"THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS" (1987) Review
Last year marked the 25th anniversary of EON Productions' release of its 15th entry in the Bond franchise – "THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS"
. The movie featured the first of two times in which actor Timothy Dalton portrayed the famous British spy, James Bond. I first saw "THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS"
on the night of July 31, 1987 – the date of its original U.S. release. My family and I saw it at the Grauman Chinese Theater in Hollywood. The theater was so packed that we ended up seated near the screen. I had a headache by the time the movie ended. Yet, watching the movie that night was one of the most enjoyable movie going experiences of my life.
The movie’s title comes from the 1966 short story, ”The Living Daylights”
in which Bond is assigned to assassinate a KGB sniper out to kill a MI-6 agent trying to escape from the Soviet Bloc in Berlin. The movie’s director, John Glen, along with screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, took aspects of that short story and used it to set the movie's plot in motion. "THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS" begins with a military exercise on Gilbratar in which three 00 agents – including Bond – test the British base by infiltrating it. One of the agents is killed by a KGB agent, who leaves a clue behind with the following words, ”Smiert Spionam". The phrase, which means ”Death to Spies”, is repeated by Soviet general Georgi Koskov (portrayed by Jeroen Krabbe), after Bond helps him defect from Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. The Fleming short story was used as source for the defection sequence. But whereas the female sniper turns out to be a genuine killer in Fleming’s version; in the movie, she turns out to be Czech celloist, Kara Milovy. Kara pretends to be a sniper in order to convince MI-6 that Koskov’s defection is genuine. The movie later reveals that Koskov actually had Kara impersonate a sniper in order to set her up to be killed by MI-6, namely Bond. And why? It turns out that Koskov is a military renegade who had allied himself with an American arms dealer named Brad Whittaker. Both men have been using KBG funds to profit from drug dealing, instead of purchasing arms for the Soviet Army. When another Soviet general, Leonid Puskin becomes suspicious, Koskov and Whittaker frame the general for the murder of 002 on Gilbratar in order to MI-6 into terminating him. Thanks to Bond’s suspicions and his alliance with Kara, the CIA and Afghan freedom fighters named the Mujahedeen, he prevents Koskov and Whittaker’s plans from coming to fruition.
First of all, "THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS" is not a perfect movie. It has its flaws. The movie’s main flaw came in the form of the new Aston Martin Volante used by Bond during his escape from the Soviet authorities in Czechoslovakia to Austria. The car was equipped with all of the essential weaponry that included rocket launchers and lasers mounted in the hubcaps. Now if this had been ”GOLDFINGER”, ”THE SPY WHO LOVED ME” or even ”TOMORROW NEVER DIES” this would not seem out of place. But a gadget laden Aston Martin did seem out of place in a taunt thriller like "THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS". And Dalton’s Bond did not seem like the type of guy who would feel comfortable driving such a vehicle.
The Aston Martin sequence emphasized another problem with "THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS" - namely the humor that accompanied this scene. Some critics had complained of Timothy Dalton’s lack of humor during his tenure as Bond. Actually, Dalton did have a sense of humor – but one that seemed subtle, dry and slightly dark. It was not the type of humor that drew belly laughs like Roger Moore’s. Most of the movie managed to display Dalton’s type of humor very well . . . except during the Aston Martin sequence that featured Bond and Kara’s escape from the Soviet authorities and troops. During this sequence, the producers obviously had not only decided to burden Dalton’s Bond with a gadget-filled car, but also jokes that seemed to fit Roger Moore’s style of humor. I hate to say this but Dalton simply lacked Moore’s talent for broad humor. And it showed during this sequence.
Another problem with the movie turned out to be the character of Brad Whittaker, an American arms dealer. Granted, Joe Don Baker turned in a very competent performance. But his character contributed very little to the story. True, his business as an arms dealer served as a catalyst to the story, but as a Bond villain he came off as somewhat weak. Quite simply, he hardly did anything. The movie’s entire plot – using MI-6 to kill off the suspicious Pushkin in order to continue misuse of KGB funds – turned out to be General Koskov’s brain child. It was Koskov who had plotted to get rid of Pushkin. It was Koskov who plotted to get rid of Kara. It was Koskov who plotted to frame Bond for Pushkin’s murder. And I suspect that it was Koskov who had originally created the scheme to misuse KGB funds for drug dealing in the first place. Frankly, I think that Whittaker should have met the same fate as minor villain Hai Fat from ”THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN”. He should have met an early death. Then again, if that had happened, I would have lost the opportunity to enjoy Bond's final confrontation with Whittaker in the latter's Tangier home. Only in that final scene did Baker's Whittaker shine as a villain. Instead of arranging some ridiculous death that would have given 007 an opportunity to escape, Whittaker did not hesitate to try to kill Bond in the most brutal manner possible.
