The producers of the James Bond films were at an impasse. Their franchise had seemingly run out of gas. It had grown stale, safe, rote. It was time for a change, so they rolled the dice on a shakeup. They’d take the series back to its roots, back to Ian Fleming’s original material. They’d dial things back and re-ground a property that had tipped too far into the absurd. And they’d hire a serious actor to take over the role of 007.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it should - it’s beat for beat the sequence of events that led to the casting of Daniel Craig in 2006’s Casino Royale. But it’s also exactly what happened in 1987, when Bond producers reversed course on over a decade of camp, determined to bring Bond into the modern era, and give their hero a little real-world gravitas. Though they were largely successful in this endeavor, they were a couple decades early for the zeitgeist, and as a result The Living Daylights didn’t get the public reception it deserved.
Much like its 2006 descendant, The Living Daylights uses writer Ian Fleming’s writing as a starting point. But where Casino Royale saved Fleming’s novel for the last 90 minutes of its narrative, The Living Daylights uses its short story namesake as a jumping off point, in which 007 is tasked with killing an unknown sniper who’s gunning for a would-be defector. The short story is a tasty, concise bit of Fleming business, with a taciturn Bond unhappy over being trotted out as a trigger man for the dirty gig no one wants. “This isn’t the sort of job you can ask a regular soldier to do,” Tanner tells him. Bond accepts the assignment with grim resignation, but when the sniper turns out to be a woman - a cellist he’d idly observed going to and fro in the days leading up to the shooting - he balks at killing her, opting to neutralize her without lethal force, and kind of hoping he gets fired for disobeying orders.
This grouchy, world-weary Bond with a dirty taste in his mouth about the job turned out to be the perfect starting point for Timothy Dalton’s 007. Where Roger Moore cut the figure of a bemused, jovial bon vivant who also happened to be a secret agent, Dalton hews closer to Fleming’s Bond at his most morose - jaw clenched, seemingly at the end of his patience at all times. This is the 007 Fleming wrote about - a guy who’s come to hate his work, if not for the fact that when he’s not on the job, he’s restless and bored. Someone who’s hollowed himself out and filled the void with duty and responsibility, their life given over to Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Dalton embodies many of the characteristics for which Daniel Craig would be earning praise for 19 years later.
There’s a sense throughout The Living Daylights of the filmmakers looking for the perfect balance of realism and the trademark “Bond Sparkle.” Bond Sparkle: those grace notes of over-the-top silliness that the series allows itself here and there, because it’s a James Bond movie and there’s a rich history of such stuff. Bond Sparkle varies from film to film, and its effectiveness likewise varies. Connery wearing a tuxedo under his wetsuit in Goldfinger? Possibly the first bit of Bond Sparkle. Moore running across the tops of alligators in Live and Let Die, or recognizing his own theme song being played by a snake charmer in Octopussy? Classic Bond Sparkle. Bond snowboarding to the Beach Boys in A View To A Kill? Unfortunate Bond Sparkle. Craig’s Bond inexplicably owning a weapon-filled Aston Martin DB5 complete with ejector seat in 2012’s Skyfall? Friends, that’s some good Bond Sparkle.
Here the Bond Sparkle shines through in weird ways: MI6 rocketing the defector Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) across the border via the Trans Siberian Pipeline; Bond riding a cello case down a snow covered hillside; M’s office recreated in full aboard an airplane (a nice callback to M’s office inside a submarine in You Only Live Twice, or aboard the wreck of the RMS Queen Elizabeth in The Man With the Golden Gun). This new Bond is grounded, sure, but it’s as if leaving these bits of outlandishness behind never even occurred to the filmmakers. (A scene in which Bond escapes a Tangier rooftop chase via flying carpet was, perhaps wisely, excised.)
What makes these classic Bond moments a strange fit in The Living Daylights is the comparatively drab environment in which they play out. Cinematographer Alec Mills does a beautiful job, but aside from a detour to Tangier and an Afghanistan-set climax, this is one of the chilliest, grayest Bond films in the series, with the bulk of its action taking set in Bratislava, Vienna, and London. Even at the height of the Cold War, Connery’s early films had a Technicolor crackle that kept reality at arm’s length. Dalton’s Bond is very clearly in the real world here, and it makes for an uneven stew when the Aston Martin grows skis and slices pursuing cars in half via laser beam.
