Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Living Daylights (1987) | Story

Plot Summary

Another Soviet general looks at Orlov's notes from Octopussy, figures out a better (if no less complicated) way to work that plan, but stupidly gets Bond involved on purpose.


It was clear to everyone - filmmakers and audiences both - that A View to a Kill was one Roger Moore movie too many. People didn't like it and (worse) it made no money. It was time to finally get a new Bond. Pierce Brosnan was super popular thanks to Remington Steele, so he was Broccoli's first choice. But when the producers of that show screwed the deal by exercising a last-minute option to renew Brosnan's contract, Broccoli had to go with Plan B.

Timothy Dalton had already been considered for the role a few times, going all the way back to On Her Majesty's Secret Service. He's said in interviews since that he turned it down that first time because he didn't want to follow Connery (though his official reason at the time was that he was in his mid-20s and considered himself too young). He was approached again for Octopussy, but Broccoli decided not to cast a new Bond against Connery in Never Say Never Again, and Dalton likely wouldn't have accepted the role anyway. He always preferred a darker, more Fleming-esque Bond to the campy clown (literally, in Octopussy's case) of the Moore era. The series needed to balloon and burst again before it was ready for Dalton.

And burst it did after A View to a Kill. The Bond series has always had cycles of trying to top itself; getting bigger and bigger until it gets out of control and has to go back to basics and start all over again. It happened after You Only Live Twice, Moonraker, and A View to a Kill, and it happened again after Die Another Day.

For the story, Michael G Wilson and Richard Maibaum picked one of the few remaining Fleming tales, "The Living Daylights." It's one of Fleming's better short stories, featuring a very angry James Bond on a mission to protect a returning double agent by shooting the sniper assigned to kill him. It's perfect material for Dalton to play the back-to-basics, Fleming-like Bond that he wanted.

How Is the Book Different?

The opening (post-credits) scene of the movie is right out of the short story with one important exception. Instead of protecting a returning double-agent, Bond is trying to save a defecting Soviet general. That opens up the possibility that there's a deeper plot afoot, which Bond immediately suspects when he realizes that the sniper he's supposed to kill doesn't know what she's doing. (In the short story, she actually is an assassin, but he still refuses to kill her.) From there, the movie goes into all-new territory, but I love the approach of starting with faithfulness to Fleming and spinning off from there.

Moment That's Most Like Fleming

In addition to the whole Czech mission, Bond repeats the line from the short story that gives the tale its name. In that same scene, he does one of my favorite things in any Bond movie. When Saunders threatens to complain to M about Bond's performance, Bond replies, "Go ahead. Tell M what you want. If he fires me, I'll thank him for it." And he means it. That's not only the Bond of "The Living Daylights," it's the Bond at the end of Casino Royale and a few other books. Fleming's Bond struggles a lot with his job and this is the first time we've seen that in a movie. The first time I saw this movie, that's the moment I fell in love with Dalton's Bond.

Speaking of early Fleming, I also love that The Living Daylights makes use of SMERSH, the proto-SPECTRE of the first novels. Sadly, it's just a diversionary tactic by the real villains, but it still makes me smile.

Moment That's Least Like Fleming

The whole movie is incredibly faithful to the spirit of Fleming's books, but it's hard to imagine Fleming's Bond getting along and working with the head of the KGB. Bond's relationship with Pushkin is a child of the Moore era. In fact, I understand that Pushkin's character was originally going to be General Gogol, but Walter Gotell was too ill to play that large a role. Pushkin and Bond's friendship works in the context of the movie series though. No complaints.

Cold Open

Gibraltar is a cool place to stage a set piece. And I like the idea of the Double-Os taking on the SAS in a training exercise. I don't even mind that M is there to personally oversee it. That's one of the few times where his presence in the field sort of makes sense.

What I don't like is how horrible the other Double-Os are. This is the reason we need some real, butt-kicking Double-Os. In Octopussy, 009 is murdered after running through the woods with a balloon strapped to his wrist and dressed like a clown. Bond finds 003 frozen in Siberia after a failed mission in A View to a Kill. And let's not forget 002, poor Bill Fairbanks, who was murdered by Scaramanga prior to The Man with the Golden Gun.

Another 002 appears in The Living Daylights, but he's rubbish. He parachutes into a tree and quickly gets himself out, but then stands in the middle of the road until an SAS soldier pops out from behind a bush to shoot him twice. 004 isn't nearly as incompetent, but he has a worse fate when he's murdered by the fake SMERSH agent to lend credibility to Koskov's story later on. (Incidentally, the Bond movies do have one other Double-O who may be Bond's equal. 008 is never killed and is brought up in both Goldfinger and The Living Daylights as a potential replacement for Bond if Bond can't continue his duties.)

As sad as the other Double-Os are in the Living Daylights cold open, I forgive it for introducing Bond the way it does. We don't see his face until he reacts to 004's screams. Dalton immediately gives the impression of someone with whom you do not want to mess. And that gets even stronger when he leaps into action, chasing the killer and extricating himself from a flaming vehicle full of explosives that's plunging toward the sea. It's not as flashy a stunt as the best of the Roger Moore ones, but it proves that Dalton's Bond is relentless and resourceful. And when he answers a bored woman's wishes for "a real man" by landing on her boat and stealing her phone, we find that he's also got a charming side, even if it's a bit rough.

Top 10 Cold Opens

1. The Spy Who Loved Me
2. Moonraker
3. Thunderball
4. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
5. A View to a Kill
6. Goldfinger
7. The Man with the Golden Gun
8. The Living Daylights
9. For Your Eyes Only
10. Octopussy

Movie Series Continuity

I read a rumor that there were ideas of officially rebooting the series with Living Daylights, as in a really obvious way like with Casino Royale. I don't know if that's true, but they definitely didn't end up that way. We have a new Bond and a new Moneypenny, but M, Q, the Minister of Defense, and Gogol (who does make a quick appearance) are all the same.

Like M in the cold open, Q goes into the field again too, but his presence there also makes more sense than usual. He's helping with Koskov's defection, presumably overseeing the technological elements of sneaking Koskov through the oil pipes.

Other nods to past continuity include MI6's Universal Exports sign outside their HQ. And though Bond isn't an obnoxious know-it-all, he does use his expertise to choose a better brand of champagne for Koskov's debriefing than the one M (or his people) picked out.

There's also a "shaken not stirred" line when Bond checks into his hotel in Austria, but it's delivered with humor. Dalton undercuts a lot of the silly clichés with his line readings. He's serious about wanting his martini a certain way, but he's letting the concierge know that he realizes it's a frivolous indulgence. I'll talk about more examples of this tomorrow.

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