Now Roger Moore’s out of the way, the Modern Era of James Bond can begin. We’re now in the cynical 80s, a time when comic book and television characters were being deconstructed left, right and centre, and modernist pop culture was the order of the day.
The thing you need to understand about the latter Bond movies is that they’re all a reaction, in one way or another, to the public’s idea of the franchise. Not the actual content itself, or any individual film, but the tropes and conventions that, for better or worse, were the most memorable to mass audiences.
So remember the Bond Blueprint (TM) I outlined previously? Don’t throw that away; it’s still required reading for this syllabus. The next 11 movies still contain Femme Fatales, Masterminds, McGuffins and so forth, but with plenty of subversion (or outright aversions) to make them palpable to more critical tastes (snarky fuckers like me for example.)
Indeed, the following three actors playing Bond will all attempt to lend ‘realism’ to their movies in different ways. However, it takes time for the franchise to properly reinvent itself, and plenty of old bad habits still plague the series.
The Living Daylights:
It’s 1985. The Cold War is heating up again. Thatcher and Reagan ushered in an age of yuppies, coke, and egotism. A View To Kill met with a tepid reception, and Roger has decided that 57 is well too old to play England’s favourite spy. Thousands of aspiring writers devoured Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Miracleman, and most of them have completely missed the point.
Bearing that in mind, it’s about time for a dark ‘n’ edgy reinterpretation of James Bond, right? That’s what I’ve been saying for the last seven entries, but that’s not entirely what we get. Instead, there’s a tonal pivot which doesn’t stick the landing, but makes a broad statement of intent.
The Living Daylights, more than any other movie so far, owes a lot to Timothy Dalton. If you want to understand why his interpretation was so groundbreaking, then just take a look at this Playgirl interview with him from 1987. Dalton says:
“I definitely wanted to recapture the essence and flavour of the books, and play it less flippantly. After all, Bond’s essential quality is that he’s a man who lives on the edge. He could get killed at any moment, and that stress and danger factor is reflected in the way he lives: chain-smoking, drinking, fast cars and fast women.”
So Dalton’s mission statement is to move away from escapist fantasy, and see what there was in the novels that gripped peeps back in the 50s. Bond is no longer an aspirational character. He’s not someone that viewers should want to emulate. The drinking, gambling, and womanising – all the traits we’ve been told are what makes Bond cool – are now actually coping mechanisms.
Unlike Connery, Lazenby and Moore, Dalton’s Bond is someone who doesn’t actually seem to enjoy being a handsome playboy secret agent very much. Instead, he’s fed up of Queen and country, quietly resents the British government, and tells M to fuck off and leave him be at a moment’s notice.
Bearing that in mind, it’s worth asking what James Bond would be like if he wasn’t a spy. wouldn’t like my behaviour to be judged solely based on the time spent in my most-hated job. If Bond retired, or was cast out of the secret service, would he drink as much? Would he be as promiscuous? Would he take up new hobbies? Live abroad? Make new friends? Who is he, really, beyond his code name? Do we really know him at all?
Notice how Dalton seems to suggest that Bond’s flaws are what make him an interesting role. 007 was never meant to be a British superhero, the perfect example of rugged machismo and devil-may-care bravado. He’s a morally ambiguous character, one whose intentions, beliefs, and actions don’t always stand up to scrutiny.
Sadly, the ambitions of The Living Daylights are more laudable than the actual content. Although the tone shifts, the movie still has far too many action sequences to tick off to bother with stuff like drama and pathos. Still, isn’t it a joy to know that the creators are actually taking it seriously again?
The movie opens with JB and two of his pals performing a training exercise in Gibraltar. The agents parachute down to the Rock, when suddenly 004 is assassinated for real and Bond is forced to evade some sneaky commies by clinging to a speeding van. It’s gripping action, which takes a sudden nosedive when Bond drives a burning van off a cliff and gracefully parachutes down to a yacht, and is promptly handed a flute of champagne by a beautiful supermodel. There’s still plenty of camp to go around folks!
