Saturday, 28 June 2014

Film review: The Living Daylights

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Timothy Dalton's all too brief tenure as 007 emerged from the charred remains of the Roger Moore era -- a phase in the series that I could never fully get behind but which even I could tell was in a vastly worse state by the end of his tenure than when it had begun. I maintain that Moore should have stepped down after MOONRAKER -- the film itself was terrible, and the more sombre, down to earth FOR YOUR EYES ONLY could have served as the perfect introductory film for a new Bond of the sort ultimately played by Dalton. Sadly, it was not to be. Dalton arguably arrived a good six years too late and only got to play Bond in two films. But my, what films!

I'd previously seen THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS in two halves -- and, rather counterproductively, I saw the second half first. This was my first time watching it from beginning to end, and while I'd always known it was in the upper echelons of the Bond canon, I hadn't appreciated until now just HOW good it is.

Indeed, there's a case to be made that it features the best script in the series. Richard Maibaum, who had a hand in penning virtually every film in the series until the end of the 80s, dives into his brief to deliver a more grounded, realistic Bond with unmistakable relish, delivering a script that, barring a few moments of residual silliness, stands on its own two feet as a gripping Cold War spy thriller. Although it begins with a suitably action-packed pre-credits teaser, once Maurice Binder's opening titles are out of the way, the wacky hijinx of the Moore years are jettisoned in favour of an extended sequence in which Bond relies on his natural resourcefulness rather than sci-fi gadgets to extract a Soviet defector from Czechoslovakia. The whole thing is as expertly handled as any "serious" spy movie, and serves as a perfect introduction to the new Bond: cold, ruthless, cunning and jaded. There are no raised eyebrows here. Dalton's Bond is Fleming's Bond: a cool, calculating bastard who carries out his mission with expert efficiency.

And it's not just the script and Dalton's performance that carry the sequence -- everyone involved seems to have upped their game, from John Glen, whose previously rather flat direction now ekes out every last ounce of tension from the scenario, to John Barry, who, in his final contribution to the series, delivers the best score to a Bond film since ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. It's a standard that's kept up for the duration of the film, which sees Bond set off on the trail of the supposed defector (it's actually a brilliantly executed triple-cross), taking him from Bratislava to Tangier by way of Vienna, and finally to Afghanistan where, in a move that will probably raise a few eyebrows among modern day audiences, he teams up with the noble Mujahideen to drive out the occupying Soviet forces. Along the way, he falls for Kara Milovy (Maryam d'Abo), the cellist girlfriend of said defector, and takes her along for the ride. Kara might not be an iconic Bond girl like Tracy or Pussy Galore, but she's believable and her relationship with Bond is genuinely charming. For once, her wide-eyed naiveté isn't annoying but rather entirely appropriate given the situation in which she finds herself.

If I have a slight preference for the first half of the film, it's because I find the European locales more redolent of Cold War espionage than the African and Asian settings of the second half. Once the film relocates to Afghanistan, it becomes more action-oriented and the spy mechanics take a back seat, but it remains thoroughly gripping nonetheless. A great many Bond films, particularly during the Moore years, suffer from a sagging middle; this one doesn't, and I suspect this is largely due to the fact that we actually invest in Bond as a character. I can't praise Dalton's performance enough. Whereas Moore and even to a considerable extent Connery played the character as a collection of easily recognisable traits, Dalton approaches the part with the utmost seriousness, taking a method approach to the character's motivation and responding to the events taking place as if they were real. Watch the scene where, after a fellow agent, Saunders, is murdered, he returns to Kara and pretends that everything is fine while at the same time conveying to the audience that he's ready to explode with anger. I'm not an actor myself, but even I can tell that something like that requires immense skill to pull off, and it's electrifying to watch on screen. If Connery and Moore were movie stars, Dalton is an Actor with a capital "A".

The film's only real failing, and the one that ensures that it remains behind FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE in my ranking of the series, is its villains -- something that the next film would rectify, in spades. The blond adonis Necros is really just a thinly veiled reimagining of Red Grant from that earlier film, while Jeroen Krabbé as the defector Koskov is too much of a figure of fun to ever seem like a genuine threat. Arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) is actually quite an interesting creation -- a self-styled "general" obsessed with military history -- but again it's hard to take him seriously, partly because he's so much larger than life compared to the comparatively sombre proceedings taking place around him. On the side of the goodies, we get a memorable turn from Art Malik as the leader of the Mujahideen, as well as Caroline Bliss's short-lived nerdy/sexy Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell looking even longer in the tooth than Roger Moore by this stage). Judging from the evidence on display here, she's no great actor, but her awkward delivery is somehow endearing, and I love the scene were Bond puts her glasses back on her face lopsided.

Rewatching THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (and in its proper order!) has given me a newfound appreciation for the film, not to mention impressing on me the fact that, regardless of the many strengths of Dalton's next film, LICENCE TO KILL, this is by far the superior of the two. In many respects it's the last true hurrah of classic Bond: a proper Cold War spy thriller that contains just enough of the series mainstays -- Q's gadgets, "Bond, James Bond", vodka martinis -- to fit into the series as a whole while still standing on its own feet as an excellent film in its own right. I'm delighted that, after spending so long as the black sheep of the Bond series, Dalton is finally beginning to get the recognition he deserves.

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