Thursday, November 05, 2015

007 Week: The Living Daylights (1987)

In the year 1987, Timothy Dalton replaced Roger Moore as Agent 007 -- James Bond -- in the 16th official Bond film, The Living Daylights. 

Love him or hate him, Moore had successfully defined and embodied the beloved silver screen character for fifteen years, since his debut in Live and Let Die in 1972, and for the Star Wars generation as well. 

Moore’s last film, A View to a Kill (1985) was not particularly well-received, however, and that effort was also the only one, perhaps, in which the suave Moore really showed his age. He was nearly sixty years old when he left the iconic role.

For the (ultimately abbreviated…) Timothy Dalton Era of the Bond film, therefore, an opportunity arose to re-imagine Bond for the first time in a decade-and-a-half, and to infuse the aging film franchise with a few key qualities including youth, vigor, and not unimportantly, a stronger sense of reality or grounding.

When gazing back at The Living Daylights today, one can see all these virtues right up there on the screen.

The impressive pre-title action sequence stresses Dalton’s youthful physicality and deadpan demeanor.  At the same time, the series’ familiar sense of tongue-in-cheek humor is greatly reduced. And finally, this new iteration of Bond seems edgier than his predecessors and perhaps he even qualifies as self-destructive on some psychological level. 

On top of all those qualities, the film’s troika of villains is grounded in a reality-based plan to get rich rather than far-fetched, fantasy scenarios about conquering the world, or sinking American cities during artificial earthquakes.

The re-grounding of James Bond -- a phenomenon which occurs approximately once a decade or so, by my reckoning (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), For Your Eyes Only (1981), The Living Daylights (1987), and Casino Royale [2006]) -- had begun in earnest…again.

Although there are some aspects of The Living Daylights that don’t necessarily hold up very well today, including Kara Milovy’s (Maryam D’Abo) ditsy or airhead nature, the film nonetheless remains impressive due in large part to Dalton’s commanding screen presence.

As Bond, he is characterized by an almost wolf-like demeanor and a coiled sense of…uncomfortable energy.  There’s a dark, self-hating, almost rage-fueled Bond boiling under the surface here, and Dalton’s approach is a welcome, serious, and original reading of the character for the screen.

Also, as I’ve noted before, Dalton’s focus on a more realistic, fallible Bond certainly pioneered the path later tread by (the excellent) Daniel Craig. The follow-up Bond, Licence to Kill (1989) is a more complete and thorough excavation of Dalton’s Bond and his particular demons, but The Living Daylights remains a strong debut, and certainly one of the stronger Bond films of the 1980s and 1990s.

In particular, The Living Daylights explores an idea that few other Bond films really get to mine.  And that is, specifically, that Bond is a man who grievously dislikes his job, and who, when called upon to do horrible things (like assassinate someone) depends on his instincts and sense of total professionalism…a code of ethics   

This is a perspective we have not really seen so fully before, or since, The Living Daylights.

“I only kill professionals.”

After surviving a training-incident-turned assassination attempt at Gibraltar, James Bond, 007 (Dalton) is ordered to assassinate a sniper in Bratislava, one targeting an important defector, General Georgi Koskov (Joroen Krabbe). 

When Bond sees that the sniper is a civilian woman, a cellist named Kara Milovy (D’Abo), he realizes there is more going on here than he suspects. He disobeys orders and allows Kara to survive, merely shooting the rifle from her hand.

Once back in England, Koskov explain to M (Robert Brown) that he defected to the West because General Gogol’s replacement, Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) has re-activated a Stalin Era protocol called “Smiert Spionam,” or “Death to Spies.”

What this means in practice is that KGB spies are out in the world killing British and American spies, and Bond himself is on Pushkin’s list.  Apparently, the general has gone mad…

When the Soviet Union re-captures Koskov, M. orders Bond to assassinate Pushkin.

