The Living Daylights: How Timothy Dalton Made James Bond Serious Again

The first of Timothy Dalton's pair of James Bond 007 adventures was supposed to be a return to the character's roots.

This one’s strong, if uneven. The Living Daylights has a lot going for it, not least of which includes a lean, sharkish Timothy Dalton, who’s all tight of smile and cold of eye. Other strengths include a plot that actually goes places (even if they aren’t always the right ones), a great soundtrack, a palpably menacing hitman, and the enjoyably retro prominence of the Cold War. All well and good.

However, the central villains are a weakness, neither really working alone or as a duo. The girl is admirable but a little trying. The pace sometimes flags, and the stakes never rise. Despite a standout fight aboard an airplane (as good as Bond gets) the film also never quite takes off.

The Villains: A three-in-one deal. Never a great sign: quality is rarely offered in quantity. Georgi Koskov is a cheerful, treacherous KGB General – a perfectly amiable cove but hardly a figure of menace. Koskov has plenty of screen time but little impact: the film doesn’t even bother to kill him off. Bullish arms dealer Brad Whitaker at least gets a proper death scene. Unfortunately Whitaker gets little else; his screen presence is barely five minutes. Oafish Texans, however well-developed their Napoleon complex, rarely make classic Bond villains. Luckily Necros saves the day: a cold blooded killer, deadly as they come.

The Girl: Sweet, sensitive, talented, a tiny bit irritating – Kara Milinay ticks a lot of boxes. She remains the only musical Bond girl as far as memory serves. Her cello doubles up as a handy toboggan; Stradivarius would not be pleased. Her naivety is exploited by Koskov and, to a lesser extent, Bond; although by the credits our James seems genuinely smitten. Bond has only fallen in love twice. Kara may be the most developed romance not named Tracy or Vesper. I wish I warmed to her a little more. Nobody’s problem but my own.

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So – The Living Daylights. Why hang around? We enter the fray via a short, sharp pre-credits; not a classic, perfectly serviceable nonetheless. Dalton convincingly dangles from a moving jeep: an important credential to establish. He later commandeers the phone of a beautiful woman (is that really a mobile?) and, less convincingly, delays his report by an hour after she offers him a drink. Dalton’s reaction to the proffered drink is a kind of weary resignation; the quip about needing an extra hour falls a little flat. It’s a line Moore could deliver in his sleep – one of several moments in this 007 succession that feels just a little fumbled.

This isn’t Dalton’s fault: each Bond has their own strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, most new Bonds spend their first film playing to the strengths of the last guy. Nor do I blame the writers: after seven films, a little hangover could only be expected. It would be remiss not to acknowledge the overlap, but we needn’t dwell on it.

One of my favourite Dalton scenes arrives early. Saunders, the fussy, by-the-book colleague is chastising Bond for his refusal to shoot a female sniper, and subsequent hijacking of Koskov’s escape. M is invoked; Bond stays superbly unfazed. “If he fires me, I’ll thank him for it,” he growls, eyes fixed on the road. In that one line Dalton gives us a new Bond: hardened, cold, weary of the only job he knows. “I only kill professionals,” he continues, the bitterness audible. This Bond doesn’t like himself very much. After Moore – a Bond you suspect kissed the mirror each morning – the new era has truly begun.

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Another great moment comes around the safe house debrief table. As Koskov prattles on, we get a close-up of Bond smoking silently, his eyes hard and suspicious. I’m not sure if anyone has ever looked more authentically ‘spy’ than Dalton in that shot. More than any Bond bar Connery, he could do wordless cool; more than any Bond bar Craig he felt inherently dangerous. (‘Cool’ here isn’t Fonzie Cool but Philip Marlowe Cool: laconic, hard-bitten, tough.)

We’ll come to Koskov a little later. His Pushkin-incriminating debrief is played all wrong. Not only do you not believe him, you don’t believe MI6 would either. I never quite understand how a bit of paper constitutes irrevocable evidence the previously friendly Pushkin has gone rogue. Especially as the only source linking Pushkin to ‘Smiert Spionom’ is Koskov himself. Who happens to be a rival of Pushkin. And is now demanding MI6 assassinate him.

