Friday, March 9, 2012

Bondage, Pt. 15: The Living Daylights

Timothy Dalton, a perennial almost-Bond, finally took on the role of 007 in this fine, underrated installment in the series. Dalton, who'd turned down the role twice, finally took it. Among those who auditioned were Sam Neill, Lewis Collins, Pierce Brosnan, Highlander's Christopher Lambert, Sean Bean (LotR's "Borimir," who would later play a Bond villain), and Robert Bathurst. See "Fun Facts" for more on the casting process.

I think The Living Daylights is one of the best Bond films. It has every major ingredient one could want, and in tone, reprises the feel of classics like From Russia With Love. This was the last Bond film where the Russians (as a government) are credible bad guys. Soon after this was released, the Berlin Wall would crumble, the Soviet regime fell, and, well...Russians just aren't the bad guys they used to be back when I was growing up. Truth be told, I kinda miss 'em. Those pesky Communists were certainly good to scare the crap of out little kids in the Eighties, if nothing else.

Let's jump right in, and for once, I'll try to keep my promise to be brief (and I'll fail...).

Synopsis: Bond is to act as a counter-sniper to protect a high-ranking defector. He chooses not to kill the sniper at the last instant when he realizes that not only is she a pretty girl, but she's clearly not a professional. Instead, he shoots the rifle from her hands. The defector tells the Brits that the new KGB chief has revived the concept of "Smert Spionam" (Death to Spies) from the Connery era. It turns out the defector is double-crossing the West, working with an insane American arms dealer, and painting a false picture of the new KGB chief in an effort to buy a crap-load of opium (a cargo plane full of it) from Afghani warlords (who are depicted, ironically, as noble anti-Soviet freedom fighters). The female sniper (a cellist) is actually the defector's girlfriend. Of course, she becomes Bond's girlfriend soon enough. They always do.

The Villian: Koskov is the false defector, a Russian agent who plans to use Soviet arms money to double-cross his own government and finance a huge opium deal that will set him up for life. In this, Koskov (played by Jeroen Krabbe) is assisted by Brad Whitaker, an American arms dealer who has all sorts of pathetic military pretensions (he's got a really cool miniatures table in his fortress where he plays out war games). Whittaker is played by Joe Don Baker, who would have a role as a good guy in a few Bond movies of the Brosnan era. Koskov is an interesting villain in that he's very cool at first - friendly, charismatic, charming. But he turns bad rather quickly, and when he's bad, he's bad. He's the consummate liar, and gets ahead by guile, rather than vulgar displays of power.

The Henchman: Necros joins the (long) list of tall, blond, Aryan-looking Bond Henchmen. Portrayed by German dancer Andreas Wisniewski, his most noteworthy moment is when he strangles a security guard with the earphone cords of his Walkman. He has an excellent fight with Bond in the back of a cargo plane at the end of the film. Predictably, he falls to his death. Necros is kind of cool because he's really good at impersonating different types of people, accents, etc. (most notably as a Cockney milkman). Morten Harket, the lead singer of A-ha (who did the song for this movie) was offered the role of Necros, but he turned it down.

The Bond Girl: Diminutive cellist Kara Milovy, played by former model Maryam D'Abo, is the classic Bond girl. She's not entirely helpless, but she certainly is not the headstrong, I-Don't-Need-Bond-To-Protect-Me version of Bond girls that political correctness demanded of the Pierce Brosnan era. She's pretty and has a nice smile, though her haircut is somewhat dated. She was considered for the part of the Russian girl in the iceberg submarine in A View to a Kill, and the producers brought her back for the lead in this one. Her love for the villain, Koskov, is what gets her into this mess (he even convinces her to drug Bond at one point so the bad guys can capture him). But her love for Bond, who no woman can resist, gets her out of the mess. She also acts as a sort of sidekick toward the end of the movie.

The Sidekick. A guy named Saunders, played by Thomas Wheatley, who heartily dislikes Bond at first, ends up being an OK guy in the end. Koskov's false defection was Saunders' project, and he is understandably miffed when Bond sort of takes over.

Gadgets: Like all of the films of director Jon Glenn's run, the gadgets are downplayed compared to previous Bond films. Necros uses exploding milk bottles at one point, which I enjoyed. The ever-resourceful Q gives Bond a key ring that responds to whistles. The first few bars of "Rule Britannia" release knock-out gas; a wolf whistle makes the key ring explode (Bond uses this to subdue Whittaker). It also has a lock pick on it that, according to Q, "opens 90 percent of the world's locks!" Koskov is smuggled into the west in a modified cleaning module that shoots through the Trans-Siberian oil pipeline, which is a nice touch.

