Caught in-between a need to reinvent Bond and stay true to previous notions of Bond, The Living Daylights catches itself in-between two contradictory forces. Bringing over director John Glen from the Roger Moore era and a couple of mainstay writers of the franchise, the film still holds onto some of the veneer of the waning Moore years, trying to force it into a film where it doesn’t belong.
That’s because The Living Daylights is a different kind of Bond film. This time around, James Bond (Timothy Dalton) is working alongside other intelligence agencies in order to help a Russian defector come over to the British side. But what starts as a simple spy operation begins to turn tables when Bond discovers the badguys have their own spies in place, ready to strike back.
It’s a great concept for a Bond film: spy on spy action. While the franchise certainly has had an enemy spy here and there (Thunderball and The Man with the Golden Gun come to mind), this is a full out battle of spies built around stealth, secrecy and smokescreens. This makes it one of the more narratively intriguing Bonds as there are a handful of cool twists where allegiances and actions are brought into question.
The astounding part is that it took them this long to make such a film. Once in motion, it makes perfect sense and builds a pacing and tempo that fits the Bond idea perfectly. It’s also great to see some of the baddies at work, with a couple of action sequences focusing more on what the enemies are doing in response to Bond.
It also helps that this film reinvents Bond as more of an undercover character. As Timothy Dalton takes over the role, he imbues Bond with more of the incredible man posing as average in order to blend in and take the advantage of surprise. He’s deliberately left behind the suave and charm for a different tactic, masquerading as a trustworthy and loyal figure that puts people at ease, disarming them.
But what makes Dalton a particularly exciting Bond to watch is how he can turn on a dime. While Moore and Connery persist as a consistent force, there’s a clear moment where Dalton amps up Bond and switches over to something dark and frightening. Once he realizes the stakes, a flip switches and he becomes cold, calculated and frightening.
He also gives off a more human and vulnerable side to Bond. Early on, it’s clear he’s not quite as strong or as fast as previous Bonds: prone to mistakes, hesitation and allowing sympathy to get in the way of orders. It makes for a compelling internal tension, one the film doesn’t explore much, but one that makes this Bond a bit more engaging to watch than previous Bonds.
He also abandons the one-liners. Finally. The film does try to force a few in, but luckily, they are mostly absent as this is a Bond cut from a different cloth. He’s also not nearly as womanizing as previous Bonds. While he certainly has a way with the ladies, he doesn’t feel nearly as predatory or obsessed with girls as other Bonds. He says his interests are “purely professional” and while that might not be completely true, it is at least a half-truth.
And speaking of the lovely ladies, The Living Daylights has a fantastic Bond girl. Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo) works as a character because she has a strong identity outside of Bond. A concert Cellist with her own dreams, ambitious and loves, Kara stands as a character independent of Bond, allowing for a strong relationship to form between them built on more than just sexual energy. She insists on bringing her cello everywhere, much to Bond’s chagrin, but it’s because she has a love and passion beyond Bond.
This does bring up some of the awkwardness of the film. The lugging around of the cello is one of those few nagging elements of lingering corniness that doesn’t fit into Dalton’s Bond. There’s also a gas contraption that responds to a wolf-whistle and an evil general who’s childish prattling feels like something out of a Guy Hamilton Bond flick.
There’s also a bit of awkwardness to the action. Some of it works fantastically, like the opening sequence that feels like a grounded sequence with weight, but other times the gadgets make for some moments that are so absurd that they take away from the grounded story and world that has been established.
And even though the film is filled with a number of nagging issues, clinging onto the old instead of pushing forward with the new, it’s a film I found myself liking and enjoying at least as much as the best of Bond. While I don’t think it’s as tonally consistent as it could be, what it does well it does better than most of the best Bond films.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing