Light Bondage: “The Living Daylights”

Bond, James Bond. For fifty years that has been the cinematic calling card of one of films most enduring heroes. Sure, Bond was born in books, but it was through film that he became a household name and one of the movies’ most enduring legends. He is a character so archetypal that he is bigger than the half dozen men who have played him across nearly two dozen films, and that kind of longevity is both unheard of and a little bit magical.

Light Bondage is my attempt to rewatch the series and try to recapture some of what made these movies worthwhile. I might not always succeed (I’m looking at you, Roger Moore!) but in this biweekly series of articles we’re going to take a ride through the time capsule of the last half century with the world’s most famous spy/action star.

The Living Daylights (1987)

Oh, this is an exciting day. Why? Come on, you’ve come this far you should know: Roger Moore is no longer James Bond! Not through lack of trying, though, as they had originally intended this production to star the then 59-year-old Roger Moore. It sounds unfathomable, until I realize that Liam Neeson is that age and he’s just now come into the full flower of his badassery (I’m writing this waaaaay back on January 26th, for reference, a day before I probably go and hopefully enjoy the hell out of The Grey). But regardless, good ol’ George is gone, and it’s time for a new Bond.

Which brings us to Timothy Dalton, who starts his short but fairly brilliant Bond career with The Living Daylights. I had never seen the Dalton films growing up, as they seemed to a child of the 80s watching movies in the 90s embarrassingly dated but not old enough to be interesting again. I was a stupid child, and we all go through such a phase (indeed some of us never escape it). I say stupid because man, watching The Living Daylights is like being reminded of what goodness and quality is. After trying to find bright spots in the swath of destruction the Dark Age of Bond left upon my enthusiasm for life, I forgot that these movies, if done properly, are actually pretty awesome!

It starts with the action: the movie opens with a war games exercise on a British base at Gibraltar. Three MI6 agents jump out of an airplane and parachute down onto the military base. Two of them are nearly instantly tagged out of the game. The third, revealed to be Bond, discovers that a Russian agent has snuck onto the base and is using this as a cover to steal arms right out from under the paintball-wielding soldiers’ noses. Bond manages to spring into action, defuse the situation, blow up the truck being stolen, and him and his flaming parachute land onto a nearby yacht, inhabited by a bored, beautiful socialite.

This isn’t outside the norm for a Bond action intro, but it’s so much better done than anything in the Moore years. Part of it is effects are getting better, the composite shots not quite so obvious. But a lot of it is the change of lead. Dalton is a much younger guy, and when he leaps on stuff and punches guys and climbs around various pieces of equipment it’s obvious he is a guy who can do it. It doesn’t hurt that I’m fairly certain he did a lot of his own stunt work in the movie, and even if he didn’t you believe that he did. I hadn’t quite realized how far that sense of truthfulness about the action went until I hadn’t had it in a long time.

Dalton cuts a much more ruthless figure than any of the previous Bonds did.

The plot on the whole is a nice improvement, and suited to a new interpretation of the character, as well. Bond is sent to help a KGB general defect, acting as a counter-sniper on a mission that goes awry. He manages to abscond with the general only to have him stolen back. Going searching for him uncovers an elaborate triple cross of Russian agents, in-fighting among the highest ranks of Soviet generals, the increasing presence of American financial interests in propping up every side through arms deal, and even an appearance by the Afghani mujahideen, playing a similar romantic freedom fighter role (though far less hilariously ironic in retrospect) to what they did in Rambo III.

What’s more important is how low key it all is. There’s no real gimmicks, a lack of gadgets, and it plays out much closer to real spy stuff than we’ve seen in a long time from the series. In fact, it presages the roughshod truth of the Cold War that GoldenEye will touch on and that From Russia With Love meandered through: enough time spying on each other and eventually everyone knows everyone. Bond goes through the film as a known quantity by just about every character. He’s on friendly terms with villains and barely on speaking terms with allies. The truth of the matter is that after decades spinning around the same theaters of subterfuge, it all becomes an elaborate game. A dangerous one, to be sure, but everyone is on pretty clear terms about that.

