“Taking Bond back to his roots” is a phrase we hear a lot these days as the producers try to capitalise on the ever reliable appetite for hard, gritty tones in their films. But back in the 80s it was a different story. The phrase was trotted out a couple times on the press tours for Roger Moore films but no one took it particularly seriously as film after film came out where pigeons would do double-takes, women were called “Dr Goodhead” or he’d end up in a non-sequitur fistfight with a ninja in a Venetian clock tower before going to space (fun fact; those are all the same film).
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#F42A2A” class=”” size=”18"]The key difference being that people have broadly responded well to Craig, while Dalton was ahead of his time.[/[/perfectpullquote]p>
This changed when Roger hung up his PPK and quipping-eyebrows and was replaced by a young thespian by the name of Timothy Dalton. Being an actor of repute, Dalton’s was initially reluctant to take the role but he did. His insistence was that his was a more psychologically real character, while the reviews complained of the self-seriousness and violence in these once fun films, offers a familiar blueprint to what the Craig-era has been in during more recent times. The key difference being that people have broadly responded well to Craig, while Dalton was ahead of his time. It’s also very amusing to see what passed for a ‘gritty reboot’ of this franchise in the 80s.
Three decades on and after the naff weirdness of some of the Brosnan outings or aggressive blandness of Spectre, The Living Daylights has remained one of the franchise’s more outright solid and still enjoyable entries. It is noticeably too long and has potentially the series’ most convoluted plot but it’s exciting, well-produced and dryly funny in parts while maintaining an undeniable sense of integrity. It nonetheless remains recognisably Bondian. In contrast to say Casino Royale which striped everything back to the bare necessities of the character, here we have a more believable Bond in the same old unbelievable world.
The beginnings of Craig’s eventual take on the character are evident in Dalton. He’s harsh, unforgiving and seemingly welcoming of being fired – though when it comes to Daniel Craig, that’s less of a character trait and more just Daniel Craig. He doesn’t view women with the same lustful disposability his predecessors did but just like the current iteration, is perfectly okay with using women as tools to thwart others or aid his mission progression, echoing the cold and manipulative reality of being a spy. Yet the actual film still leaves the series’ trademark outlandishness largely intact. Be it the absurdity of M’s office having a 1:1 recreation on a plane, the (hugely enjoyable) gadget-laden car chase or Bond and Kara’s daring escape from the police by… sledding down a mountain in her cello case. The tendrils of the Moore era still cling on.
[p[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#F42A2A” class=”” size=”17"]m>The franchise doesn’t get enough credit for managing such seamless transitions between actors back in the days before wholesale reboots were the norm.[/pe[/perfectpullquote]an>
Perhaps that’s the key difference. Both this and Goldeneye changed Bond to be more modern or believable while leaving his word intact, while Craig’s entry required a ground-up rebuild of the universe thus rendering it impossible for any sense of franchise continuity to be possible. Despite a slightly heavier tone and new Bond, The Living Daylights maintains an effortless sense of continuity with the Moore films that proceeded it and not just due to the returning characters and continuation of the story arc with the KGB. The franchise doesn’t get enough credit for managing such seamless transitions between actors back in the days before wholesale reboots were the norm.
All this is not to say the film doesn’t remain a distinct product of its time. This is most evident in the score and general soundtrack. The actual A-ha title track is perfectly serviceable if middling by the standards of some of the other songs in the canon. Yet it’s integration into the score is great, as is the addition of the two Pretenders’ songs – this being one of those rare Bond’s that technically has three songs. John Barry – in his final score for the franchise – makes excellent use of the three songs, giving them loud, bombastic, brass-heavy renditions threaded throughout the regular Bond theme. The Bond theme itself gets a slightly new arrangement with some delightfully cheesy synth layered on for a kitschy but quite memorable variation on the iconic theme.
[per[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#F42A2A” class=”” size=”17"]… people often label this as the film where Bond aids the Taliban…[/perf[/perfectpullquote]>
Something which has aged slightly less well is the plot or at least elements of it, specifically the politics. For the first half of the film there’s actually a rather nice flow to it as they’d written a pretty lean, traditional espionage plot that just happened to get invaded by a Bond movie. For example, when the KGB agent is trying to kidnap a defector back, he does so while disguised as a milkman with exploding milk bottles; because Bond film. Then we reach the third act in Afghanistan and, well, people often label this as the film where Bond aids the Taliban and to be fair that is a gross oversimplification of events but also… not entirely untrue. It was a different time; aiding the Mujahideen against the invading Soviets was a good thing to be doing, the world didn’t know how that situation would shake out. It is amusing to imagine that in the universe of this film there was probably a statue built to Bond for his help in thwarting the Soviets in the great battle this film ends on, then imagining the awkward questions such a statue would raise for Bond a couple decades later.
There’s a terribly cringey line in Skyfall when Bond replies that “resurrection” is his hobby. It doesn’t work as a piece of dialogue but does fit well with that film’s meta examination of the franchise. It’s also very true. The franchise consistently struggles to keep a good thing going and maintain a stable quality from film-to-film but they’ve yet to fail at reinventing it when a recast was necessary and The Living Daylights is no exception. It may not be as fondly remembered as some of the other, equally critically well-liked, first outings for the various actors but as a film and entry in the series, it’s just as strong as the likes of Goldeneye. Perhaps it’s just a tad too 80s for its own good. And boy oh boy, has that joke at the end about the Mujahideen getting delayed in airport security has not aged well. Those were the kinds of jokes you could make with a straight face pre-9/11, kids.