Timothy Dalton looks poorly served by John Glen,
once a tight editor and now a slack director,
and doesn't begin to share the joke with the audience
the way the other Bonds did.
He looks as if he takes it all for real and dislikes much of it.
- Alexander Walker in the Evening Standard (July 1987)
The Living Daylights
Film: 1987 (#15)
Book: 1966 (#14)
Bond is sent to Bratislava to protect Georgi Koskov as he attempts to defect into Austria. Bond is there to shoot the inevitable sniper who will try to kill Koskov, but instead of killing the sniper, he shoots her gunstock and startles her into not firing. Bond gets Koskov out via a "pipeline to the West." Koskov tells the British authorities that the reason British agents have been murdered is because General Pushkin has revived the old Smert Spionam ("Death To Spies") group. Koskov calls for Pushkin's death - just before he is kidnapped from the safehouse under the British noses.
Bond isn't buying the story about Pushkin, but fails to convince M, and is sent to kill Pushkin. But first he investigates that female sniper, whom he believes is a non-professional and possibly a blind. He traces her in Bratislava and finds her gun had blanks. He finds out that Koskov is working with/for arms dealer Brad Whitaker, confronts Pushkin with this information, and fakes Pushkin's death to provoke the enemy into acting.
This eventually brings Bond, and Kara the cellist/erstwhile sniper, into Afghanistan, in conjunction with the Whitaker scheme, which involves Russian money for diamonds and then opium. Bond and Kara dump the opium and in general ruin the whole operation; Bond then goes back and confronts Whitaker and kills him; Pushkin shows up to help and sends Koskov home "in the diplomatic bag."
Book vs. Film
The first part of the film after the credits, through the point where Bond shoots the sniper's gun, is a reasonably literal adaptation of the short story "The Living Daylights," which was collected with two (or three) others posthumously, as noted at Octopussy. In the story, the defector is trying to cross into West Berlin, not into Austria, and the sniper is not a member of the orchestra; the orchestra is in the building as covering noise for the gunfire. The nice thing is that rather than try to pad out this tiny scrap of Fleming, the scriptwriters used it as a jumping-off point for the rest of the film, reasonably neatly.
Timothy Dalton is my least favorite Bond. The Gibraltar pre-credits sequence in this film is good and gripping (if we ignore the needless "office in a plane" joke) ... until the moment when Bond lands on the yacht and opens his mouth. Then it immediately falls apart.
This is a man who is utterly incapable of being suave or charming. It doesn't work; it's not the least bit believable, nor does he look even slightly interested in the assignation. He smiles, but the smile never reaches his eyes; they stay cold and brutal throughout. He is emotionally disconnected and incapable of warmth for the most part; he does show a certain believable fondness for Kara, but that only brings him up to lukewarm at best.
Dalton, to me, plays a Bond without the slightest bit of compassion, charm, or wit. He's not even an interesting thug, because he isn't invested in the physical or violent parts of his job. He takes no interest in anything. Even people who are more charitable toward Dalton than I am have been known to observe that a hallmark of this film is "its near-total humorlessness" (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and that this Bond is "a brooding man whose humor is sardonic rather than flippant" (Bond Films).
Moreover, although Dalton has sometimes been good in other parts, as Bond he can't act. His attempt at an angry, vengeful reaction just after Saunders' death, for example (when he squeezes the balloon) is laughably bad.
Although the producers deny that AIDS and changing mores had any part in it, this has got to be the chastest Bond film ever, without even any significant flirtations. Other than the throwaway bit at the end of the Gibraltar sequence, there is nothing in the sex and romance department except Kara for the whole film. Bond is not too patronizing to Kara, but that's mostly because, like everything else, he just can't be arsed. He clearly thinks she's kind of a cute idiot (admittedly, she is kind of written as one). He does get famously exasperated at her at one point ("Kara, we're inside a Russian airbase in the middle of Afghanistan"), but that is forgivable.
