16 September 2012

BARER BOND

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.


THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS
Directed by John Glen
Written by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson
Premiered 29 June, 1987

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
And so, having bid goodbye to the genial, charming, brightly authoritative, and above all, goddamn old Roger Moore, the folks at Eon seemed to view it as their solemn duty to prove, right off the bat, that they were going to take full advantage of the regime change by upping the action stakes considerably, and doubling down on the hard edge that Moore hated so much in his last outing, A View to a Kill. And a real corker their gesture is, too: during a training mission of 00 agents on Gibraltar, a mysterious 00 imposter (Carl Rigg) is taking advantage of the chaos of war games to kill some of MI6's top assets. The imposter's mistake, of course, is that after taking out 004 (Frederick Warder), he next turns to 007 (Timothy Dalton), and Our Man Bond is rather too good at his job for that. One extraordinarily exciting truck-based setpiece later (Dalton himself performing some of the stunts, for that extra jolt of verisimilitude, but it's the claustrophobic, high-speed camera movements that really sell it), Bond manages to send the imposter and his bomb over a cliff, gently parachuting down onto a yacht, where a man-hungry woman (Belle Avery, under the name Kell Tyler) offers him a drink and reassures us that this iteration of Bond will be no better at separating business from pleasure than his three forebears.

Between the truck scene and the brusque violence of the war games and Bond's introduction, this is most of the way towards perfect: but the gag with M (Robert Brown), sitting at his desk on the deck as the 00 agents parachute towards Gibraltar, is sort of insipid, and I do not care much for the twerpy button with the girl on the boat. But these are little complaints in the face of a damned exciting, reassuring, and definitively tone-changing opener.

pretitle_4half
Rating: 4.5 Union Jack Parachutes


TITLE SONG
After Duran Duran's "A View to a Kill" tore up the charts, Albert R. Broccoli wanted another super-hot band to record the next them and he found one in the form of Norway's a-ha, two years after the definitive '80s pop tune "Take On Me", and one year after their last huge European hit "I've Been Losing You"; that group's Paul Waaktaar-Savoy co-wrote "The Living Daylights" with Bond stalwart John Barry.

Europop is well and all, and I have already confessed my shamed affection for "A View to a Kill"; but really, it's not exactly Bond, is it? He's all suavity and intelligence under pressure, a cool, merciless killer, and whatever the hell it is that a-ha is doing - I lack the vocabulary to do it justice, but minor keys and synthesisers are both in heavy abundance - it is not that. It's just sort of, I don't know, '80s Europoppy. I find it annoyingly hard to forget, but intensely boring regardless, and while there are Bond themes towards which I feel much stronger hatred ("The man with the go-holden guh-huh-un!") this is undoubtedly the one that I am least inclined to listen to in any context whatsoever.

There are two original songs contributed by The Pretenders, as well: one over the end credits, and one heard in fragments throughout; I do not find that either of them are those important enough to deserve comment.

song_2half
Rating: 2.5 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
After the laser-based nothingness of Octopussy and the howling nightmare of giddy incoherence of A View to a Kill, Maurice Binder has gotten pretty much back on the rails with this sequence; that is both a good thing and a bad thing . Good in that it's nice to have a credit sequence that was apparently made with some sort of unifying theory that's even inspired by a very particular element of the film. Bad in that the unifying theory is "BIG DAMN '80S SUNGLASSES!", and the particular element is the short "villain's harem" scene, set around a pool. Which means that it's basically two and a half minutes of women swinging around and pointing guns, with water distortion effects around them. And, in fairness, that is a classic approach for a Bond title sequence to take, but it is has a boring sameness after a while.

title_2half
Rating: 2.5 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
Let us first point out that The Living Daylights is to be the last Bond picture for 19 years with a title from Ian Fleming's body of work, though I have not read the short story in question. I understand that it tracks quite closely to a roughly 10-minute stretch of the feature, which is a pretty good record for the '80s entries in the franchise.

