Reel Talk

The Living Daylights and the Return to Form


Well folks, we’re in a whole new era of James Bond. Granted, it was a short lived era, but it’s a dramatic change nonetheless. We’re officially out of the reign of Roger Moore, and have entered the brief period in time when Timothy Dalton was our Bond. And I have to say right here in the beginning, I really love Dalton. I know he’s not overly popular among fans of the series, both casual and obsessive, but I’ve always had a real soft-spot for Mr. Dalton’s portrayal of the character. It’s obviously radically different than what Roger Moore had been dispensing for a decade and half, but there’s just something about Dalton that really works for me. And his first film, the Living Daylights is legitimately one of my favorite Bond movies of all time. Despite how overly complicated and weird this movie actually is. Because at it’s heart the Living Daylights is one of the most book accurate tales of 007, despite almost nothing in it coming from anything Fleming wrote. For the last few movies we’ve seen a title that says ‘Roger Moore as Ian Fleming’s 007,’ but with Timothy Dalton you actually get a delivery on that promise. Which isn’t a slam against Moore. I have a lot of affection for him and his type of Bond, and revisiting his films was treat, but Dalton gives what may be the most Fleming performance of the whole bunch, which is really saying something.

And it’s not surprising that they would want to do something different with this film. The films of Roger Moore had been successful, both financially and critically, even besting the rival Never Say Never Again, but it was clear that after A View To A Kill something needed to change. But oddly, we really only got a change in actor and tone. I really wouldn’t have guessed that the same writers and director of A View to a Kill crafted the Living Daylights, because these are two radically different movies. But it’s a wonder what tone and performance can give you. Because after the campy and frankly tired performance that Roger Moore was giving in A View to a Kill it was clear that something was going to need to be changed. So the hunt for a new Bond began. And it looks like it really came down to three people. Sam Neil, which would have been fascinating, Timothy Dalton, and poor old Pierce Brosnan. Now, as I’m sure you know, Pierce Brosnan eventually did get his chance at playing 007, but his story is truly a ridiculous one. They had chosen him to play Bond in this film, but since he was starring in a semi-popular television show called Remington Steele, the network had the option to lock in his contract and ruin his chances as Bond. And it got so far as to being the day that Pierce was going to accept the position as Bond and be announced as the next actor to play the famous spy, when NBC called him and announced that he was trapped in his contract for a few more years. So, Pierce had to decline, wait for what ended up being eight years, and they moved on to their second choice, good old Timothy Dalton. And while Dalton may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I think he helped propel this film into one of my favorites of the series.


The film opens up with James Bond and several other double-oh agents being sent on a training mission to Gibraltar. It looks fun, lots of rock climbing and paint-balls. Well, that is until a mysterious man begins killing all of the agents. Bond is able to kill the assassin though, before jumping off a cliff and landing in a boat so he can call M and have sex with a random woman. We’re then treated to the dulcet tones of a-Ha, before shooting right over to Czechoslovakia. Turns out that a prominent KBG general named Georgi Koskov is looking to defect to the West, and has specifically asked for James Bond to help protect him. So Bond and a local contact wait for Georgi, prepared to kill his KGB guards and smuggle him out of the county. They run into a slight problem when they see a woman who had just been playing cello in the symphony attempt to snipe Koskov, but Bond shoots the rifle out of her hands, and takes matters into his own hands. Bond grabs Koskov, and launches him over the border through a modified oil pipeline, bringing Koskov to the West. Bond and Koskov then head to England so Koskov can hide out in a safe-house and spill his secrets. Bond gets to sit in on some meeting with Koskov telling M and several other intelligence officers all about what’s going on in the KBG. Apparently operations have been taken over by a man named General Pushkin, who is disgusted by detante and has ordered that the KGB begins specifically assassinating British and American spies. This is seemingly corroborated by the fact that several of the agents were killed in the pre-credits sequence, and MI6 begins to fear that there’s a spy war brewing. And, to make matters worse, while they’re talking the safe-house is attacked by a Soviet assassin named Necros, who kills several agents and abducts Koskov, seemingly to take him back to the USSR. Bond is suspicious of the whole thing, and decides to return to Czechoslovakia to try and find the cellist and see if she knows what’s going on.

