Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Living Daylights

I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice that each Bond actor (with the exception of George Lazenby) corresponds, very roughly, to a decade.  So Connery is the 60’s Bond, Moore the 70’s, Dalton the 80’s, Brosnan the 90’s and Craig the 00’s.  One of the (many) problems with Moore’s extended tenure in the role is that he forced the series to dick around in jokey, escapist territory well after the Cold War had heated up again in the Reagan/Thatcher/Gorbachev 80’s.  There were some stabs at Cold War era politics in the last few movies, but The Living Daylights is the first time we’re dipping deeply back into the well of the Cold War in a long time.  Timothy Dalton provides the series with a lead that allows it to do this massive course correction, certainly the most overt recasting of the role up to this point, with all of Moore’s winky self-satisfaction being eliminated from the character by someone who specializes in the brutality portion of the role.  The plot involves a KGB officer who is supposedly defecting to the West, but naturally things get much more complicated.

So let me get down to brass tacks – I consider The Living Daylights to be almost entirely a disappointment, a massive missed opportunity that does not remotely have the courage of its convictions.  With Moore stepping down, and with the political situation of the world in the mid-to-late 80’s, the producers had a golden opportunity to do more than just tweak the series towards less frothy fare, but to in fact overhaul it completely, rebuilding it from the ground up as a lean, mean action franchise.  If there is one thing that can be said about the 80’s it was the golden age of pure action cinema, thoughtless brutes going into the jungles of Southeast Asia and extracting justice through pure force of will.  And here comes James Bond, the ultimate Cold War hero, finally unleashed as a young, hungry spy again, and all the film can manage is a bloated, dishwater dull adventure yarn that’s like a crappy Indiana Jones knockoff directed by some Carolco hack.

I don’t mean to be quite that harsh – this is an okay movie.  It’s certainly not at the levels of awfulness as the worst of the Moore era.  But there’s a reason people don’t still watch it except when they do dumb Bond marathons like this one, because it’s just not that interesting.  I’ll turn on Top Gun and watch it until the end, despite it being 100 times dumber than this movie, because it is filmed and edited with a visual flair, and it is filled with justifiably famous scenes.  Now that’s an unfair standard, since Top Gun is a stone-cold classic (don’t snicker – you know, in your heart, that this is true).  But The Living Daylights isn’t even as interesting as a 2nd rate Schwarzenegger vehicle like Commando.  It’s just there.  It exists.  You have to watch it to complete your 007 collection.

Dalton is not bad.  Like I said, he represents Bond’s brutal side fairly well.  The problem is, he doesn’t really represent any of the other aspects of the character.  He’s not particularly suave, he doesn’t know how to deliver a quip, and although Timothy Dalton is a good looking man it’s hard to imagine him seducing a woman through the sheer power of his charisma.  It’s a blessing and a curse that his performance seems totally fully formed right out of the gate: a blessing because he’s reasonably good right away, and a curse because it’s pretty clear that this is as good as it gets, and it’s just not quite good enough to make you think, man, I want to see that guy again and again and again in this role.

The aforementioned KGB officer, General Koskov, is of course pulling a massive scheme off, where he’s not actually defecting but has some sort of plan to buy heroin from the mujaheddin for a rock-bottom price, sell it in the West, and then use the profits both to arm the Soviets and make himself rich.  If you squint you can vaguely see the Iron Contra scandal in there somewhere, but mostly it’s a complicated scheme for the sake of both dragging the plot out to a *very* long 2 hours and 10 minutes and also to remind us that the Soviets are currently bogged down in a war in Afghanistan.

Dalton pronounces the term “Mu-JAH-heddin” a couple of times.  But who cares how it’s pronounced, they’re the Soviets’ problem.

I am pretty certain that I am in the distinct minority as someone who actually likes a-ha’s theme song.  It has a pretty terrible reputation and I’m semi-puzzled by that fact.

There is one very unfortunate “joke” delivered by Q about a “ghetto blaster”, which is a boom box that shoots rockets because get it?

Maryam D’Abo as General Koskov’s girlfriend (who eventually turns on him, of course, because she has to sleep with Bond) Kara Milovy is okay.  Not that memorable, but certainly never actively terrible or irritating.  She plays the cello and she’s reasonably helpful, or at least as helpful as a woman is allowed to be when Bond is around.  She’s basically the only female character of any note in the movie, so Bond doesn’t get to be seduced by a woman working for the villain (a hallmark of the Moore era, and poor Dalton is just immediately told, you are not even up to the level of charm exhibited by decrepit-assed, 57 year old Roger Moore.)  She has a dumb hairdo but what are you gonna do, she’s from behind the Iron Curtain.

There are a couple of action set pieces which aren’t really worth discussing in detail except inasmuch that Dalton’s presence allows for real action to return to the series after its long hiatus of long shots/bad blue screen, to something that vaguely suggests that Bond is once again actually taking part in action scenes.  The opening action scene is pretty good, significantly better than basically anything in the Moore era, so at least there’s that.

Felix Leiter returns for the first time since Live and Let Die, and I’m not really sure why he disappeared for almost all of Roger Moore’s run.  He’s played here by John Terry and I couldn’t remember who Terry was until Wikipedia reminded me that he played Christian Shepherd.

I haven’t mentioned General Gogol at any point, but he was a recurring character in most of the Moore films as the head of the KGB.  He gets replaced in this film by John Rhys-Davies, and although the film suggests that he will be a recurring character going forward, I know that this will be his first and last appearance.

We have a new Moneypenny, so now Q is the only member of the Big Four at MI-6 (Bond, M, Q and Moneypenny) that hasn’t been recast.  Presumably they decided that Lois Maxwell was now too old to credibly flirt with Bond, since Dalton is something like 20 years her junior.  This was the right decision, but the new actress (Caroline Bliss) is something pretty close to awful.  She’s dolled up as the 80’s-est of all 80’s on-screen women, with big ugly glasses and pulled up blonde hair that’s kind of a mess.  She basically looks like Angela from Who’s the Boss, and it is just a terrible look for Moneypenny, but the worst part is that she possesses not one single ounce of chemistry with DaltonDalton has chemistry problems with D’Abo too, but not nearly as severe.

This movie is a little (although not egregiously so) racist; besides the ghetto blaster joke, the way the Afganis are presented is mostly stereotype, and that could have been forgiven 20 or even 10 years before, but in 1987 I’m just going to have to give some demerits to a film that fits comfortably in the Rambo Part III spectrum of “this is what Afghanis are like.”  There’s a scene at the very end where Bond’s Afghan allies have traveled to London to meet him and they are wearing bandoliers filled with ammunition, which they apparently wore all the way from Afghanistan, including on their commercial flight.  It’s a little thing, but it is stupid, and this is a movie that thinks it has left behind the most egregiously stupid bits of the Moore era, so it needs to be held to account.

Bond only clearly beds the one woman, I think, D’Abo’s Bond Girl, but the film implies that he beds a random woman right at the end of the opening scene’s action set piece, before the credits sequence kicks in.

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