The Living Daylights ★★★½

With this film, the brief Dalton era of Bond is inaugurated, and thankfully this is a strong entry in the series. While this doesn't reach the peaks of the truly great Bonds, this is the first installment in quite a while without any major flaws.

The plot, if summarized, can sound a little confusing. It involves the faked defection of a Soviet general, Koskov, who is attempting to get MI6 to assassinate another general, Pushkin, who is on the verge of arresting Koskov for misappropriating state fund for various moneymaking schemes. The other chief figure is Brad Whitaker, an arms dealer and self-styled general who is Koskov's principal partner in these ventures. This may seem complex, but the movie handles the presentation of these segments quite well, doling them out only as Bond discovers them and so pacing our knowledge. Thus, even though at a glance this may seem to have a resemblance to OCTOPUSSY's overstuffed plot, the presentation here is far more assured.

The opening act of this film, which encompasses the pre-credits sequence, the abduction of Koskov, and the supposed recapture of Koskov, deserves to be considered on its own. It's nearly flawless and a microcosm of everything the film does well. First, these sequences are directed efficiently, with minimum wheel-spinning and a constant forward momentum. Second, the humor is present, but in a fashion that does not distract from the movie's forward momentum. The best example of this is the sequence where Koskov learns how he is to be transported to the West. Third, the film pays attention to details and bit players are allowed to be competent in ways they generally haven't been in other Bond films. The best illustration of this is also one of my favorite sequences in the film. Koskov is in an MI6 safehouse, and Whitaker's henchman comes to perform the ersatz KGB recapture. The henchman eventually makes his way to the safehouse kitchen and is caught by the butler in the act of disposing of the cook. However, the film remembers this is an MI6 installation, and that butler turns out to have the training to participate in a rather good fight scene before Whitaker's man is finally able to dispose of him.

Dalton's Bond is good, though not without its flaws. His Bond is far more reserved than Moore's portrayal, and is far more likely to react to something odd with a raised eyebrow or sarcastic remark than a smirk and goofy quip. This Bond can be best summarized as "English gentleman who happens to be a trained assassin". This characterization plays to Dalton's strengths, as he generally looks least comfortable when he's doing broad emoting. Another feature of this Bond is that he's more of a professional than the character has been since the Connery days. At multiple points he exhibits a greater degree of technique and tradecraft than we've seen from him in a long time. The final, and least appealing, aspect of this new Bond is his relation to his superiors. For some reason, in this film Bond's superiors are constantly either criticizing him for going off script or for using his own judgement. I don't know who thought it was a good idea to adopt the dynamic of the stereotypical police sergeant-unorthodox detective relationship to Bond, but they were wrong. This sort of relationship applied to a division specifically created to operate outside of the rules and allow for personal judgement just feels artificial, and makes us long for the days of THUNDERBALL, where Bernard Lee's M defended 007's judgement to a sceptical colleague.

The supporting allies are solid, though not great. Maryam d'Abo as Bond girl Kara is merely adequate, and unfortunately the character has enough screen time that mere adequacy is not enough to carry the part. To be fair, the character's writing also falls off, and a good portion of her time is just spent pleading for Bond's help. There is some genuine feeling in the romance, however, which is a plus. I've already mentioned Bond's MI6 colleagues in the prior paragraph, so I will simply reiterate that they are drags that add little to the proceedings. The highlight here is General Pushkin. In taking over the role occupied by General Gogol in the previous films, he is a far cannier and more involved counterpart for Bond, and the films allows for the development of a real relationship between the two. In particular, there's a great scene where Bond has Pushkin at his mercy, and their conversation conveys a mutual professional respect and experience. Overall, while the supporting cast isn't particularly strong outside of Pushkin, they're not weak enough to detract from the proceedings.

The villains are a similar mixed bag. The film's problem here is that both villains would make excellent secondary villains to a more imposing prime mover. As it is, while both are entertaining (and thus are a vast improvement over OCTOPUSSY), neither has quite the needed heft. Koskov is portrayed as a two-faced manipulator, the sort of person who slides between simpering friendship and oily treachery at the drop of a hat. Whitaker is also a liar, but in a more con man vein, with puffed up representations of his status and ability that he himself half-believes. A scene where Pushkin meets him and surgically dismantles his pretensions is a joy to watch. However, these descriptions should also make it clear why Whitaker makes for an unsatisfying final villain, as ultimately he's a puffed-up military history buff with some fun toys. He has more of the pathetic to him than a main villain should. Still, both of these villains are entertaining, so again they don't end up actually detracting from the film.

The last thing to mention about this film is that it is in some ways neoclassical, reintroducing Bond elements that had fallen by the wayside in the first part of Glen's tenure. Here, we have the first gadgetmobile sequence in a good while. Also, gadgets are foregrounded here to a degree that they haven't been for some time. Thankfully both elements are used well, and neither returns to the excesses of the Hamilton era. We even have a group against group combat at the end of the film in a manner reminiscent of films like THE SPY WHO LOVED ME.

Overall, this film is a promising introduction for Dalton, and only the relatively weak supporting cast keeps this film from rising higher in my estimation. The style here seemed to indicate that the Dalton era would be a more reserved, grounded one that still found ways to integrate classic series elements. However, the next film would indicate considerably more uncertainty about the franchise's future direction.