That said, he’s still not above lounging around and being smooth.

For this complex, nuanced world we get a Bond that’s less superhero and more hyper-competent special agent. He shoots and schemes with the best of them, not particularly jokey and while womanizing beginning to tone it down and finally get ridiculed for outdated ideas. Dalton plays this all straighter than any Bond outside of maybe Daniel Craig, portraying a man who tries to hold an increasingly unraveling situation together. Unlike most of the Bonds, he is portrayed as much angrier, driven by a general aggression and fits of outright rage when pushed that seem almost antithetical to the character we’ve seen for fourteen prior movies.

The Living Daylights isn’t an amazing movie, but it’s a solid one, competent and smart and with very little fat to it’s globe-trotting intrigue. But put next to what came before it I’m ready to give it all the awards for best everything. It’s a wild improvement on the formula, not necessarily bringing anything new but investing it with an enthusiasm and sense of giving a shit that makes me genuinely excited to watch more of these again. Thank god something did.

There will apparently ALWAYS be people trying to recreate the snow action scenes from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

The Theme Song/Opening Title:

Well, okay, there is something wrong. You see, the main title, performed by A-ha of all people, is absolutely terrible. It comes with an opening sequence that is pretty generic and inoffensive, but nothing really overcomes the atrocious, forgettable mess of a main theme. Maybe if you’re a big A-ha fan? Are those actual people who exist?

Most Ridiculous Gadget:

The best, coolest gadget is one that isn’t technically a gadget at all. Trying to smuggle the KGB defector out of Russia, Bond concocts an elaborate way to get him past the border patrols. Sneaking into an oil refinery, he has a scout plug modified to fit a human passenger and builds up enough pressure to shoot him down the trans-Siberian pipeline towards British territory. There is a rather amazing scene of the border guards, Russian agents, and even Bond’s liaison in the region cluelessly staring at the pipeline for miles as a giant metallic swish of their target escaping reverberates down the tube. It’s grandiose, funny, but not wild fairy tale stuff. Not quite a gadget, but perfectly Bond.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:

Maryam d’Abo plays Kara Milovy, the girlfriend of the defector-turned-double-agent KGB general Bond sneaks out of Russia only to have to track back down over the course of the movie. She’s introduced as a cellist who is the sniper supposedly Bond is to take out early on in the movie, but he demurs recognizing that she barely knows how to handle a gun. He ends up spending most of the movie with her, trying to get information out of her by pretending to be the friend of the man he’s hunting, her boyfriend. As expected, she ends up siding with Bond when he reveals himself to her, but not before freaking out and drugging his drink and getting them both captured.

She wins this award mostly because she’s the only significant female role, not because she’s interesting–in fact, given her penchant for getting them both in trouble just because the movie needs a clean break into its final act, I’m tempted to just not give this award to anybody, or maybe to Moneypenny. Moneypenny’s too good for this shitty award, though. She’s classy in every movie, without thanks. No matter how many weird woman drop in and out of this series, she’ll always be the best.

James, they’re digging in the wrong place!

Best Bondickery:

You know, there honestly isn’t a whole lot of shitty behavior Bond offers up in this movie. So for the first time, I’m going to offer a particularly amazing kill instead. Yeah, I know, it’s outside the scope of this piece but I’m allowed to reach once in 15 movies aren’t I? Anyway, Bond is meeting his liaison in a public place, namely an amusement park. They’re to meet and exchange messages in a restaurant. The restaurant’s doors are giant sheets of glass opening automatically on a neat piston device. The KGB assassin tracking them down manages to rig an explosive in the door mechanism, so when Bond’s partner walks through the door he detonates the piston forward. The result, instant and brutal and messy, is more horror movie than Bond, even if it’s not shown on-screen. Still, the blood-splattered door retracting is one of the more gruesome images we’ve seen in these movies in quite some time, and bears special mention for its inventiveness.

JAMES BOND will return in LICENSE TO KILL

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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