Monday, December 22, 2014

Back When There Was A U.S.S.R., James Bond Was Smarter In The Living Daylights!

The Good: Timothy Dalton’s performance, Most of the realism, Decent plot and villain
The Bad: Still utilizes a number of tired spy thriller conceits, Supporting actress problems.
The Basics: One of the better James Bond films, The Living Daylights finds Bond chasing down Soviet agents who are working with a ruthless arms dealer whose profit motive sets him against both the British and Soviets.

As excitement grows over the casting announcement for SPECTRE, the latest installment in the James Bond film franchise, I find myself catching up on the last few James Bond films I had not yet seen and reviewed. I’ve made it to the Dalton years and after watching The Living Daylights, I’m somewhat surprised that Dalton only got two films as James Bond! Dalton’s acting is enough to recommend The Living Daylights; after a stale formula of James Bond spy films, Dalton and writers Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson reinvigorate the franchise with a more realistic spy thriller than some of the other Bond films.

What makes The Living Daylights worth watching is the way it delightfully mixes the realistic and smart with the utterly ridiculous and over-the-top spy thriller conceits. Timothy Dalton’s James Bond enters a new room and looks around to make sure the building is clear; during the usual high-speed chase, he has his sidekick Bond girl looking at a map to give him information on where they are going. Sure, Bond’s Aston-Martin turns into a vehicle so complex that it rivals the Batmobile, but for much of The Living Daylights realism for the villains, heroes, and equipment dominate.

The 00 Section is tapped to infiltrate a radar station as part of a “test” of British security. The game turns very real when one of the agents starts using live rounds and James Bond has to do all he can to stop the corrupted “agent.” Managing to save civilian lives and dispatch the villain, Bond goes to Czechoslovakia where he is tasked with dispatching KGB snipers who are protecting a defector that will help cripple the Soviet Union. Smuggled out through the Trans-Siberian Pipeline, General Koskov’s extraction seems to go well, until the KGB sends a ruthless assassin to the safe house Koskov is moved to and they retake the defector. Condemned for not killing a Soviet sniper during the initial extraction, Bond is ordered to terminate General Pushkin, who is believed to be responsible for disrupting the test and retaking Koskov.

Tailing the cello playing would-be assassin Kara Milovy leads Bond to realize that Koskov’s extraction was only a ruse. Pushkin, in the meantime, moves to cancel a sizable order of next generation weapons from the psychopathic Brad Whitaker, a West Point drop-out who is now a weapon’s dealer. With Kara’s unwitting help, Bond learns about Koskov and discovers that he is exceptionally wealthy (which, as a Soviet General, he should not be) and has given Milovy fabulous gifts like a Stratavarius. The cello connects Koskov to Whitaker and puts Bond on course for Whitaker’s villa in Tangiers and a showdown between the intelligence operative and the mercenary.

The Living Daylights is one of the Bond movies that is not short on charm. While the relationships Bond finds himself in – a casual fling with a brat in the teaser and a weirdly forced encounter on a Ferris wheel with Kara (she’s still enamored with Koskov at the time!) – seem particularly passionless and forced, much of the rest of the film is a triumph of reality over spy fantasy. Bond leaps into an amusement park with a gun drawn and is met by a family whose screams and running in the opposite direction are a welcome splash of cold water on the franchise.

In a similar fashion, Bond’s encounter with General Pushkin is a wealth of realism that sets The Living Daylights apart from other Bond films. Pushkin is able to signal his bodyguard because he has tech similar to Bond’s; he talks his way out of death the way Bond does and his loyalty to his military and government puts him at odds with Koskov’s corruption and Whitaker’s organization. After shooting Pushkin, Bond shoots out the spotlight that would expose him, which is equally sensible.

While Dalton and John Rhys-Davies (who plays Pushkin) are phenomenal, Maryam d’Abo’s performance as Kara Milovy is somewhat unimpressive. Similarly, Andreas Wisniewski’s Necros is presented as monolithic and dull. Jeroen Krabbe and Joe Don Baker hold their own as the film’s villains. Krabbe is charismatic enough to play a character who has a longstanding relationship with James Bond and is able to dupe him with the strength of his lies and the force of his personality. He’s a good adversary and he has more character than Joe Bon Baker’s Whitaker.

Ultimately, the performance issues from the supplementary players are not enough to seriously detract from the quality of Timothy Dalton’s performance and the superior writing for the plot and characterization of the villains (James Bond’s somewhat obvious devotion to duty having been well-established and unwavering even here). That makes The Living Daylights one of the Bond films that remains worth watching!

For other works with Timothy Dalton, please check out my reviews of:
The Tourist
Toy Story 3
Looney Tunes: Back In Action
The Lion In Winter


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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