WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: James Bond smells a rat when Russian General Koskov is handed to Britain on a plate, especially when the General’s would-be assassin is a beautiful woman who can handle a cello much better than a rifle. Not unusually, Bond sets off in search of the woman for answers, and travels around the globe to discover Koskov’s links to an ebullient, abrasive arms dealer.
Aah, the 80s: a time when you knew your enemy – the Russians – and who you could rely on, the plucky mujahideen of Afghanistan. So when British diplomat Saunders (Thomas Wheatley) lines up James Bond (Timothy Dalton) to go and get General Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) out of Bratislava, the spy is naturally suspicious. Nothing about the mission fits, especially when one of the orchestra’s female cellists turns maladroit sniper to try to off the General; and Bond’s suspicions are aroused further when, back in England, Koskov claims that the peaceable General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) is behind a plan to ramp up the Cold War by bumping off operatives, including 007. Even though Koskov is nabbed back by ruthless blond henchman Necros (Andreas Wisniewski) before he can be asked more questions, Bond is given orders to eliminate Pushkin, and is tooled up by Q (Desmond Llewelyn) before he goes. However, 007 is convinced that cellist Kara Milovy (Maryam D’Abo) holds the answers to his questions, so he meets her in Bratislava, claiming to be Koskov’s friend, and gets her (and her precious Stradivarius) out of the country under the noses of the Russians. Bond tracks down answers in Vienna and from Pushkin in Tangier, but Kara is tricked into drugging Bond and he winds up in an Afghan jail along with Mujahideen leader Kamran Shah (Art Malik). The odd bedfellows may be able to work together to defeat a common enemy.
Since he’s the most obvious point of interest, let’s start with our new Bond, Timothy Dalton. The good news is that he looks the part, handsome and athletic with a steely glare that conveys intelligence and intensity of purpose, anger and passion. In a story which calls on Bond to trace, protect and fall in love with just one woman, Dalton’s glowering, irascible demeanour works well; however, it comes at the expense of the glib charm and cool humour you expect Bond to possess at all times. Were The Living Daylights a re-invention of the series à la Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale, this might have worked; unfortunately, Dalton is parachuted straight into a typical 80s Bond movie, with a script that largely rejects depth for big bangs and creaky laughs. The less said about Q’s ‘ghetto blaster’ gag the better, and neither Necros’ exploding milk bottles, nor Bond and Kara’s slide down the slopes on a cello case, have any place in a serious film – no matter how skillfully Bond handles the instrument at the Austrian border. The Avengers, or Batman, maybe; but not 007, please. Dalton understandably shows no enthusiasm for his moribund one-liners; indeed, there’s such a long pause between the inevitable dispatch of Necros and the joke that the viewer has plenty of time to invent their own (I went for ‘God rest his sole‘). But even ‘he got the boot’ is better than the badly-contrived climax of ’He met his Waterloo’.
Nonetheless, Dalton is much more conspicuous here than he would be in Licence to Kill; and at least he can act, which is more than can be said for many of the supporting cast. As a corny glasses-wearing Moneypenny, Caroline Bliss is dreadfully wooden and is matched by Woodley’s stiff Saunders; John Terry (not that one, football fans) has a colourless, redundant cameo as Felix Leiter too. But these are minor irritations compared to Maryam D’Abo. Drippier than she is sexy, D’Abo pretty much saps the energy from every scene she’s in; she’s not quite Britt Ekland, but she’s not far off, and she spoils much of the good work done by others, especially John Rhys-Davies’ noble Pushkin.
Elsewhere, things are pretty much as expected: Q’s gadgets, including those in Bond’s massive Aston Martin, are just the ticket in a crisis*; 007 is immune to machine-gun fire from incredibly close range; and a ton of stuff blows up (except – for a while – a burning jeep full of explosives!). The story is actually quite a good one, from the action-packed pre-credits sequence in Gibraltar, to Koskov’s departure via tunnel (a neat little device that The World is Not Enough would recycle), and the cat-and-mouse games with Pushkin and Koskov are quite meaty. But it all turns into globetrotting for its own sake by the time Bond and co. land in Afghanistan, and the conjunction of diamonds, weapons and enormous quantities of drugs in the hands of the unusually friendly mujahideen becomes more confusing than it needs to be (Whitaker’s already the bad guy, so why make him drugs bad as well as weapons bad?). And who would have guessed the future Taliban would be such fans of classical music?
Kara calls Bond a horse’s arse in The Living Daylights, but Dalton’s spy isn’t bad; he’s just a serious man surrounded by cardboard support, a spy ready for taut action and character development but handed little more than groansome puns. Ranked alongside dross like Octopussy, this movie is a minor gem; but for it to work properly, The Living Daylights either needed Dalton to soften, or everyone else to take it seriously and follow the lead. The result isn’t a horse’s arse, but neither is it the boost to the franchise that Pierce Brosnan might have delivered, and eventually would deliver in GoldenEye.
NOTES: On my old website I urged you to seek out Eddie Izzard’s routine on Q’s amazing prescience. Don’t worry, I’ve found it for you. Warning: contains swears.