Serial, Super Serial: The Living Daylights

The Living Daylights

Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components.

Although we’ve seen four James Bond films made in the 1980s (three official), The Living Daylights is the first that feels like an “80s movie.” Although all of the Bond films have been financially and culturally successful, with new action hits like The Terminator, First Blood, Predator and Die Hard made in during the decade, we can see a major trend of machismo and explosions (which has never really gone away). It was only a matter of time before the Bond franchise would follow, and John Glen’s 1987 The Living Daylights delivers as a more serious action film in that style. Changing the star of the film certainly helps this shift in tone, and first-time Bond Timothy Dalton more exemplifies the action star than any of the previous actors.

Also like many modern action hits, this film is far more political than many of its predecessors. In the film, the Soviets are up to no good again, but their world has expanded into their involvement in the Afghanistan Civil War and the Mujahideen. As Bond becomes tangled in this complicated mess, many of his allies become extremist Muslim freedom fighters — which obviously is very, very interesting to see today, as our political perspectives have done a one-eighty. I’m not a history buff at all (please correct me if I’m wrong — nicely, please), but during some of the incidents that are loosely portrayed in the film, the U.S. and other countries supplied arms to the Mujahideen to defeat the Communist threat. Since then, those connected to the Mujahideen have been implicated in terrorist activity across the world. Action films often plot small groups in under-developed parts of the world getting vengeance on their overlords with lots of explosions, so The Living Daylights plays right into this, but with more information through time, the political propaganda of this film becomes a bit wonky.

[Bond, James Bond]

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect out of Timothy Dalton. He never is really talked about in high regards in the Bond context, which has always led me to believe that it was a failed casting. Also, given the run of mostly mediocre films we’ve had and with John Glen directing most of them, the potential badness of the films certainly could have an effect. The only thing I think I’ve really seen Dalton in is Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, which shows that he can deliver on both the comedic and serious tones — but how could he tackle a role so iconic?

Overall, I liked Dalton here. With some of the changes in the filmmaking, he fits this particular version of Bond. The man is much more serious about his work and doesn’t blindly follow orders — in fact, breaking an order toward the beginning of the film jeopardizes the mission and sets the plot into motion. Although most of the Bond traits are present as ever, certain aspects of his personality are muted, especially his playboy mentality. Dalton also isn’t the one-line quipster that Roger Moore became increasingly disproportionate as — though many of the jokes are there, Dalton’s delivery doesn’t work with the over-the-top puns. As a more heavily macho action film, Bond also does something that I can’t recall too many times: viciously kills his enemy. The end of Whitaker is the bloodiest death of the series thus far.

[The Mission]

The Living Daylights starts like many Bond films before it, with another pointless training scene that seems way more elaborate than any training sequence would actually be. Here, though, the training has been infiltrated by the baddie, who begins picking off the double-0s one-by-one. Toward the end of this opening sequence, Bond begins chasing the henchman in one of the most compelling action sequence we’ve seen in the series. Throughout the film, we can see the money on the screen, with a number of big action setpieces that culminate in giant explosions.

As for the main mission of the film, Bond is first ordered to aid a KGB defector, Georgi Koskov, who becomes the target of a sniper assassination. Koskov has also told Bond that the head of the KGB is beginning a plan to take out British secret agents, as we have seen from the opening training scene. As the film moves forward, we understand this is another misdirection, with Bond in cahoots with the bad guy at the head of everything. Throw in an American arms dealer and his involvement with selling Koskov American weapons to use against Afghanistan, and you have one of the more dense, complicated plots of the series — something that doesn’t quite mesh well with the action-boom-boom sentiment that the film tries to deliver.

[The Villain]

We have a lot of pseudo-villains and potential villains and mistaken villains all over the place! General Koskov, the KGB defector who is actually behind all the sinister plot, is our main villain, though he isn’t all that interesting. Unlike many of the supervillains we’ve seen in these films, Koskov isn’t the in-control, cool customer that we typically see — which is perhaps deliberate for him to throw Bond (and the audience) off his trail.

One of his associates, Brad Whitaker (played by veteran “that guy” Joe Don Baker) is perhaps the most dangerous of the film’s adversaries, though he doesn’t get the screen time. He sticks out for a few reasons, first and foremost because he is American. Thinking quickly, I don’t think we have had a truly “American” villain — the first thing that came to mind was Mr. Big from Live and Let Die, but he is Caribbean, and all the participants of SPECTRE sort of seem without a nationality, even if they have American-sounding accents. Being perhaps our first American villain, he of course is a war hawk, obsessed with war strategies and weapons, even though he has no actual military experience. He takes these grandiose philosophies and uses them to create conflict among others, and contributes to the deaths of everyone affected by his dealings. It is interesting that the final showdown doesn’t involve what you would typically consider the main villain, but it is actually a pretty cool scene reminiscent of Bond’s encounter with Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. Here, we see Whitaker use many of his prized possessions against Bond, and there are certainly a lot of fireworks on display.