Bond then heads back over the Iron Curtain, and makes contact with the cellist, a woman named Kara Milovy. He pretends to be a friend of Koskov’s, and she tells him that it was all bullshit. She’s Koskov’s girlfriend, and she faked that assassination just to make it all seem more believable. So, Bond knows that Koskov is up to something, but keeps pretending to be his friend so that Kara will lead him to the General. However, Bond is still wanted by the KGB, so he and Kara have to flee from Czechoslovakia, riding Kara’s cello case like a sled. Bond begins treating Kara very well, taking her to operas in Vienna so that she remains friendly and willing to help find Koskov. And while this is going on Bond meets back up with his contact from earlier, who has been helping Bond try to track down Koskov. And he may have a lead. Apparently Koskov has been linked to an insane American man named Brad Whitaker,a prominent arms dealer who works in the Tangiers, and there’s a good chance that that’s where Koskov may be. Which is confirmed when we cut over to Whitaker’s silly little house, and see him having a meeting with Pushkin. Turns out that Koskov was trying to make a big arms deal for the Russians by offering Whitaker diamons. Pushkin actually does want to strive for peace, and has come to cancel the deal. Which confirms to Whitaker and Koskov that they need to have Pushin killed. And they think the perfect way to do that is to have Bond kill Pushkin for them. So they have Necros kill Bond’s contact in Czechoslovakia, framing Pushkin’s men.

Bond is obviously furious about this, and heads out to Morocco to find Koskov and bring him to justice. But first he needs to deal with Pushkin. Bond finds that Pushkin is giving a speech at a conference, and confronts him in his hotel room, ready to kill him. But Pushkin convinces Bond that things aren’t what they seem, and they stage an elaborate fake assassination to make it seem like Bond has killed Pushkin. And while all of this is going on Kara has met up with Koskov, who convinces her that Bond is trying to kill her and himself, then using her to capture Bond. Bond is captured by Necros, and is flown with Koskov, Whitaker, and Kara to Afghanistan where an arms deal is about to go down. Koskov has the diamonds that Pushkin was supposed to pay Whitaker with, and they’re going to use them to buy opium that they can sell in America and make more money for more guns, creating a cycle. However, Bond is helped by Kara, who has realized that shes getting conned. But she doesn’t help enough, and the pair are sent to an Afghani prison. The two escape, along with a local man named Kamran Shah. Which is a good thing, because it turns out that Shah is the local leader of the Mujahideen, and he offers help in taking down Koskov and the Russians. So Bond and some Afghani freedom fighters attack a Russian airbase, ruining Koskov’s trade. Bond and Kara then get aboard the freight-plane that has all of the opium on it, and they fly away with it. Necros was unfortunately on the plan, and Bond and he have a big fight before Necros is dropped to his death. So, with the plan ruined, Bond heads back to Tangier and faces off against Whitaker. He runs around Whitaker’s insane little house/war museum, finally crushing the man to death under a statue. Which is when Koskov comes slinking out, and is caught by Pushkin, who reveals himself to still be alive. Pushkin then brings Koskov home, to be executed, and everything turns out okay. We then see Kara perform in Vienna while M and the Mujahideen watch. She and Bond then sleep together in her dressing room, unfortunately not a mode of conveyance.


