James Bond 007: The Living Daylights (1987)

The pre-credits sequence for The Living Daylights encapsulates the new energy Timothy Dalton brought to the role of 007 as well as the well-worn conventions and lingering foibles that still defined the series in the late 1980s. As the sequence nears its conclusion, James Bond has just used a parachute to escape through the back of an exploding jeep careening off a cliff on the Rock of Gibraltar. For a second, Bond hovers in the air, his parachute damaged, looking for a place to land. He quickly spots a yacht in the sea below him and lands on the deck canopy. His landing startles the attractive, bikini-clad woman on the deck who has just been complaining to a friend over the phone about not being able to find “a real man.” Dalton’s Bond flips himself under the canopy (and yes, we can see it is Dalton and no stuntman!), and, seeing the woman, he half-politely asks to borrow the phone as he briskly snatches it from her and ends her conversation. When she asks who he is, Dalton tosses off the famous introduction (“Bond. James Bond.”); he’s more eager to connect with command than flirt with the woman.

As Bond informs command that he’ll report in an hour, a glass of champagne enters the foreground of the shot, slightly out of focus, like an alcoholic apparition of the Roger Moore era. Dalton looks and the film cuts to the reverse shot of the woman eagerly asking Bond to join her. Cut back to Dalton and his face takes on a roguish charm as he issues over the phone, almost reluctantly, the words the audience expects to hear: “Better make that two.” The title song starts, a gun shoots, and Albert R. Broccoli presents the new 007.

The final moments of the pre-credits sequence are a handy metaphor for The Living Daylights as a whole. Dalton’s physical capability, razor-edged no-nonsense manner, and emphasis on the mission are startling in comparison to how Roger Moore, the previous Bond, would play the scene. Yet, in spite of the new directions Timothy Dalton’s explosive Bond offers the filmmakers, he is continually brought to land in familiar territory. Consider the introduction of Dalton an injection of energy, not a reinvention of the series.

For that reason, The Living Daylights could also be considered another “soft reboot” in the vein of Bond’s entry point into the eighties, For Your Eyes Only. Director John Glen helmed both Daylights and For Your Eyes Only—and indeed all five Bond films from the 1980s. Aren pointed out in our Roger Moore roundtable how Glen’s A View to a Kill is almost a remake of Moonraker, for both the structure of its plot and the scale of its climax. Before directing, Glen was an editor and assistant director on three Bond productions, and the five entries he directed tend to imitate previous approaches to Bond and contemporaneous action films (such as the Indiana Jones movies) just as much as they establish their own tone and style for Bond. If Glen aped Lewis Gilbert in A View to a Kill, perhaps The Living Daylights is his throwback to Terence Young circa From Russia with Love. For Daylights is a more espionage-focused Bond film, while also being a return to Cold War conflict.

The first scene after the credits, in which Bond must help Russian General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) escape Czechoslovakia in order to defect, is a great example of Euro-thriller atmosphere and espionage suspense. It also might be the first scene in which Bond holds a sniper rifle since From Russia with Love. After Bond and his fellow agent Saunders (Thomas Wheatley) extract the general from a concert hall—Bond covering Koskov from a shadowy flat across the street—the plot unfortunately veers into Roger Moore territory. A humorous scenario involving a busty Eastern European worker and an escape pipeline might be amusing but it disrupts the previous atmosphere.

Once he is safely in England, Koskov informs British Command that General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) has initiated “Smiert Spionom”—”Death to Spies”—an aggressive program of eliminating British and American agents that could lead to nuclear war. (One of Bond’s teammates is assassinated in the pre-credits sequence.) Bond is tasked with taking out Pushkin, but he has his doubts. He also wants to discover why the female cello player/Russian sniper he stopped from shooting Koskov (he spares her life and only shoots the gun in her hand) struck him as such an amateur. It turns out that Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo) is just Koskov’s girlfriend, and that Bond and the British have been duped into eliminating Pushkin, who is Koskov’s rival. Koskov is the real hothead, and he’s working with an American arms dealer, Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker). Once again, a Bond film in the eighties explains the Russian villain as a loose cannon—someone who will disrupt the admittedly hostile yet stable opposition with the USSR.

The film’s stance towards Russia takes on a new character when Bond goes to Afghanistan in the last act of the film. The Soviets had invaded the country in 1979, and they fought a long war against the Afghan resistance, the Mujahideen; this event was a significant factor in ending the détente between the West and the East and heating up the Cold War once again during the 1980s. The scenes in Afghanistan contain the film’s most pronounced anti-Russian moments, such as when the Russian prison guards are seen to be cruel and mocking towards their Afghan prisoner (who turns out to be Kamran Shah, a leader of the resistance, played by Art Malik). Viewed today, after the US invasion of Afghanistan and their long battle with the Taliban (many of whom were former Mujahideen fighters), not to mention the widespread vilification of Muslims in Western pop culture narratives, the film’s pro-Muslim resistance stance stands out. In fact, the Soviet scorn for the Afghan religion and culture that creeps up in the film has uncomfortable parallels with contemporary Western Islamophobia.

