Posted by: dougery | September 6, 2011

Better Late Than Never: The Living Daylights (1987)

It is my belief that except certain very rare circumstances, when directors and franchises use the same actor over and over again there are always diminishing returns. The Coens have the almost singular ability to re-use the same field of character actors and wring excellent performances, but even they tend to use different leading men in almost every film. The biggest offender of my director/actor law of diminishing returns has got to be the Tim Burton / Johnny Depp connection.

How wonderful is Depp in Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood? How thoroughly average is he in Sleepy Hollow? How irredemable (and unnecessary) is his turn as Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? And how about the steaming pile that is whatever he was doing as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland?

The same can be said of the various incarnations of James Bond. Sean Connery was extremely entertaining in Dr. No and and remarkable in From Russia With Love. Yet with each passing exercise you could see his interest and commitment flagging. With Roger Moore it wasn’t so much a failure of spirit as it was body. The man just got old. I’ll still go on record and say that Moore’s take on Bond might actually be better than Connery’s (though the movies Connery got to act in are often decidedly better organized / written). Yet by the time A View to a Kill came around somebody should have forced him to hang it up. And to think, they wanted Roger back again for The Living Daylights!

Such is the conservative nature of the Hollywood producer. Why tinker with success? Why deviate from the formula? The hardest part is establishing a brand. This is why so many studios paid millions of dollars for the film rights to board games in recent years. Who cares if the idea of turning Chutes and Ladders or Candyland into movies is tantamount to committing a crime against humanity. People know what those things are! So they’ll go and see a movie about it assuming enough robots, aliens, dinosaurs, ninjas or zombies are thrown in (Even Hollywood seems to have decided that vamps are no longer cool).

So rebranding a new actor as 007 is a big deal. Though I haven’t seen him perform yet, I think the producers got things right when they initially hired Brosnan for the part, and we’ll be introduced to him almost 10 years later in Goldeneye (1995). But Brosnan’s then cancelled tv show was resurrected, in part because of the buzz he received over getting cast as Bond. With Brosnan out at the last moment, we ended up getting stuck with Timothy Dalton.

Stuck here might be misleading. It is difficult to tell if Dalton makes for a good 007 or if I was just happy to see a lithe, athletic convincingly fit man in place of the soft and broken down version Moore had previously delivered. It might be overstating the point to call a 41 year-old man young, but there it is. Aside from the recasting, The Living Daylights offers up a tighter, more creative plot that is less focused on spectacular battles on famous monuments and more on some good old fashioned Cold War anxieties.

There’s a pair of faked assassinations, some sledding down a hill on a cello case, and the plot moves between very cinematography friendly (and distinctly different) locations such as Vienna and Afghanistan.  At one point Bond even gets help from the Taliban to fight back against a crooked Russian general.

In the end one can grasp a lot from the title of the film alone. Absent are the “no”s and “kill”s and “gun”s. This one is all about breathing new life.

Bond Grade: 004 (out of 007)

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