Other, external elements alter the Bond formula. Though an implied tryst with a stranger (moments after two 00s are murdered) ends the film’s pre-title sequence, it’s notable that at the the height of the AIDS scare, Dalton’s Bond is not only monogamous - he’s practically friendzoned by lead Bond Girl Kara Milovy (Maryam D’Abo), relegated to platonic protector until they legitimately fall for one another. Moore successfully shied away from Connery’s cruel streak, and in turn Dalton moves past Moore’s casual dalliances. Dalton plays 007 as a nearly monastic civil servant, putting duty above all else. Even the cut of his suit has a strangely celibate, priestly quality!
When he falls for Kara, it’s maybe the first time we see Bond having actual feelings for a woman since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Here again, Dalton’s Bond foreshadows this year’s model. This Bond still fucks, but only when his heart compels him to do so.
Over and over, it’s a movie that’s trying to reimagine what a Bond film is, but it’s doing so in an era where such reimaginings were at best tenuous endeavors. (Keep in mind, two years later, pundits would be wondering whether Tim Burton’s “dark, serious” departure from the Adam West Batman was a good idea.) So while the producers promised a Bond that was new and different, many of the cozy 007 trappings remain. John Barry returns for his final Bond score, delivering a solid, if synth-flavored, piece of work as his 007 swan song. Bond’s traditional meeting with M (Robert Brown) is here, if a bit more po-faced than any such meeting we’ve seen before. The obligatory scene with Q (Desmond Llewelyn), complete with the Quartermaster’s heavily dated innovations (let us never again speak of the rocket-launching “ghetto blaster”), occurs on schedule. Bond’s flirtation with Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss) is likewise intact, though the secretary has been reconfigured as a young, randy nerd, aggressively inviting Bond to her place to listen to her Barry Manilow records. Felix Leiter (John Terry) is here as well, with feathered hair and looking like he’s been clothes shopping at Chess King. John Rhys-Davies fills the Kerim Bey/Draco/Columbo role of Bond’s exotic ally. Everyone is fine, but the inclusion of these elements, set as they are against Dalton’s portrayal, don’t have the crackle of reinvention that they did when they finally surfaced during Craig’s tenure. As a result, here they feel obligatory, almost vestigial.
At the same time, it’s hard to fault the movie for clinging to franchise traditions when its attempts to evolve don’t always pan out. The plot - a conscious move away from the megalomaniacal villains of yore - is about an arms-for-opium deal orchestrated by some not very colorful villains (though making the antagonist an American, played by Joe Don Baker, was somewhat novel for the series). More realistic, but not exactly the stuff of background playacting fantasies. This more grownup flavor of Bond was very likely catnip to old-school Fleming fans who were tired of seeing their favorite literary character straightening his tie through increasingly outlandish adventures, but for audiences expecting the whizz-bang of the previous decade, much of this new Bond was a bit too close to the dreary real world. The Living Daylights made money, and it got decent reviews, but something kept this new 007 from really being embraced by the world at large.
Dalton and Eon would continue to feel their way around this new terrain, leaning into ‘80s action Joel Silver territory (and a reduced budget) with Licence To Kill, the film whose box office convinced Eon to never again release a Bond film in the summer. After that, financial and legal issues kept Bond 17 from happening on schedule, and when plans resumed in 1994, the actor had decided to walk away. Pierce Brosnan stepped in, and Dalton’s intense, back-to-Fleming iteration of Bond was mothballed in exchange for Brosnan’s suave, wry take.
With 30 years and four Daniel Craig Bond films in our rearview, it’s of course much easier to appreciate what Dalton was going for during his tenure as 007. And if the past four Bond films have proven that the Dalton era was onto something, they’ve also shown that it’s not all that easy to get this “realistic Bond” tone right every time. The Living Daylights stands today as an example that the series, when it needed to, was never afraid of exploring something new. That’s good news for the future.
Beyond that, in the context of a 55-year legacy, it's evident that every Bond actor’s first at-bat is inherently their best (or at least most engaged) performance, and watching Timothy Dalton essay the role of James Bond for the first time is an absolute joy. He's all smoldery anger and seething with rage, and the concept of fun is so foreign to him that when he laughs it's a weird thing to see! But Dalton is excited, committed, present. That's captivating. Similarly, the Bond films in which the franchise is trying to find its way - those outliers that don’t quite adhere to the formula - are frequently the most compelling. When you're absorbing a 24-film series, you're grateful for the ones that veer off-road a bit. On those two fronts, The Living Daylights stands alongside Dr. No, Live and Let Die, and Casino Royale as one of the franchise’s most rewatchable.