The Mujahideen in The Living Daylights are not presented as uncomplicated heroes though. At one point they are shown to be selling heroin in order to buy guns to fight the Soviets. While Bond disapproves of their measures, the film seems to approach the drug dealing as a unpleasant but perhaps necessary reality in the face of Soviet oppression. The whole Afghanistan section of the film is a great example of text as context; the later War on Drugs and the current War on Terror alter how we read the film today (and also point out how our view of “history” changes depending on what’s going on in the present).

The film has a fairly solid supporting cast with a couple weak spots. As Afghan resistance leader Kamran Shah, Art Malik does a good job at playing into Western stereotypes when he must pretend to be a silly prisoner in order to hide his true identity as a resistance leader. But of course, Shah turns out to be Oxford educated. While the legacy of the British Empire makes this likely, it also exemplifies the colonialist mentality of the Bond franchise that the best, most trustworthy “natives” are the more “civilized,” British-educated ones.

With his rooms cluttered with military paraphernalia and miniature reenactments of famous battles, the war-obsessed arms dealer Whitaker might come across as a half-baked attempt at an extravagant Bond mega-villain, but there’s a gulf between his dreams of profundity and what he actually is. In one scene, Pushkin calls him out as a pretentious thug. He’s a bum looking to make a buck, and he only pretends to be a man of military honour. The problem is, Joe Don Baker never seems like much of a threat, and we barely see him outside of his toy room. Baker was a better fit later on as an ally in the Brosnan films. In contrast, Koskov’s henchman Necros, who strangles people with his headphones, is a real physical threat to Dalton’s more physical Bond. As an “acrobatic henchman,” the physical extension of the villainous mind, Necros is both an eighties action movie convention and a worthy addition to the ranks of Bond henchmen. For me, though, Jeroen Krabbé’s wheedling, scuzzy Koskov steals the show. What he lacks in menace, he makes up for in sheer entertainment.

With the change from Roger Moore to Timothy Dalton, the filmmakers seemed to think it was high time to have a new, younger Miss Moneypenny, so Caroline Bliss was brought in. It’s notable that she does more than simply flirt with Bond in the film, and actually tracks down Kara in the newspapers for him. Kara, Maryam d’Abo’s Bond girl, is functional but pretty bland. The eighties really seem to be the low decade for Bond girls. Notably, there’s also only one Bond girl in The Living Daylights. Even with Bond’s suggested conquest at the end of the pre-credits sequence, the film contains a notable decrease in Bond’s womanizing after Roger Moore’s non-stop sexual escapades. Perhaps Bond’s promiscuity was downplayed in reaction to the new attention to STDs and the AIDS panic of the 1980s.    

Timothy Dalton was the fourth actor to play James Bond in the franchise. Three “looks” sum up his version of Bond in the film. The first is his edge; the second, his irritation; the third, his seduction. Dalton’s edge—the appearance he gives off that he is a dangerous man, coiled and contained yet capable of lethal action in a heartbeat—is visible in the first shot of the new Bond. When one of his team members falls to his death screaming, Dalton looks over his shoulder as the camera dollies in on his back. There’s a hard glint in his eye; no Roger Moore smirk.

Dalton’s Bond is also frequently angry and annoyed. Far from smooth, he grates against his contact in Bratislava, who is admittedly annoying. Moore would have delivered his annoyance with some witty jibes to the audience and a few eye rolls. Dalton never breaks the fourth wall, and he doesn’t hide his contempt either; there’s a fairly lengthy shot showing his seething reaction while the fellow agent chatters on.

If fuming anger and annoyance mark Dalton’s portrayal of Bond on a mission, his portrayal of Bond the lover is a seducer. When he goes to work on Kara, his strokes of her hair look rehearsed, his charming smile like a mask. Notice the way his face changes when the woman on the boat invites him to stay. If Moore is Bond the gentleman lover, Dalton’s Bond plays “the seducer” when necessary. It’s certainly the aspect of the role that Dalton seems least sure of, but his seducer-act also adds an interesting dimension to his portrayal, showing how a secret agent is a collection of roles. The real individual is always hidden, the real James Bond almost unknowable. This makes sense, since Dalton is a trained Shakespearean actor. He brings a certain performativity to the role.

While Dalton’s razor-edged Bond differs sharply from Moore’s unflappable 007, the film, under the direction of Bond veteran John Glen, fits comfortably alongside the least outlandish Moore film, For Your Eyes Only. And as was the case with For Your Eyes Only, The Living Daylights is a measured move back towards more grounded action and plotting. However, there are still silly moments which unfortunately jar with Dalton’s dangerous edge. To turn my initial metaphor into a question, what if Dalton’s Bond, hovering in the air, had been brought to land in a new kind of Bond film?

Although The Living Daylights marks the introduction of a new Bond, the film is not a clean break from the Roger Moore era. The fact that John Barry delivered his final score for the franchise with The Living Daylights (and it’s a good one) just goes to show that Dalton’s introduction was regularized, and at times even blunted, with familiarity.

7 out of 10

The Living Daylights (UK/USA, 1987)

Directed by John Glen; screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, based on the short story by Ian Fleming; starring Timothy Dalton, Maryam d’Abo, Jeroen Krabbé, Joe Don Baker, John Rhys-Davies, Art Malik, Andres Wisniewski, Thomas Wheatley, Desmond Llewelyn, Robert Brown, Geoffrey Keen, Walter Gotell, and Caroline Bliss.