In a perfect world, Pierce Brosnan would have succeeded Roger Moore as 007 in “The Living Daylights,” thereby shaving 25 years off the character’s age (Moore was pushing 60 when he made “A View to a Kill” – and, in light of the film’s title, somewhat ironically suffering from both near- and far-sightedness at the time).
With Brosnan locked into his “Remington Steele” contract, Timothy Dalton wasn’t a terrible compromise. He certainly fit the role better than Australian male model George Lazenby had 18 years earlier, though the choice repeats the running philosophy applied to all of the 007 leads thus far: Rather than cast a star, producer Albert R. Broccoli looked for lesser-known character actors and let the role turn them into international icons.
But Dalton was the least likely of the Bond actors to benefit from this strategy, opting to downplay the character’s naturally larger-than-life qualities in favor of a grittier – ergo more “realistic” – portrayal. Assuming someone stumbled into “The Living Daylights” without having already absorbed the publicity around the recasting, he would be hard-pressed to identify which of the black-suited characters in the pre-credits double-0 training mission was actually Bond.
While this undoubtedly sounds like a complaint (and at the time made for something of an underwhelming transition), in retrospect, “The Living Daylights” holds up better than any of the previous Eon-made Bond pictures. For one, Dalton proved considerably better than his predecessors at pantomiming fights and rear-projection stunt work. More laughable than any of Moore’s one-liners was the sight of the actor’s upper torso indoor-skiing in the preceding films, whereas Dalton can get away with something as silly as sledding downhill in an open cello case. But the actor also embodied the sort of rule-breaking spirit that would come to define the character going forward (certainly all of the Daniel Craig installments have followed suit).
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In short, Dalton playing the secret agent as a lethal professional who steers by his “instincts,” rather than adopting the adolescent skirt-chasing, car-crashing, wink-winking spirit of his predecessors – an approach that would make his “this time it’s personal” mission in “License to Kill” seem more personal even than Lazenby’s faux resignation or Moore’s long-delayed revenge for his wife’s murder. That approach, in which one man disobeys orders in order to save the world, can hardly be credited to Bond, but it has become the template for action movies ever since, famously embodied a year later in “Die Hard” and continuing through to the off-protocol approach of Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer alike.
With a hint of that my-way problem-solving approach, “The Living Daylights” freshens the Bond series’ cornball formula elements while reprising details that had made director John Glen’s debut, “For Your Eyes Only,” such a superior outing: Once again, Bond finds himself allied with a single love interest (Russian cellist Kara Milovy, played by Maryam d’Abo). The locations are exotic, but largely practical, forgoing the need for a Ken Adam evil lair, or even a megalomaniacal villain (Joe Don Baker plays a cartoonishly over-the-top arms dealer, but doesn’t factor into much of the action).
All told, “The Living Daylights” restores some much-needed elegance to the comedy and action the series had become known for. Apart from the Bond theme itself, the film boasts some of composer John Barry’s best work, providing a sweeping score in the grand romantic tradition of Maurice Jarre. A certain crassness had crept into the franchise over the previous decade, and “The Living Daylights” allowed audiences to take the character seriously once again. Dalton would always be the backup-choice Bond, but until Brosnan became available, he would fill the shoes nicely.