The Living Daylights: A Mission, Not a Fancy Dress Ball
by Hilko Röttgers (@incrdbl_Hilk)
“How on earth can you like The Living Daylights?”
Friends of mine tend to ask me this question, disbelief in their voice. “Seriously…?!” And more often than not, showing off supposed expertise, someone will add: “Isn’t that the one with that other Bond?” My friends may only be pretending to not know Timothy Dalton. But their disliking him as 007, unfortunately, seems to be genuine.
I have acquired a quarter century of experience defending Dalton’s 007 in general and – as I have named it my favourite Bond movie on several occasions – The Living Daylights in particular. Mostly, I try to be reasonable by simply stating: “The Living Daylights is a bloody good movie, and Dalton is an excellent Bond.” I can elaborate, of course, if you’ll lend me an ear.
First of all, The Living Daylights tells an intriguing spy story. There is General Koskov of the KGB, who supposedly wants to defect to the West, and 007 is assigned to bring him in. Koskov then reveals Operation Smiert Spionam, a secret Russian plot to kill Western agents. And soon after that he apparently gets re-captured by the KGB. Bond has his doubts, though, and decides to further investigate the matter. In the end it is finally revealed that arms dealer Brad Whittaker (Joe Don Baker) is behind it all.
In The Living Daylights, there is spying and scheming and betrayal and double-crossing and whatnot to an extent that’s somewhat unusual to a Bond movie. There’s a reason for that, of course, and I will come back to it later. At this point, let’s just agree that 007 is a secret agent; spying is what he’s expected to do. And in fact, I’m quite happy with it. Bond’s ally Saunders gets to say the line that describes what The Living Daylights is all about: “This is a mission, not a fancy dress ball!” As opposed to, let’s say, Moonraker, which was rather more a fancy dress ball than a mission.
In addition to all the spy stuff, lovers of Bond movies get all the usual refinements, as Q might put it. To begin with, the usual suspects are on board. There’s Q himself, who supplies Bond with some handy gadgets. M and Miss Moneypenny (new girl Caroline Bliss, whom I rather fancied at the time). And there is Felix Leiter (who, as he usually does, fails to make a lasting impression). There’s a villain (actually, there are even two villains), and a great henchman in Necros. And, of course, there’s a Bond girl. Yes, only one (if we choose not to count in the yacht lady from the pre-title sequence). Due to all the spying and globetrotting 007 has to do in this movie, he wouldn’t have had time for another girl anyway. There is the line “Bond. James Bond.” And 007 even gets to drive an Aston Martin. On the other hand, true, there’s neither a casino scene nor an underwater battle (which some might expect in a Bond movie; but Dalton will duly deliver both in his second movie, Licence to Kill). In their stead, however, there’s a snow chase sequence – including an exploding Aston Martin and a cello case. So as far as the Bond ingredients are concerned, there’s no need for complaint.
And finally (to cut a long argument somewhat short), The Living Daylights is a well-crafted movie. There are no embarrassing performances (as there have been in other Bond movies). On the contrary, the cast is more than solid. Maryam d’Abo brings a believable vulnerability to her Kara Milovy, and she and Dalton look good together. Jeroen Krabbé is sparkling as General Koskov and Andreas Wisniewski as henchman Necros sure a hell kicks ass (ask the guards in Blaydens not-quite-so-safe house about it). The action sequences are fast-paced (even if they don’t stand up to a modern frenzy like Quantum of Solace), and the fist fights in particular relay a brutal intensity. The aerial stuntwork is stunning, some of the best in the series. Visually, TLD provides spectacular sights and cinematography (consider the desert scenes during the climax). And certainly no-one will complain about the John Barry soundtrack – the last one Barry did for a Bond movie.
“Yeah well,” my friends might say after all of this, stifling a yawn. “But that Dalton guy, he’s really boring.”
But he’s not. Timothy Dalton is only serious. He’s all business. On a mission, not attending a fancy dress ball.
The more serious approach to Bond, of course, was a deliberate choice by the producers after Roger Moore’s reign as 007 ended with 1985’s A View To A Kill. After that, the question was in which direction they wanted to (or maybe even had to) go with the Bond movies. They chose, acting according to Dalton’s demands on the character, to return to the source, to create a character and tone closer to what Ian Fleming had envisioned, to give the audience a Bond movie grounded in reality.
And that’s exactly how Dalton is first introduced to the audience in the pre-title sequence of The Living Daylights. During a training mission for the 00-section on the rock of Gibraltar, an agent is assassinated, and Bond sets on a deadly pursuit of the killer. Bond jumps onto the roof of a jeep driven by the assassin. Following some intense fighting, the car crashes through a wall and falls off the cliff towards the sea. Bond manages to parachute to safety just before the car explodes. Dull? I don’t think so.
Just for the fun of it, let’s compare Dalton’s introduction to those of his predecessors. Sean Connery is first seen in a private club, gambling and flirting with Bond girl #1, Sylvia Trench. George Lazenby, the other fellow, is seen first chasing after a girl and then fighting off some thugs while the girls runs out on him. We first encounter Roger Moore at home, where M and Moneypenny pay him a visit early in the morning to send him off on his next assignment. Surprised by the visit, Moore’s Bond hides a female Italian agent, Miss Caruso, in his closet so that his visitors won’t see her, which would have been a cause for major embarrassment, indeed. Obviously, Dalton’s Bond makes by far the most professional impression when introduced to the audience. (And actually, Dalton’s introduction is the blueprint for the Bonds that would follow him: Both Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig are introduced as professional agents on a mission, the first infiltrating a Russian base, the latter earning his Double-0 license.)
