Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Living Daylights: A Review


Daylights Saving Time...

Please visit the James Bond Film Retrospective for all the Bond reviews. 

The Living Daylights was the first reboot of the James Bond franchise in a long time.  Roger Moore's seventh and last turn as James Bond 007 was an embarrassment to almost everyone (even to Moore), and so we now restart the series with a more angry and serious Bond in the fourth James Bond: Timothy Dalton. 

Gone are the lavish settings.  Gone are the outrageous plots.  Gone are the rather exotic names for the Bond Girls.  The Living Daylights has a new Bond, a new seriousness, and even a new Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss, which I think would make a great Bond Girl name, but I digress).  If anything it was an attempt to get the series more grounded in the world we live in rather than the world of fantasy some of Moore's Bond films gleefully indulged in (Bond In Space!  Bond as Bozo!).  As much as Dalton's era as 007 is derided or looked down on, what I found in The Living Daylights is a film that makes a good effort to make things more realistic, sometimes stumbling on the Bond trappings, but one that in retrospect isn't anywhere near a disaster as some previous, and sadly, some future Bonds would be.

A training exercise in Gibraltar for the 00s goes horribly wrong, and 007 James Bond (Dalton) disposes of the killer of some of his fellow 00s.  We then shift to Bratislava in what was once Czechoslovakia but is now the capital of Slovakia.  Here, Bond is assigned to help a top-ranking KGB general, Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé), defect to the West.  When Koskov is making his escape, Bond notices a beautiful cellist attempt to kill the general.  Bond deliberately misses her before spiriting Koskov from behind the Iron Curtain to London.

General Koskov has valuable information for MI6, especially about Smiert Spionom (or Death to Spies), a secret plot to kill every agent in the Soviet Union, which Koskov believes will cause war.  This scheme is plotted by one General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies), but before anything more can be learned, Koskov is quickly recaptured by the KGB and the mysterious master assassin, Necros (Andreas Wisniewski). 

Of course, there's one or two twists to the tale.  First, Bond finds the hitwoman from Bratislava: one Kara Milovy (Maryam d'Abo), who is surprisingly NOT an assassin but Koskov's girlfriend.  The naive cellist believes Bond to be Koskov's friend who will take her to her lover.  They make a daring escape from Czechoslovakia to Austria on her cello (that's right, they use her Stradivarius cello as part of their escape...a Stradivarius that gets shot, but let's move on).  Second and most important, Koskov wasn't taken by the KGB, but by pseudo-General Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), an arms dealer with a mania for military campaign and garb (he even has an assistant whom he calls Sergeant and who salutes him and snaps to attention whenever Whitaker comes by).

Whitaker and Koskov are in cahoots, funneling money from the Soviets and various revolutionary groups into their own pockets.  Everything involving Koskov with MI6 was all a ruse to get them to eliminate Pushkin, who was becoming suspicious of Koskov.  Bond eventually puts all this together and pulls a few tricks of his own, with very little help from CIA agent/friend Felix Leiter (John Terry).

It is believed Pushkin has been assassinated (although we all know he hasn't been), and Kara contacts Koskov, who betrays her and takes both Milovy and Bond to Afghanistan.  Bond and Milovy manage both an escape and by helping another prisoner, getting in contact with the Mujaheddin.  Their fellow prisoner happens to be a resistance leader, Kamran Shah (Art Malik).  Kamran happens to at least have a British education (and accent), but has no interest getting Koskov.  It isn't until Bond and Milovy force his hand that they have a battle in the Russian airbase.

Koskov survives, and Bond now goes after both him and Whitaker. 

I understand that both Dalton and the two films he made as 007 (The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill) are not held in high regard by Bond fans.  After seeing LD twice, I fail to see why both the film and Dalton are derided.  I believe longtime producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, regular Bond director John Glen, and longtime Bond scenarist Richard Maibaum (along with producer Michael Wilson) were making a serious and sincere effort to make a Bond film that was more realistic while trying to keep as much of what made James Bond...James Bond. 

You had a plot that involved arms dealers (something in the minds of the public with the Iran-Contra scandal still making headlines), the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, and the political intrigue of the Cold War in its closing days.  However, you still had the gadgets, the exotic locales (Tangier and Vienna), the chases, and the beautiful Bond Girls, or Girl I should say. 

D'Abo is a curiosity in Bond Girl history in that she is one of the few Bond Girls in a Bond film to have James Bond all to herself.  Barring the opening scene where James Bond literally drops in on a beauty 007 doesn't squire any other woman in The Living Daylights.  Even in On Her Majesty's Secret Service Bond had a few beauties literally laying around for him (and in that one, he actually marries).  Milovy (which sounds curiously like 'my lovely', don't you think?) therefore is the only actual Girl to provide any romantic subplot.  Yet I digress.

