The late ’80s were a low-point in the James Bond franchise. I think it needs to be said.
I get what the producers were trying to do: a course-correction. The last couple of Moore Bonds had gone too campy. In Timothy Dalton you had someone who cleaved closer to the Ian Fleming novels’ imagining of the character. He was both a little more emotional and more physical. Maybe more dangerous. And the two movies he starred in were pared down, less bloated. A bit more realism, add more spy-movie tropes and cut back on the jokes and the gadgets.
But while I see the idea of a budget-Bond approach could work, and understand that enormous sets don’t always equal enormous excitement, the two Dalton pictures are a bit bland. The explosive ingredients are there but they somehow don’t quite ignite.
The Living Daylights (1987)
The pre-credit sequence starts promisingly: MI:6 are involved in wargames, infiltrating the British security at Gibraltar. But things go pear-shaped, and Bond is clinging to a jeep careening at high speed down the side of the mountain. He eventually lands on the deck of a yacht, impressing the lady he finds there.
Then he’s in Bratislava, handling the defection of a Soviet general (Jeroen Krabbé). But all is not as it seems, as Bond connects the general to an arms dealer (Joe Don Baker, who would return as CIA guy Jack Wade in a couple of the Brosnan Bonds) and becomes friendly with the general’s girlfriend, a cellist named Kara (the largely irritating Maryam D’Abo). Bond seems to really care for the girl, which strains credibility, but we do have a great central action set-piece where Bond puts a Q-Branch customized Aston Martin Vantage through its paces (the 007 package includes laser cutters, rockets and skis).
The movie loses its way in the final act showdown in Afghanistan, as we discover the arms dealers also are trading in opium and diamonds and Bond teams up with the local warlord (Art Malik) and deals with another Russian bigwig, Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies). There are too many players, too much confusion.
Interestingly, Bond still smoked in those days, which seems to suit him. But while Dalton was the right age and look for Bond, he never seemed comfortable in the tailored tux. He never relaxes. And I was sad to note they recast Miss Moneypenny, too. Lois Maxwell, we hardly knew ye, and Caroline Bliss didn’t do it for me.
The Living Daylights was directed by John Glen, written by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson.
License to Kill (1989)
Another interesting premise to shake Bond out of the doldrums: He helps his CIA buddy Felix Leiter (Here played by David Hedison… has any fictional character, apart from Dr Who, been essayed by so many different actors?) nab some high-level drug dealers, including Sanchez (Robert Davi), right before standing as his Best Man at his wedding. And all this happens in the pre-title sequence.
But things go wrong, of course. Sanchez escapes, rapes and murders Leiter’s wife and puts Leiter in the hospital. Bond goes looking for revenge, but has his license to kill revoked by MI:6. Naturally, he goes rogue, tracking Sanchez to Central America and getting mixed up with Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), a CIA agent.
So, while I like the Bond: Unleashed storyline, this second Dalton film suffers from the same ordinariness that crept into The Living Daylights. Maybe drug dealers felt more contemporary and hip than world-conquering megalomaniacs with unlimited funds, but there is an element of small-potatoes to all of this, that Sanchez and his henchmen (including a babyfaced Benicio Del Toro) should never even been able to make 007 sweat.
The second Dalton picture was also directed by John Glen and written by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson.