The '80s were tough on James Bond. Sean Connery's awkward return in the unlicensed Never Say Never Again notwithstanding, the sight of an aging Roger Moore was a blunt reminder of how stale Albert R. Broccoli's long-running film series had become. Hoping to inject fresh life into the weathering franchise, producers selected a new actor for The Living Daylights and took a more serious approach than previous entries. Alas, the same lack of attitude that mired its immediate predecessors keeps The Living Daylights from going very far with its new star.
As might be expected by this point, the film opens with the all too familiar scenario of a car chase. After skydiving onto the Rock of Gibraltar, 007 (Timothy Dalton) leaps onto a moving truck, is fired at by the driver through the roof, and then climbs into the vehicle to fist fight. Naturally, the car is also speeding down winding roads and mountainous terrain. The chase ends with the requisite destruction of the car and Bond parachuting onto a boat, where it happens that a lovely woman waits for the perfect man to fall out of the sky. "Pick me up in an hour," he radios in to British Intelligence before noticing the woman's beauty. He looks her up and down and then says, "Better make it two," cuing the a-ha title song.
The sequence is a reflexive travelogue of the James Bond films. It has intrigue, high-flying action, and even the customary prelude to a sexual encounter, all within 10 minutes. In particular, that last bit registers as both a parody and a commentary on 007's omnipresence in the cinema. Despite all that has changed culturally over the course of these mostly dispensable movies, the continuation of familiar tropes such as Bond's sexual prowess lends a hint of comfort in suggesting that some things never change. Of course 007 lands on a boat and nails a beautiful woman! Could you imagine any other way for a dangerous car chase to end?
If The Living Daylights had generated the same energy throughout its duration that it fosters in its grand opening, all would be well. However, the film stumbles under the weight of its convoluted plot, which twists and turns around a story involving troubled relations between Russia and Great Britain. It tracks Bond's exploits across snow and desert, but the beautiful vistas and air of self-consciousness only take the film so far, and less than half way through it runs out of gas. To be fair, James Bond films are more about sensational moments than any real consequence, but The Living Daylights even struggles to muster anything in the way of memorable set pieces. Similarly, while the new gaggle of gadgets and John Barry's sweeping score are enticing, eventually the muddled plot takes over and smothers any of the smaller delights the film offers.
Many fans are keen to blame newcomer Timothy Dalton for The Living Daylights's faults. In fact, so low is Dalton regarded in the Bond lexicon that both he and the two films in which he starred are routinely deemed among the low points of the series. It's hard to pinpoint why Dalton doesn't seem right for the role, but he never seems too comfortable as Bond. Which is puzzling when you consider that he has the good looks, the sense of mystery, and the smooth accent required for the role. But Dalton lacks something more intangible that Connery and Moore exhibited. He fails to command the frame. In fact, Dalton more resembles a James Bond impersonator; he's mastered the looks and phrases but never owns the role. It's as if he is trying too hard not to screw it up.
I don't mean to sound overly harsh. Timothy Dalton is certainly not the only reason The Living Daylights is flat. The shoddy screenplay, poor character renderings, and shortfall of excitement and narrative tension deserve arguably more blame. Dalton is, however, emblematic of the film's problems, which arise less out of shortcoming than they do its strained and nondescript nature. The Living Daylights attempts to honor the growing legend of the series and title character while tailoring and enlivening them, but it isn't sufficiently up to either task.
"Just let it happen," Bond tells another woman he is about to bed. Someone should have told him that.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art. He also contributed to the recently published book Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture, Vol. 2. Follow his updates on Twitter.