Because he knows Pushkin, Bond is reluctant to believe Koskov’s story of Pushkin’s insane, blood-thirsty plot. Bond accepts his orders, but first seeks to investigate Kara Milovy further.  He discovers that she is Koskov’s lover, and may know what secret motives have compelled him to fashion his tale of “death to spies.”

While Bond helps Kara defect to Vienna, General Pushkin confronts an American arms dealer, Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) about a deal Koskov made with him.  Pushkin cancels the deal, which is worth half-a-billion dollars, angering Whitaker.

Koskov convinces Whitaker, however, that another assassination is necessary to convince Bond to assassinate Pushkin.  To prod Bond to act, Koskov’s right-hand man, Necros (Andreas Wisniewski) kills one of Bond’s allies, the stuffy Saunders.

Enraged over Saunders’ death, Bond heads to Tangier to assassinate General Pushkin. 

But something inside him -- an instinct -- still tells him that this action is wrong…

“If he fires me, I’ll thank him for it.”

For the first three-and-a-half minutes or so, The Living Daylights doesn’t reveal the new James Bond’s face.

Instead, we see our new 007 only from the back, as M addresses three double-o agents in the lead-up to a training game. Then, we see Bond, again -- almost anonymous in persona -- skydiving to Gibraltar for a military exercise designed to test radar installations. 

When we finally see Bond’s face for the first time, a youthful, saturnine Timothy Dalton whips his head around in a flurry, towards the camera.  Bond sees a man plummeting to his death…and he scowls. 

This scowl is not an expression of surprise or anger, significantly, but of grim acceptance.  This is Bond’s life.  Something is wrong, and he must address it. You can almost see a filter of sorts pass over Dalton’s piercing eyes as Bond seems to come to focus, as something inside Bond changes.

This moment tells one an awful lot about the “new” 007.  He is not a suave or slick operator, hovering above the action and commenting humorously on it. Instead, he is decidedly in the game, not above it.

The remainder of the pre-title action sequence stresses Bond running, vaulting (onto the top of a speeding jeep and onto the deck of a yacht…), and even head-butting.  We see Bond -- Dalton -- engaging in these dramatic actions, in wide and long establishing shots, heightening the sense that he, not a stuntman, is involved. 

The overpowering impression here is of a man with a certain heightened level of physical prowess, a level not really seen since the Sean Connery glory days. I can’t be a hundred percent certain without re-watching the films in question, but I’m relatively sure that Roger Moore’s Bond never head-butted an opponent at close quarters.

Then, the pre-title’s final punctuation is a real kicker. Dalton throws away -- without looking back – the line that audiences have been waiting -- dying -- to hear him speak.  He announces his iconic name, “Bond, James Bond,” yet does so in curt, concise fashion.  He says the words at quite a clip, and then is immediately back to business. 

The message conveyed by Dalton’s choice is simply that this Bond is not about ceremony or heightening an artificial moment that is, in the final analysis, outside of the character’s reality.  Instead, he is in the moment.

In terms of the film’s action, on a whole it plays as more suspenseful than many moments in the previous films if only because everything possible has been done to make the action feel grounded or real.  The film’s confidence is such that it even features great action when Bond isn’t present.  There’s a knock-down, drag-out fight set in the safe house kitchen between Necros and another British agent that is brutal, gory and bloody well-choreographed. It feels like something from the era of From Russia with Love, not the more recent Bonds.

And again, the focus on a wider tapestry enhances The Living Daylights’ sense of reality.  James Bond is a man, not a superhero, and we don’t need to see him in every single action scene.  The story moves very well, thank you, when other characters are also competently drawn and developed.

As The Living Daylights progresses, it also worth noting that see Dalton’s Bond smoking cigarettes on at least two occasions (in Q’s work area, and during Koskov’s briefing at the safe house). 