Koskov delivers his testimony so broadly – at one point he starts waving around his own shoe – you half expect him to break off and flourish a gold pocket watch under M’s nose, one previous owner, barely used, retails for £400 in Mother Russia but for you dear gentlemen 50 bob. Alright 40 and I’m cutting my arm off.

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The defection makes even less sense in hindsight. Staging the whole thing in the hope MI6 will helpfully bump off Pushkin, no questions asked, seems a large and unnecessary risk. Why not hand Necros the job? Why involve the Brits? Even if the plan works (and it doesn’t even nearly), you’ve attracted the attention of the one intelligence agency previously indifferent to your joint Russian-American drug operation.

It’s classic Bond: it just about hangs together as you go along but utterly falls apart the moment you look back. A large chunk of the film revolves around a subplot – in this case the staged defection – largely detached from the main event – in this case the drug deal. In fairness to The Living Daylights, at least the defection and the arms deal are sort of interlinked. Compared to say, Octopussy, where the focus clicks from Faberge egg to nuclear bomb seemingly at random.

One benefit of Koskov’s defection is Koskov’s subsequent extraction. Necros singlehandedly takes apart the MI6 safe house in a truly great sequence. The greatness is twofold: one, the utterly professional manner in which Necros sets about his task. No frills, no stupid quips, just a whole load of kick ass.

Equally great is the absence of Bond – and therefore rules. The kitchen brawl is unflinchingly brutal; does anybody not wince as Necros forces his opponent’s cheek onto a cooker? You’d lose the bite with Bond involved. Bond can’t be scarred, and Bond must win: two major impediments to a great fight scene. The cheek-burning marks the return of actual pain to Bond after a prolonged absence. Violence hurts. See also the later Afghan jail fight, when Bond smashes a metal door against the jailer’s arm. Ouch.

Onto Bratislava and Kara Milovy. Can we talk freely? I’m no fan of Kara. I find her irritating and a little dim. Her puppyish devotion to Koskov then Bond particularly grates. At first it’s all “Georgi this” and “Georgi that;” later we get the classic “Oh James.” She betrays Bond to Koskov, then switches back to Bond by the very next scene. Handcuffed to a plane, Bond accepts her gushed “I’ve been such a fool” apology far better than I would have done.

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In the climax, after managing to board the airplane (well done, Kara), she promptly envelops Bond and the poor sod nearly flies into a cliff. This becomes a theme. On Bond’s return to the cockpit, having disposed of Necros and disarmed the bomb, Kara turns to address her beloved and nearly flies into a cliff herself. Honestly, if Bond ditched Kara and her stupid cello in Bratislava he’d have avoided no end of grief. And two cliffs.

Yet this distaste is my problem. Objectively, Kara is a minor triumph. Her and Bond share a proper romance, not just another fling. For the first time since The Spy Who Loved Me, the narrative is primarily founded on the Bond-Bond Girl relationship (Octopussy is strangely peripheral; we can debate Melina). Kara feels like a real person, not a blond cipher or exotic fantasy. You can often predict what she’ll do because of who she is. ‘Ah,’ I thought when she drove down Bond’s plane, then required the ramp lowered, ‘how very Kara.’ Brave, well-intentioned, unhelpful. She can act in character because she has one.

What of villainy? Koskov is the closest the series has yet come to Largo. The eccentric, buffoonish soldier conceals a ruthless and calculating sociopath. Othello takes an entire play to spot this; Bond requires about two scenes. Herein lies the problem.

Koskov is an interesting idea aborted at the last minute. The antagonist-as-ally was pioneered by Arial Kristatos but Kristatos never quite convinced as either. Koskov, I feel, might have done. Earlier I criticised Koskov – or rather Jerome Krabbe – for playing the MI6 debrief far too broadly. But perhaps the script – primarily the ‘kill Pushkin’ element – lets him down a little. Playing Koskov as a KGB Sheriff Pepper could have been inspired. The Roger Moore era had just happened. Allies far more outlandish than the extroverted Koskov were rolled out every other film. The longer Koskov bumbled around, the more shocking his villainy would prove. Hold off Bad Koskov until late in the game and you might be onto a winner.

