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James Who? In Praise of the Forgotten Bond

James Who? In Praise of the Forgotten Bond

I feel bad for Timothy Dalton.

He seems, unfairly, like the forgotten Bond. Even George Lazenby, the only actor to hold the role for a briefer period than Dalton, is more widely and clearly remembered, both for being the first guy to take over the role from Sean Connery and for producing one film, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” that a lot of hardcore Bond nerds consider the best 007 adventure ever.

Poor Dalton has less to hang his hat (on Moneypenny’s coat rack) on. He made two Bond films — one of them admittedly terrible — but that had more to do with the quality of the material than his performances. His tenure was unfortunately timed in three regards: it coincided with the last gasps of the Cold War, the exhaustion of the original Ian Fleming source material, and the rise of the AIDS crisis. For Dalton’s Bond, there were no more wars to fight, no more novels to strip mine for raw story materials, and no more meaningless sexual conquests to bed. The result was the dreary, desperate “Licence to Kill,” the first film in the franchise not drawn directly from Fleming. Instead of trying to destroy a deadly space laser or stop a power-mad billionaire, Bond is simply out to kill a drug dealer who hurt his friend. For a guy who’s saved the entire world countless times, it seems a bit below his pay grade.

Most other Bond actors had a “thing:” Connery’s ruthless wit, Roger Moore’s refinement, Pierce Brosnan’s swagger, Daniel Craig’s icy determination. Dalton did not. His Bond was more of an amalgam of other interpretations before and after: humor, charm, swagger, and intensity all rolled into one. He wasn’t as flashy as the others, or as clearly defined. When he introduced himself as “Bond, James Bond,” it seemed as much out of fear his enemies might forget him as an expression of personal style.

I think that’s why I like his version of the character so much. He seems like a believable human being and, even more than that, a believable spy: not an invulnerable super-hero but an efficient yet flawed soldier doing the best he can. Unlike the perfectly coiffed Connery (wearing a toupee, of course) and clothes horse Moore with his endless closet of Savile Row suits, Dalton’s Bond is a bit of a schlub; his clothes are forgettable and his hair is frequently mussed (in “Licence to Kill,” it looks like it’s thinning too). He’s not the Bond you fantasize about becoming; he’s the Bond you admire because he seems the least like a fantasy.

Although Craig got a lot of attention for returning Bond to his roots as a more grounded hero in “Casino Royale,” Dalton did the exact same thing twenty years earlier in his first Bond picture, 1987’s “The Living Daylights,” which hangs together as perhaps the single most underrated picture in the series’ first 50 years. His main gadget? A keychain tricked out with explosives and knockout gas. Poor Dalton; even his Q gadgets are lame.

In “The Living Daylights,” the franchise’s structural formula endures — Bond hopscotching the globe in pursuit of a big bad with a glamorous girl (or two) on his arm — but the entire affair is weighted with a surprising amount of pathos, most involving Bond’s treatment of women. Or, in this case, their treatment of him. The plot, very loosely adapted from a Fleming short story, begins with Bond in Czechoslovakia, where a Soviet intelligence officer named General Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) requests his assistance in his defection to the West during an orchestra concert. Bond is to cover Koskov’s escape with a sniper rifle, but when he spots a Soviet assassin, he is shocked to see it’s the beautiful cellist (Maryam d’Abo) from the Czech orchestra. Disobeying orders, Bond shoots to maim rather than kill, and then sneaks Koskov back to England via a special capsule in an oil pipeline.

Things get rather cleverly convoluted from there — as they usually do in a Bond movie — and I don’t want to ruin the twists. But the female cellist is the key. Unlike Connery and Moore’s ladies man Bonds, Dalton’s is a bit of an obsessive; without spoiling things, he’s brought in on the job specifically because someone with ulterior motives knows he won’t shoot a woman, even a Soviet assassin. Later, Koskov is kidnapped by the Soviets and returned to the East — with no other leads, Bond tracks down the cellist, Kara, and uses her to relocate him. Together, the two travel to Vienna and Tangiers, while Bond tries all his best, suavest moves. But rather than immediately succumbing to his seduction, Kara rebuffs Bond’s advances repeatedly before finally (inevitably) giving in.

It’s probably worth noting that the Lazenby Bond had a similarly (or at least relatively) monogamous love life in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” and that he, too, was considered, at least initially, an inferior, forgettable 007. For some, Bond must be forever on the prowl, as impervious to sexual rejection as bullets. For Connery and Moore, women were always a hobby. For Dalton, they’re an Achilles heel. It’s a small but hugely important twist on the character, bringing him down to earth just enough to make him more interesting, more fun to watch, and easier to root for.

Most everything in this world is about timing, and I often wonder how things would have been different for Dalton if he’d taken on the role of Bond a few movies earlier, or stuck around a couple of installments longer. He was actually under contract for three films, but his final appearance got scuttled for years because of legal issues. It would have been fascinating to see Dalton’s Bond in “GoldenEye,” which actually tackled the end of the Cold War (and Bond’s increasing irrelevance) rather than ignoring it like “Licence to Kill.”

