Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Definitive Bond Marathon: The Living Daylights (1987)

(directed by John Glen)

A ‘lovely girl with the cello’ as all Bond needed to follow his nose during his latest assignment. With the Russian General Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) expressing desire to defect for the West, 007 (Timothy Dalton) was tasked with protecting the general from any possible snipers lurking around the opera house in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia  where Koskov was to occur, Bond identified the only shooter in the vicinity to be the same beautiful cellist performing in the show prior to the intermission period. Unconvinced that she was a true KGB sniper specialist, Bond elected to merely fire at her weapon rather than dispatch her.

The entire affair grew immensely more complicated when General Koskov was snatched back by the Russian right under British noses from a safe-house, but not before he could divulge controversial information regarding a certain high ranking KGB official, Pushkin (Jonathan Rhys-Davies), who was apparently responsible for the ‘Smert Spionem’ assassination programme (Death to Spies). Bond was assigned to arrive in Tangier in two days time, but felt it wise to return to Bratislava and make contact with the cellist, Kara Milvoy (Maryam D’Abo) whom it turns out was Koskov’s girlfriend of sorts. 007 posed as Koskov’s friend, promising to reunite the two while in actuality he was hoping to find out what Koskov’s true role in entire affair was. At this point, 007 was convinced Pushkin was not the threat but rather Koskov. Travelling from Bratislava to Vienna, to Tangier and finally to Afghanistan, Bond and Kara learned that Koskov was a close associate of Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), an infamous arms dealer. Through wild circumstances, 007 and Kara eventually found themselves fighting with the Mujahidin against the Soviets in the Afghan desert...

Out with the old and in with the newer. At 43 years of age, classically trained actor Timothy Dalton was no spring chicken when taking on the mantle of the famous James Bond 007, but two things need to be considered. First, remember that only two years prior the actor playing Bond, Roger Moore, was 56 years old. Bond has suddenly been physically rejuvenated by well over a decade. Second, Dalton brings a totally different style to the character, thus distancing his debut, The Living Daylights, from most of Moore’s efforts. Even director John Glen, who has a tendency revert to rather ridiculous moments of humour of the ‘eye-rolling’ variety, straightened up for this 1987 film. The end result is a Bond picture that feels vastly different from those which had grace the screen for the previous 14 years (1973’s LALD being the first Moore Bond).

As is the case whenever a new face becomes 007, we shall begin by discussing the actor at the center of everyone’s attention: Timothy Dalton. Interview snippets, be they in print or captured on video, divulged some very interesting information regarding the Welshman’s interest in the character of James Bond as well as his preferred manner of interpreting him. He never made it a secret that the 007 which appears on screen should capture the spirit of the 007 found in the original Ian Fleming novels. This alone opens up a whole can of worms for some people. For starters, the Bond of the books is most certainly not the Bond of the films, at least not the most recent Roger Moore films. The literary Bond, while a great admirer of fine food and finer women, is more bitter in spirit. The single scene in all of the Bond films up until this point that best demonstrates what a film version of the literary Bond would be like is a brief one. It happens in Dr. No when Bond, Honey Rider and Quarrel are hiding from a guard in a swamp. 007 creeps up behind the guard and stabs in the back. Shocked, Honey asks why he did. Bond coldly replies ‘Because I had to.’  There is a malaise about the character in the books. There is no pleasure in taking a life, he just happens to be damn good at it.

This more hard edged interpretation of the character can be and is an immediate turn off for some. Timothy Dalton certainly relished the opportunity to bring to the silver screen a more human Bond, a man with a harder edge to him when it was required but maybe also a man who could demonstrate some feelings and be romantic.  So what does all of this mean for the film under review today? In essence, The Living Daylights gives viewers one of the more fascinating looks at 007 in a long, long time, possibly ever. There is a special intensity to Dalton’s performance that feels perfect for this movie. It is as if he was operating with a chip on his shoulder, disgruntled at the stuffiness of the pathetically regimented missions he must embark on. This is obvious from the outset when he meets his contact Saunders at the Bratislavian opera house. Saunders scorns Bond for arriving late, but the latter immediately retorts back that they still have time. Later, when the two are upstairs in MI6’s safe house and Saunders provides 007 with a fuller briefing of the Koskov defection operation, Dalton plays the role with powerful determination. Anything misstep and the entire ordeal is a waste. Precision is of the essence, not tasteless one liners.  And how about that ‘he can stuff his orders!’ line? Great stuff. I applaud Dalton for being so willing to shed Bond’s cinematic past and simply do what he felt right, which is also something apparently no one had wanted to do for the better part of 20 years: make a cinematic version of the original James Bond. He may have only starred in two 007 films, but I remain a strong Dalton supporter till this day.

