Don’t ask me why, but I decided to watch a James Bond film today. Maybe it was a thread on TrekBBS where I defended George Lazenby’s work on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Maybe it was another thread on TrekBBS about voting for Worst Bond Video Game. Maybe. I like the character–I’ve read the Flemings, the Amis, half the Gardners, half the Bensons–and my preference in the character tends toward the literary version rather than the cinematic one. But I was in the mood for Bond, have yet to liberate my collection of hardcovers from my brother’s house, so a film it had to be. The Living Daylights it was.
Why Timothy Dalton’s first (and penultimate) James Bond film? It’s the first James Bond film I saw in the theatre. And as I mentioned, my preference in the character tends toward the literary one, and Dalton, of the actors to portray Bond on screen, based his performance as Bond the most on Fleming’s literary creation. He played Bond like a cruel, cold, heartless bastard, which is how Fleming wrote the character. Dalton gives that interpretation of Bond free reign in his next film, Licence to Kill, but you can see the seeds planted here. No one really trusts Bond. He lets fly with a quip or two, but you can sense that he doesn’t mean it.
The first hour of The Living Daylights is absolutely remarkable. A compelling mystery is brought into play. Bond has to investigate to find out what’s going on, and to do that he has to resort to a great deal of subterfuge. But once the story reaches Tangier, once Bond is betrayed by the woman he’s using to find the KGB defector, the film shifts gears entirely. What had been a sober espionage drama suddenly becomes a confused mess about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, drug smuggling by the Muhajadeen, and finally an anti-climactic ending in a arms dealer’s private compound.
That the film spends time developing the relationship between Bond and Kara Milvoy, the Bond girl played by Miryam d’Abo, instead of giving us set pieces is a bold move on the part of the writer and director. d’Abo’s Kara may be the best developed Bond girl since Diana Rigg’s Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I could believe that Kara would have feelings for Bond, feelings that Bond could reciprocate. That said, it’s fairly clear to me that, up until the final scenes, there’s some doubt in Kara’s mind about whether or not she’s simply being used by Bond as the story progresses, and that, too, is in keeping with Fleming’s conception of Bond and Dalton’s literary interpretation of the character.
Suffice to say, I liked The Living Daylights. It’s not without its problems–it has one of the worst Felix Leiters in the franchise–but it has its strengths in the right places. It has a story, even if it goes a little fuzzy at the hour mark. It has solid performances in Dalton and d’Abo. It could be stronger in the Bond villain department–even at the end the film can’t decide who the villain of the piece is. Despite the few weaknesses, I do like this film and consider it underrated. Maybe not an underrated classic, but it holds its own with the Connery-era.
The Living Daylights made me appreciate how deprived we’ve been of Dalton’s fine portrayal of Her Majesty’s secret servant. Dalton’s two films weren’t enough. I wouldn’t wish for Dalton in GoldenEye, even though the film was written for him, because I like the work Pierce Brosnan did in GoldenEye and beyond. He made for a damn fine Bond, cold and calculating, grim and determined, and I wouldn’t want to meet his Bond in a darkened alleyway.