Instead, he went out on a sour note, although even the crummy “Licence to Kill” does have at least one spectacularly Bondian — and, for our purposes here, fittingly microcosmic — moment. In the film’s cold open, Bond and Felix Leiter catch a bad guy by hooking his plane to a winch on their helicopter and overpowering its engines (yes, “The Dark Knight Rises” totally stole the beat). Then they immediately parachute down to Leiter’s wedding in their tuxes, cool as cucumbers. At the wedding, Leiter’s bride-to-be, Della (Priscilla Barnes), dotes on Bond, hugging him, kissing him, and generally acting like she’s way more interested in 007 than the guy she’s there to marry. The film seems to hint at some kind of failed past romance between Bond and Della. But even with all the attention, Bond’s alone at the wedding. He doesn’t even have a date. The story of Dalton’s Bond’s life; always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

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I agree with your assessment of Dalton (He's my favorite Bond, with Connery 2nd) I disagree about the assessment of "Licence to Kill". I like both Dalton's films equally. While yes, the vilain is a mere drug kingpin, and certainly not the type of person Bond would be after normally, the situation isn't normal, and MI-6 has no interest in Bond going after, or killing him. However, I daresay Davi's Franz Sanchez is easily the most diabolical villain Bond has faced, save for Blofeld himself.

Why? Because Sanchez, like Blofeld, is the only villain that has hit Bond on a completely personal level. Blofeld killed Bond's wife. Sanchez killed a woman who is definitely hinted at having some sort of prior relationship with Bond, and maimed probably the closest thing Bond has to a friend, for life. When you look at it on those terms, Bond's actions, and really the entire film itself, make perfect sense. Felix Leiter just lost his wife on his wedding day. This is exactly what happened to Bond. That scene with the garter before Bond drives away and Felix and Della meet their ultimate fates, and the expression of hurt that crosses Bond's face when Della hints at him getting married are there for a reason. It's one of the main motivations behind why Bond does what he does. Despite the closeness of Bond and Della, she has absolutely no idea he was married. That's how deep the hurt goes from Tracy's death. He still can't talk about it.

In the novel, the effect on Bond is even greater. Bond is a shambles after OHMSS. He botches missions, he's in a constant state of depression. He's absolutely certain he's going to be drummed out of MI-6. In fact, it's Bond's shrink who intervenes on Bond's behalf, begging M to give Bond one last shot with an easy mission (In the end, it's more than he bargained for, as he goes up against, and kills, Blofeld, at the cost of his memory. In the last book of the Fleming series, Bond gets turned against MI-6 and attempts to kill M. He recovers, and M, as a sort of punishment, gives him the last mission to prove himself. If he accomplishes it, he's back in the black at MI-6, if he dies, then M can just brush him under the rug. It's quite a switch, and interesting to see that M, while he cares about Bond, can certainly be ruthless when he needs to be) It's great stuff. Bond has never been more human in the last three Fleming novels. While movie audiences would never accept that Bond, at least Dalton gave us as close as he could to that literary arc.

The whole wedding is supposed to be remind us of Tracy. When Bond walks through the aftermath of Leiter's house in a daze, it's because he's basically watching his wedding day replayed, with two people he's obviously very close to the new victims. With that in mind, the rest of the film makes perfect sense. The bottled up demons of Tracy's death have been broken open by Sanchez. Sanchez has become Bond's Blofeld, and Bond is living vicariously through Leiter.

I daresay Bond's actions are more motivated by him quelling the demons behind Tracy's death than his loyalty to Leiter. Oh that's a part of it, for sure, I'm not saying that he's not bound at all by a sense of honor to Leiter. But I don't think that's the main crux of his motivation. This is even hinted at during Bond's only exchange with M. After telling M he owes it to Leiter, M shoots him down on his quest, saying, correctly so, that Leiter did indeed know the risks. Bond then shifts the conversation right to Della "Did his WIFE?" Prompting M to change tactics and argue about him jeopardizing MI-6. At this point, M's doing damage control, and realizes the full motivation behind Bond's "Private vendetta".

I really feel like "Licence to Kill" is the film "Diamonds Are Forever" SHOULD have been. I know the actors changed from "OHMSS" to that film, but it's a terrible follow-up, hampered quite a bit by Connery's bored portrayal. It doesn't feel like a follow-up to OHMSS at all. Bond seems to be going through the motions in getting Blofeld. The conversations between him and Blofeld are dull and lifeless. I like the film, don't get me wrong, but I always think to myself, "You realize this is the guy that just murdered your wife, right?"

There's no dancing around the subject in "LTK" Bond's demons are brought to light, and he extinguishes them one-by-one with each associate of Sanchez he kills, and each thing he destroys, up until the final moment when he torches Sanchez himself.

