This was almost Pierce Brosnan’s debut as James Bond. It was clear to all involved after A View to a Kill that it was time for Roger Moore to exit stage left, and for the James Bond series to begin anew with a younger face. Brosnan’s popular TV run as Remington Steele was ending and he had tested successfully for the part, beating out dozens of other contenders including Sam Neill and Lambert Wilson (the Merovingian from the Matrix sequels). Pre-production was underway, the remainder of the cast was set, and then, NBC decided to drop a spanner in the works. The network retained a 60-day option to commit Brosnan to another season of Remington Steele, and, seeing dollar signs in the publicity that his impending debut as James Bond was generating, decided to exercise it at the very last minute. Albert R. Broccoli did not want the Bond movies to be reduced to advertising for a TV show that had already been cancelled once, and so a change had to be made – opening the door for Timothy Dalton.
The trailers for The Living Daylights used the tagline “Dalton – Dangerous,” trying to play up a return to the hard-boiled intensity of the Ian Fleming novels, a characteristic that had been abandoned in the recent Bond films and that Dalton himself was keen to bring to his interpretation of the role, describing 007 as “a man living very much on the edge of his life.” The plot would borrow a kernel from Fleming’s eponymous short story and expand it into a topical Cold War thriller, borrowing heavily from the Iran-Contra affair which dominated the news in the mid-eighties. Bond is assigned to protect the defecting Soviet General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé), who warns of a plot by his colleague General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) to murder Western intelligence agents in the hopes of igniting a war. As Koskov escapes, he is targeted by a beautiful female assassin, whom Bond makes a split-second decision to only wound instead of kill. The assassin winds up being Koskov’s girlfriend, a Czech cellist named Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo) whom Bond befriends after Koskov is apparently re-abducted from British custody by the KGB. The trail leads to exiled American arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), who is working with Koskov in a scheme to use Soviet military funds to buy and sell opium from Afghan rebels instead. Koskov’s “defection” has been a ruse to try and convince the British – and by extension, Bond – to eliminate the innocent General Pushkin who knows too much about their plans. Allying with mujahidin rebels led by Kamran Shah (Art Malik), Bond leads a battle at a Soviet air base in Afghanistan to destroy the opium and spoil the deal.
While the characters and the grand plans of the villains are scaled back somewhat, the spectacle is not. The movie feels enormous. Its canvas is much broader and has a much more international flavour than the previous entry, with visually sumptuous locations ranging from the slopes of Gibraltar to the opera houses of Vienna, from the quaint English countryside to vast Moroccan deserts standing in for Afghanistan. And the progression from one location to the other is more organic, as though the story is leading us there naturally, rather than forcing in a bunch of exotic places just for the sake of variety. The energy of the chase scenes has been amped up considerably by having a younger, more physically capable actor in the lead, as Dalton throws himself into as much of the fray as nerve (and insurance) will allow – you could hardly see Roger Moore, even in his prime, jumping on the roof of a Land Rover as it speeds along the winding roads of Gibraltar as Dalton does in the exciting teaser. And yet, there is something of a battle going on within the very tone of the movie as the filmmakers can’t seem to let go completely of their less appealing instinct for the gag, as much as they want to embrace Dalton’s more serious side. Dalton struggles somewhat to project a dark soul even as his Bond finds himself in preposterous situations like steering a cello case down a ski slope. In fairness, this stemmed largely from the uncertainty in the pre-production phase with the script being geared more for Pierce Brosnan’s perceived persona, and consequently, one-liners that might flow smoothly from Brosnan’s Irish tongue clatter clunkily on the floor as Dalton utters them. When Dalton is required to be intense, he’s in his wheelhouse – brooding over the corpse of a murdered colleague or putting a gun to Pushkin’s head. Interestingly enough, Dalton became a lot more comfortable in comedy as he grew older and settled into himself – he’s hysterically funny in Hot Fuzz. But here it’s clear which arena he prefers, and he soldiers on gamely despite the filmmakers’ insistence in looking for laughs in all the wrong places.
Another choice was made in this new era of Bond to make him a one-woman man, despite the implied one-off dalliance suggested at the very end of the teaser. Maryam d’Abo as Kara is a definite step back from the glamour girls that populated the Bond movies up to this point; while nothing to sneer at looks-wise, she’s not the larger-than-life figure that one comes to expect from 007’s romantic interests. Operating very much in her favour, however, is that no attempt is made to prop her up as “Bond’s equal” – she is an innocent, working-class woman caught up in something well beyond her everyday experience. But that makes her a far more appropriate partner for this more down-to-earth James Bond. The bad guys, too, are cut from a more sedate cloth, with no cackling or cat-stroking – Joe Don Baker, who would return to Bond in a different role later on, is an adequate stand-in for Oliver North, and Jeroen Krabbé is almost too likable as Koskov – it’s a bit difficult to accept him as a threat, particularly when he’s hugging everybody within sight and the filmmakers elect to turn him into Wile E. Coyote at the finale, in another one of their struggles with consistency of tone. A couple of “where do I know that guy from” faces fill out the cast, with Andreas Wisniewski, a.k.a. the first guy Bruce Willis kills in Die Hard, taking the role of explosive-milk-bottle-wielding henchman Necros, and John Terry, best known to fans of Lost as Jack’s father Dr. Christian Shephard, as the (brief) new face of the long-absent Felix Leiter. And the boisterous John Rhys-Davies is always a delight even if he’s not in the movie very much.
This would be the late John Barry’s final turn at the podium for James Bond, and he ended his tenure as much as he began it, by pushing the music in new directions with the inclusion of synthesized rhythm tracks to accompany the action, a tactic embraced and expanded upon by his spiritual successor David Arnold. With these new elements, the music has an energy and a pulse to it that was absent from the lilting string-heavy scores of his two previous Bond works, intensifying the movie’s pace. He also co-composed three different pop songs whose themes resonate throughout the score – the title track (with Norwegian rock group a-ha) and “Where Has Every Body Gone” (the theme for Necros) and the love theme “If There Was a Man” with the Pretenders. And Barry himself makes a cameo appearance conducting the orchestra at the film’s close – a suitable sendoff for the man who more than anyone defined the sound of James Bond, and for that matter, spy movie music in general.
The Living Daylights is not perfect; as I mentioned it does suffer from an inconsistency of tone and the final act is bloated and longish, with one climax coming on top of another as all the disparate plot threads are tied up (not helping is a similar musical phrase used to score each big moment). But it does what it needed to do in 1987 – free 007 from the burden of Roger Moore, update him to the modern era and set him off on a journey toward adventures bold once more. With Timothy Dalton established in the role, the next movie would be able to tailor itself specifically to his strengths as a performer and to the qualities that he brought to the cinematic James Bond. Unfortunately, it turned out not to be somewhere audiences wanted to go.