This was, of course, supposed to have been Pierce Brosnan's first Bond film. Brosnan was all but ready to report to the set when the Remington Steele producers (whose show had been cancelled) suddenly decided that he was still attractive to them after all, what with his newly-raised profile. They invoked his contract option for more episodes on the very last day it was legally possible for them to do so. This left EON in a bind, as the film was already in pre-production. Dalton extricated himself from other commitments and was filming less than four days after he was cast.
Other than that, the film stuck to the (at this point, I feel, somewhat stale) team, with the sole exception that Alan Hume went to go work on A Fish Called Wanda, so long-standing camera operator Alec Mills was promoted to director of photography.
This was John Barry's final Bond score. Actually, it's a pretty good one.
Six days after the end of filming, in February of 1987, Albert Broccoli was awarded an honorary CBE (honorary because he was not a British citizen).
This plot is hard to describe in brief, which is why the description at the top is so long and yet incomplete ... but it makes more sense, and is more plausible in the real world, than any other Bond plot. No diabolical masterminds here of any kind. Some folks find the Koskov/Whitaker scheme a little impenetrable, but it all does work out (see below).
It might be the lack of Big Villains with Big Plans that leads some people to find this movie boring. Admittedly, if you want spectacle or big explosions, this is not your Bond film. But to me, the film really only goes into tedious territory during a brief stretch in Afghanistan, and my main problem with the film isn't the plot or the pacing; as noted above, it's with Bond.
Most of the performances other than Bond's are good. Maryam d'Abo does what she can with what she is given; it's not her fault the character is written as a bland ditz. I have a theory that they wrote this character to be somewhat annoying because exasperated is one of the few emotions Dalton does well. Jeroen Krabbe (Koskov) is hamming it up, but that's forgivable. Joe Don Baker (Whitaker) is fine (he'll be even better in the Brosnan era, though).
Pushkin was a substitution. The character was supposed to be our old friend General Gogol. The film's underwriters refused to insure Walter Gotell for a substantial part due to his age and poor health. (There is a rumor that Broccoli offered to pay for insuring him out of pocket, but the answer was still no - which probably means that MGM didn't want to risk him dying in mid-production.) Gotell gets a cameo at the end, and for Gogol read Pushkin throughout. This makes Bond's reaction to Pushkin being framed a little less understandable - if it had been Gogol, whom we all knew and loved, it would have made more sense - but in general the substitution works to the film's advantage, since John Rhys-Davies is as fabulous as always.
(Incidentally, far from being on his deathbed, Gotell continued to act for another decade, right up to his death in 1997. This is, however, his last Bond film. The next one would have no spot for him, and after that everything would change.)
Necros, the milkman-impersonating killer with the Pretenders tape, is genuinely scary (but in truth is barely played; the scariness is in the actions, not the words, so I give Andreas Wisniewski little credit). Vienna agent Saunders is nicely handled by Thomas Wheatley; it's quite a feat to so convincingly be a jerk at the beginning of the film and repent well enough that the character's death is affecting, all with very few lines to work from.
On the bad end, I don't find Art Malik as Kamran Shah especially plausible or interesting, Caroline Bliss is an absolutely horrible choice as the new Moneypenny, and John Terry as Bruce Jenner - pardon me, as Felix Leiter - is only saved from being the worst Felix ever by Rik van Nutter.
Things I like: Gibraltar, until Bond's lines. The whole defection sequence, including the pipeline and Rosika's "cover-up." The Blayden safehouse assault - nasty and effective.
The car chase into Austria with Kara, beginning with a well-applied dose of the old phone booth trick, continuing through Bond's casual lies about the car, and ending with the cello-case gag.
"We've nothing to declare!"
The very subtle homage to The Third Man. Saunders' death, which startles even when we know it's coming, and Bond's shocked expression when it happens (despite his nadir seconds later - see above). All scenes with Pushkin. The prison fight at the beginning of the Afghanistan sequence. The jeep jump at the end of the Afghanistan sequence, beautifully understated. Kamran Shah's exasperated "Women!" (sorry, I know it's sexist, but it's perfectly done).