[The Bond Girl]

The Living Daylights changes the formula a bit from having multiple Bond Girls in a film to only one, the girlfriend of Koskov and fake sniper Kara Milovy. Before we know a lot about her, we only see her as a sniper hired to assassinate Koskov under the cover of being a classical cellist. When Bond decides not to kill her as ordered, we (like the characters in the film) assume this is only because she is a pretty lady. Bond tells his colleagues, though, that he did not kill her because he only kills professionals — characterizing her as less than him, which plays a bit into Dalton’s take on the character.

We do actually come to find out that she is not a professional assassin, but the girlfriend of Koskov, entangled in his fake defection from the KGB. Once we know her place in the plot, she does come across as a little girl over her head, a Bond Girl type we’ve seen plenty of times with other girls that seem under-qualified for their positions.

What saves Kara as a Bond Girl, though, is her relationship to Bond, which is a serious, romantic one. Bond never comes on to Kara as we would expect Bond to do, instead kind of courting her, allowing their sexual interactions to come realistically. This is especially good for the film because Kara isn’t the sexified girl we’re used to seeing — one could really wonder how in the hell she got into this mess with a Russian spy in the first place, but I’m not going to ruin it for myself. The seriousness of their relationship is cemented by the fact that the film doesn’t close on them being spied on amidst their love-making, as has been the running joke for the past few films. Instead, they privately share a moment without M or Q intervening.

[The Gadgets]

Some of the cooler but more ridiculous gadgets of the series are on display in The Living Daylights. The most important is a mechanism that releases “stun gas” whenever a specific tune is whistled. I’m not sure why exactly the whistling has to happen, or why Q thinks that is the best covert way to stun your enemy. Bond is also supplied with a key that opens 90% of the world’s locks, which doesn’t get directly used within the film.

We also have the vibrant return of the Ashton Martin, which has learned a few new tricks this time around. Before we’ve seen the car able to do particular things that may help get Bond out of trouble, but here (perhaps due to the ramped up action) it seems like the car can do EVERYTHING.

[The Song]

Karaoke and music video favorite a-ha take on the title theme “The Living Daylights” — the second new-wavy track in a row. This song has a different style than the Duran Duran tune, and it sounds like another place the producers were trying to make a new beginning. The song is a little less poppy than “A View to a Kill” — a decent track, but a little all-over the place in its musical stylings. Hearing the song for the first time, I’m not incredibly surprised that a-ha became a one-hit wonder.

“Comes the morning and the headlights fade away
Hundred thousand people… I’m the one they blame
I’ve been waiting long for one of us to say
Save the darkness, let it never fade away
In the living daylights

All right, hold on tight now
It’s down, down to the wire
Set your hopes up way too high
The living’s in the way we die”

I’m really not sure what the hell this song is about. Interestingly, the end credits choose to use a pretty awful sounding ballad in place of the title track.

[Random Thoughts]

- If I learned one thing from this film, it’s that milk man and doctor uniforms are strikingly similar.

- The film is more serious in tone overall, but there are some really silly parts, too: for instance, a cello case being used as a sled (yeah, there is another ski chase scene) and when Bond drives onto a frozen lake, through a fishmerman’s shack, the entire shack comes off its foundation and glides along the lake with Bond driving the car inside of it.

- We get some serious side-boob action in this film. Put the children to bed!

- The non-continuity in the casting of Felix Leiter (American CIA) is much more confusing than Bond’s. Wasn’t he just a black dude?

- The Russian prison guard’s baton is obviously made of rubber — we can see it jiggle in different shots.

- Another Bond distinction: This is the first time we’ve seen someone flip the bird.

- Side note on the middle finger: do Afghanis even use that gesture?

- I feel if we saw Roger Moore riding a camel across the Afghan desert, it would have come off as really really silly. OK, I guess it’s still a little silly.

- It really is strange to be cheering for the Afghan rebels. Part of me feels really dirty about it.

- Near the conclusion of the film, our new Mujahideen friends arrive late to Kara’s special cello performance because they had “some trouble at the airport.” I’m not sure if this was supposed to be a pointed joke or if Muslim men have always had the problems with air travel, even in a pre-9/11 world. Since these are the good guys, I doubt it.

SERIAL, SUPER SERIAL will return in LICENSE TO KILL

tags: james bond, john glen, super serial, the living daylights

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