The Living Daylights introduced Timothy Dalton to the James Bond series. I’d previously seen the second Timothy Dalton Bond movie, the very disappointing Licence To Kill. Happily The Living Daylights is a much better movie.
It appears that the Russians have re-activated the dreaded SMERSH (Death To Spies) section of the KGB (Bond’s nemesis in movies like From Russia With Love) and British agents are being assassinated. Including one from the elite Double O section.
A high-level KGB defector named Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) whom Bond has helped to escape to the West claims it is a plot by General Leonid Pushkin. He claim Pushkin is a madman who wants to start a nuclear war (the idea of a desperate Soviet Union facing collapse and hoping to stake everything on a nuclear war appears in at least one other 80s Bond movie). Bond is sceptical. He knows Pushkin and thinks he’s far too sensible but Koskov is convincing and M is inclined to believe him.
Bond’s mission is to kill Pushkin but he does a bit of digging around on his own account, starting with the mysterious KGB sniper who tried to assassinate Koskov when he escaped. The sniper is Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo), who combines playing the ’cello with sniping, only Bond soon discovers she’s no sniper and no KGB agent. She’s Koskov’s girlfriend. Koskov bought a Stradivarius ’cello for her - now where would a KGB officer get $150,000 from to buy a Stradivarius ’cello?
The trail leads Bond to crazy American arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) and to Vienna, then Tangiers and then Afghanistan where he and Kara are rescued by mujahadeen (remarkably civilised and friendly mujahadeen). Maybe Koskov’s defection was phony? Or is Koskov playing a double game, or even a triple game?
As explained by director John Glen the idea was to make this a much harder-edged Bond film than the preceding Roger Moore entries in the series. That was a fairly sound idea - no-one was going to be able to do the Roger Moore thing the way Roger Moore did it and a change of pace was probably due, and Timothy Dalton’s much more serious interpretation of the role made it a logical decision.
What impresses me is the way the movie does represent a real break in the series, but at the same time it still feels like a Bond movie. It looks to the future, but also draws upon the past. It even gets Bond back behind the wheel of an Aston-Martin, a very definite nod to Bond history. And it has the gadgets that Bond fans love so much. It also has lots of spectacular stunts. Most importantly, it feels like a Bond movie.
Maryam d’Abo is a different kind of Bond girl, strikingly beautiful but looking less like a glamorous supermodel. In fact she looks like a lady cellist! Joe Don Baker chews the scenery to great effect, Jeroen Krabbé is a likeable villain who might be a hero (or a hero who might be a villain), while John Rhys-Davies is surprisingly subdued but very effective as Pushkin.
As for Timothy Dalton, he’s a long way from being my favourite Bond but he’s reasonably good. He takes things seriously but there’s still the occasional twinkle in his eye (something that is sadly missing in Daniel Craig’s recent wooden performance). He knows he’s making a Bond movie and that it’s supposed to be fun. His performance is definitely harder edged than Moore’s or even Connery’s, much less tongue-in-cheek, but there’s still enough charm to make the characterisation convincing. I imagine he was trying to get closer to Ian Fleming’s original conception of Bond, with some success.
Pierce Brosnan was apparently the producers’ first choice for this movie but he had other commitments. Brosnan eventually became a better Bond than Dalton but Dalton is more than passable in this movie.
Not one of the great Bond flicks by any means, but still a highly entertaining movie.