Yet Koskov’s duplicity is revealed too early to have any impact. You can barely call it a twist. He becomes an amiable, lightweight enemy, short of menace; a rogue more than a true villain. Granted, the more realistic vibe would sit badly with a tropical island dwelling megalomaniac who wanted to blow up the sun. But I like my antagonists to carry a little more threat…

Ah, Necros. He looks like an Abercrombie and Fitch model, he’s a big fan of Anglo-American alternative rock bands, and he sports a mean disguise. Necros is a gold standard henchman; a real high class product. Loquacious he is not – plus ça change – but his silence is eloquent; it speaks of a true professional. His assassination of Saunders by booby-trapped café doors (bang, whoosh, crunch) is ingenious and painful. But the climatic struggle with Bond is the standout set-piece: of this film and many others.

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Wrestling on the holding net of a cargo plane thousands of feet in mid-air, as Red Cross aid packages fly out all around, and a bomb ticks away on-board: that is just inspired. Convincingly both men look as focused on not falling off as much as beating up each other – a welcome change from the often high-concept, low-peril battles of Moore.

Ultimately Bond severs his shoelaces to send Necros tumbling into the sky. Cue one of the best jokes of the series: an exhausted Bond drags himself to safety only to hear the ticking of the bomb, forgotten in the recent struggle. And he can’t remember which aid package conceals the device…Dalton’s expression of anguish, and desperate scrabble through the packages, brings more laughs than the umpteenth stale pun.

Obviously we get a stale pun: Bond’s unconvincing “He got the BOOT!” (The capitals mark the moment he notices the looming cliff) Disguising a pun within a yelp isn’t a good sign. Again, a line is delivered by Dalton that seems written for Moore.

Two allies neatly encapsulate the film: General Pushkin and Kamran Shah. Pushkin is easier so let’s do him first. The peerless Jonathan Rhys Davis makes a winning Head of KGB. Whether helping Indiana Jones raid the Lost Ark, embarking on the Last Crusade, or setting off to Mordor to destroy some evil jewellery, Rhys Davis cannot be anything but charismatic – and a little cuddly. Pushkin is a man with whom you’d merrily share a bottle of Russian Standard and also seek out should you need of a really reassuring hug. He’d make a great uncle.

Treasure the hotel ‘execution’ scene, where Pushkin and companion are ambushed by a vengeful Bond. Pushkin’s covert call for help is thwarted by a particularly callous Bond maneuver: strip the girlfriend and attack the distracted bodyguard. Gain that vital second. Enemy neutralized, Bond orders the girlfriend – ‘Go in the bathroom, lock the door.’ You sense, and thrillingly so, that Bond lived this scene too many times. You wonder whether he’s about to live it once more.

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Pushkin was originally General Gogol – illness prevented Walter Gotell from taking a major role. Any occurrence that results in Jonathan Rhys Davies cannot be wholly mourned. However it is a damn shame General Gogol was denied a worthy last bow. The frenemy has become a welcome stock character: Mathis for Craig, the mighty Valentine for Brosnan. Gogol, if not quite the first (I hate to say it but Sherriff Pepper), certainly is its greatest embodiment. No Moore film felt complete without a brief appearance from the KGB’s finest, usually disavowing all knowledge of the latest MI6 headache, sometimes genuinely. Invariably in the company of a buxom assistant (the man’s libido rivalled Bond’s). Sad that a man who illuminated so many backgrounds finally missed the opportunity to take centre stage.

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(Although Walter Gotell is the only actor, bar the inevitable Desmond Llewellyn, to face the Bonds of Connery and Dalton. Of course his ‘real Bond’ is Moore.)