Once again, it has been a long time since we’ve seen Bond smoke on screen, and by the year 1987 smoking was certainly well-known as more than a vice…but as a dangerous addiction. The mere fact that this Bond -- in the latter-half of the 1980s -- was taking such a risk to his health and well-being seems to state something crucial about his personality, and his appetite for both: a.) danger, and b.) self-destruction. The Bond of Ian Fleming’s novels smoked all the time, of course, and it is well-known that Dalton actively sought a return to the literary aesthetic in his portrayals.  While smoking cigarettes may be dismissed as an easy affectation, trenchant visuals can make or break a movie, or a portrayal.  Dalton’s choice to play a smoking Bond (and not one operating in the 1960s, like Connery’s incarnation…) speaks volumes about the man, and is thus a great and effective short-hand.  A smoking Bond conveys immediately, something that is between-the-lines about this man.  He’s not a wholesome “good guy.” 

He’s got demons.

In fact, Dalton’s Bond also comes across as grumpy and curt at times in The Living Daylights, a demeanor we can explain by his dislike of the job -- of having to kill people, essentially, on the command of a superior.  When Saunders threatens to inform M that Bond deliberately botched the sniper mission, Bond snaps at him. He’ll thank M if he fires him.  “Stuff orders!” he growls.

The same leitmotif arises involving Pushkin. The death of Saunders enrages Bond and makes him doubt his instincts.  M, by contrast, is completely cowed, and orders Pushkin’s assassination, despite the fact that Koskov is obviously up to something. 

When Bond refuses to kill without question, M threatens to replace him with 004, an agent who obeys orders, “not instincts.”  Bond relents and agrees to assassinate the Russian, in part, it seems, because he feels he owes Pushkin a professional courtesy.  If Pushkin is to die, then it should be at the hands of an agent who already knows him…and has respected him.

The point here is merely that The Living Daylights establishes two facts about Bond very adeptly.

The first is one that is not immediately apparent from the Roger Moore Era: Bond is a hired killer. 

The second fact (also not apparent in that span), is that Bond doesn’t very much like that description, and so he erects a kind of personal code around his professional behavior.  We see it in his insistence to kill Pushkin himself.  We also see it in his assertion of morality to Saunders that he only “kills professionals.”

A Bond who hates his work (and perhaps himself for doing it) and who is self-destructive enough to smoke and actively disobey orders would not make much sense in a comic-book world, and so The Living Daylights provides him with opponents who are more grounded in reality than the Aryan superman Zorin (A View to A Kill), or the maniacal megalomaniacs of Moonraker (1979) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). 

There are many qualities of the Timothy Dalton Era that are noteworthy, but one that is not often commented upon is the fact that the villains in both his films are pulled straight from the headlines.  Licence to Kill’s Sanchez (still the second greatest villain in the entire franchise behind Goldfinger, if you ask me…) is Pablo Escobar, of course.  And the villains in The Living Daylights are running a variation of the Iran-Contra Scandal that sullied and nearly destroyed President Reagan’s second term. 

Accordingly, Whitaker is pretty clearly modeled on Colonel Oliver North, a man who paradoxically considered himself an extreme patriot even as he shredded White House documents, lied to Congress, and accepted $14,000 dollars from an Iran-Contra arms profiteer (“Oliver North, Fortunate Felon,” The New York Times, July 6, 1989).  Whitaker, like North, is a man of pretensions.  He “plays” at being a soldier and loving the military. But he’s actually a rampant narcissist, and in the game for wealth, and self-glorification.

Necros provides the physical menace in the film, whereas Whitaker and Koskov are the “general” villains, but together they pack a punch, and reflect some sense of the real world.

There are some miscues in The Living Daylights, to be certain. Milovy comes across as cheerily dimwitted at times (especially when she can’t figure out that Bond is telling her to drive a jeep into the back of the plane), and the joke about Afghani freedom fighters getting stopped at the airport is a groaner, considering everything that has happened in the world since 1989.

But overall, Timothy Dalton’s debut is a terrific entry in the Bond franchise, one that re-invigorated the movie series and pointed to a new future and a new direction for 007.  In 1987 -- and today -- this movie thrilled “the living daylights” out of a generation seeking a smart re-invention of a beloved legend.

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