A Bond Retrospective: Timothy Dalton

"Do the Dalton films offer merit now, retrospectively, that wasn’t fully appreciated at the time?"

Over the past few weeks I’ve been rewatching the James Bond franchise for the first time in years to see how the films hold up to both my childhood memories and their enduring cinematic legacy. After wading through the highs and lows of Roger Moore’s seven films, the lighter tone and romanticised version of the roguish secret agent gives way to a much more serious portrayal of Bond. After being pestered for years by the Broccoli family, Timothy Dalton finally agreed to play the secret agent in a time when attitudes were changing regarding the character and his principles. To me, Dalton’s films feel like an epilogue of Moore’s era than an era in their own right with the franchise just waiting for the modernisation that Goldeneye will bring. But is this correct? Do the Dalton films offer merit now, retrospectively, that wasn’t fully appreciated at the time? Let’s find out.

The Living Daylights (1987)

The pre-credits scene is a staple of the Bond franchise and The Living Daylights has one of my favourites. It’s not only the film’s introduction but the introduction of Dalton’s version of Bond and it plays with our expectations perfectly. We see three 00 agents parachute to a training exercise on Gibraltar and we’re unsure which is Bond. The exercise soon takes a dark turn because a Russian spy has infiltrated the island and murders two of the agents, the audience meant to think each one is Bond until their deaths prove otherwise. Then, as the body of his colleague falls from a cliff, Bond is revealed, turning towards the camera in a fantastic shot. A great car chase set to John Barry’s incredible score later (his last of the franchise) and this new version of Bond has made as much of an impact in one sequence than previous Bonds managed in a whole film. The problem with The Living Daylights is the rest of the movie. It’s merely… fine. The plot is fairly dull and feels too much like a re-tread of Octopussy, and if you’re going to borrow from a previous Bond film, Octopussy should be near the bottom of the list. The plot concerns a Russian General who pretends to defect to Britain, gives MI6 false information and then gets “kidnapped” back by the Russians so he can start WW3 while Bond is on a wild goose chase following the false intelligence.

The original premise of the film was an origin story for Bond and much more of a narrative reboot. I can’t decide if I would have wanted that or if I just want the film to be just another Bond adventure, like this one is, but just less bland. The first and third acts are pretty decent; the first being dominated by a fantastic sniper scene as Bond protects the defecting Russian while the third being a showcase for amazing stunt work. In contrast the second act is overlong and so very boring and there’s no great villain to keep the audience engaged with the plot. The first act has General Georgi Koskov, the defector who turns out to be the main antagonist, be nothing more than a comic relief character which makes him very unthreatening for the rest of the film. Luckily his henchman Necros is an entertaining foil for Bond. There’s a new Moneypenny for Dalton’s films and to be honest she’s unmemorable other than the fact she says she like Barry Manilow, which makes me like her even less. John Glen returns to direct and he’s very good, particularly with stunts, but because of the locations visited (Czechoslovakia and a Russian airbase in Afghanistan) the whole film looks so very… soviet and uninteresting. So, despite the brilliant pre-credits opening (and opening song), I’d probably have to say that The Living Daylights is the most forgettable out of all every actor’s first Bond film.

Despite playing it a little too theatrical, Dalton is amazing as Bond throughout. The issue is that the script isn’t particularly well suited for him, or very good at all. It was written before Dalton had been cast and it’s clear the version of Bond on the page was written without an actor in mind. It feels like a half-measure change, making the character more serious and gruffer than before but keeping one foot in the past with some humour and romance that doesn’t quite match, included in case an actor who is good in those areas was cast instead. In the action scenes and intense moments Dalton shines, his Bond seems to be always simmering with frustration which occasionally comes to the boil. He’s also surprisingly good at many of the comedic aspects of the character. However, I never buy Dalton as the ladies’ man and the romance falls completely flat. Dalton’s grittier incarnation of the spy and having a pillow fight with a cellist just don’t match. The film does its best to subtly redefine the character but Dalton and the script have slightly different views on how to do that and here they are not completely aligned. However, when it comes to the tone and the ability to slip between action and comedy, which was an issue during Moore’s later films, it’s a vast improvement.