Onto Kamran Shah. I still don’t understand Kamran’s behaviour in the jail. Why the theatrics? Possibly to hide his seniority – but surely he’d drop the act once Bond broke him out? Apparently, it requires a shave for equilibrium to be restored. Kamran blames his early eccentricity on “a hangover from my Oxford days.” I don’t understand that line either. Instead I muse on the possibility and convenience of Bond being imprisoned on a Russian airbase in the middle of Afghanistan, and his cellmate is a Mujahedeen leader who happens to be ex-Oxbridge.  

Kamran proves a reverse Samson: after a good haircut he’s right as rain. He symbolises the film’s late, Afghanistan phase; smuggling Bond onto the plane, then leading his horsemen into battle against the Soviet troops (in fairness to Kara, she instigates this). The climactic battle is unusual in its reality; this isn’t the typical ninjas/astronauts/female circus performers versus a small private army. The Soviet-Afghan War had lasted eight years at the time of the film’s release.

Grounding the action in current affairs is another departure from the escapist operas of Moore and, yes, Connery. The Cold War was only ever a backdrop; Vietnam and the Falklands passed without nary a mention. Afghanistan marks Bond’s first exposure to an actual conflict that involved actual people in the world outside the cinema. This engagement with contemporary events is laudable and problematic.

That finale of Bond blowing up the bridge? Killing hundreds of Soviet soldiers, rescuing the beleaguered Afghans? I don’t know. James Bond thwarting SPECTRE is one thing. James Bond killing Russians on behalf of the Mujahedeen…the ground feels a little shaky. Leave aside the whole ‘Western hero saves imperilled natives from Western villains’ schtick.

As the Soviet tanks tumble into the abyss, and the surviving horseman cheer, I feel a little like I’m watching a propaganda film. Cue shot of a victorious Kamran Shah, former alumni of Trinity College…my criticism isn’t moral – as I’ve previously stated, to morally criticise a Bond flick is spectacularly pointless – but artistic: after the thrill of Necros, the bridge explosion takes me out of the film. The foray into reality seems a little false.

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(Any critical reading of the film in light of modern Afghanistan, and the post-Soviet incarnations/evolution of the Mujahedeen, I lock securely in the box marked ‘Let’s Not Go There.’ As far as this particular retrospective is concerned, it’s forever 1987)

The Whittaker dust-up is underwhelming. A brief history lesson, a flurry of gunfire and a wolf whistle. Since Bond and Whittaker haven’t previously met, no sense of enmity exists. The final showdown, even if a damp squib, should provide an emotional crescendo. But Whittaker is rather a nonentity of a villain. Setting Bond against Koskov might work better, although that would seem a shocking mismatch. Not as shocking as the final quip: ‘He met his Waterloo,’ intones Dalton after a bust of the Duke of Wellington crushes Whitaker. Bless him but it’s not his forte.

So then: is The Living Daylights underrated? A little. The film is enjoyable without ever really capturing the imagination. I can understand why fans view it as a neglected classic; equally I sympathize with detractors who deem it workmanlike and uninspired (and yes, the fence does hurt my posterior). Dalton is a little unlucky: Connery’s other four successors all enjoy very strong first outings. Here, the Moore hangover hasn’t entirely worn off. Even if you subscribe to the ‘unjustly underrated’ school, the fact the film is underrated means a fair few don’t rate it very much (I think that last sentence just about holds together).

Yet, if The Living Daylights has become the cult classic Bond, the Bond gradually rising up the ranks, then brilliant. Today its downbeat tone and classical stylings are very much in vogue. Back then The Living Daylights represented a welcome return to some forgotten haunts. For the first time in years, the franchise was taking itself seriously. Out with the pantomime; in with the espionage. Welcome aboard, Mr Dalton. It’s good to be back.

Best Bit: “You are a professional!” Pushkin pleads for his life. Bond weighs his options…

Worst Bit: “Khaista”: Bond calls Kara beautiful in Afghan. Very seriously. Cringe.

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Final Thought: Felix Leiter appears for about two seconds. And he’s played by John Terry! Sadly, JT doesn’t help Bond burn the bridge.

This article first appeared on Den of Geek UK.