I really, really love this movie. Similarly to From Russia With Love, I think that this may be one of the most realistic and possible James Bond plots. Don’t get me wrong, the actual plan that Koskov has in this film is a goddamn Gordian knot, and it takes a lot of effort to actually unravel and understand, but it basically boils down to a power-play and an arms deal, something that actually seems accurate. Koskov is faking a defection to convince the West to kill his superior so that he can get a promotion while also covering up all of the shady arms deals he’s doing so that the USSR gets more guns, and he gets more money. If someone told me that this exact plot happened, more or less, I would completely believe it. And it’s not just the plot, really everything about the film works for me. I know that people complain that Dalton is a little too cold, or uninteresting, but I completely disagree. I love his performance in this movie, and honestly is the closest I’ve seen to what Fleming has described. Timothy Dalton’s Bond is a tortured man, who has seen and done things that he would rather never think of again. And yet he actually has a personality, not becoming some weird robot filled with hate like characters like Jason Bourne. Dalton does something different with Bond, while still remaining immediately identifiable as James Bond. Which is a hell of a thing to do. And it’s not just him, really everyone in this movie is great. Maryam d’Abo is pretty great as Kara, delivering a naive and idealistic performance that somehow doesn’t become an air-headed character like some of other Bond Girls. Kara’s idealistic, but she also is competent and gets things done in this film. Jeroen Krabbe as Koskov. He puts in a delightful performance, switching acting styles at will to compliment whatever role Koskov is trying to be. He can be glad-handing and slimy when he’s pretending to be a defector, and cold and vicious while ordering the assassination of Pushkin. He’s great. As is John Rhys-Davies as Pushkin, but that’s not really that shocking, John Rhys-Davies is always amazing. Really the biggest flaw with the movie is probably everything about Whitaker. Joe Don Baker isn’t exactly a good actor, and really the entire character of Whitaker doesn’t need to be in this movie. Koskov is the mastermind, Whitaker is just a means to an end, and could easily have been written out, kind of like Kamal Khan in Octopussy. But despite any of those quibbles this is a movie that I love a great deal, and it’s one of the most unique and different Bond movies in the canon.

Which is exactly what it needed to be. It’s a little shocking to learn that this film was written and directed by the exact same people who made A View to a Kill, because this movie could not feel more different. Roger Moore’s tenure as Bond was a very different animal, but it was a popular one. Things started to slide off there at the end, and it was clear that they needed to do something different to keep people interested. Times were changing, and action movies in the 80’s in particular were becoming a vastly different animal. Having James Bond be a carefree spy globetrotting and having wacky adventures wasn’t really going to sell anymore. So they needed to change things up, and do something that the franchise is actually pretty good at. Snap back to basics. It’s something that I’ve discussed a bit before already, but the Bond franchise certainly has a pattern to it. They get progressively more insane, getting bigger and dumber, with each movie until they reach a breaking point. They do something too insane and lose credibility. After which there’s no other alternative than to bring things back to Fleming, make a more down-to-earth and realistic Bond movie to get things back to its roots. And this is exactly what this movie does. We get a more traditional Bond movie, that becomes something very different than A View to a Kill. And, unlike For Your Eyes Only, I feel like this films works perfectly in that space. A dark and gritty James Bond movie is something that can obviously be successful, but you have to handle it right. I, personally, feel like For Your Eyes Only doesn’t have the power of this movie, mainly because we’d just seen James Bond go to space, and now we were supposed to believe that Roger Moore was going to go on a gritty adventure. That didn’t feel right to me. This one does. Timothy Dalton was allowed to be introduced as a more realistic Bond, and I think that makes it work perfectly. James Bond will always react to the viewers demands. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I feel like in this case it does. This is a movie that seemed to take everything people didn’t like about the Roger Moore era and jettison it, while keeping everything that they did like. This isn’t an unrecognizable character. This Bond still does some cheeky things, like riding down a hill on a cello case, but it manages to lend Bond more credibility while putting him in a different situation. However, there’s a double edge to that sword, because as we’ll see tomorrow, sometimes being reactionary can lead to going too far in the other direction.

The Living Daylights was written by Richard Maibaum and Michael G Wilson, directed by John Glen, and released by MGM/UA Communications Company, 1987.


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