Licence to Kill (1989)

How much of the Bond formula can you change and still have a Bond film be a Bond film? Licence to Kill seems obsessed by this question and pushes the franchise to places it had previously been too scared to go. It’s an eighties action movie. A violent revenge thriller. A film where Bond goes rogue and the staples of the series are gone, or at least altered, to create something new. And it mostly works. The film sees Bond seeking revenge on drug kingpin Sanchez, the man responsible for killing Felix Leiter’s wife and feeding Felix’s legs to sharks, the CIA agent barely surviving the ordeal. After a couple of hints and brief scenes of Bond dabbling with going rogue in previous films, Licence to Kill goes all the way and has Bond disregard M’s orders and set out on his own murderous mission over the entire running time. After the mixed bag of The Living Daylights, it’s clear that this film was written with Dalton’s more serious take on the character in mind and he’s superb in the role, giving a more understated and intense performance than before which suits the material.

There’re still aspects of the Bond formula intact of course, namely the villain, henchman (portrayed by a 21-year-old Benicio Del Toro) and the Bond girls. Talisa Soto plays Lupe Lamora, the stereotypical gangster’s girlfriend who wants out, but on the other end of the spectrum there’s Carey Lowell as Pam Bouvier, a CIA informant and pilot who holds her own throughout the film and even has her own plans, separate from Bond’s, in place. She’s a refreshing character after the last two films that were filled with incompetent dumb blonde stereotypes. Some parts of the Bond formula go out of their way to subvert expectations like introducing M surrounded by cats, a motif usually connected with Bond’s villains, which is apt considering this time M’s goal is foiling Bond’s mission rather than providing it. The more common Bond elements come in the second act, which again is overlong and a little boring, and when ninjas show up for some random reason I did cringe. As much as I love the character and performance, Q also feels a little out of place. He’s out in the field for once, having taken his holiday to help Bond, and his humour, while always chucklesome, feels unneeded.

Much like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (which is actually referenced in the film), Licence to Kill is a fascinating character study for James, primarily when it delves into how dark a character he can be. He’s funding his vendetta with stolen drug money and the whole film has more of a dark eighties action movie vibe than classic Bond, particularly when James is silently walking around a ship, knife in hand, ready to murder anyone who gets in his way. At one point he risks everything and reveals his position just to get bloody revenge on a guard that killed his friend Sharkey. The film is unsurprisingly a 15, a rating it earns, with plenty of drug references, gore, blood squibs and one scene where a man’s head literally explodes. And all while managing to keep its identity as part of the Bond canon.

Michael Kamen’s score, from the gun barrel to the final action sequence is dark, loud and bombastic like no James Bond score before it, reminding me heavily of Cliff Eidelman’s soundtrack for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, a personal favourite of mine. I also have to mention that Everett McGill who plays Big Ed Hurley in Twin Peaks also has a supporting role in the film, playing a character called Ed no less, fuelling ridiculous speculation about a shared universe. Blofeld was Bob all along! This paragraph is turning into a collection of odds and ends but the stunt work in the film is incredible, from the helicopter attached to a plane in the pre-credits scene (a sequence that has to have inspired Nolan’s similar stunt in The Dark Knight Rises) to the oil tanker chase in the final act. Despite all my gushing there is one scene I feel is missing from the film, unforgivably so. There should have been a final scene between M and Bond where Bond is cautiously welcomed back into MI6 and officially becomes an agent again but with some suspicions still remaining in M, a greyer ending than what we get. The ending we see offers no resolution between the two and the audience is left to presume that Bond was welcomed back unconditionally.

My newfound appreciation for Licence to Kill is one of the biggest surprises of my rewatch so far and just what I hoped to accomplish by going through the films again. Now more than ever I would have liked to have seen more Timothy Dalton-led Bond films but I like Brosnan in the role so much I wouldn’t want to take any of his films away from him, particularly Goldeneye which is one of my favourites (although you’ll have to wait until next time to hear me rave about that). Dalton’s era may be barely such a thing and The Living Daylights may be a little flat but Licence to Kill is well worth rewatching and remembering. And Timothy Dalton is a big reason why it works so well. If only Moore had retired after For Your Eyes Only and Dalton had been able to expand his take on Bond over a few more films.

So, there are my thoughts on Dalton’s Bond. Next time I’ll be exploring Pierce Brosnan’s incarnation of the legendary spy. Are you a Dalton fan and who’s your favourite James Bond? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.

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