Bond is assigned to assist in a mission to extract Soviet general Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) from Czechoslovakia; the general asked for him by name to be on point in case any assassins show up at the moment of the extraction. And indeed, such an assassin does show up, in the form of beautiful Russian cellist Kara Milovy (Maryam d'Abo), who was playing at the very same concert where Bond and fellow agent Saunders (Thomas Wheatley) were to meet up with Koskov. Sensing that the woman is no killer, Bond merely brushes her hand, earning Saunder's - and M's - ire, but the extraction goes perfectly well, as the general is zipped to the West in a petroleum pipeline.

Unfortunately, no sooner has Koskov told the British intelligence leaders that the new head of the KGB, Leonid Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies), has instituted a new program of spy-killing called Smert Spionam, than he is captured in a daring raid by a menacing figure named Necros (Andreas Wisniewski), so ruthless and deadly that he even makes the act of listening to a Walkman look menacing. Distressed that this abduction is going to make the already-feeble MI6 the laughingstock of the international intelligence community - a rare admission from the series that Great Britain hadn't been a major world power since right around the time that the movies began - M orders Bond to find and assassinate Pushkin.

Harboring some doubts - he knows Pushkins, and doubts the man would be such a trigger-happy madman - Bond returns to Czechoslovakia and crosses paths again with Kara, tricking her into revealing the information that she's actually Koskov's girlfriend, and that the attempted "assassination" was a ruse to convince the Brits that he was on the up-and-up. A bit of digging, with the assistance of friendly CIA agent Felix Leiter (John Terry, the sixth actor to play Leiter in six movies, and the first in 14 years), reveals that Koskov is in bed with arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), and the Smert Spionam program was a lie concocted solely to trick the British government into taking Pushkin out of Koskov's way. The Russian and American traitors are meanwhile conducting a massive arms deal in Afghanistan, which Bond must stopped, aided by Kara after she learns that Koskov has been planning to sell her out or kill her all along.

I am of several different minds here: on the one hand, this is awfully convoluted, messy stuff, with an arbitrary trip to Afghanistan that feels crammed into the film in the most ungainly way possible. On the other hand, I enjoy the cloak-and-dagger feeling to the first half of the movie, with Bond actually having to investigate what the hell is going on, rather than just flying straight to the villain's hideout and having a contest of wills. On a third hand still, the whole "one bad guy actually turns out to be two bad guys, and it takes a lot of work to tease it all out" bit was done to much more interesting effect in Octopussy. The fourth hand is that The Living Daylights turns its sneaky, spying opening half into a legitimately effective back half, something that Octopussy spectacularly failed to do. The last hand is that, while the arms smuggling plot is much smaller and pettier than I like from my Bond villains, it is crisp and simple in a way that makes for a good, taut thriller. Not too taut: like every other Bond picture of its vintage, it is too long. Though it interrupts a chain stretching all the way back to 1971 of every new Bond movie being longer than its immediate predecessor, even if it is less than a half-minute shorter than A View to a Kill; God knows it feels less bloated and saggy.

plot_3half
Rating: 3.5 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAIN
Two villains for the price of one: the shadowy Whitaker, and the more present, but clearly subordinate Koskov. Baker's take on Whitaker is an incredible delight: intense, deranged American zeal for violence dialed up to an exaggeration that stays just short of comic outrageous, even in the giddy detail that he has a gallery of wax models of himself dressed as history's greatest generals and warmongers: Napoleon, Caesar, Hitler. And the way he plays his single confrontation with Bond, as a smug ass convinced that he can keep Britain's greatest spy confused by babbling at him, is great. True, he doesn't actually do much, but he what he doesn't do, he does with relish.