With a somewhat weak villain such as Whittaker, one would expect THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS to fall apart. But it did not, thanks to the movie’s other main villain – Soviet General Georgi Koskov. Many Bond fans tend to dismiss Koskov as another weak villain. I cannot dismiss him. Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe did a fantastic job in creating a character that seemed extroverted, charming and very likeable on the surface . . . and intelligent, devious, ruthless and cold-blooded underneath. This subtle duality in his personality came to the fore in his relationship with Kara Milovy. He obviously had some kind of affection toward the blond cellist . . . enough to purchase a famous Stradivarius cello for her. Yet, when his deception threatened to be exposed, he cold-bloodedly arranged for her to be mistaken as a KGB assassin by Bond, so that the latter would kill her. After all, Kara knew about his relationship with Whittaker. Honestly? I would prefer to face an obvious villain like Auric Goldfinger than to be unexpectedly stabbed in the back by the likes of Georgi Koskov.
Not only did Jeroen Krabbe contributed to the quality of "THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS", but so did the rest of the cast, including the London-born actress of Dutch-Georgian ancestry – Maryam D’Abo, who portrayed the effervescent cellist, Kara Milovy. She seemed like a sister in spirit to Tatiana Romanova, the Bond leading lady of "FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE". Only Kara struck me as a character with a bit of a temper and a little more backbone. D’Abo infuses Kara with a fresh naivety and passion that has not been since Daniela Bianchi in "FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE". Even better, she and Dalton managed to create a magnetic, yet natural screen chemistry. But D’Abo has never been that popular with Bond fans. Apparently, she seemed too ladylike and not sexy enough for them. Another Bond fan had complained that once Bond learned all he could about Koskov from Kara in Vienna and ended up captured by Koskov in Tangiers, her character became irrelevant to the story. This could be true. But if Kara had become irrelevant after Tangiers, what were the writers supposed to do with her? Leave her there? I doubt that Koskov would have allowed a living Kara loose on the world to expose him. No wonder he had brought her along to Afghanistan. But even there, Kara proved to be more than “comic relief” as someone had put it. Thanks to her, Kamal Khan and his Mujahedeen fighters attacked the Soviet airbase and distracted the military personnel long enough to save Bond and give him the opportunity to steal the plane loaded with Whittaker and Koskov’s opium. Kara Milovy may not be the most popular of Bond leading ladies, but thanks to D’Abo’s performance, she is certainly one of my favorites.
I must admit that I found myself rather impressed by the rest of "THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS" cast. Robert Brown proved to be a more interesting 'M' than he did in either "OCTOPUSSY" and "A VIEW TO A KILL". His stuffy head of MI-6 proved to be an excellent contrast to Dalton’s sardonic Bond, with whom he constantly butted heads. Although Robert Shaw had set the standards for the blond, muscle-bound henchman/killer in "FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE", many have failed to be as memorable as him. As far as I am concerned, only one has come close . . . namely Andreas Wisniewski as Necros, Whittaker and Koskov’s hired killer. Like Shaw before him, Wisniewski had very little dialogue – in fact, probably less than the British actor. But he managed to project menace, intelligence and style without coming off as some muscle-bound clone like the Hans character in "YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE" and the Stamper character in "TOMORROW NEVER DIES". Also included in the cast was legendary character actor, John Rhys-Davies, portraying Soviet General Leonid Pushkin, whose suspicions of the Whittaker-Koskov partnership helped set the plot in motion. Unlike many of his other well-known roles, Rhys-Davies portrayed a more restrained personality. But he managed to project his usual strong presence. Rhys-Davies and Dalton played off each other very well in the famous Tangier hotel room scene, in which Pushkin nearly became one of Bond’s victims. Art Malik from "THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN" and the recent updated "UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS" played Kamran Shah, leader of a local Mujardeen unit. In a way, Malik’s character reminded me of Georgi Koskov – a strong and intelligent man who used a benign persona to hide his true self. And Malik portrayed Shah with a giddy mixture of authority, charm, and mischievous wit. John Terry became the sixth actor to portray Bond's CIA buddy, Felix Leiter. Unfortunately, he barely had a few moments on the screen - not enough to establish a strong on-screen presence. Too bad. He and Dalton had a nice, friendly chemistry and Terry, as he later proved in his career, was a first-rate actor.
