Short Take: Timothy Dalton’s take on Bond has the reptilian darkness to allude to something more interesting, but caricature villains and bombastic plot lines move in contradiction with the dour lead.
You’ve probably heard about Timothy Dalton’s Bond being an oddity in the series. The staid British thespian was a strange, though inspired, choice to play 007. His first venture, The Living Daylights, drops Bond into a world that seems to be a confusing labyrinth of bizarre Saturday morning cartoons for an actor that looks wrenched from the annals of classic noir film sets. Dalton’s narrow eyes and low brow move parallel to the silly Bond set pieces in a way that shows flares of potential for something altogether different. However, the intrigue Dalton brings to the table never effectively attaches to the standard franchise elements. The effect is a fractured feeling of “could’ve been” had the script accommodated its star the way recent Daniel Craig vehicles have.
After Bond intentionally fails to shoot a female assassin, Kara Milvoy, whose trying to kill a Russian general named Koskov that he intends to save, Bond learns that Russia has reinstated an old mandate to kill all spies from other nations. After Koskov gets safely to England (via the Transiberian Pipeline), he’s immediately kidnapped in a comical coup performed by a faux milkman. It turns out that the assassin is actually the kidnapped man’s lover who Bond tracks down in an effort to find Koskov. After it becomes clear that Koskov staged the entire kidnapping as a way to avoid Russian authorities and embezzle money, Bond fakes an assassination of a Russian leader and tries to lure Milvoy into his web. Instead, Milvoy turns Bond over Koskov only to be betrayed by her man in return. Together, in a miraculous airplane escape, Bond and Milvoy stop Koskov before he can rob millions.
More than a few critics have complained that Dalton looks to only be going through the motions in lackluster fashion. This opinion avoids the realities that The Living Daylights gave the performer virtually nothing to work with. In fact, I’d argue that the world of Bond is going through the motions around the actor, while he does everything he can to add something more. As a result, the film shines when Dalton’s self-aware wit pokes holes in the seemingly asinine events he’s been tossed into. Most fun is when Bond spends time trying to court the pretty cellist whose fallen into an incomprehensible love affair with the most buffoonish Russian military officer to ever grace a movie screen. Bond’s commitment to his courtship is believably aloof, a characteristic that at once feels tedious to the plot development and actually works to inform the other character’s skepticism. On screen for significant chunks of running time, this Bond girl feels almost too obnoxious to stick around yet oblivious enough to be endearing throughout.
While it’s difficult to take the “from thin-air” occurrences all that seriously, Dalton’s presence adds a sense of serious performance that’s lacking from other Bond films. This contributes to a feeling of disconnect between the hero and his engagement with his active goals. However, Dalton as a character crackles with mature one-liners and stately mannerisms that are infinitely watchable. In a better plot, this form of Bond could have been best suited for an introspective character study. And perhaps that’s the deeper hope that Dalton had for his work. His long tugs at cigarette butts and pensive bar stool stares certainly allude to as much.
Clumsily handled political commentary about Russian/Afghan relations aside, The Living Daylights does contain some well-built sequences. Playing like a blueprint for Brosnan (the actor who was supposed to take this role), the pictures excels at exciting, death-defying action set pieces. Most entertaining is a finale that finds Bond and his adversary in a fistfight while hanging from the back of a moving plane, only dangling by cargo. Like later Bond’s, The Living Daylight cares little about how it gets to the fireworks of its ending, hoping only to last long enough to justify a sparkling send-off. Again Dalton adds a touch of spice to this formula by looking loathe to be taking on such suit-wrinkling endeavors. Yet, with his dapper good looks and leading man charm, he pulls off each trick with an aggravated ease. This is Bond at his most “been there, done that.”
For all its shortcomings, The Living Daylights shows hints of something darker to the Bond world that could have been developed nicely with better writing. The filmmakers seem at odds with what unique qualities Timothy Dalton brings to the table. At times the disparity between plot and hero can add an intriguing power struggle that works within the presentation itself. All in all, The Living Daylights only succeeds as far as Dalton’s oddity can take it, without really supplying anything new or interesting in the way of storytelling. [B-]
Dalton himself hinted at his frustrations as Bond – he wanted to take the character into the sort of gritty terrain that Daniel Craig has been able to explore.
I always felt Dalton was underrated as a Bond – certainly (except arguably Danny boy Craig) he was the most accomplished actor, and I liked the terse, burned out quality he brought. Weak films though; a missed opportunity.
Perhaps blindly, I have slightly higher hopes for Licence to Kill. I’ve heard it’s at least a step closer to what “could’ve been” had the writers not chickened out and went with an easy Bond. I hadn’t realized that they basically wrote a Brosnan movie 8 years before the guy actually took the role.
Dalton was lined up to replace Connery back in the day, but all involved ended up agreeing that he was too young.
Licence To Kill continues the grand set pieces AND as a bonus you get to see a young Benicio Del Toro.