Friday, 9 November 2012

50 Years of Bond: "The Living Daylights"

The idea of a classically trained, Shakespearean actor taking on the role of an action hero sounds like the makings of an SNL sketch rather than an actual reality. But that's what happened when actor Timothy Dalton took on the role of James Bond after Roger Moore finally left the role he had played for seven films over 12 years, his final film being 1985's A View To a Kill. Dalton had been approached by Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli back in 1968 when Sean Connery had first retired from the role and Broccoli was looking for a new 007. Dalton, who was 24 at the time, thought he was too young and declined the offer. Dalton was approached several times during Moore's tenor, including after when Moore finally retired. Dalton had committed to another project at the time. Producers turned to Pierce Brosnan, who was eventually locked in to play Bond. Remington Steele, the TV show on which Brosnan was appearing at the time, had been been cancelled, leaving Brosnan free to play the role. At the end of the fourth season, NBC decided not to cancel the show. Even though NBC was willing to alter Brosnan''s schedule in order for him to play Bond, Broccoli reportedly did not want Brosnan playing both roles at the same time. NBC had a 60 day deadline in which to decide whether to renew the show or not. On the 60th day, they made the decision to renew it. In an ironic twist of fate, the delay on the new Bond film eventually became allowed Dalton to finish his work on the film Brenda Starr and then begin filming the Bond film, which was The Living Daylights.

Rewatching both this film and Dalton's subsequent, and final Bond film, Licence to Kill (1989), reminded me of what I love about the two Dalton Bond films, which is that they're two of the most emotionally resonant and character driven of the Bond series. It's been said that in preparation for the role, Dalton went back and read the original Ian Fleming novels in order to stay true to Fleming's original vision. The Living Daylights, despite featuring the trademark stunts and gadgets of the Bond films, is one of the rare entries in the series, along with From Russia With Love (1963) and Casino Royale (2006), that feels like an authentic spy thriller. It has the double crosses and black  and dagger intrigue that reminds us of what world James Bond was inhabiting at the time. Dalton also feels more human than Moore did in many of his films. From the first shot of Dalton in the film, watching a fellow 00 agent fall to his death via a Russian agent during what's supposed to be a routine training exercise, his eyes squinted, his jaw hardened, you know this is a more hard edged Bond. Dalton is almost like a proto-type Daniel Craig in that, like Craig, he's not as obviously suave or sophisticated as we imagine Bond to be but if you're willing to go with the interpretation of the character, Dalton provides a fascinatingly vulnerable and grounded portrait of the character. Moreover, Dalton's one of the strongest actors to play the part. I would say that, up until this point, Dalton was the best Bond since Sean Connery.

The plot revolves around the supposed defection of Russian General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe), who Bond protects from a sniper, Kara Milovy (Maryam D'Abo), a cellist from the concert hall from which Koskov is sneaking out. Bond deliberately misses her, angering Saunders (Thomas Wheatley), the MI6 agent heading the mission. Bond gets Koskov out of the country. Koskov tells the British that the reason he defected was because General Leonid Pushkin (John Rhys Davies), the head of the KGB, is ordering the murder of American and British agents. Koskov is later snatched back by the KGB at the MI6 safe house. In fact, the defection and the kidnapping are all part of a ruse by Koskov to have the British kill Pushkin because he discovered Koskov was embezzaling Russian funds as part of an arms deal operation involving arms dealer General Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker).

The plot is somewhat convoluted but I admire thaat the film takes its time to establish all the pieces of the plot and how everything clicks together. I also like realistic nature of the plot. No one's trying to conquer the world- it's essentially about corrupt military officials. What also makes the plot work is the emotional centre of the film, which is the relationship between Bond and Kara, who is actually Koskov's girlfriend, hire by Koskov to pose as a sniper. Bond pretends to be Koskov's friend so Kara will help Bond find him. Their relationship is actually quite touching, which is due to the contrast between the rough around the edges, devilishly handsome Bond, and the more innocent, angelic and free-spirited Kara, who begins to warm Bond's heart, even as she occasionally annoys him with things like having them go back for her cello when the KGB are after them. This brings me to an interesting characteristic of of the Dalton Bond, which is while he still has a thing for the ladies, he's not ready to jump in to bed with Kara the moment he meets her. Dalton's Bond is a harder nut to crack in many ways, in terms of his sexual appetite, which makes the relationship between him and Kara feel more authentic. It's not just a fling but something that is developing over time. And by the end of the film, you feel Bond and Kara could actually have a real relationship outside the events of the film.

Kara is also one of the more complex Bond women in the series history. Kara loves Georgi, and tells Bond she owes him everything, including her career. At the same time, she's falling in love with Bond, a man she eventually learns was hired to kill to kill her but chose not to. D'Abo is quite lovely in the role, both innocent and naive but still assertive and occasionally funny. You actually care about her fate and the ending of the film gives her a real happy ending. I think Koskov is an effective villain because he's not megalomanical.  Rather, he's a more down to earth, weaselly and smug type of villain, the type of guy you want to be taken down because he resembles something more authentically real world villain, a corrupt official. Don Baker, who would star as a Bond ally in the Pierce Brosnan Bond films, GoldenEye (1995)and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), combines jovilaity and cold-bloodedness in his portrayal of Whitaker, making him a surprisingly intimidating foe.

One of my favourite parts in the film is the reunion between Bond and Saunders, where Bond asks Saunders to help him find information on Kara's cello. At first Saunders is reluctant, due to the red tape he'd have to cut through, but he eventually helps Bond out. Later on when Saunders gives Bond a lead on the cello, Bond tells Saunders thanks, to which Saunders gives him a slight smile. As Saunders leaves the cafe he and Bond are sitting in, he's killed by an explosion set by Necros (Andreas Wisniewski), of one Koskov's henchmen. I find this scene quite powerful because while Bond and Saunders really didn't like each other at the beginning of the film, Bond saying thanks is also him saying "You're okay." Their brief exchange implies Bond and Saunders had put their differences behind them and could become really good allies and maybe even friends down the line. With Saunders dead, that partnership can never happen. 

The film is an interesting time capsule in that Bond teams up with the Mujahideen, the Afghan resistance to the Pro- Soviet Afghanistan, and their leader Kamran Shaw (Art Malik), in order to defeat Koskov. The real life conflict in Afghanistan at the time becomes the backdrop for the climax of the film, a fight in the desert between the Mujahideen and the Russians. The highlight of this sequence is probably when Bond plants a bomb on a plane full of opium that Koskov is going to sell-Bond then has to fly the plane away during an attack. There's a terrific fight between Bond and Necros on a net outside the plane and when Bond finally gets back in the plane, he forgets for a moment there's a bomb in the plane. The Necros fight, as well as the bomb on the plane is a great way of creating overlapping suspense, and it's a very human moment when Bond forgets there's a bomb on board.

The Living Daylights may not be everyone's ideal Bond-nor Dalton everyone's ideal Bond. Personally, I really love this film. Romantic, adventurous, intense, funny and smart, this for me is an excellent Bond film and I wish  Dalton had the oppurtunity to take on the role earlier and made a few more films. He would play Bond only once more-in what I think is probably the darkest and most violent Bond film to date. James Bond will return in: Licence to Kill.

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