Roger Moore finally hands off the Bond mantle to Timothy Dalton in 1987’s The Living Daylights. It’s overdue and probably should have been done for Octopussy. There’s also a new Moneypenny and the return of Felix Leiter.
In this go around, we’re introduced to Bond as M sends the 00s to infiltrate the British radar station at Gibraltar in a training exercise. 002 is shot with a paint ball and sidelined. 004 (the second one in the original continuity) is murdered by an unknown assassin who leaves the note “smyert spionam” (“Death to spies” in Russian) with his corpse. The third 00 spots this, action and car chase ensue, and our intrepid 00 blows up the bad guy only to land on a yacht with a comely bored woman. He takes her phone and reveals he is James Bond. Because, of course, it has to be a big reveal, going back to Lazenby’s debut in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Bond is then assigned to assist in the defection of Georgy Koskov, a KGB general who brings tales of mad general Pushkin wanting to reignite the Cold War in the back alleys. The first hint this is not what it appears is the use of Koskov’s cello-playing girlfriend as the sniper. Bond shoots her rifle out of her hand and gets Koskov out of Prague into Austria. M buys Koskov’s story and issues a termination warrant against his opposite number in Moscow, that being Pushkin, after Koskov is kidnapped right from under MI6’s nose. Bond finds Kara, the would-be sniper, and woos her into giving up clues to Koskov’s whereabouts. Soon, he confronts Pushkin, who agrees his own death would speed things along. Bond fakes his assassination and flushes out not only Koskov but an American arms dealer, Whitaker, who is possibly the least intelligent Bond villain ever. Mind you, his stupidity is intentionally part of the story as opposed to yet another take on Blofeld’s arrogance. Bond and Kara end up in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, where they learn Koskov is using Soviet money meant to buy black-market America weapons to instead buy heroin. Koskov and Whitaker plan to make a cool billion and pay for the Soviet order out of the proceeds, turning a nice profit. Ah! Capitalism!
In the first sequence, we see an entirely new Bond. Instead of Connery’s machine-like focus on the job or Lazenby and Moore’s unflappable cool, this James Bond is pissed off when 004 is murdered. This becomes a regular feature of the character that has lasted into the Daniel Craig era. The Bond humor is there as he gleefully informs Koskov about the track record of shooting a defector across the border via the Trans-Siberian pipeline. (“Actually, you’re the first.”) But he’s shameless and unapologetic about seducing Kara to get to Koskov, cold-blooded in confronting Pushkin, and angry to the point of making mistakes when colleague Saunders is casually murdered by Koskov’s toadie. In that scene, he chases what he thinks is the killer only to pull a gun on a woman and her young son.
Dalton’s Bond is directly lifted from the Fleming novels. His is the “blunt instrument” Britain uses to fight the Cold War. He can be charming, even warm, but it’s anger, pain, and cold-bloodedness that emerge here. Pierce Brosnan would later combine this with Moore’s more reserved performance, but Daniel Craig has amped up Dalton’s take considerably.
For the longest time, I did not like Maryam d’Abo as Kara. After a string of very strong-willed and resilient Bond girls (Barbara Bach, Lois Chiles, Carole Boquet, Maude Adams, and a tolerable performance by Tanya Roberts), we get a mousey “Oh, James!” character I found off-putting. But in watching The Living Daylights, I realized d’Abo’s character was not the shrinking violet I thought of her as. She starts out scared and confused, but when she realizes what’s going on, she starts showing some steel. At one point, she snatches a rifle from a Mujahadeen fighter and rides off after Bond toward a Soviet base.
Robert Brown is back as a forgettable M. Granted, it’s hard to replace Bernard Lee, and both Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes have more to do in the latter movies. But unlike Lee’s crusty old admiral, the grumpy uncle who is nonetheless beloved, Brown’s M comes off as a bored bureaucrat waiting for retirement. Similarly, Desmond Llewellyn is given little to do here as Q, his scenes pretty much what he’s done in every Bond movie going back to From Russia with Love. Caroline Bliss is the biggest disappointment as Moneypenny. Lois Maxwell gave as good as she got, letting us know she was in on the innuendos as well as giving a few of her own. Samantha Bond would prove a much-needed foil for Brosnan’s Bond, and Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny shot Bond, the start of a beautiful friendship. With Bliss, we get a fawning fan girl who lets Dalton’s Bond pinch her ass and, who knows, probably gets him his coffee, too. The other Moneypennys were too busy keeping MI6 from flying apart to get coffee, even in the Mad Men sexist sixties. Bliss’s version is the one aspect of the Dalton Bonds I never liked.
As I said before, Whitaker is just dumb, but it’s in service to the story. Pushkin, in his first scene, even points this out to him, that he’s a child playing a soldier after getting kicked out of West Point. “What army did you serve in again?” Whitaker’s rationalizations make Donald Trump look like an amateur in deflecting blame.
Despite some of the supporting cast’s shortcomings, The Living Daylights is a solid real-world Bond. As such, we never really see Dalton blowing up a secret lair or can picture him confronting yet another Blofeld clone. Instead, we get the first of two solid thrillers, this one set at the end of the Cold War. The other takes on the international drug trade.
It’s a pity we didn’t at least get a third Bond out of Dalton.