With it finally looking likely that we will actually get a new James Bond film this year, next month no less, thoughts are inevitably turning to some of the previous twenty four movies in the series. Well my thoughts are at least, bolstered by (or possibly leading to) my recent purchase of the Blu-Ray 50th Anniversary boxset.
Being fully equipped to launch into the Bond back catalogue with superior sound and video then, the question was where to start? I’ve clearly seen all of the films before (I already had them all on VHS and DVD, up the the point that I stopped buying VHS and DVDs respectively) and I’ve seen the Connery ones more than most so I wasn’t going to go from the very beginning. I have a real fondness for the Moore movies too, as it was him I started with but I decided instead to sit down with the Timothy Daltons.
Dalton rarely comes up in the discussion when people are talking about their favourite Bonds but actually his two films are pretty good. I’ve heard it said that the disappointing box office for the second film killed Dalton’s chances of making any more but while it is true that the movie under performed, in the US at least, this isn’t really accurate. It was the different tone and higher rating that probably contributed to the limited audience so no blame fell on Dalton and he was all set to make more. Ultimately it was unconnected legal issues that lead to the series stalling for six years after License to Kill, in which time Dalton’s contract ran out and he moved on. Also the time away prompted the need for a proper relaunch. Six years was a long time between films in a series with the same actor back then, even if it evidently isn’t now.
Of course Timothy Dalton headed up his own relaunch. Coming after Roger Moore’s seven films, which had become very wry, the 007 movies did need repackaging. (Moore has still played the part more times than anyone else, unless you include Connery’s appearance in the rip off film Never Say Never Again and Craig’s in the Olympic Opening Ceremony and that Comic Relief sketch with Catherine Tate’s Nan.) Common opinion is that they made everything more serious here just as they did with Craig in 2006, but that’s not really the case. At most they dialled it back so that things were more reminiscent of Connery’s earlier tenure but many of the tropes are still there. We get the womanising, the gadgets, the cars and the one liners and even the second of the two films, with its stronger violence and swearing, has James parachuting into a wedding and later getting attacked by ninjas. Casino Royale these films are not.
Arguably these two movies serve as a better relaunch than Goldeneye and they actually have a quite similar feel. Rather than playing the role differently to Pierce Brosnan, Dalton is practically interchangeable with the man who played the role from 1995 to 2002. He is has the same drive, charm and impishness and even has a similar look. This is perhaps not a surprise as Dalton was actually a replacement for Brosnan, who couldn’t take the job as hoped in 87, before Brosnan was a eventually a replacement for him. The Living Daylights and License to Kill both actually stand up better to contemporary viewing than Goldeneye, especially in their treatment of women. There are issues here but neither Maryam d’Abo’s Kara or Carey Lowell’s Pam are as simpering and ineffectual, computer skills not withstanding, as Izabella Scorupco’s Natalya or as clumsily vamped up as Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp.
As it is, rather that just modernising the Bond conventions, The Living Daylights plays with them a little. This is most obvious with the chase through the snow, something seen prior to this in A View to a Kill, For Your Eyes Only, The Spy Who Loved Me and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which here starts in an Aston Martin (how Bond) and ends on a cello case (how not) with nary a ski in sight. Elsewhere Bond checks into a hotel with a beautiful woman and asks for a second bedroom for her which really is uncharacteristically gentlemanly of Fleming’s famous gentleman spy, although the lack of sex scenes in the film is because of it coming at the height of the AIDS epidemic when bed hopping was seen to have dangerous consequences.
In terms of ‘the woman in a Bond film’ (we reject the term Bond Girl so this seems a suitable if plainly literal alternative) the characterisation of Tara Milovy is mixed. She comes into the action only because she has fallen for the wrong guy and been manipulated by him, yet she is confident and formidable, as best indicated when Bond flatly refuses to go back for her cello when they are escaping the city only for the scene to jump to them picking up said instrument. In the later stages of the adventure she grabs a gun and steals a horse but having ridden into action her main contribution is to look pretty and distract the guards. (At least she gets to keep her cloths on, unlike the woman who is forcibly striped by Bond for exactly the same purpose earlier.) Later she is punching men off the front of her jeep only to almost then kill herself and 007 because she loses focus while flying a plane. The woman is apparently full of contradictions and is regressive as much as she is progressive. Interestingly James Bond is also constantly irritated by her, clearly considering her his little woman which was seemingly a character trait they were comfortable with in the 80s but now makes him look distastefully superior and a bit of a sexist arse. (Although not as much as tearing a woman’s shirt off so that an assailant looks at her when entering a room and doesn’t see him. He hands her back her top afterwards but it’s a cheap and chauvinistic move that you’d never see from the hero in a film today.)
Bond’s characterisation, for good and bad, follows fairly evenly into the 1989 follow up. The writers are evidently not too worried about immediate continuity as series regular, CIA agent Felix Leiter as played by John Terry in The Living Daylights is barely an acquaintance of Bond. In License to Kill though James is suddenly best man at his nuptials. Here the narrative is following on more from Live and Let Die, if only because David Hedison, the actor from that film, returns to the role. License to Kill is thought of as a departure but it really isn’t though. It still shoehorns Q into proceedings and it has its own moments of silliness as discussed.
The film also has elements that would be revisited later in subsequent movies and here we need to discuss the women again. Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier is not a perfectly feminist character but she significantly builds on Kara, and almost every other ‘woman in a Bond film’ before and after. Like Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies, but preceding her by eight years, Bouvier is on her own mission before she even meets Bond and is his equal from the start. In fact there’s a nice moment where she mocks him for the smallness of his gun and shows herself to have a much larger example of this representation of manliness. You’d have never seen Connery undermined in this way. She is immediately shown to be capable and resourceful and regularly supports Bond in his endeavours with decisiveness and drive. She does quickly end up snogging him of course but it isn’t clear who has seduced who. Unfortunately she is reduced to the jealous woman who too quickly forgives him for bonking someone else by the end of the movie but this undermines my respect for him more than it does her. Maybe she sees him for the promiscuous schmuck that he is and is happy to use him as it suits her. This flys slightly in the face of the way it is presented in the film but it is how I choose to read it. She’s too cool for me to accept it any other way.
Then there is Bond’s insubordination, which is so central to the plot of the movie, and this is a real precursor to much of Craig’s interpretation of the character later. Bond is effectively fired and totally disavowed by the British Secret Service in this film and they even seem prepared to shoot him rather than let him run off on his personal revenge mission. Still though it is all sorted with the almost throw away line ‘M phoned, I think he’s got a job for you’ at the denouement. Similarly though this indulgence on the part of M is exactly what we see when Judy Dench later plays that part.
These films are not beyond reproach then but to be fair only about four of the Bond films are. They are dated and quite sexist in places but this is as much of a component of all of these films as anything and part of why they prove such a fascinating measure of action cinema in every period they cover. For me the brief 87 – 89 era was and is worth revisiting.