'The Living Daylights' Review: The Stradivarius that Wasn’t
Timothy Dalton is often called “the forgotten Bond,” a title I’ve come to loathe after seeing his performance in The Living Daylights, but more on that later. The first of Dalton’s two entries in the 007 franchise, The Living Daylights follows the general formula of most Bond movies. Unfortunately, it offers a sharp contrast when paired with Dalton’s take on Bond. After aiding in the escape of an ex-KGB general, Bond is caught in a web of lies and deceit. In the string of unexpected events, Bond finds himself in a multitude of places. Oh and surprise, the Russians are the bad guys. Well, for a little while at least.
It’s fairly hard to say too much about the plot without spoiling something or the other, with that in mind I’ll try and stick to the basics. The Bond girl of this movie is a Russian cellist by the name of Kara (Maryam d'Abo), she’s quite unremarkable to say the least. Not a bad actress by any means, simply unfulfilled when sharing the screen with Dalton. Her character is generally melodramatic and acts in the same vein of a 60’s starlet putting her safety in the arms of “the mystery man.” Compared to the Bond girls who can hold their own against their opposites, she leaves much to be wanted.
What I’m itching to talk about though, is Timothy Dalton. Dalton gives a performance on Bond that is gritty and dark. He’s a broken and (considered by some) to be an old man, someone not fit for fieldwork anymore. After some research, I found that Dalton was a massive fan of Ian Fleming’s original stories of James Bond. Being loyal to Fleming’s take on Bond, Dalton – with the help of director Albert R. Broccoli – secured a chance to play a less flamboyant Bond. Yes, I’m talking about you Roger Moore.
His Bond is the angry one, the one frustrated with the lax nature of bureaucracy and government affairs. His Bond gets things done, with or without the help of MI6 at times. Dalton brought something to 007 that screamed “damaged.” After years of fighting and killing and breaking his back for his country, he seems fit to find solace in a particularly large glass of vodka martini. I for one, loved this Bond. Being someone who’s for Daniel Craig’s Bond, Dalton feels like the same character but in a much different cinematic atmosphere. Whereas Craig’s movies tend to serve his adoption of a ruthless 007, Dalton’s films seem to work against him. He tries, in many ways, to keep the act of a realistic secret service agent up, but the skiing Aston Martin and missile-firing pistols won’t have it. Gadgets have, and always will be an intrinsic piece in any Bond movie, but I feel that in The Living Daylight it’d have been in the films best interests to take a subtler approach. There’s just something not write about a furious and revenge driven Bond cross-country sledding in a cello case.
Dalton’s Bond was trying to accept what Fleming’s character embodied and tried to be a part of the more serious late 80’s films. Fans of the novels adored Bond, but it’s very hard to take down a film where Bond casts a grim shadow that inevitably conflicts with the movie’s light-heartedness. The campy mood undermines any effort made by Dalton to ground the audience. A big turning point in the plot occurs when the cast shifts to Afghanistan amidst the Soviet-Afghan war. Bond becomes involved in the politics and oppression of the Afghan people. Though it doesn’t get too caught up in the political tension, the fight for liberty by the Mujahedeen feels very real and pairs nicely with Dalton’s tone. His final showdown with the comical and war-obsessed antagonist however, again uproots any attempts to be austere.
It’s a great injustice that Dalton couldn’t play Bond in more than two films. Many of his naysayers criticize the lack of human, citing a robotic and sullen Bond. Though very real arguments, the right mix of comedy and rooted fantasy can only be achieved when the film works for, and not against its main lead. The director may have given his blessing to Dalton for a more serious Bond, but he certainly didn’t try and follow suite. Had Dalton’s much anticipated third film worked out and not been bogged down by development issues, he could have delivered the right blend of his own emotional understanding and Connery’s legendary attitude. Or perhaps simply after following Moore, it was impossible to make something out of Bond that wasn’t a joke. Audiences were used to, and expected a temperamentally disparaged 007. What we’re left with, is a film that bears a striking resemblance to the Bond that Dalton dreamed of. Flawed and broken in many aspects, but at its heart, still very splendid.