The bad luck for him is that he's paired with Krabbé's Koskov, a real milksop of a villain. Part of it, undoubtedly, is that Krabbé isn't speaking with a poor Russian accent, so much as no Russian accent at all, and it's really, really hard to keep it in mind that he's meant to be a high-ranking Soviet general. Especially because Krabbé proceeds to act with absolutely no authority or military dignity, instead playing all of his scenes like a star-struck accountant. The fact that Rhys-Davies is right there, being surly and bear-like but charismatic and intelligent, puts the performance in an even worse light. To be fair to the actor, the writing does not help him out whatsoever: Koskov is far too unctuous and simpering and Uriah Heepish to feel like a credible threat, or any more than distasteful annoyance that doesn't even deserve to have a proper bad guy death, as indeed he does not.

4/5 for Whitaker, 2/5 for Koskov; I thought about weighting the latter heavier, as he's so much more prominent, but I thought a simple average would be more straightforward

villain_3
Rating: 3 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
How do you solve a problem like Kara Milovy? She's unusually inconsistent, even for a Bond Girl: sometimes a crafty player in a tricky story of faked assassinations and defections, sometimes a screaming damsel, and far too often a giggling twit content to make cow eyes at Bond. To be fair to the idea behind the character, the worst elements about her are very much those which d'Abo brings to the table as an actress: she's be no means the most saucer-eyed of all the Bond Girls, but the screenplay and the directing have to do a whole lot of work to convince us that she's actually competent and strong of character in the face of an unduly slight performance. It's fair to say, I think, that the fluctuation between "this character is interesting and active" and "this character is flighty and useless" maps exactly onto where the screenplay wins vs. where the actress does.

All that being said, she's a real rarity in a Bond Girl: someone who's able to capture James's heart and make him actually, legitimately fall in love. And while I don't necessarily know that either the writing or the performance earn that nearly as much as Diana Rigg's Tracy di Vicenzo does in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, it's absolutely undeniable that d'Abo and Dalton have a marvelously appealing, easygoing warmth and affection between them, some of the best chemsitry between any Bond and any girl in the franchise. So kudos for that.

girl_3
Rating: 3 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMAN
The Walkman thing is, certainly, a touch ridiculous: but maybe the most impressive thing about the constant menacing presence of the intense-looking Wisniewski as Necros is that he's able to make the wholly strange character trait of "listens to a drab Pretenders song before killing people" - strangling them with his headphone cord, naturally - seem actually sociopathic, and not the severest prove of them all that The Living Daylights was made in the friendly confines of 1987. He's everything we - or at least, I - want out of my threatening Bond killers: silent, expressionless, and physically unremarkable in a way that makes him a hell of a lot scarier just by standing in the background, watching his prey with his cold eyes. Points off for the Walkman, even so; but he's readily my favorite thug of the 1980s Bond picture.

henchman_4
Rating: 4 Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
If we don't count the girl in the yacht in the pre-title sequence - and there is absolutely no reason at all that we should - the spy remains strictly a one-woman guy this time around.


ACTION SEQUENCES
Anything would have been an improvement over Moore's Granddad On the Stairs routine from the last movie, and so I count myself exhilarated by The Living Daylights all in all; though it is not, in truth, as good as a 1980s action movie is supposed to be. The opening assassination and truck-chase sequence is magnificent, and the climax involving several mujahideen fighters on horses, Bond stealing a plane, bags of opium flying out of said plane, and and exploding bridge, is terrifically rousing, if a bit generic. Everything in between is a bit placid, though: the sequence where Koskov is snatched out of the safe-house, in particular, features the worst editing in any of the Bond films directed by former editor John Glen: a fight in a kitchen chopped so as to showcase its choreography to the least effect. There's a broadly comic car chase that serves mostly to show off all the gimmicks Bond has time time around, and it would have fit much better in a Roger Moore film than the more pointedly violent, serious world of Dalton's Bond. Still, we're clearly on the right track, especially if we ignore the sledding-on-a-cello-case sequence.

action_3half
Rating: 3.5 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
Speaking of that car: holy shit. First, it's an Aston Martin - not a DB5, first and always the only "true" Bond car, but let us not be petty. And it can do everything: fire missiles, sprout skis, shoot a laser from the hubcap, and it can do all this with rocket propulsion. The sequence in which we're shown this is a vintage piece of plot-driven, single-use gadget nonsense: Bond pushes, one at at time, every single button on a pad, and when he has used up all the gimmicks on his car and won the chase scene, he blows it up.

