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The Living Daylights (1987)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Timothy Dalton, Maryam d'Abo, Jeroen Krabbe, Joe Don Baker, John Rhys-Davies, Art Malik

Written By: Richard Maibaum, Michael G. Wilson Directed By: John Glen

The Short Version

James Bond gets a new face… and the masses balk.

Enjoy your last real time look at 007 working the Cold War, and a last listen to John Barry.

One could walk into The Living Daylights with no prior 007 knowledge and enjoy it as a standalone.

The villains are weak, but most everything else about the movie is quite solid.

The Living Daylights is a highly underappreciated film worthy of attention.

The Long Version

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A cold one for the Cold War.

“Something we’re making for the Americans.  It’s called a Ghetto Blaster!”

After A View To A Kill, the writing was on the wall for everyone to see, and Roger Moore didn’t take long to make it official: after seven films over the course of a dozen years, he was done playing 007.  The fans were quick to make clear who they wanted to replace him: Pierce Brosnan.  And so the people at Eon Productions dutifully offered Brosnan the part, at which point NBC decided to exercise its option to renew the just-cancelled television series he was already obligated to: “Remington Steele.”  NBC was happy to let the actor play both roles at once, but Eon was not, and so instead they chose to go with the man they first considered to replace Sean Connery years before: Timothy Dalton.

If you want to know why so many people like to forget that The Living Daylights and the movie that followed it, Licence to Kill, ever happened, there’s your first reason.  The masses didn’t get the new man they wanted, and so they took out their frustrations on the one they got.  For many people, Dalton never even had a chance.  It’s too bad, really, because if one walks into the movie without prejudice, The Living Daylights is actually pretty damn good, and Timothy Dalton proves to be one of its greatest assets.

The Living Daylights represents a very soft reset for the Bond franchise.  On the one hand, the history of the series is owned and acknowledged, but with the selection of Timothy Dalton to play 007, Eon Productions also decided to take the character in a different direction.  Having had success with a more “serious” Bond during the latter portion of Roger Moore’s career, they elected to take another step toward making the world’s most famous secret agent more closely resemble Ian Fleming’s literary version: a harder edged professional who’s too busy working to crack many jokes.  It is just a step, mind – Dalton’s Bond is still far from being the cruel bully of the books – but it is more than noticeable enough, and during a time when action movies were getting sillier by the month, it also represents a departure from what had become the norm for the entire genre.  (A norm which, of course, Roger Moore’s 007 had helped to create in the first place.)  That is the second reason why so many people like to forget that the Timothy Dalton era ever happened, and once again, it’s too bad, really, because an edgier Bond fits very well into the plot that Eon’s scriptmasters have come up with this time around.

The movie starts by twisting a major element of Fleming’s first wave of novels, suggesting that 007’s adversary for The Living Daylights will be SMERSH, a Soviet counterintelligence agency whose name means “Death to Spies,” and whose agents were Bond’s nemeses for several of his early literary adventures.  Though this turns out to be ruse meant to disinform Western intelligence agencies (thereby assisting a rogue Soviet general in carrying out a coup of sorts – hey, can someone pass me a slice of the Octopussy plot while we’re here?), it’s a very cool callback for 007 enthusiasts none the less, and it allows our hero to take one last real time dip in the Cold War pool.  First up is one of the best straight-up spy mission sequences in the entire franchise: Bond must help a Soviet defector cross the Czech border.  This is the professional 007 at his best, and by the time the sequence is over, Timothy Dalton has more than proved his bona fides for anyone who had been willing to give him a chance in the first place.  He’s helped along the way by outstanding script writing and very tight direction; start to finish, this sequence is absolutely flawless. 

Unfortunately, one of the two major cracks in the film’s armor appears immediately afterward, for once the “defector” becomes a real character instead of a frightened rabbit on the run, the audience learns that the first of our villains (if you call that a spoiler, you’ve obviously not seen very many Cold War movies; defectors who successfully escape in the First Act are always phony) is nowhere near the equal of Dalton’s Bond.  Yes, the character serves his purpose well enough and doesn’t stink up the screen, but Jeroen Krabbe (The Punisher) just doesn’t have the screen charisma to carry the villain’s role convincingly; indeed, one may wonder how this character ever managed to come up with such a dastardly and well-conceived con job to begin with by the time all is said and done.  Even worse is his eventual partner in crime, Whitaker (Joe Don Baker, Fletch), a magnified stereotype of the “loudmouth American gun nut” variety who just doesn’t belong in a James Bond movie period and who really does stink up the screen. 

On the plus side, the villains’ screen time – especially Whitaker’s – is very limited, thus preventing them from poisoning the entire picture.  Indeed, much like The Spy Who Loved Me, The Living Daylights proves that a James Bond movie can get along just fine even with a weak and forgettable major villain (or in this case, two).  This movie’s all about Bond’s journey putting the pieces of the plot together, and because the script and the direction are so strong and Dalton’s performance is dead solid perfect, The Living Daylights not only overcomes its lack of effective villains, but it indeed finishes off as an overall excellent film both for established Bond fans and for people who have no real experience with the character and are just looking for a decent Cold War adventure flick.

And where there’s adventure, of course, there’s bound to be action.  The drama of the defection sequence mentioned above is just the start; later on in the movie, Bond has to escape the Eastern bloc with yet another Soviet citizen, and the chase scene – which starts with yet another outstanding Q- branch car and ends up with a cello case being used as a toboggan just ahead of machine-gun toting soldiers on skis – is fun, exciting, and carries just the right amount of octane throughout.  Audiences also get a quick but fun footrace over the rooftops of Tangier and an admittedly ridiculous but still highly entertaining extended airbase-and-airplane sequence, among others, thus assuring that action appetites are well satisfied and that the abbreviated climax doesn’t prove to be a disappointment.

That action is helped along for one last time by the music of John Barry, the franchise’s signature composer, whose score for The Living Daylights would be his 007 swan song.  As it turns out, he’s saved some of his best work for last, and the resulting score is one of the best overall in the entire series.  On the theme front, The Living Daylights is the first film in the 007 franchise to since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to have more than one theme song.  This one has three – the title track by A-ha, and two additional themes by The Pretenders: “Where Has Everybody Gone” (which plays whenever Necros, the henchman, shows up… often to strangle someone with the headphone cord for his very 80s Walkman) and “If There Was A Man” (the end credits/love theme).  All three songs are solid, and though John Barry is said to have had strong disagreements with A-ha in particular, they’re also well woven into pieces for the score.  If you enjoy listening to movie scores/soundtracks, I highly recommend owning the special edition of this one that includes a second disc’s worth of orchestral tracks.

During the same sequence wherein Barry says farewell via an easy-to-miss cameo appearance, audiences also get to bid farewell to another series favorite: Walter Gotell, who puts in a final appearance as General Gogol, who has retired from the KGB for an easier post in the Soviet foreign office.  He only gets a minute, if that, but it is none the less good to see him one last time.

Bottom line, The Living Daylights may falter in the villain department, but it’s got everything else going for it, especially an excellent debut by Timothy Dalton in the role of 007.  Many may dismiss it out of hand, but for those who truly appreciate James Bond flicks – or Cold War adventures of any kind – The Living Daylights is a severely underappreciated film that is definitely worth another look.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, August, 2013

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