Monday, June 15, 2009

James Bond review: The Living Daylights (1987)

CUT TO THE CHASE: A very good Bond; not a great Bond.

BOND, JAMES BOND: If I may be allowed a personal note, when this came out I was a teenager. I didn’t know the Bond movies very well, but I knew even then what I thought they should be like, what kind of man Bond should be: just like Remington Steele. So when NBC, in its moment of infamy, kept Pierce Brosnan from his rightful inheritance, I was more than disappointed. I refused to see this movie when it came out. In fact, I didn’t get around to seeing either of Dalton’s outings until after Brosnan got the role and Everything was Right with the World.

Which is not to say I had anything against Timothy Dalton. And once I got around to seeing this movie, I regretted not seeing it earlier. It is, as I’ve noted, a very good Bond. And Dalton – well, he’s a fair Bond.

He tries to take the character to a darker place. Dalton’s Bond is by turns bitter and disaffected: the way he handles his colleague Saunders in the defection scene is perfect. He’s rather humorless – he looks particularly uncomfortable delivering the lame one-liners the writers give him here - but after seven Moore films that’s not a bad thing. Mainly he looks like he’d rather be a spy than a playboy, and the producers, wisely, oblige, putting him in the most realistic Bond plot in many a year. (Realistic being, of course, a relative term in 007’s world.) The Bratislava and Vienna sequences are convincingly suspenseful and even affecting, in a Gorky Park/The Russia House sort of way.

The problem is, Bond has to be something of a playboy, or he ceases to be Bond. And Dalton is unconvincing at that. How can I put this delicately? He’s just not that sexy. His hair does weird things. His shoulders are too narrow for his face. He’s not believable as a seducer; fine for this film, because they don’t have him seducing anybody. But even so, Dalton’s Bond is all but devoid of glamor, and that’s a serious flaw.

Fortunately, this time around, the movie surrounding him is good enough that it doesn’t really matter. The producers hadn’t quite figured their way out of the malaise that had ruined three of the last four Moore outings – rather than a wholesale rejuvenation of the series they hedge their bets, changing only the elements they absolutely have to – but they do their damnedest to make The Living Daylights work as an adventure movie, and it does. This film succeeds, mostly, and where it doesn’t succeed, it isn’t Dalton’s fault.

What Makes Bond Bond: He’s got a lethal wolf-whistle.

What Makes Timothy Dalton Timothy Dalton: The way he says, “Are you calling me a horse’s ass?” A genuine niceness and humor shine through in Dalton’s expression here. I’m not sure it’s Bond, but it’s real.

BAD GUYS: TLD’s strengths and weaknesses are both on full display in the villains department. The plot revolves around a defecting Russian general, Georgi Koskov; Bond helps him get out of Czechoslovakia, but he’s soon nabbed again from the MI6 safehouse in England, presumably by the KGB. Of course things aren’t that simple. Koskov (Jeroen KrabbĂ©) is a great ambiguous villain, charming at first, slimy in the end. The defection plot, and the double-crosses that inevitably ensue, are a high point.

Unfortunately, these double-crosses lead us to Koskov’s ally, an American arms merchant named Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker, who would later show up as the CIA liaison in the Brosnan films). The producers have their heart in the right place, making the villain an American arms dealer – but it’s never clear why we should care about what he’s doing. What is he doing? Running some sort of scam on the Russian government? In short, he’s not menacing, just ridiculous.

And the evil henchman, Necros, is similarly lacking in oomph. In his first appearance, as a killer milkman complete with exploding milk bottles and a headphone-cord garrote, he’s great. But after that he’s always in a Member’s Only jacket, tight jeans, and white sneakers: he looks like the bullies in my high school in 1987. Hardly a worthy opponent for Bond, in other words.

GRATUITOUS SEX: GS2, because of the girl on the yacht near Gibraltar in the pre-credit sequence.