Also, Bond gets a keychain that, when you whistle different notes, either emits stun gas, or explodes. Not remotely the coolest "exploding pocket item" in the franchise, but it has its charms.

In the Let's Visit Q Labs sequence, Q (Demond Llewelyn) demonstrates his newest toy, a boombox that shoots an explosive, and he proudly declares it a "ghetto blaster" with all the barely-contained glee of an old man who doesn't realise how shitty his jokes are. One of my favorite moments in all of Llewelyn's performances of the character.

gadget_3half
Rating: 3.5 Easily-Riled Welshmen


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
None that are very noteworthy - the most impressive set is nothing more elaborate than Vienna the way it always looks - but Whitaker's crazy military playground is worth the time we spend there: beyond the aforementioned Hall of Historical Monsters, Whitaker has a huge Civil War diorama with sound effects and tiny explosions that matches his cartoon psychopathy brilliantly. It's a little dash of outlandish fantasy in a Bond move that is otherwise unusually focused on actual locations used to their best effect; and I support that mission, but you can hardly call the real world "sets".

lair_2half
Rating: 2.5 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
Every Bond had their one weak spot (except Connery, but you already knew that), and I think this was Dalton's: he made for at terrible playboy. When he chats casually about expensive booze and the perfect martini, you don't feel, as you do with Moore, that he actually knows what he's talking about; when he's wearing a tux, he doesn't seem uncomfortable so much as he doesn't seem to know why tuxedos are not like street clothes. And to make things even worse, there's a scene where he and Kara go on various thrill rides in an amusement park - he's still wearing the tux, at this point - and that's where my brain shut down. My Bond doesn't take his best girl on the tilt-a-whirl, and that's all there is to it.

elegance_1half
Rating: 1.5 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
Bond introduces himself the the woman whose yacht he lands on in the opening sequence, while urgently trying to get MI6 on the phone.
Forced or Badass? It's done in a pointedly off-the-cuff and non-iconic way, but by virtue of showing up in the first dialogue sequence in Dalton's career, I am obliged to consider it forced.


BEST QUIP
KOSKOV: "I'm sorry, James. For you I have great affection, but we have an old saying: duty has no sweethearts."
BOND: "We have an old saying too, Georgi. And you're full of it."


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
Of the six actors, so far, to play James Bond, Agent 007, Timothy Dalton clearly got the worst deal; and I don't just mean that he deserved more than two films, though that was the case. I mean that the two he got came at a bad time for the character and would have been virtually unplayable by anybody, for a whole host of reasons. Better, I suspect, if Broccoli had let Moore go years earlier when the actor first hinted about wanting to get off, and we could have had the sometimes very awkward transitional film earlier - a Dalton A View to a Kill, say, which would have been better than the Moore film, and still no great loss if it had suffered the flaws that are so disappointing in The Living Daylights.

The problem in this film, simply, is that Maibaum and Wilson (who got his first credit as full producer on this movie) didn't know exactly who they were writing this script for after Moore stepped down and the hunt started for a new Bond; so the script is a hybrid of Moore-era quipping and frivolity in some places, with a more serious bent that clearly reflected the desire of everybody involved to knock some of the farce out of the series and get back to the brutal character Ian Fleming wrote. I do not, myself, know if getting back to the character Fleming wrote is necessarily all it's cracked up to be, though as Dalton's prominence has risen in the years since Daniel Craig re-introduced us to a more savage Bond, many people used back-to-Fleming as a shorthand for getting Bond back to the character he's meant to be, perhaps forgetting that Fleming's books are all sort of turgid and overdone themselves - John Le Carré he wasn't.

