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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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