But really, this is a one-woman Bond. Maryam d’Abo, as Kara Milovy, is left to handle all the Bond babe duties this time around. No doubt this was simply part of the producers’ decision to give Dalton a real spy story to work with, but it has the ancillary benefit of keeping him out of the kind of playboy situations he had trouble pulling off. (The amount of charisma he puts into seducing the Gibraltar girl, for example, might equal the charisma of Sean Connery’s big toe…)

Instead, Bond is isolated with one innocent girl for the whole film, and we get to watch their relationship develop so that in the end her attraction to him is plainly based on more than lust. In other words, for the first time in the series, the sex is not gratuitous. Even when Bond got married, in OHMSS, he spent half the film bed-hopping. Was this a reaction to the AIDS era, or just a more serious 007? Either way, because of the way it allows both actors to develop characters, we’ll tentatively call it a good thing. But you know what they say about too much of those.

So there’s really only one Bond girl here, but she’s a doozy. Maryam d’Abo is easily luminous enough to cast a warm glow over the whole movie. Her look is perfect, if indelibly ‘80s, and she has real chemistry with Dalton.

We should also mention the new Moneypenny, Caroline Bliss. A long overdue replacement, and a great choice. She’s easily the best thing about the short Dalton era. With her sexy-secretary look and her hopeless love for Bond, she suddenly reminds us of what this character was supposed to do, but hadn’t since about 1967. Plus, she’s funny. Barry Manilow records, indeed.

AND VIOLENCE: The scene with the Aston-Martin on the frozen lake, where it cuts a hole in the ice and sinks the Czech police, is a classic. One of those 007 action sequences that just sticks in your mind.

The final aerial fight, with Bond and Necros hanging on to a net full of opium suspended from the back of a Russian cargo plane, is possibly my favorite airplane scene in the series (although it has close competition in the wingwalking fight in Octopussy – “go out and get him”). It’s got everything: height, movement, precarious handholds, a bomb, an out-of-control airplane, furious fighting, and it still all comes down to a knife and bootlaces.

Those aside, this isn’t really a stunt Bond. Nor, as we’ll see below, is it the other side of that yin-yang dichotomy, a gadget Bond. It’s an espionage Bond. More skulking than punching. Nice. Well, until he gets all chummy with the mujahedeen.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Not too much here, and what they do include is nicely understated: the wolf-whistle keychain.

So Moneypenny has been replaced, but not Q. Fair enough: he’s not there to be a sex symbol, so his advanced age isn’t the problem that Moneypenny’s was. But still it’s worth remarking that Desmond wasn’t replaced at this point, because it shows the extent to which the producers were hedging their bets at this point. They didn’t invest in a complete 007 redesign. In fact, they never had. When Lazenby replaced Connery, everything else stayed the same; when Moore came in, the only other thing that changed was that rock music was (sort of) accepted. By that token, the surprise is not that the producers didn’t re-cast Q and M in 1987, but that they replaced both Bond and Moneypenny at the same time.

Gives one a new appreciation for what happened in 1995, doesn’t it?

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Gibraltar, Czechoslovakia, Vienna, Morocco, and Afghanistan. The travel agents were working over time for this one.

The interlude in Afghanistan is worth savoring. By showing 007 riding with the mujahedeen, this film goes deeper into contemporary geopolitics than any Bond had before. But they still have the right instincts: they bring him back to posher surroundings to wrap things up.

ETC.: Binder’s credit visuals are a bit of been-there-done-that… The biggest flaw in the film, and it’s emblematic of the problems with the Dalton films, is the theme song. The producers had available to them two Pretenders songs – two very 007-y songs performed by a ballsy rock band fronted by a sexy female singer. One, “If There Was A Man,” they put over the final credits, and use as the Love Theme; fair enough. The other, with that soaring spy-noir horn theme, would have been the perfect raucous, raunchy opening theme, but they relegate it to snippets leaking from the assassin’s headphones. Instead, as a theme song, they give us a bland, innocuous synth-pop song by the bland, innocuous a-ha. I don’t even say that synth-pop can’t make a good Bond theme: I’d love to hear what the Pet Shop Boys could come up with. But a-ha? They’re so sexless… The film has its flaws, and they’re not inconsiderable, but I tend to go a bit easy on it in my rating, because it’s so entertaining, and because it’s so much better than License To Kill. I hate for Dalton not to have achieved at least one Very Good Bond…

RATING: 006.

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