Anyway, then, The Living Daylights is an uncomfortable combination of intense meanness and violence - the no-nonsense opening sequence, or the grubby politics of the plot - and Bond as merry jokester; no actor could have managed it perfectly, though I think that if Pierce Brosnan had been given the plot, as was first intended (he was stuck in a contract), the mixture of daftness and a desire to be serious that marks his performance in the character a decade later might have worked out for the best; my what-if hypothesis is that a Brosnan Living Daylights would have been better than any of the six Dalton or Brosnan vehicles that we actually got. As it is, Dalton's interest in exploring the darker, meaner, "blunt instrument" side of Bond is only about 80% of a match for the way the character is written here, and the actor is visibly uncomfortable with the same kind of tossed-off one liners that his predecessor had perfected. When Moore puns in the middle of a car chase, it's kind of stupid but harmless; when Dalton does it, it's like being hit in the face with a bucket of ice. Not even melted ice. Just straight-chunks of ice.

Luckily, the bulk of the movie is not that, and Dalton gets a chance to demonstrate a fascinating, if slightly too actorly take on the character; he is, I will admit, my least-favorite Bond of them all, though that has more to do with the scripts he was given than the way he plays the character, like Connery with the darkness ramped up and the sophistication ramped down, and with a spike of bitterness that's all Dalton's own (at one point, faced with the possibility of getting fired, Dalton barks that he'd be just fine with that; a surprisingly acidic moment).

But the movie around him is just not quite there: the first half is good, the second half is worse, and starts to feel a whole lot like every other action movie of the late-'80s, that just happens to have James Bond as a character (the release, the following year, of the execrable Rambo III does not help the movie; it makes it very hard, 25 years on, to look at any action movie set in the context of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and not think of a musclebound Stallone bellowing madly in the desert with way too many guns). John Barry's score - his farewell to a franchise he'd helped to define, and sadly, one of his weakest attempts - is awfully bland and represents the first flower of something that would become a real problem in the 1990s, of relying on Monty Norman's Bond theme as far too much of a crutch to remind us that hey! we're watching James Bond shooting a gun/driving a car/in a Ferris wheel. And, it's a little thing, but Caroline Bliss's Moneypenny is a disaster: there was no replacing Lois Maxwell as easily as all that, but Bliss doesn't even try to replicate the most important element of Maxwell's performance, the saucy sarcasm of her flirtation with Bond, that made it clear that as much fun as she had teasing him, she had a lot more personality than just wanting to sleep with the spy. Bliss all but starts rubbing herself and moaning as Bond walks away, all the tart subtlety of Maxwell's performance replaced by bland girlish lust.

There's a lot to love in The Living Daylights, and I don't want to bury that, while there's virtually nothing to hate: it's a rock-solid Bond picture, a nice upswing after the deflating conclusion to the Moore years. But it also feels a bit provisional and rocky, as though the whole crew had been making Moore pictures for so long that they couldn't shift back out of the habit. There should have been a truly great Bond movie to be made with Dalton, but it wasn't this one, sad to say.


OVERALL SCORE
34/55 [eq. 37.09/60]

5 comments:

The.Watcher said...

"has instituted a new program of spy-killing called [Death to Spies]"

Gotta love the subtlety of Bond movies.

Michael G said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smersh


The subtlety of Soviet Russia was even better.

The.Watcher said...

Oh wow... that's actually doubly embarrassing; not just cos I'm Russian, but also cos I happen to know quite a bit about WW2... and yet this somehow remained completely unknown to me (or maybe just forgotten.)

Excuse me, I'm gonna go and drink until the tears stop.

C. Moonlight said...

Speaking of Rhys-Davies, there's a "Random Roles" interview with him at the AV Club today, where he briefly discusses The Living Daylights-he apparently thinks Dalton wasn't physically imposing enouigh for the part.

Malte Ringer said...

Yeah, Dalton does look uncomfortable in a dinner jacket. His outfits are noticeably different from Moore's: much more like what a British spy/soldier (The Living Daylights pushes his identity as a soldier right in our face in the opening sequence) might actually wear. I kind of love the film for that.