3.5 of 5 stars
Indeed, this was the closest in both tone and substance the series has ever gotten to replicating From Russia with Love. Just like the Connery film from 24 years earlier, this movie is set firmly in the Cold War era. While From Russia with Love was set at the height of hostilities with the Soviet Union, to the point where Bond just (wrongly) assumed Russia was the enemy, this movie is set during the period of détente, when the U.S.S.R. and the West were beginning to agree to disagree.
Dalton’s Bond is much more physical and business-like than Moore’s. Dalton carries himself rigidly and walks with purpose, opposed to how Moore would seem to wander into a room, constantly doubting his every move. While a welcome departure from Moore, Dalton’s Bond isn’t as flamboyant as Sean Connery’s. Connery could quip and seem natural in whatever he was doing, no matter how ridiculous. Dalton’s 007 doesn’t have nearly the joy of Connery’s.
However, Dalton was probably the most “Bondian” Bond to date. He looks more like Ian Fleming’s description of Bond than any of his predecessors. He was also more believable in the role than any of the earlier actors.
The film starts with a gripping pre-title sequence. The double-oh section has been chosen for a drill on Gibraltar. The double-ohs are to infiltrate a British base as part of a realistic training exercise, in which soldiers may fire at them with paint pellets. However, shit gets real after an actual bad guy begins killing the double-ohs. There’s something compelling about the sequence when the rules of the exercise no longer matter. A soldier shoots the bad guy with a paint pellet and says, ‘You’re dead!’ The bad guy turns around and shoots the soldier for real. Bond runs the bad guy off the side of the island and himself lands on a yacht alone with a beautiful woman. Bond uses her phone to tell his boss he’ll be back in an hour. He then eyeballs the nearly naked woman and adds, ‘Make that an hour and four minutes.’
The plot is chock-full of convoluted spy stuff that sort-of makes sense. A Soviet general, Koskov, wants to defect to the West, but will only do so if Bond protects him (remember Tatiana in From Russia with Love?). Bond goes along with the act, noting an assassin who was supposed to shoot Koskov was a cellist he saw at the symphony just beforehand and who clearly doesn’t know how to use a rifle. Bond gets Koskov back to Britain, and the general stages his own kidnapping, but not before telling Bond’s boss, M, that his own boss, General Pushkin, the new head of the KGB, is a madman and needs to be eliminated. Turns out Koskov is in cahoots with an American arms dealer, Brad Whitaker, to make a bunch of money buying Afghan opium to sell in New York at a huge profit and then buying weapons to sell to the Soviets to use in the war in Afghanistan. Somewhere along the way Pushkin will be eliminated by British intelligence, and Koskov will take over as head of the KGB. Also, the cellist was Koskov’s girlfriend, and Bond was supposed to kill her since she was a potential witness… Phew!
The highlight of the movie is John Rhys-Davies (Gimli from The Lord of the Rings) as General Pushkin, successor to General Golgol, the head of the KGB who had appeared in every Bond film since The Spy Who Loved Me. Rhys-Davies is predictably excellent in the role.
The villains, however, are underwhelming. Connery’s villains were a half-Chinese mad scientist with metal claws for hands, a toad-like lesbian with poison-tipped shoes, a gold-colored man who almost sliced Bond in half with a laser beam, a one-eyed Sicilian terrorist, and a white cat-stroking supervillain. Who remembers Joe Don Baker as the American arms dealer, Brad Whitaker? The fact no one remembered him enabled Baker to return as Bond’s new CIA friend, Jack Wade, eight years later in GoldenEye.
The film also doesn’t quite shake all the silly elements of the Moore era. In one scene, Bond and Koskov’s girlfriend escape from Russian gunmen by sledding to the border on a cello case. When Bond and the cellist begin making out on a stopped Ferris wheel, the camera pans away to a plush elephant doll with eyes blissfully rolled back. This was the kind of comic editing typical of the Moore-era films, but feels especially obnoxious in a film striving for a more serious tone. (Director John Glen had directed three previous Bond films and edited three others.)
One sequence in which The Living Daylights feels especially dated is when Bond teams up with the mujahidin in Afghanistan to sneak onto a Russian airbase. Bond frees their leader from a Russian jail and then disguises himself in a turban. We now know the mujahidin during the Afghan war with Russia were the forerunner to al-Qaeda. That man Bond freed from the Russian jail very well could have been Osama bin Laden. Thanks, 007.
I’d actually like to see the series bring back the character, played by Art Malik, as a villain to Daniel Craig’s Bond. He could be a terrorist MI6 had helped back when he was a mujahidin, who eventually turned the guns back on the West, something all too common in the West’s adventures in the Middle East.
While not among the best films in the series, The Living Daylights was a step in the right direction for a franchise that had seemingly turned into a self-parody over the previous decade.