Things I don't like (besides Dalton): M's "office" in the plane in the very first scene. Lasers that make bad SF sound-effects noises. Bond stringing Kara along (I find myself wishing he would just tell her the truth early on, since it's clear he believes she's an innocent dupe and she has no useful information leading to Georgi anyhow - but then she wouldn't call Koskov and we wouldn't have a way into Afghanistan, I suppose). Bond's taking out his anger about Saunders' death on Kara immediately afterward for no good reason. The rather simplistic and Hollywood view of the Russian Afghanistan conflict. Most of the middle of the Afghanistan sequence, including the assault on the airbase which I find pretty tedious. The final fight with Necros on the plane, ditto (too much time spent watching them crawl over netting). The saccharine ending.
All in all, a watchable and surprisingly real-world-grounded Bond film, but with an unfortunate Dalton-shaped void at the center.
Here we bring back Smersh, Fleming's villainous organization based loosely on a real-world one, which he used before the far less realistic SPECTRE arrived along with a host of McClory issues. Unfortunately, this is not any sort of real Smersh; the villains are just using that as a red herring (and Pushkin knows it). Still, it's an interesting return to a Fleming mythos which was increasingly ignored.
It's been noted that you could just about argue that the Connery and Moore Bonds were in a consistent, continuous chronology ... but this begins to break down with Dalton, who is simply too young to have done some of the things which are supposed to have been in Bond's history by that point. It may surprise you to know that the filmmakers apparently gave this some thought as well. The original idea for this film was to make it a prequel, essentially, going back to Bond's first mission, just after his training days. Broccoli, however, felt that the audience wasn't interested in seeing Bond as an amateur ... and he may very well have been right. (The idea was eventually used, if not overtly spelled out, for the massive franchise "reboot" in Casino Royale in 2006.)
A number of scripted bits were lost before filming; originally the jeep jump was not in the script, for example, and Bond and Kara ended up landing the cargo plane on a US aircraft carrier, with some difficulty. The Afghanistan sequence was originally even longer than shown, with Bond and Kara being taken to a sort of "terrorist's bazaar" which eventually found its way, in much mutated form, to the opening of Tomorrow Never Dies.
A cut scene which was filmed is part of Bond's rooftop escape after shooting Pushkin; it involves Dalton slinging a rug over some electric wires, and sliding down, flying-carpet style. It is visible among the DVD extras, and a completely justified deletion.
If you really have trouble following the Koskov/Whitaker scheme, it goes like this: Koskov gets a legitimate allocation of Russian government money, allegedly to buy weapons. Whitaker uses this money to buy diamonds, which, as a non-traceable currency, are useful to purchase the opium. The opium is desirable because its street value means that they can sell it for far more than the amount of the Russian seed money they used to get it. Some of their enormous profit does in fact go to buy the weapons, alleviating the Russian suspicions; Koskov and Whitaker pocket the rest. Get it now?
The film takes on some new and interesting aspects, upon rewatching, if you assume that Bond is suspicious of Koskov from the very beginning. It makes his terseness with Koskov in the car, for example, much more portentious; he may know that Koskov's lines ("The sniper was a woman ... Some of the best KGB shots are women ....") are deliberate, to keep Bond from focusing on the improbability of the cellist/sniper.
Minor character alert: Peter Porteous, the gasworks supervisor who spends most of his time onscreen between Julie Wallace's breasts, was also the jewel forger Lenkin in Octopussy. John Barry cameos as an orchestra conductor. The actor who played Fekkesh in The Spy Who Loved Me is also around here somewhere, in the Tangier sequence.
Aircraft watchers tell me that all the planes in the Afghanistan sequence are American planes painted to look Russian. Cello watchers tell me that Maryam d'Abo's fake cello-playing is not really a good match for what the music is actually doing. I'll have to take their word for it in both cases.
It only occurred to me on a recent watching that the Aston Martin's curiously appropriate equipment for its use here (why would they normally fit it with snow spikes and a ski outrigger?) is explained away by Q's "we're just winterizing it." So subtle I missed it.
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