Things become increasingly interesting later when 007 tracks down the mysterious cellist girl, Kara Milovy, played wonderfully by the inexperienced Maryam D’Abo. They do not make the most obvious pair, I’ll give detractors that much. D’Abo was on her first major film set, and perhaps that lack of experience shows at times. She does in fact play the part mostly wide eyed and innocent, although that is also a function of her character, who really has little to nothing to do with the actual KGB. When saddled side by side with the intense and mature Dalton, one would think that no chemistry should emerge, and yet surprisingly enough the two actors work very well off one another. The relationship their characters share is very much in the mould of an older style of love story, wherein the man is the knowledgeable, experienced individual among the two and the woman is more girly, learning things from the man and continuously impressed by him. For that reason it is not the most provocative character piece the screenwriters have come up with, but at least within the context of a Bond plot, it is light years superior to what we have seen of as late, most of all because it has Bond and the leading lady actually developing something. As the scenes move along, one can feel that a modicum of genuine emotion is being felt between the two, something that should not go unappreciated. When they finally kiss in Vienna in the amusement park, it actually feels as if the kiss has been earned. When was the last time we wrote that about a Bond picture’s love angle?

The films of the 1980s, with maybe one exception, have a common problem in that they all try to overcomplicate their stories. In essence, the scripts seem intent on having James Bond take the longest route possible to arrive at his ultimate destination. Sometimes it feels like a mess, other times it works alright. In the example of The Living Daylights is an unfortunate one if only because it is arguably the lone time when the reason why Bond goes the long way about is perfectly justified but the end result is a letdown. The idea of having British intelligence, including Bond, fooled by Koskov as the latter tries to deflect attention from his activities onto General Pushkin with a story about the Smert Spionem assassination programme is pretty clever. For once Bond is not necessarily on top of things and actually must work on instincts while investigating into the matter. His gut leads him to the girlfriend of the man who took them all for a ride. It’s a nice way of sending the story into motion and everything in the first hour or so ticks along like clockwork, providing audiences with a film interested in the spy world and how it sometimes operates rather than a series of large explosions. Once the setting moves to Tangier, the plot takes a few turns for the worse however, as it becomes increasingly clear that what Koskov is after is not particular inventive or provocative. It fact, once Bond deduces that Koskov is purchasing arms from Brad Whitaker with the profits he makes selling which he obtains from certain circles of the Mujahidin, it really does feel like a lot of huffing and puffing for very little. 

This is addition to the film having mediocre villains at best. Joe Don Baker is about as uninteresting as they come as Bond antagonist. Director Glen and the screenwriters are merciful enough to award the character with too many appearances, but on the few opportunities he does in fact get to shine, he comes off more as a joke than anything else. I don’t even mean that in any exaggerated way, for Baker actually does seem to be making the Whitaker as dopey as possible. Jeroen Krabbé is ever so slightly more pertinent as lead villain General Koskov. When his character ‘defects’ early in the film, one wonders how in the world this man ever earned the rank bestowed upon him. While Whitaker fails to impress mostly due to the poor actor playing the role, Koskov is a far more bizarre creation because of Krabbé’s light touch on the role. This chap looks far more like a sissy than a war general. But then of course the viewers discovers with 007 that all that was merely a distraction, all playacting, thus explaining why Koskov was behaving the way he did. The odd thing about what happens next is that Krabbé never really succeeds in having that goofy facade from the beginning melt away. John Rhys-Davies is obviously not playing a true villain in the picture although he is a general in the enemy ranks, but he survives the proceedings nicely. Davies is always solid, regardless of the role offered to him. He can play a dwarf, a Moroccan contact for Indy, or a Russian general. The only fault I can think about his role is that it is too limited. A film with more screen time allotted to Joe Don Baker and Jeroen Krabbé than John Rhys-Davies? That just doesn’t feel right.

Whatever faults that plague the second half of The Living Daylights, the movie more than makes up for it in the final stages, with some incredible action set pieces (a now obvious staple of the John Glen directed films) and what is, in hindsight, one of the stranger turn of events in a Bond film ever. For the uninitiated, and also to be as brief as possible since this is not a history lesson, the 1980s, the same decade which saw the slow yet certain crumbling of what was once a powerful Soviet Union, featured a prolonged, costly and ultimately futile war of attrition between the Russian army in Afghanistan against the Mujahidin. For those more familiar with American history, one could call it the Russians’ Vietnam. There was a time when the Mujahidin were not viewed as the enemy by many in the West, which now seems like so long ago. For that reason, The Living Daylights will forever be stuck in a time capsule. Seeing Bond align himself with the Mujahidin to combat the Soviet forces is a lot of, if weird with the benefit of hindsight we are privileged with. As far as the action goes, the highlight of the sequence is the fist fight between Bond and Necros (Andreas Wisniewski) as they grapple with a  large netting hanging from the open back door of a plane in midflight.

The Living Daylights is not perfect. In fact there are some decidedly poor aspects to it. Yet, the positives outweigh the negatives to the point where I like the movie a lot. Timothy Dalton provides delivers a Bond which is more intense than usual but also more human. The leading lady is not only attractive but is a perfect match for the Bond we have in this instance. The movie’s first hour has a great story, the locations 007 visits are all fantastic and, as per usual with Glen films, the action is top notch. Lastly, I must admit to having John Barry’s The Living Daylights score as one of my all time favourites. Not just in regards to Bond scores, but all movie scores, period. It has a phenomenal mixture of vintage Bond action cues but also offers some very romantic (in the exotic and epic sense) cues. I think it is among his best efforts. Granted, not everything about the movie sticks. The is an example where I’m willing to forgive the movie’s faults because I enjoy the positives so much.


No comments: