case as a two-man sled in a firefight, then this is the movie for you!

In his first performance as Bond, Timothy Dalton did a pretty respectable job.  He doesn't show the natural wit of his predecessors, but he does come across as fairly rugged, which would make sense for a spy with a license to kill.  His love interest, Maryam d'Abo, on the other hand, might just be the single worst actress of any Bond film.  No, I didn't forget about Denise Richards.  It's not just that she has dead eyes and the range of my gym socks, but she couldn't deliver a line if it had paid postage.  The rest of the main cast is not particularly good, but not as bad as the supporting cast in the later Roger Moore movies; John Rhys-Davies is not a very convincing Russian, Jeroen Krabbe is mediocre at best, and Joe Don Baker's performance was presumably inspired by John Laroquette's character from Stripes.  Two notable minor characters stand out, though; Art Malik portrays a heroic Afghani freedom fighter (he usually plays a terrorist in American movies, so congrats at the promotion!) and Andreas Winiewski (the "now I have machine gun --- ho-ho-ho" guy from Die Hard) does a pretty good job as the lead henchman.  Well, he appears to hate democracy, anyway.  The standard Bond minor players also made appearances, of course.  Desmond Llewelyn reprised his role as gadget master Q, Robert Brown returned for the third time as M, John Terry took a turn as the recast-in-every-movie Felix Leiter, and Caroline Bliss replaced the ancient Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny. 

This movie clearly wanted to distance itself from the campiness of the last few Roger Moore films, and that was a great idea.  As good as Roger Moore was, his last few Bond movies were godawful.  The idea was to reintroduce the espionage element into the series, which is why the plot to The Living Daylights is somewhat convoluted.  On a basic level, this movie succeeded; the story is interesting, if a little difficult to follow at times, and there is no pigeon-doing-a-double-take, like there was in Moonraker.  Dalton is nowhere near as charming as previous Bonds, but he does act like a jerk, which seems about right for a spy.  The action is pretty solid and the story moves pretty quickly, and when the story lulls, at least pretty people are on the screen.

However, the film undercuts its attempt at realism by giving Bond some of the goofier gadgets ever from Q; his car has missile launchers, outrigger skis, jet propulsion, a laser that cuts through metal but apparently not tires, and a self-destruct button.  And that's just his car.  The extended sledding-in-a-cello-case scene was just plain silly, and every scene with Joe Don Baker was pretty dumb, too.  And a milk man assassin?  What, was a killer paper boy not ridiculous enough?  And don't get me started on the character that was killed by an automated door...!

Overall, this isn't that bad.  Of course, it's not great, either.  The Living Daylights probably wasn't the reboot that the producers had originally intended --- they thought about making it a prequel to the Bond series, an idea used for Casino Royale nineteen years later --- but the less silly, more spy-y take on the series was a step in the right direction; so, while it wasn't awesome, I like to see this as baby steps for the 007 franchise back toward respectability.


  1. I remember liking this one much, much more than License to Kill. Jill St. John gets my vote for worst Bond chick, in a performance that was copied by Kate Capshaw years later in Temple of Doom.

  2. License to Kill is one of the worst Bonds, so that makes sense. If memory serves, it is at best ranked 18th in the series, and that's being generous.

    As for Kate the words of Sonny Chiba, "berrry gooooord" comparison

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