Film discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Seventeen: The Living Daylights (1987)

Cubby Broccoli was a man with a long memory.  This would have an impact on the choices for the third, fourth and fifth EON incarnations of the James Bond character.  Roger Moore had been in his mind since the early-60s; Timothy Dalton was first approached in the early-1970s, at the age of 24; and his successor to the role, Pierce Brosnan, was on his second go-around, in terms of casting, when he was unveiled in July 1994.

Although cast first, Brosnan was not the first choice to succeed Roger Moore in 1986.  After a series of screen tests that included future-Jurassic Park actor Sam Neill (and Brosnan, who would not need to test again in the ’90s), Broccoli settled on Dalton as his preferred pick.  Tim had to decline, however, due to his commitment to the film Brenda Starr – notorious for failing to be released for years, due to lengthy litigation, then for taking less than $68,000 at the box office, against its $16 million budget.  EON moved on to Brosnan, then at the end of his run as the star of TV’s Remington Steele.  With the show cancelled, there was merely the matter of a 60-day clause for the network to re-option the show.  With the clock counting down until he was free of the commitment, re-runs of old episodes suddenly started to soar in the ratings; as word spread that this was the next James Bond.

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As Pierce posed for the standard holding the Walther PPK shots, and even some of the reference photography for the posters for his debut Bond adventure, EON began to make the arrangements to announce their new man.  On the eve of the option for Remington Steele lapsing, 20th Century Fox, buoyed by those ratings, picked-up the option to continue the show.  In attempting to make concessions to EON, to allow Brosnan to take the 007 role, Fox offered to shoot around the Bond schedule, but Broccoli demurred, arguing that his franchise would be damaged if the leading man could be seen on TV – for free – in a role that bore more than a passing similarity to James Bond.  With this being his final decision, Brosnan, at the age of 33, had to bow out, and hope that one day his time would come again.  The sad footnote to this, is that once Pierce was no longer slated to play Bond, ratings for the show plummeted, and as a result it was cancelled after only six further episodes.  Both of the main men in contention in 1986 had failed to get a once in a lifetime opportunity, in favour of projects that ended up going nowhere.

With the delay caused by the abortive appointment of Pierce Brosnan, Timothy Dalton’s work on Brenda Starr was complete, however, and he found himself available to be announced as the new Bond, to star in 1987’s The Living Daylights.  At the announcement, Dalton expressed his desire to honour the work of Ian Fleming.  The world was about to get a take on the character that was 180 degrees from the Roger Moore version: Dalton’s Bond would hew closer to the world-weary veteran of the novels.  On the back of seven consecutive Moore entries, the question was – how would paying audiences respond?

After a truly superb pre-title sequence – set on the Rock of Gibraltar – The Living Daylights commences with an opening act based upon the Fleming short story of the same name.  Bond is in Bratislava, in the former Czechoslovakia, to facilitate the defection of Soviet General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe) to the West.  With the key moves due to take place in the interval of an orchestra, Bond disobeys an order from his liaison, Saunders (Thomas Wheatley), to shoot the sniper – she turns out to be a cellist performing that evening – who is aiming at Koskov as he crosses the street to liaise with MI6.  Arguing that she did know one end of a rifle from another, Bond defends his actions, and completes Koskov’s transfer.

Meeting at a safe house in the UK, Koskov informs M (Robert Brown) and the Minister (Geoffrey Keen), that the Soviet policy of ‘Smiert Spionam’, meaning ‘Death to Spies’ – and referenced in the pre-title scene – has been reinstated by General Leonid Pushkin, the new head of the KGB (John Rhy-Davies, replacing Walter Gotell’s Gogol character, due to the latter’s poor health: he does appear at the end in a cameo, however, but small things, such as Pushkin’s womanising, give away that this was originally written as Gogol).  With that, Koskov is abducted, with the assumption that he has been returned to Russia.

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Returning to Bratislava, Bond finds the cellist/sniper, Kara Milovy (Maryum d’Abo in a somewhat bland turn), learns that the defection had been staged, and that Kara is Koskov’s girlfriend.  Convincing her that he is a friend of Georgi, Bond leads Kara away from the pursuing KGB.  Finding Pushkin, he learns that Smiert Spionam is not, in fact, to be reinstated, and that Koskov is in league with arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker, in the first of two roles he will play in the series); the former evading arrest for embezzlement of Government funds, and the latter in dispute with Puskin – who has cancelled an arms deal arranged through Koskov.  Bond and Kara learn that the stolen money is to be used to buy opium from the Mujahideen; intending to keep the profits with enough left over to supply the Soviets with their arms.  In the Afghanistan-set denouement, Bond must work, with the Mujahideen’s help, to thwart the plot, and prevent the opium getting away.

The Living Daylights has, arguably, the best act one of the entire series.  From the moment we meet Bond, he is all business: fit, and ready to go – something we have not had for a while.  The defection scene is pure Fleming, with lines and scenarios taken directly from the page, and essayed with a Cold War steel that is reminiscent of the earliest years of the series.  Ian Fleming wouldn’t recognise 1979’s Moonraker as starring his character, nor is it likely late-era Moore would be something he’d see as having much in common with his literary version; but he would recognise The Living Daylights as his world.  Dalton brings out the best in his co-stars, with Desmond Llewellyn’s Q visibly reinvigorated (Llewellyn later went on to say Dalton was his favourite Bond), and Robert Brown’s M finally escaping the shadow of Bernard Lee, as his is able to play against a leading man equally as steely in depicting his character.

With a box office of $191.2 million – from a budget of around $40 million – The Living Daylights saw a significant increase in take from A View to A Kill ($152 million).  The film received a stronger critical reaction too, though with an undercurrent of slight complaint that the humour was missing.  Audiences and critics alike had been conditioned to view Roger Moore as James Bond, complete with lots of quips and sight-gags.  Dalton – though often referred to as a proto-Daniel Craig, but 20 years early – simply didn’t take to the funny lines; spitting them out somewhat contemptuously on occasion.  He doesn’t quite have Craig’s big-screen star quality.  That said, from the moment he says to Saunders “Stuff my orders!  I only kill professionals… Go ahead.  Tell M what you want.  If he fires me, I’ll thank him for it.” he is evoking Ian Fleming’s original version of James Bond, but adjusted to make him palatable to wider audiences.  Dalton’s Bond is far nicer than the literary equivalent, and demonstrates a caring towards Kara that has echoes of Bond and Melina in For Your Eyes Only; a film that would – almost certainly – have been even better with Tim in the role.

Although healthy, the box office returns were yet to return to the heights of Moonraker, nor was the series anything like the phenomenon it had been in the 1960s.  With the new man off to a strong start, EON would reach once again to try to make their character relevant to the World he inhabited.  With the Cold War ending, and the Berlin Wall about to fall, new adversaries would need to be sought.  Noting the success of series such as TV’s Miami Vice, and stories about the flow of drugs from Central and South America, it was to there Bond would head for his next outing.

The Road to Bond 25 will return with Licence to Kill (1989).

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