Page to Screen: The Living Daylights (1987)

The Living Daylights
based on characters by Ian Fleming


As a nail polish fiend and pop culture junkie, the licensed nail polish collection is seemingly tailored to me specifically. Ever since I missed the chance to buy the perfect multicolor glitter from the OPI Alice in Wonderland collection a few years back, I’ve been keeping a keen eye on such offerings. When OPI produced a James Bond collection to celebrate Skyfall and Fifty Years of Bond, I knew I had to get at least one—a nail polish inspired by such a butch franchise? How could I not? Alas, I could not actually find them, so I was floored when my awesome friend Natalya (who must be name-checked in every Bond review I write) gave me one of them as a gift. How is this relevant? That nail polish was called “The Living Daylights”. So not only have I been looking forward to watching Timothy Dalton step into Bond’s impeccable shoes, but I already feel like I should like the film, since I like the nail polish so much.

The Living Daylights finds Agent 007 aiding a KGB officer, Georgi Koskov, in his defection to the West, disobeying orders by not assassinating his beautiful, cello-playing sniper in the course of the mission. The Russian general informs MI6 of General Pushkin’s new plan to assassinate British and American secret agents: Smiert Spionam. Shortly thereafter, he vanishes, kidnapped. Bond is ordered to kill Pushkin, but he decides to investigate the sniper instead. When he discovers her gun was loaded with blanks, the sincerity Koskov’s defection falls into question, and Bond sets off on a quest to find Koskov and get to the bottom of things.

At long, long, long last, Roger Moore’s reign as James Bond is over and we find ourselves in the strange territory of Timothy Dalton’s Bond. I’ve been very much looking forward to The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, because I don’t know anything about them. I had a sense of Sean Connery, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Moore, and I fully expect to spend watching the Brosnan films with my mouth open and my NMDA receptors firing on all cylinders. But Dalton? I’d seen in Hot Fuzz and Doctor Who, but nothing older than that. I didn’t know what to expect from his Bond beyond a breath of fresh air, and my expectations were handily fulfilled.

The pre-credits sequence of The Living Daylights (which actually has something to do with the plot! We’re evolving! Yay!) keeps 007 and two other agents masked as they go about a training exercise. The other two were cast for their resemblance to Roger Moore and George Lazenby (to spiritually pass on the baton), and they’re quickly dispatched, allowing Dalton to remove his face mask and brood gorgeously all over the place. Physically, Dalton is one of the most striking Bonds, all intense, piercing blue eyes, rugged face, and rare, brilliant smiles; it’s a wonder people got upset over Daniel Craig being (le gasp!) blonde, when he and Dalton both have blue eyes that excavate your soul. But looking right for the part is one thing (as Lazenby, a former male model, found out), and Dalton is a classically trained actor. Mark Young at Sound on Sight put it perfectly when he stated that “For Bond there should be only allies, enemies, and the light glaze of contempt that he spreads over the remainder of the world.” Add a kind of vulnerability and ethical tangles over his job (he will only kill other professional killers), and you’ve got Dalton’s Bond, exploding out the ashes of Roger Moore’s Bond. Managing to make a Member’s Only jacket still look cool twenty-five years later is definitely an important factor, though.

As a film, The Living Daylights is one of the more realistic stories. The world is not at stake, just the English-speaking intelligence community, and we see Bond at work much more: improvising plans and weapons, as well as doing the dirty work of investigation. This necessitates the seduction of Kara Milovy, Koskov’s girlfriend and would-be assassin. While I don’t particularly care for Kara as a character—my notes state that she is “BELOW OPTIMUM LEVELS OF FEIST” and otherwise forgettable—this thread of the plot might be my favorite, since we see Bond get conflicted over what he’s doing. Killing is relatively clean; this level of deception isn’t. The trust issues are resolved a little too quickly, but the fact that the film is exploring it means that the franchise is growing up, in a way. Plus, Dalton’s Bond appears to actually enjoy the company of women; he’s helped in the defector’s escape attempt by a Russian woman named Rosika, who is awesome, and he’s awfully cute and comfortable with Moneypenny, now played by Caroline Bliss. (“NOPE,” I yelled at my screen. She’s not as cool as Lois Maxwell, but, then, few people are.) So having to trick this innocent young woman who is already being played by other powerful men for Queen and country… that’s harsh, and Bond realizes this and feels conflicted about it. Mmm, emotional complexity.

But The Living Daylights is not all dark mutterings, conflicted feelings, and Rosika. (She is so cool.) It was originally written for Moore (how long were you planning to hold on, Roge?), so a few groan-inducing one-liners remain. Dalton can throw them away neatly, though. The action sequences manage a nice balance between humor and tension; when Bond and Kara flee to Austria, they end up using absolutely everything they have—including Kara’s priceless Stradivarius. (Said cello brings about possibly my favorite Gilligan Cut in the franchise so far.) Modern viewers will probably startle at Bond and Kara teaming up with mujahideen in the third act, when the action takes the film to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, but it’s a interesting artifact of a long-running franchise so incredibly invested in the Cold War.

Bottom line: Timothy Dalton’s Bond is electrifying, and the pared down storyline allows him to fully plumb the emotional turmoil of being 007. The Bond girl is a blank space, unfortunately, and there’s a few remnants of Moore’s Bond, but, otherwise, a fine first outing for Dalton.

I rented this film on iTunes.

8 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Living Daylights (1987)

  1. Yep. I loved The Living Daylights and saw it in a huge cinema (one screen, not the mutiplex soulless nightmares we have now. How can a cup holder replace atmosphere?).

    I’ve always thought TD was one of THE best Bonds. His presence towers above RM, GL and PB. I think he was the template for Daniel Craig’s version. No bad thing. At the time, I prefered License to Kill…as time has gone on, you realise what a great film The Living Daylights was – and is.

    There is a reference in Skyfall to how ‘we don’t use those anymore’, referring to the exploding devices the 1980s Bond used. Skyfall was magnificent, but The Living Daylights reminds s how great the Bond cannon could be. I’m sorry they didn’t give TD more outings as 007.

    • He is truly amazing. Netflix has a Jane Eyre series featuring him as Rochester that I’ve got all queued up for a sick day. The rumors that he’ll be the Alfred to Ben Affleck’s Batman are driving me insane with curiosity.

      GoldenEye was originally supposed to be the third Dalton picture, but production went on for so long that Brosnan stepped into the role.

      • Yeah….and there’s this ‘thing’ about the ‘third’ Bond film an actor does as being his best. (Goldfinger for SC, The Spy Who Loved me for RM)…I even think The World Is Not Enough is Pierce Brosnan’s best 007 outing, but Golden Eye was strong. It would have been interesting to see TD’s take on that. A much better actor that maybe he’s given credit for, but how many actors with his background would appear in Hot Fuzz as a supermarket boss? He’s an amazing, diverse actor!

  2. The Living Daylights is a solidly good Bond movie. It gets discarded too easily because it has a degree of realism coming off the coat tails of the Moore era. It also gets discarded because it gets compared too much to License to Kill–though I’ll go on about that when you pop up with that review.

    What a lot of people don’t respect about The Living Daylights is that it accidentally set the stage for Goldeneye, by demonstrating there’s only so much that can be done with the Cold War–which was already over in Gorbachev’s mind. The Living Daylights also establishes that a realistic Bond fighting realistic threats can work, even if full acceptance of such an idea doesn’t show up until Casino Royale.

    Turning the intellectual part of me off, The Living Daylights is my preferred Timothy Dalton Bond movie. It mixes fun, plot, and intrigue well.

  3. Pingback: Fleming’s Bond | THE SCARECROW

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