On the whole, I think The Living Daylights worked well in bringing things down after some of Moore's more exotic and grandiose stories.  The action sequences (in particular the one that takes place aboard an airplane over Afghanistan) is genuinely tense and exciting. 

This being my first experience with Timothy Dalton in the role, I think he was going for a darker, angrier version to the character.  On the plus side, it makes 007 more of a professional, someone who has very little time for charm or witty repartee and just wants to get on with the job.  As a result, Bond is now presented as someone who may actually be believable as a professional assassin with a licence to kill from Her Majesty.

The negative to that is that Dalton and Bond may not be able to carry off the few quips that Bond is given.  When he and Kara are making their escape past Czechoslovakian guards, he readies missiles in his Aston Martin and says, "I had a few optional features installed".  One can imagine Moore or Sean Connery making this come off as a witty remark.  With Dalton's delivery, it almost sounds like a threat.  Still, on the whole I think Dalton made an excellent debut as Bond.  

As I watched The Living Daylights, I can't say that it is a perfect film.  Its chief flaw is in its inability to make use of almost all the other characters.  We have Felix Leiter, but he doesn't add anything to the story to where one wonders why he is even there in the first place.  The same goes for Khan, who is basically there to get Bond and Milovy a way to get out of Afghanistan and put a dent in Koskov/Whitaker's plans.

We also face a big issue with the actual villains.  Krabbé's Koskov and Baker's Whitaker at times almost come off as cartoonish, more obstacles in The Living Daylights than instigators of the story.  The more comical aspects to this duo (a rare moment in a Bond film where we have TWO main villains, with only Octopussy's pairing of General Orlov and Kamal Khan being the only other time we had two antagonists) is Whitaker, who comes off as more a military-obsessed nut than an actual threat, more someone playing at soldier than doing anything that could be considered dangerous or menacing.

The same goes for Necros (which if nothing else, is one of the better Bond henchmen names).  He has a certain cleverness when he is able to disguise himself as a milkman and a doctor all due to his wearing of white, but he rarely manages to show off how good an assassin he can be.  Necros isn't a lousy henchman, but somehow he isn't a memorable one.

A bright spot is Rhys-Davies' General Pushkin, but John Rhys-Davies rarely turns in a bad performance.  I will argue that having us know that Pushkin really wasn't dead might not, in this case, be a good idea.  I think it would have worked better if we thought Necros had been the assassin.  However, I also think giving both Whitaker and Koskov something to do would have been better too.

I think a lot of criticism has been aimed at d'Abo for her thin characterization of Kara Milovy, a girl more interested in her cello than in almost anything else.  However, this is where I think she played the part as written: Milovy was not a character who took action most of the time.  Granted, d'Abo at times appeared almost too willing to accept whatever she was seeing without really questioning the logic or danger involved, and on that front d'Abo has to bear the blame.  However, given that her character was suppose to be a somewhat naive and trusting girl I am willing to cut her a little slack.  

It feels a bit too long despite its two hour thirteen minute running time.  Those who appear to have a special loathing for The Living Daylights have a point in that the entire escaping-via-cello looks a bit silly/strange (and having a bullet go through a Stradivarius is just a sin), but I think that's one of the few times The Living Daylights gives in to what a Bond action scene is suppose to be: a bit over-the-top. 

In regards to the Bond theme to The Living Daylights I found that my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead) did not think I was fair in mocking it as much as I did (always using a staccato delivery to the chorus).  Having heard it repeatedly (both in the film and via a soundtrack) I think the dislike towards it might be due more to the fact that the song comes from Norwegian megagroup a-Ha than the actual song itself.  a-Ha is supposed to be uncool, and I can't say that they are a great musical group but the actual performers in a Bond song don't dictate whether the song itself is good or bad.  The Living Daylights is a good song (though I confess to sometimes not understand the words) and John Barry managed to work it into the score so well that it turns the melody into one of action. 

I will also say that the two songs in The Living Daylights written and performed by The Pretenders (Where Has Everyone Gone and If There Was A Man) were also quite good, with the latter possibly being a good candidate for the Bond title theme if they had opted to go for a more romantic route than the action theme they ultimately chose.

On the whole, I found The Living Daylights entertaining if at times a bit thin in characters.  It has great moments of action even if at times the story feels (if not actually is) a bit meandering.  The Living Daylights is a good effort to turn the James Bond franchise into something more realistic, to make Bond himself less a suave ladies' man with a ready comeback and more a man of action.  It is a good start, and I think it was a good film that did let daylight in upon the magic.       

Next James Bond film: Licence to Kill


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