Thursday, July 7, 2011

Review – The Living Daylights

July 7, 2011

The Living Daylights – UK, 1987

I’d like to start this review by paraphrasing that wise and often misunderstood character David Addison from TV’s Moonlighting – We solved the crime; why can’t someone else catch the bad guy? So with this in mind, I‘d like to describe the way I wish The Living Daylights had ended. After Bond suddenly remembers a nice restaurant nearby, the film would cut to Bond and his latest girlfriend having a romantic candlelight dinner. They would be seen gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes as they sipped glass after glass of the finest champagne. We would see them smiling, talking, and laughing after a rather long and action-packed day saving the world from all-out war. Periodically, the image would cut away, and we would see the military forces of either Britain, the United States, or Russia pursuing and bringing to justice those responsible for the carnage and violence that occurred earlier in the film. And then after a quick cut back to Bond and his new love snuggling somewhere, the credits would begin rolling. The world would be safe for the time being, and Bond would be where he usually is at the end of one of these films.

I realize this would not be a typical Bond ending, but I would prefer it immensely to the one that actually ends The Living Daylights. It would save us from seeing a grown man – an arms smuggler, no less – playing what may be the equivalent of the childhood game “house” –only instead of dolls he uses toy soldiers, and instead of a traditional dollhouse, he lines his tiny soldiers up on a mock Civil War battlefield and pretends to be winning the war for the South. He even has musical accompaniment. It reminded me of a storyline involving Benjamin Horne during the second season of Twin Peaks, a segment that I have never heard a single fan of the show say a nice word about. In addition to sparing us this rather pitiful sight, it would also have negated the brief scene that follows it, in which a character who should not have returned does so solely to try to get a laugh from the audience. Predictably, the attempt is unsuccessful. All of this is regrettable, for it weakens what is an otherwise fine Bond film.

The Living Daylights takes place during a time of great change. As eluded to in the film, Russia has come out from behind its secretive curtain and begun opening up to the rest of the world – an act that one character in the film refers to as debutance. It is a move that not every high ranking Russian military official agrees with. Early in the film, British intelligence is told by General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe), a Russian defector, of a plot by General Leonid Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) to assassinate British and American secret agents in the hopes of reigniting the Cold War. To prevent this from ever taking place, Bond is ordered to assassinate Pushkin. However, Bond is familiar with the general, and his instincts tell him that things just don’t add up. His only possible lead is Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo), the mysterious woman who tried to assassinate Koskov during his defection. She had struck Bond as being a rather amateur marksman, not the usually kind employed by the KGB. And he should know. He dated one back in The Spy Who Loved Me.

Like many of the best Bond films, the motives of the key players in The Living Daylights remain a mystery for quite some time. We meet them, we hear them talking vaguely about their plans, and yet we are not clued in as to their endgame. In fact, most of the first part of the film is devoted to Bond trying to get Milovy to safety and then simply hoping that she’ll be able to either provide him with some useful information or draw Koskov out after he is supposedly kidnapped by the KGB while in British custody. So Bond does what he does best – he lays on the charm, and soon…well, you probably know what comes next.

The Living Daylights is mostly a continuation of the Bond character from the previous films, sans the sometimes poor attempts at humor and not-so subtle references to contemporary films that regrettably marked the Roger Moore years. Like Bond himself, Miss Moneypenny, now played by Caroline Bliss, is much younger than she was in A View to a Kill, yet she’s just as flirtatious. She has a great exchange with Bond about music of all things. Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and M (Robert Brown) are also still around, although slightly older. In an early scene, Q shows his age by wheezing a bit more than he used to after rushing up some stairs. The film also reintroduces audiences to Felix Leiter (here played by John Terry), Bond’s good friend in the CIA. This is the seventh film to feature the character, and so far, the role has been played by seven different actors.

There are two problematic aspects to the film. The first has to do with the bizarre way in which the film depicts Russian military officials in Afghanistan as doing business with the very group that is fighting against them. It’s simply not realistic even under the conditions that the film puts forth. Militaries simply don’t supply their enemies with the means to wage war against them. The other problem involves Kara Milovy, who goes from being completely inexperienced at combat and frightened by the chaos going on around her to riding a horse perfectly, leading a group of Afghan fighters against the Russians and engaging her pursuers in hand-to-hand combat. I suppose I wouldn’t have minded the sudden change of character so much if she had remained strong and determined throughout the remainder of the film. She doesn’t, though, and a moment after showing great boldness, she fumbling the controls of a plane, wondering what to do and looking utterly powerless.

That said, The Living Daylights is a solid return to form for those who preferred the Bond films starring Sean Connery and George Lazenby to those starring Roger Moore. The story is well structured, and the film contains several rather exciting action scenes, in particular, Bond’s escape with Kara (and her cello) through the snow. Timothy Dalton portrays Bond as focused and intense, as someone who is fully aware of the seriousness of the events that are in motion, and only rarely does he seem to be trying to elicit chuckles from the audience. In addition, The Living Daylights is the only Bond film I can remember in which the audience won’t roll its eyes when the villain doesn’t kill Bond right away after capturing him. Usually Bond’s execution is delayed simply so that he can be let in on a secret, and it is one of the aspects of the Bond series that is parodied most often. Here, however, it actually makes sense. Now, if only they’d changed that ending… (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

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