Things get more MGS 3 when Bond is dispatched to Bratislava to help a Russian General named Koskov defect to the West. Meeting him at a concert hall, Bond saves him from a sniper waiting in the wings, but is intrigued when he deduces that the gun-woman is an inexperienced civilian out of her depth rather than a professional killer.
After smuggling Koskov across the border, Bond returns to London for his usual info-dump, and learns that cuddly Russian granddad General Gogol has been replaced by the far more draconian General Pushkin, who is a lot more vindictive when it comes to dealing with enemy agents. He’s supposedly the chap who killed 004 in Gib, and not long after, he kidnaps Koskov and takes him to Tangiers.
M sends Bond on a mission to rescue Koskov and kill General Literary Allusion, reasoning that this will end hostilities between East and West. I would’ve thought that killing the head of the KGB would be a diplomatically short-sighted tactic. But I’m not an expert in statecraft, am I?
Things only get twistier when Bond tracks the female sniper down and finds out that she’s actually Koskov’s bae and that his defection was staged! Bond manipulates poor Kara into taking him to his location, pretending to be a mate of his, only for some KGB mooks to initiate Chase Sequence #20901.
Since they were at an alpine retreat with at the time, I started trembling at the thought of there being skiing still to come. But instead. Bond and Kara escape by riding her cello case down the slope, with Kara forcing Bond to make sure that her instrument isn’t damaged, much to his chagrin. Mildly amusing though this conceit is, it’s not exactly in keeping with the supposedly gritty tone of the story.
The intrigue doesn’t stop there. Bond learns from Kara that Koskov is due to meet an American arms dealer named Whittaker (played by Joe Don Baker, aka: the most American man in the world) to buy some weapons off him. Bond accosts Pushkin (played by Gimli, sorry, I mean John Rhys-Davies) at a hotel and interrogates him in one of the most sincerely intense scenes in the Bond franchise thus far. Dalton’s Bond has been gentlemanly up to a point, but suddenly he becomes every bit as menacing as Roger ‘Smack-A-Bitch-Off-A-Rooftop’ Moore was on a bad day.
Bricking it, Pushkin reveals that not only did he not order the death of 004 in Gibraltar, but that Koskov is actually evading arrest for embezzling government funds, which is why he was recaptured to be extradited. Bond teams up with Puskin to take down Koskov, but Koskov convinces Kara that Bond is actually a KGB agent. Because it’s still too radical for women to have too much agency in these movies, Kara believes her sketchy-as-hell BF, drugs Bond, and hands him over to Koskov.
Another twist! Bond is taken to Afghanistan as prisoner, and Koskov (quell surprise) betrays Kara and leaves her to die with Bond in a Soviet camp. It’s then that Bond allies with the Mujaheddin, who at the time were brave freedom fighters resisting imperialistic Russian oppressors. This partnership hasn’t aged well, and is a good illustration of why sometimes it’s not such a good idea to anchor JB too firmly in the real world.
Bond, Kara, and the Mujaheddin buddy up to disrupt a drug deal Koskov wants to profit off of. Bond gets into a fight with Koskov’s henchman and flings him out of a plane, followed by a big bomb which he drops on a platoon of tanks. Bond crashes the plane, destroying a gigantic pile of blow in the process (awww) and confronts Whittaker.
Whittaker is another highlight of the movie. He’s just mental enough to be memorable, with his toy soldiers and waxwork dictators, but scary precisely because he regards war as an amusing game. Bond manages to overcome him (in a fight that also reminded me a lot of a Metal Gear Solid boss with its unapologetic zaniness), Koskov is arrested, and the movie ends with Kara and 007 hooking up at a post-cello-performance party.
So did I like The Living Daylights? That’s a tricky one. The plot is grounded and intricate, with lots of double crossing, false flags, and faked deaths, the characters are shuffled about like so many chess pieces, and Bond assumes aliases, manipulates allies, and makes deductions.
Sadly though, the many twists and breakneck pace means that there’s very little chance for Dalton to actually explore the character that interested him so much. There are fleeting moments where he’s allowed to be the brooding, Byronic, introspective lone wolf he discussed in interviews, but they’re all too brief. However, I have to give this movie credit for pivoting in the first place…