The Living Daylights (1987)
Roger Moore's future as James Bond had been up in the air long before A View to a Kill, and after that movie did tepid business for a Bond film it was agreed, both by Moore and producer Albert Broccoli, that a change was past due. What many didn't know was that there had been someone waiting in the wings to play the role for almost 20 years. Problem is, he wasn't too hyped to play it when he was younger, and wasn't that excited to do it now that he was more around the age that Bond was supposed to be.
There was also another contender - Pierce Brosnan, then the star of a failing NBC television show called Remington Steele. Broccoli had started considering him even before the show got him noticed, and wanted him as Moore's replacement. Unfortunately, NBC decided to play spoiler, and the deal was withdrawn at the last moment. Instead, Timothy Dalton, who had been considered for both On Her Majesty's Secret Service and For Your Eyes Only agreed, after much urging, to take over the role. For the public it was going to be something getting used to, as Roger Moore had inhabited the role since 1973.
Dalton made it clear from the start that things were going to change. A fan of Ian Fleming's novels, he aimed to play the secret agent more the way he was written, rather than as an unstoppable super hero. He also felt that Bond's womanizing was ungentlemanly, and fought to have his bed hopping toned down - something that, with the AIDS epidemic in full swing, he didn't get much pushback on. The Living Daylights was meant to have a more serious tone, more like For Your Eyes Only, rather than the two preceding films. However, a few constants were brought back - director John Glen and writers Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson - all three responsible for much of what had been wrong with Octopussy and A View to a Kill.
After Bond (Dalton) and two other agents are attacked by an unknown assailant (Carl Rigg) on a training mission in Gibraltar, the defection of KGB General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) brings to light that the attack was part of a program masterminded by Leonid Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies), the new head of the KGB after General Gogol's (Walter Gotell) ascension into the Soviet Foreign Service. The program, called Smiert Shpionom (or Death to Spies) promises to set governments at each other's throats and lead to worldwide war. Bond is ordered to take Pushkin out at a meeting in Tangiers before things can get to that level.
Of course, James Bond has his doubts, especially after Koskov is suddenly snatched from a safehouse by what appears to be KGB agents. An investigation into a mysterious sniper that tried to kill Koskov during his defection reveals that it is musician Kara Milovy (Maryam D'Abo), who is actually Koskov's girlfriend. Instead of immediately killing Koskov, Bond builds a relationship with Milovy and finds out that Koskov has ties with Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), an American ex-pat arms dealer based in Tangiers. Turns out that Koskov and Whitaker have come up with their own idea of making a profit on the side while manipulating the British into getting rid of Pushkin, who stands in the way of their operation
While the plot is still needlessly complex, it is reigned in a bit this time around. There are not so many side missions that drag things down, leaving villains and allies alike flapping in the wind while Bond follows an unnecessary thread just to lead up to staging another action sequence. The time Bond and Kara spend in Vienna could definitely have been shortened, but at least the aside is essential to parts of the plot. A bit more time is also spent than needed with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, as it seems John Glen is determined to get out his inner David Lean, but again the payoff is ultimately worth it.
Another disappointment is that we occasionally get actors not up to being in such a film, such as John Terry who appears as Bond's CIA friend Felix Leiter, the character appearing for the first time since the 1970s. While Leiter was always more of backup support (as well as someone to show up with cavalry once 007 has done all the work), Terry's leaden line-reading is a major distraction. The other distraction is the Mujahideen subplot; Kamran Shah (Art Malik) leads a band of scruffy fighters that are idealized as heroes fighting oppressive invaders. It would be just another hilariously inaccurate Western take on the region if it weren't for everything that happened after the Soviets finally did decide to give up on their ill-fated invasion.
This time we have two villains and a henchman, with Jeroen Krabbé clownish at times but using his demeanor to cover up his complete lack of morals. While Joe Don Baker is the big, bad boss behind everything (and he delivers an over-the-top performance like only he can), he is minor to Krabbé's Koskov, who gets plenty of screen time to get the hate he deserves. Their henchman Necros (Andreas Wisniewski) is one of the better of his breed, as we've seen the overpowered Aryan many times throughout the series.
Bond Girls this time around mainly consist of Maryam D'Abo, who appears to be having a good time throughout. Despite her character being undercut at the end to serve the needs of the script, she is resourceful enough to run with Bond, and unlike most of the actresses that have played similar roles throughout she brings more than just looks to the proceedings. The others are brief - a lady he meets on a boat, and a hook-up for Pushkin named Rubavitch (Virginia Hey), who doesn't get any lines but does get treated in a manner that fits the literary version of Bond but would make feminists howl if put in a movie today.
This time around the action scenes, though occasionally still obviously green-screened, benefit from a turn to more modern film making. Most of the stunts are still done by actual stuntmen, and in one case by Dalton himself as he hangs onto the roof of the truck winding its way down the Rock of Gibraltar. The fight between Bond and Necros on a cargo net hanging outside of an airplane is one of the biggest highlights, and of course this is the one that features Bond and Milovy making their way down a mountain in a cello case.
Which brings me back to one of the problems with John Glen. After making a serious Bond film with For Your Eyes Only, he unfortunately brought back the trend from the later Guy Hamilton films of turning the bad guys into clowns and Bond into something completely unrelatable. Some of this still appears this time, but either Glen consciously restrained himself or Dalton was comfortable in reinterpreting it in his own way so that it didn't seem as cringe-inducing. Even when spitting out a lot of the one-liners that both Sean Connery and Roger Moore seemed reluctant to let pass their lips, Dalton adds a sort of indifferent menace rather than just seeming impressed with himself.
I am sure that Albert Broccoli knew that The Living Daylights was one of those make-or-break movies in the series, and luckily for everyone it was better than the two preceding films and, despite keeping Glen on as director, seemed more like an '80s action film than a '70s relic. Dalton was largely accepted by fans at the time, but unfortunately because he didn't stay long (he was gone after the sequel to this one) he seems to get lost between Moore and Brosnan. Truth is, save Moore in Live and Let Die, all the Bond actors have had a strong showing in their debut, often getting the series back on track before whatever powers that be decide to take it back into the realm of ridiculousness.
For this reason I definitely recommend this one. At the time it was quite fresh, and it still feels largely so, especially after sitting through A View to a Kill. I don't know if Fleming would have liked it, but most likely he would have appreciated what Timothy Dalton did with his character if nothing else. Personally, although I was quite excited when Pierce Brosnan finally got to take over the role, I do wish Dalton had more time to develop his version of Bond. He's definitely a lot more interesting when he's a human being.
The Living Daylights (1987)
Time: 130 minutes
Starring: Timothy Dalton, Maryan D'Abo, Jeroen Krabbé, Joe Don Baker, John Rhys-Davies
Director: John Glen