Bond Reloaded – A look back at The Living Daylights (1987)

Ahead of the release of SPECTRE this autumn, the Bond Reloaded series takes a weekly look back at each film in the iconic James Bond franchise. This week, Timothy Dalton steps into frame as Bond goes much darker than before in The Living Daylights.

Timothy Dalton made his first appearance as James Bond in The Living Daylights

By the time A View to a Kill arrived in cinemas, Roger Moore was nearing 60 years old and was obviously nearer to a zimmer frame than he was an Aston Martin. As a result, the hunt was on for a new James Bond. Sam Neill tested for the role, but it was Pierce Brosnan that the Bond producers really wanted. The star’s Remington Steele commitments ruled him out, leaving the field free for Timothy Dalton to step into the frame.

His first film, intended almost as a gritty reboot of the Bond franchise, was The Living Daylights, tweaked by scriptwriters Michael G Wilson and Richard Maibaum to suit Dalton’s darker performance. With fewer girls, fewer gadgets and an emphasis on thrills over quips, this was a markedly different Bond.

The change in tone was a calculated risk for the Bond franchise and one that wouldn’t fully pay off until they made the same move with Daniel Craig’s debut – Casino Royale – in 2006. The Living Daylights, though, is likely better than you remember it.


Tall, dark and well… dark

The opening sequence of The Living Daylights plays with the potential guessing game of who the new Bond is. However, as soon as Timothy Dalton turns to face the camera, there can be no mistaking him as the superspy. One action sequence – and a brilliantly memorable A-ha theme – later and it’s as if he’s always been in the role. It’s also clear, though, that he’s different. Whether it’s the glint of something sinister behind his eyes or the nonchalant way he tosses out the “Bond, James Bond” catchphrase, this is a Bond for a more serious world.

The film proper sees Bond marshalling the extraction of Soviet defector Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) who reveals a plan from General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) to kill off Brit agents. Following up on sniper Kara (Maryam d’Abo), Bond soon discovers that Koskov has been playing both Britain and Russia in an attempt to broker a drugs and weapons deal with Brad Whittaker (Joe Don Baker).


Maryam d'Abo stars alongside Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights

“Believe me, my interest in her is purely professional.”


Dalton is a natural fit for Bond. He turned down the role previously, feeling that he was too young and that proves true as he is very much the perfect age here. Much younger than Moore, Dalton is still believable as a seasoned and accomplished veteran of the spy game. He brings to Bond the kind of lethal aggression that characterised the early Sean Connery films, taken direct from Fleming’s source novels. The jokes and quips are still there, albeit more rarely, but there’s a real mean streak to Dalton in The Living Daylights that feels refreshing against the unremitting camp of Moore.

It helps that the script of The Living Daylights gave Bond a great deal more depth than he had been afforded since the death of his wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  An entire plot point revolves around Bond being instigated to take action by the murder of one of his fellow agents in brutal fashion. Dalton perfectly sells Bond’s rage in this moment and, astonishingly, he even gives the cold shoulder to his female lead.

That female lead herself is a good one. Maryam d’Abo is a little bit of a damsel in distress character, but she is given time to grow by the more monogamous stance taken towards Bond in The Living Daylights. Without other, more disposable, female characters on the scene, the film gives d’Abo plenty to do and she is able to form a more interesting relationship with Bond than simply falling into his arms and scampering into bed.

Alongside the more hard-edged Bond comes some of the franchise’s best action sequences. A thrilling chase in Bond’s new Aston Martin V8 Volante, which soon transitions into a race for the Austrian border inside a cello case, is perhaps the best chase sequence in the franchise to this point, packing gags, thrills and some excellent stunts to conjure a formidable spectacle. The same can be said for the final clash, dangling on a net full of opium on the outside of a plane.


Confused villainy

The Living Daylights is on weaker footing, however, with its villains. Like Octopussy before it, the film suffers from not having a single, clearly defined antagonist, with both Koskov and Whittaker taking that role at various stages of the story. Koskov is incredibly under-written, whilst Whittaker is more promising. Unfortunately, the almost limitless story potential of a trigger-happy, warmongering American as a Bond villain is mostly unfulfilled.


Multiple villains square off with Bond in The Living Daylights

“Surgeons. They cut away society’s dead flesh.”


In fact, the film’s best villain is henchman Necros. It is he who gets the dramatic aerial battle with Bond at the end of the film and it is he who feels most like a threat throughout. Given that it’s never quite clear who is pulling the villainous strings, the brilliantly named Necros is the best thing we’ve got.

For the most part, The Living Daylights is a wonderfully paced story that moves between its action set pieces with fluidity and storytelling logic. Director John Glen is on better form than his three previous Bond films, with Dalton clearly the Bond he was best positioned to work with. However, there’s a definite drop off in momentum when Bond and Kara escape from the Russian air base in Afghanistan at which they are imprisoned.

At that point, the film aligns Bond with a local group of Mujahideen involved in the opium deal that proves to be the centre of the film’s narrative. This is a disappointing section of the film, which essentially places the story on autopilot in order to bring the necessary pieces into place for the finale of the film. It isn’t until Bond is forced to escape in an aircraft that the action hots up again, by which point it has squandered a lot of its momentum.


Rejuvenating the franchise?

The Living Daylights arrived in UK cinemas in June 1987, with Prince Charles and Princess Diana attending the premiere having also paid a visit to the set at Pinewood during filming. The film grossed around $192m worldwide, greatly exceeding the takings of A View to a Kill without hitting the heights of Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only.

Reviews were quick to pile acclaim on Dalton as Bond, with the Washington Post dubbing the new star “the best Bond ever” in their positive review of the film. Some reviewers, however, were less positive about the film. The great Roger Ebert wrote a negative review of The Living Daylights in which he criticised Dalton’s lack of humour in comparison to Moore and said the film “belongs somewhere on the lower rungs of the Bond ladder”.


Timothy Dalton stepped into the shoes of Roger Moore in The Living Daylights

“Whoever she was, I must have scared the living daylights out of her.”


Viewed in the context of Daniel Craig’s current, Bourne-inspired take on Bond, The Living Daylights is a film ahead of its time. Dalton was a Bond with dirt under his fingernails before that was what people expected of him. His tenure as Fleming’s spy may have been short-lived, but The Living Daylights is a film that, like the fine wines Bond is so familiar with, only improves with age.

Next time, Dalton goes even grittier in the violent Licence to Kill.


What do you think of The Living Daylights? Did Timothy Dalton make an impression as Bond? Let me know in the comments section.

You can read my look back at A View to a Kill here and find other Bond Reloaded articles here.

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