The Living Daylights (1987)
PG. I was almost willing to forgive the opening credits sequence because the nudity is actually more implied in this one. Then I forgot that we have some straight up rear end nudity in this one. Timothy Dalton's movies were always known for their very serious approach to Bond, similar to what Daniel Craig brought to the role. While nothing is outside the realm of being in a Bond movie, the movie's deadly serious tone highlights the darkness that is inherent to sex and violence. It's still PG, but it feels more like a PG-13 movie.
DIRECTOR: John Glen
When I was a kid, my dad constantly scoffed at Timothy Dalton as James Bond. We would watch James Bond movies for family movie nights because family movie nights meant something very different in the '80s and '90s. Trying to seem knowledgable, I would peg Timothy Dalton as the worst James Bond and, until my 20s, did I actually believe it. Timothy Dalton is to Bond as Paul McGann is to Doctor Who. He's an actor who isn't super associated with the role, unless you are Timothy Dalton himself in which case he is ONLY associated with James Bond. In my mind, he's the liminal Bond. He firmly has his foot in the classic Bond era, but really has a lot of the sensibilities of modern nu-Bond.
Since I came to terms with Timothy Dalton as a great James Bond, I realized that The Living Daylights might be one of my favorite James Bond movies. I don't think the world was ready for Timothy Dalton post-Roger Moore and thus he was shelved. Also, I really don't like Licence to Kill. Maybe the 73rd viewing of it will change my mind, but Licence to Kill is really one of the worst movies in the series. But Timothy Dalton is basically Daniel Craig. From what I understand, both Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig both had a desire to return closer to what Ian Fleming had written. I'm mostly done reading the James Bond novel. I just finished Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice and that character is very different from what is presented on screen. Fleming's Bond is borderline depressed with the violence that surrounds his life. His drinking is not sexy or charming, as it is in the films. He's an alcoholic trying to drown out the pain of lost loves and nightmares running through his head.
The Bond of The Living Daylights is actually probably an appropriate hybrid of both book Bond and film Bond. Dalton's Bond is about professionalism, a counter to Moore's sly peacock. He understands that Bond works better in the shadows than he does in the limelight. He is cold like Fleming's Bond, but also has a little fun coupled with insane stunts. While Fleming's Bond is a bit of a Mary Sue (sorry) as well, his action is far more grounded in the world of reality. He's not the kind of guy who will find himself escaping the Russians on a cello case. Fleming's Bond isn't the "realistic Bond" however. Fleming's Bond is more soap-operaish. Spoiler for the end of You Only Live Twice: Bond lives a life as an amnesiac and then goes to Russia to discover his true identity. That's a bit much. But Dalton's Bond really captures the nice mix of both page and screen. He's never going to be my favorite Bond, but he really does an amazing job with the role. He basically has the misfortune of trying what he did WHEN he did it. While many of the Roger Moore films may not hold up today, The Living Daylights probably does hold a bit of weight...
...if you can forget that the Afghani rebellion was considered our allies in 1987. Between Rambo III and The Living Daylights, it is so odd to see factions that we consider to be in conflict with the United States today in such a sympathetic light. But that's part of what makes The Living Daylights one of my favorite Bond movies. Yeah, it's still absurd. Bond movies have an absurdity that makes them fun. But The Living Daylights tries injecting complication into the Bond formula. Like how Octopussy really tries embracing the complexities of the Cold War, The Living Daylights continues on with that tradition. Grounding what ends up being kind of a silly plot is the defection of Georgi Koskov, played by Jeroen Krabbe. Krabbe, oddly enough, is the villain of my childhood. I remember a version of Robin Hood that has always been associated with the best version. (It's entirely based on nostalgia and I'm terrified to watch this movie because the only reason it is good is because it was from my childhood.) But centering on Koskov's defection feels like this is what Bond was meant for. The exchange of spies, the vetting of information? This stuff is great. Add to this Cold War intrigue a concept from the early Bond novels, "Spiert Spionem" / "Death to Spies" and that's what Bond was built for. There's a reason that Indiana Jones is interesting with the Nazis and that James Bond is interesting with the Russians. The KGB, towards the end of the Cold War, only escalated. They got scary and smart. Anyone could be a Russian and they were this larger than life concept. They infiltrated everything and their training was somehow mysterious. When a villain is really good, it acts as a foil for the value of the hero. As dark as Bond is in The Living Daylights, he comes across as the line between the West and Russia. Oddly enough, the stakes in this movie aren't exactly huge. But it is actually through its limited scope that we see the value of these spygames. Like when I got obsessed with Vijay's death in Octopussy, the same attitude continues in here. We have characters, even unlikable characters, whose deaths have weight. Saunders, when he dies, Bond cares. The entire deception is to get Bond to murder General Pushkin. That matters for Bond. He doesn't want to kill an innocent man.
The idea that Bond has a license to kill, but choose not to use it is what makes the characters' deaths important. The movie starts with Bond intentionally not killing Kara Milovy, the Bond girl of the film. Heck, the title even loosely ties to the idea that he doesn't murder her. Because Bond isn't cool and collected with each death in the movie, we get the idea that even though the consequences for the film are smaller, each choice has a personal stake for James Bond. It makes the movie so much better. Look at Bond after he finds the balloon labeled "Smiert Spionem". Saunders was kind of a turd with a last second redemption arc. Cool. But Bond takes that death very personally. He sees the death of a good agent and the failure on his part to see it coming. He knows that, because he got Georgi Koskov out of Bratislava, that Saunders and the people at base are all dead now. There's a lot going on there and I have to applaud Dalton for conveying that. This movie may not have crushed at the time, but it slays today. It's so deep because Bond actually cares about the consequences of each choice. He's ruthless not because he wants to be, but because he knows that there are consequences. It's why he gets so mad at Kara for wanting to go back for her cello. It seems unimportant when lives are on the line. This is a character who sees both the small and the big picture and I really like that out the character.
And yet, the stunts are great. There still is a sense of fun to this movie. The Aston Martin section of the film is one of the best uses of the car. The cello sequence is hilarious. Bond hanging off the back of a plane is actually my strongest pieces of evidence to why stunts should be actually done versus digital. (Wait until I hit Die Another Day. Hopefully, I have the forethought to cite The Living Daylights when I write about that film.) The Living Daylights is evidence that you can take a silly thing kind of seriously and see that it still works. I'm never going to detract from the Roger Moore era. I genuinely love a handful of those films, but The Living Daylights is such a moment of puberty for the Bond era, without the awkwardness. It is serious yet fun, engaging yet soap-operay. It's a fun movie that delivers at every opportunity. I adore this movie.
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