I have to say that EON Productions has been lucky in its choice of the six actors who managed to bring their own sense of style to the role of James Bond . . . and I mean all of them. And all were smart enough to portray Bond in a way that suited them, instead of adhering to what the public or the producers wanted them to play Bond. That said, I want to say a few things about Timothy Dalton. Even though I was a major fan of Roger Moore, I realized by the mid-80s that it was time for him to retire from the role. With great fondness, I said adieu and breathlessly anticipated Timothy Dalton's debut in "THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS". When movie first came out, the media pointed out that Dalton had read all of Fleming’s novels, along with a biography of the author to get a vibe on the James Bond character. It is possible that many fans and critics, used to Roger Moore’s more humorous portrayal, found it difficult to accept Dalton’s grittier Bond. Personally, I feel all of that research had paid off. Dalton’s Bond was a tense and serious man with occasional flashes of grittiness, dark humor and a human heart – very close to Fleming’s literary portrayal of the character. Judging from the success of previous Bond actors, perhaps it was not necessary for Dalton to portray the role in such a serious manner. But hey! It worked for him. Many fans may not have appreciated his efforts twenty-five years ago, but now they do.
In the past twenty-three years since "LICENSE TO KILL"'s release, I have come to appreciate Dalton's contribution to the Bond franchise even more. Whoever said that he was the right Bond at the wrong time was probably right. The man was ahead of his time . . . not just for the Bond franchise, but for many espionage films. People have also stated that Dalton had made a great impact on the franchise. Again, I believe that Dalton not only influenced Daniel Craig's debut as Bond in the early 21st century, but many other espionage characters. Pierce Brosnan was not above utilizing Dalton's darker take on Bond, every now and then. I also suspect that Dalton might be partially responsible for the influx of edgy, angst-filled spy or action/adventure characters that have emerged over the years - characters portrayed by the likes of Matt Damon, Matthew McFaydden, Kiefer Sutherland, Harrison Ford and possibly even Richard Chamberlain and Robert DeNiro. Even the Tangier hotel scene between Dalton and D'Abo in "THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS" seemed to have been copied in many action movies in the years that followed - including one between Dalton and Carey Lowell in "LICENSE TO KILL" and Harrison Ford and Allison Doody in "INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE". But no one did it better than Dalton and D'Abo, as far as I'm concerned.
Screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, created a taunt thriller, reminiscent of past Bond movies like "FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE" and "FOR YOUR EYES ONLY". Instead of the usual super villain bent upon controlling a major world market or the world itself, or the super terrorist groups up to its elbows in gadgets, Maibaum and Wilson took Fleming’s short story and created a tale of emotions, greed and betrayal. What I especially like about "THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS" is that it featured a series of excellent scenes and moments:
-the entire defection sequence starting from Kara's appearance in the window and ending with Koskov's departure from Austria
-Necros' attack on the MI-6 safe house
-Bond and Pushkin's confrontation in Tangiers
-the fake assassination of Pushkin
-Bond and Kara's confrontation in Tangiers
-Bond and Kara's escape from the Soviet military jail in Afghanistan
-the Mujardeen's attack on the Soviet air base
-Bond and Whittaker's confrontation in Tangiers
Thanks to the above scenes and the script, the story came close to feeling like a real spy thriller, instead of a quasi-fantasy/action-adventure flick. As I had stated before, the movie’s only misstep seemed to be the use of the gadget-laden Aston-Martin and the insertion of humorous dialogue not suited for Dalton’s acting style in the Czechoslovakia-to-Austria chase sequence. In fact, the sequence's style seemed out of place for such a taunt thriller like "THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS". Despite that particular sequence, the cast and the story, combined with John Glen’s competent direction and Alec Mills’ cinematography made "THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS" one of the finest – in my opinion – Bond movies in the franchise.
Returning back to that night in Hollywood, I remember that the audience went wild over "THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS"
. They especially seemed to take pleasure in the scene in which Bond and Kara managed to escape across the border into Austria. I had enjoyed the movie so much that I saw it at least six or seven more times in the theaters before it was released on video. And for me that is a personal record – especially in regard to the James Bond franchise.