The standout moment, however, is right afterwards. Sanchez is dead, The truck is burning behind him. Dalton gets up and rests himself on a rock, bloody, clothes in tatters, obviously in pain. Then there's that moment where his eyes close and he hunches forward. It almost looks like he's about to cry, his relief is so great. It's not because he accomplished the mission, IMO. No, it's because finally he acknowledged the effect Tracy's death had on him, and while it will always hurt, he's finally at piece with it.

It's a standout moment, and one that I can't think of any of the other Bond actors pulling off so convincingly. "LTK" may be the one that least follows the Bond formula, but because of the events opening the film, it makes perfect sense, and is really a standout film, IMO.


I liked Licence to Kill.

I seriously hope you guys ross douthat

'The Living Daylights' is brilliant, my favourite Bond film. Perfect pre-credits sequence, great score, incomprehensible plot — and a good 'Third Man' bit too. Dalton was a lot more comfortable doing jokes than Daniel Craig.

Steven Flores

"Licence to Kill" is among my 5 favorite Bond movies. It's severely underrated. It's a film where Bond shows his loyalty to his friends while doing whatever he can to get revenge. Even if it cost him his job. "The Living Daylights" is in my top 10 as I think it was a fresh take on Bond as Dalton just play things low-key while putting a bit of humor in the role. Dalton doesn't get enough love and it's about time he's getting appreciated.

John A.

Is Timothy Dalton "the forgotten Bond?" I don't know, I don't often find myself talking about Bond unless it's with other fans, but it seems George Lazenby still is; "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" is hailed as one of the best by many or most, but how much of that is due to Lazenby? Dalton didn't have much in the way or charm or humor, but he's an exciting counterpoint to Roger Moore (I like a few of Moore's movies, but that's a dark period in the series for me). There are one-liners that he delivers as though there were a gun pointed at his head – but sometimes that works ("He got the boot"). He's not charming or suave – but that side was played down during his time anyway. It seems to me that he was right for the time…so why was the time not right for him? The reasons pointed out here – his movies coming near the end of the Cold War, the AIDS crisis/panic leading to a "monogamous" (ish) Bond, reaching the bottom of the Fleming barrel – are all valid, but none of them entirely work or make total sense to me. Those things may explain the problems with the scripts, but I'm not sure they explain the cold reception of the audience and the general brushing aside of the Dalton era by some.

My ranked list of the Bond movies has the Dalton movies right in the middle. I think they're both (yes, both) solid, and admirable efforts, but dented in some significant ways. "The Living Daylights" gets off to such a great start, but what begins as a very enjoyably complicated, and smart, plot grows more convoluted and less enjoyable as it goes. Unfortunately, Koskov and Whitaker aren't the kind of strong villains that could compensate for that. I kind of like the more affectionate relationship Bond and Kara develop, but I don't find her one of the more compelling "Bond girls." It is a better Bond movie than the one that follows, though.

However, "Licence to Kill" is, to me, the more successful movie. The problem I've always had with it is that it doesn't feel like a James Bond movie. It's not just that the villain is a drug kingpin instead of a megalomaniac in a Mao suit who wants to blow up the world and remake it in his image – it's the entire look and feel of the film. It looks and feels like every other action movie of that time. They were going for grim and gritty, and they got grim and gritty. It's not much fun. My issues with "The Living Daylights" – weak villains, uninteresting leading lady, confusing plot – are corrected in "Licence to Kill," though. Sanchez may be too small compared to Blofeld or Hugo Drax, and it may be odd that Bond avenges Felix (who looks and acts different every time Bond sees him) where he didn't avenge his wife, but he's a good villain, Robert Davi gives a compelling performance, and it's always good to have a baddie you want to see die in the end. And unlike "The Living Daylights," "Licence to Kill" was also written for Dalton, tailored to his take on the character, and that may be the most important part of this paragraph. It's a more consistent film and Dalton is more confident in it (not that he was timid in "The Living Daylights").

I don't think "Licence to Kill" is terrible, and the other point I disagree with you on, Mr. Singer, is that Dalton's Bond didn't have an identifiable "thing." Sure he did – Dalton's thing was his aggression, his lethal edge. He stripped James Bond down to his weary, vulnerable, dangerous essence – man, not superman. Every Bond since Roger Moore has tried to keep the humanity along with the charm and wit, but Dalton's "thing" is his efficiency and danger.

Scott Mendelson

Actually, I think we are finally reaching a point where Timothy Dalton's brief run is finally getting the credit it deserves. The Living Daylights is properly being viewed as the most nuts-and-bolts espionage entry since From Russia With Love as well as being simply one of the best entries in the franchise. Dalton was the Bond I grew up on and I'll even defend Licence to Kill unto death. But it's good to see that the tide is finally turning and Dalton is getting the love that he darn-sure deserved in the late 1980s.

Graeme D

Couldn't agree with you more – Dalton is vastly underrated. Think if he had come on earlier (as Moore was getting old and less plausible) he may have been better remembered. And I like Licence to Kill!

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