The Living Daylights (1989) – John Glen

After three tries as the director of James Bond pictures, John Glen found his man in Timothy Dalton. His first three attempts all starred Roger Moore as the superspy, whose boyish flippancy never fully gelled with Glen’s straightforward and humorless narrative style. Well, it doesn’t get more straightforward or humorless than Timothy Dalton, who speaks with authority and moves with purpose, essential for a James Bond, but he seduces like a man doing a chore, or worse, a father giving a stern lecture to a petulant child. Ultimately, that was the reason for Dalton’s brief stint as 007 (he played the role only twice), but it doesn’t affect the enjoyment of The Living Daylights (1987), the high-water mark in Glen’s Bond career and one of the better post-Connery entries in the series.

The real strength of The Living Daylights is the script, miraculously by the same writing team that penned the last few bloats of the Moore era, which is paired down, sophisticated and intriguing with a minimum of the cheeky asides that Moore would relish though they undercut the story just the same. It’s possible that more of these jokes existed in early drafts but were cut when it was discovered that their leading man was physically incapable of delivering them, but either way, the movie is better for it. It feels like a Hitchcockian dream including double crossings, fake deaths, defections and classical music. The movie reminds me of The 39 Steps (1935) with its cross-country traipsing, odd couple pairing and proclivity for scenes in concert halls. What separates the former movie from the latter is any semblance of wit or sexual tension, but it has a similar intelligence and that’s worth something.

The movie includes a complicated plot but not a convoluted one. Unlike the last few Bonds, it presents a real mystery as opposed to simply waiting to reveal the villain’s nonsensical ambition. British secret service agents are getting murdered around the globe while Bond is in charge of providing protection for a defecting KGB general named Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé). Bond spots a sniper aiming at his charge while they attempt to cross the border and recognizes her as the cellist he saw at a concert earlier in the evening. He disarms her but doesn’t kill her and Koskov makes his escape. Days later, Koskov is kidnapped, presumably by the Russians who want to return him to Moscow and Bond has reconnected with the cellist/assassin Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo). Together they discover that Koskov’s defection was not what it seemed, that his kidnapping is even less so, and that he is involved with a large-scale arms dealer named Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) trading in both weapons and Afghan opium. 

Our guide through the geopolitical bog is Dalton, who makes for a sort of charmless Harrison Ford, a grounded presence in a world gone mad. The no-nonsense and laconic Dalton is the perfect propulsion engine for this type of story, which needs to move forward before we think too much about it, and Dalton is fully committed. Things go less well in the lighter moments, particularly the romantic ones, in which Dalton can’t decide whether to patronize d’Abo like a little girl or chastise her like a nuisance. Dalton’s entire romantic acumen is summed up in an early scene before the credit sequence in which a bathing beauty is relaxing on a yacht when Bond drops in on her via parachute. “It’s all so boring here,” says the statuesque sunbather into a phone. “If only I could find a real man.” Enter Dalton from above with a healthy scowl on his face. “I need to use your phone,” he barks with the subtext of “Enough of your idle chattering, woman, I need to make a call.” He grabs the phone and calls into headquarters, letting them know he’s on his way in from a mission and will be there in an hour. The woman, as women are wont to do in these movies, offers him a drink seductively and asks if he’ll join her. Bond then says into the phone, “Better make that two [hours]” as if he swallowed a lemon peel. In the transition from Moore to Dalton, we went from a playboy who treated action scenes like the filler between love scenes to a sourpuss who treats love scenes like a trip to the dentist.

Luckily, the movie doesn’t linger in moments like these (the ones that do exist seem interminable, however) and instead lends its weight behind the action and plot developments. Krabbé as Koskov can do the oily double-crosser bit in his sleep, and the war-mad Whitaker (he has a palace lined with wax figures of Napoleon and other military luminaries and spends his recreation time re-creating battles with toy soldiers) is only so zany and never truly over the top. More memorable is Necros (Andreas Wisniewski), a silent Aryan hit man who kills while listening to (and sometimes using as a weapon) his Walkman. The movie has more than competent action set-pieces (Glen’s trademark visual creativity is best in a car chase that ends in a downhill escape using a cello case as a sled) but truly comes alive as a combination of all its elements, which, rare for Bond pictures, fit together with exceptional prudence.

On this last viewing, perhaps what struck me most, outside of the buoyancy of the story, was the portrayal of Afghan rebels who play a role in the last third of the movie. Bond pictures made demonizing the Russians into a cottage industry (and The Living Daylights continues this), but they have been largely resistant to doing the same with the Arab world. The Afghans here are sympathetic freedom fighters, not the reckless insurgents that many Hollywood movies would define them as. It’s telling that Art Malik, who plays the leader of the Afghan tribe, would, only seven years later, play a crazed fanatic in True Lies (1994), albeit in The Living Daylights, Malik’s character has to be an Oxford-educated Western-friendly confederate before he’s acceptable. This type of sensitivity, insignificant as it may be, is emblematic of the movie’s adult outlook, personified by its solemn and determined star, and I enjoyed them both.

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