Music: Big-time composer John Barry, who'd scored most of the Bond films so far, called it quits with this one. He worked with Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders on putting together the theme song for the movie, and two Pretenders songs are heard at various points in the movie. But due to the success of Duran Duran's track for A View to a Kill (it reached No. 1 in the U.S.), the producers attempted to rehash that same strategy, tapping Norwegian popsters A-ha ("Pipe Wrench Fight!"). It didn't crack the Top 100 in the U.S., but it did reach No. 5 on the pop charts in England. The collaboration between Barry and the band did not go well. Barry infamously compared the band to "Hitler Youth" in a newspaper interview; the band responded that Barry left an "unpleasant aftertaste." But the song is a good one. The band's signature style blends well with the orchestral accompaniment added by Barry.

The Director: It's Jon Glenn again, who peaks with this installment. He'd always wanted Dalton, knew how to direct him, and worked closely with him to "...bring out Bond's dark side." Glenn had actually wanted to "reboot" the franchise, to use a modern term, but the idea was shelved and not revived again until the Daniel Craig era.

Fun Facts: The producers really wanted to give the role to Pierce Brosnan, who had made quite a name for himself on the TV show Remington Steele. He was also known to them, having lunched with the producers during the filming of For Your Eyes Only, in which his then-wife had a role. After a three-day screen test, they actually announced in trade publications "Remington Steele is the new Bond!" This turned out to be a mistake for everyone concerned. The ratings of R.S. were sagging badly, and NBC was going to cancel it. But when that announcement came, the ratings soared. NBC decided not to cancel the show, and cruelly exercised a clause in Brosnan's contract that forced him back for a new season. Ironically, this meant he could not do the Bond movie. When news that he actually wasn't going to be Bond came out, interest in the TV show waned and the new season only made it five episodes. Thus Brosnan was left without a TV show or a strong film deal.

Two other interesting facts: This was the last Bond movie to use a title from one of the Ian Fleming books or short stories. They didn't do that again until the Daniel Craig era. Also, A-ha's contribution is one of only a very few Bond theme songs not performed by an American or British pop star.

Favorite Lines: Dalton and Glenn wanted to focus on Bond's darker side, so there are fewer Connery-esque and Moore-ish quips in this one. I do like one line, when Bond has temporarily solved a problem during the big climax, and his Bond girl congratulates him for it: Kara says, "You were fantastic! We're free!" and Bond replies, with uncharacteristic modesty, "Kara, we're inside a Russian airbase in the middle of Afghanistan." At the beginning of the film, the pre-title action sequence closes after Bond parachutes off the Rock of Gibraltar. A bikini-clad woman in a yacht below is on the telephone, complaining of the "playboys and tennis pros" she's been meeting. "If only I could meet a real man!" she wishes. True to form, Bond's parachute immediately lands on the yacht moments later.

Other Stuff: This was the last appearance of General Gogol, who is featured in numerous Bond movies as the head of the KGB. He actually has a semi-decent relationship with the Brits toward the end of the Roger Moore run. He was to be a major part in this movie, as the KGB head that Koskov is trying to defame in the eyes of the West. But the actor, Walter Gotell, was quite ill and couldn't play that large of a role. Instead, the character of General Pushkin was created, played by genre favorite John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Lord of the Rings films). At one point, Bond holds Pushkin at gunpoint until they realize they've both been double-crossed and decide to work together to bring down Koskov. During this exchange, there is a brief nude scene when Pushkin's mistress is disrobed. That woman is actually Virginia Hey, who plays the bald, blue Zhaan on Farscape, and is known for her role as "Warrior Woman" in the movie The Road Warrior. This movie also marks the first appearance of Caroline Bliss, who played Miss Moneypenny in both Dalton films.

I'd also like to point out that Dalton was considered many times before finally taking the Bond role. That means there's hope for guys like Clive Owen, or my personal choice, Michael Fassbender, who would make an incredible Bond, as possible successors to the Bond crown when Daniel Craig is done with it.

Again, this is a classic Bond movie with all the right ingredients. It's epic in scope, spanning continents, with large battle sequences, strong stunt-work (much of which Dalton performed himself), and some true suspense in the Hitchcock mold. In many ways, it's the last of the Cold War Bond movies, and, like the last few Roger Moore films, hints at growing cooperation between Bond's allies and the Russians. I think Dalton is one of the better Bonds, and I wish he'd made more than two Bond films. It would have been nice if he'd done just one more. But we'll get to why that didn't happen when we get to GoldenEye.