So right from the start of The Living Daylights there’s no doubt that Timothy Dalton is the real deal. And he keeps up his level of professionalism. Here are four great Dalton/Bond moments from The Living Daylights in chronological order:
“Bond. James Bond.“ – Spoken at the end of the pre-title sequence. After the battle with the Smiert Spionam assassin Bond parachutes onto a yacht. “Who are you?” asks a sunbathing vixen on that yacht. “Bond. James Bond,” he answers, but the way Dalton delivers the line sounds more like “Leave me alone, I’ve got work to do.” Only once 007 makes contact with headquarters, does he warm up to the yacht lady. It’s yet another early moment in the movie that establishes Dalton’s Bond as a truly professional agent.
Bond’s first meeting with Kara – To make his defection look real (and probably even to get rid of Kara), General Koskov told Kara to pose as a sniper. Some days later, Bond meets her in her flat in Bratislava. By then, Bond has already discovered that her sniper rifle was loaded with blanks and therefore Koskov’s defection must have been faked. But Bond doesn’t know all the details. So he poses as a friend of Koskov’s to get information from Kara, who has just been interrogated by the KGB. The Russians, of course, are looking for their disappeared General as well. This sequence hints at how much is going on behind the scenes of The Living Daylights. Bond has to walk a fine line here: He needs Kara to trust him, but he doesn’t know if (or how far) he can trust her. Dalton gets it absolutely right.
The assassination of General Pushkin – This scene is about following orders versus trusting one’s instinct. Again, you might say, as Bond trusted his instinct before in not killing sniper Kara (and thus disregarding his orders). Now, Bond is ordered to kill General Pushkin who seems to be responsible for Smiert Spionam. Though not entirely convinced, Bond goes on about his mission, staking out Pushkin, breaking into his hotel room and taking out a guard in the process – all of which is serious spy stuff. Dalton delivers. And still there’s more to it. This scene is about Bond’s inner conflict (a recurring motif in the novels) about his duty versus his morality. And Dalton manages to make that conflict clear as well, when confronted by Pushkin.
The final battle with Necros – Great action inside and outside a plane flying high above Afghanistan while a bomb’s countdown ticks away. Bond wins. Dalton looks adequately shaken.
There are more great Dalton/Bond moments I could have mentioned. But by now you probably get the point. Dalton’s Bond is on a mission and not a fancy dress ball. I said that before, I know… but some things bear repeating. It is, after all, the title of this here piece of writing.
“But all work and no play makes James a dull Bond.”
Well, maybe. So it’s good that The Living Daylights isn’t all work, then. Dalton’s Bond does have a laugh. For example, the scene at a shooting gallery on Vienna’s Prater fairground. Bond impresses Kara with his shooting skills, hitting every target. “Please, no more,” begs the owner. It always makes me smile when I think about how much fun Bond must have had there. In addition to that, the scene in Q’s lab is fun. There are also many other moments that deliver a good laugh. Naysayers that cite the lack of humor just haven’t been paying close enough attention.
But comedy certainly doesn’t rule the movie. Nor do outlandish gadgets or space battles or villains with white cats. And that’s another thing I really like about The Living Daylights. With this movie – and with Timothy Dalton as the new 007 – the producers have chosen to take their subject serious again. There are several moments reminiscent of Ian Fleming’s 007. Bond’s weariness with his job is a good example. “Go on, report me, then. I only kill professionals,” Bond says to Saunders, who is furious that 007 didn’t kill the Russian sniper. “If M wants to fire me, I’ll thank him for it.” This reminds me of scenes in the novels Goldfinger and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In the first chapter of Goldfinger, Fleming has Bond musing about life and death and killing people. And in the beginning of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond is even working on his letter of resignation.
So, literally, Bond goes back to his roots in The Living Daylights. Sound familiar? Timothy Dalton is the 1980’s Daniel Craig, unfortunately without Craig’s record-breaking success. But I’ll leave the What if…? discussion for another day.
So The Living Daylights is my favourite Bond movie, then? Well… err, no. It certainly was back then, though. From my first viewing in 1988 when I saw it on a rented VHS tape until 1995’s GoldenEye, a movie that has a special place in my heart because I waited six years for it to be made – and six years is a really long time, when you’re only 13 (like me in 1989) and you don’t know if your favourite movie hero will return (as promised) or not. And today, there is Casino Royale, of course, which I think is an almost flawless Bond movie. There are bits and pieces in every Bond movie I like. (Sure, there are bits and pieces that I don’t like, as well.) So the question about my favourite Bond movie is one that I can’t properly answer. But Timothy Dalton was the James Bond of my teens, taking over the role when I was 11 and being replaced by Pierce Brosnan when I was 19 – you can imagine that Dalton (and thus The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, too, the first Bond movie I watched on the big screen) made an enormous impression on me.
Favourite Bond movie: GoldenEye… or Casino Royale… or…
Favourite Bond actor: To be honest, I find it difficult to answer this one. If I were forced to pick one, it probably would be Daniel Craig because of his voice. There you have it.
Favourite Bond girl: Vesper Lynd
First Bond movie: Can’t really say. They just were around when I grew up, first on TV by chance, then deliberately rented on VHS, but how it started, I don’t know. First Bond movie in a cinema was Licence to Kill. I remember that very well.
How I discovered #Bond_age_: Somebody retweeted it into my timeline on Twitter.
First #Bond_age_ Live Tweet: Yet to come – but probably not gonna happen because of the time zone I live in (CET).
Hilko Röttgers is a small cog in the German media business. He writes for a living, but usually not about secret agents. You can find him on Twitter as @incrdbl_Hilk.