I feel like, if Timothy Dalton had stayed with the series for a bit longer than he had, he would have found a good solid character that could very well have been one of the greats of the franchise. Dalton plays the spy role very well, and, in the upcoming License to Kill, he plays a good Bond, but he’s never able to really settle into the character comfortably in this film. At times, his characterization is spot on, and at other times, he seems too nice and romantic to really fit the character as it has been developed thus far. But, as we’ll see later, Dalton’s Bond is a good transition into the Modern Bond era that will come next. Right now, the series is finding its footing, fighting to remain relevant against the rushing tides of pop culture that could very easily have left the franchise behind.
The plot is incredibly complex. There’s a new KGB director (John Rhys-Davies), and his new policies have the west worried. The Russian phrase “smiert spionam” (death to spies) has been showing up, linked to the murders of several agents, and it seems Russia may be slipping back to their pre-detente days. After helping General Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe) defect from the Soviet Union (with the hope that he can deliver crucial intelligence to MI6 about what is really going on), James Bond (Timothy Dalton) discovers that things may not be what they seem. Amid the deceptions and double-crosses, Bond tries to uncover Koskov’s true intentions from his cellist girlfriend Kara (Maryam d’Abo) who turns out to be a pawn in a much larger chess game organized by the arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) who plans to start another world war.
It’s one of those fantastic (and slightly maddening) plots wherein a large part of the tension revolves around the fact that one side doesn’t know that the other side knows that the other side knows what the other side is really up to. Aside from Bond, one isn’t quite sure who to really trust until about two thirds of the way through the movie. In that, this movie succeeds brilliantly. It’s a rollicking spy thriller that actually feels like a spy thriller, and Bond really shines as one racing against the clock to figure out what’s going on.
The thing that keeps this from being a long-remembered classic is that it seems uneven. The middle third of the movie drags and gets too confusing to follow easily, and Bond girl Kara doesn’t really come into her own until the second half. The beginning act is perfectly paced and suitably tense, and the final act is fun and explosive. But the whole thing feels like it could have been trimmed down a bit. Watching this one as a youngster, I found it slow and uninteresting. Watching it as an adult has me respecting its complexity a whole lot more, but it will be a few years, still, before Bond really coalesces into its Modern incarnation. A good comparison would be between this one and For Your Eyes Only. Both are intelligently written and sharply directed, but they both seem to be missing that one extra element, that spark, that makes for a truly memorable Bond film.
The pre-credits sequence is excellent. I especially like how you’re not quite sure which of the three men who are engaged in the training exercise is actually Bond. All three look the part, but when things head south and they start getting picked off one by one, the reveal of Timothy Dalton is well done. The transition into the opening credits is perhaps a bit silly, but it’s still fun, with Bond dropping out of the sky to bring some excitement into the life of a bored socialite.
The opening credits were clearly designed to capitalize on the success of Duran Duran’s “Dance into the Fire (A View to a Kill).” A-ha’s theme is fun, but doesn’t quite have the same catchy quality that the previous entry did. This one feels a bit forced and clunky, in comparison, and the visuals are sort of blah. But it’s good to know that A-ha did something else other than “Take on Me” that managed to survive the 80’s. So that’s fun. And while we’re on the subject of music, this movie is significant in that it is not only the last Bond score done by John Barry, but it’s the last film score Barry did before his retirement. It’ll be some time before another composer really breathes life back into the Bond sound the way Barry did.
After that, we have a glorious sequence in which Bond helps Koskov defect. I love this whole sequence. Instead of getting to know Bond when he’s at his most relaxed the way we first met Roger Moore, our first introduction to Dalton is on the fly, in the middle of a complex operation. There’s no time for much in the way of banter. It’s fast-paced, genuinely tense, and doesn’t give the audience a chance to breathe until much later on. It’s sad the momentum of this incredible first act dies off later on. If the whole film had maintained the feel of his first act, it probably would have been a much more memorable Bond film overall.
One of the elements of this movie that, I think, keeps it from really shining, is Maryam d’Abo. I don’t know quite what to think of her character. For most of the movie, she seems uninteresting window dressing, but there are moments where she really shines beautifully and offers us some great character work. Once she learns of Koskov’s true intentions, for example, you really feel her sense of betrayal. And in the final third of the movie, you grow to like her. My only issue with her is her sort of confused vacant expression in the first half. I get that she’s a pawn in a bigger plan, and really doesn’t know anything, but her blandness doesn’t do much to endear the audience to her in the beginning. Once she really opens up and starts showing us how interesting she really is, there’s not enough time to grow to connect with her. Overall, it just doesn’t work.
On the other hand, I am a huge fan of John Rhys-Davies’ character, General Pushkin. There’s a moment where Bond confronts him in his hotel room, ready to shoot him, and the two have this incredibly tense standoff that is perfectly acted. The mental fencing and the slow realization from both that things aren’t what they initially expected is just really well crafted. The scene ends with a question mark, as well, and you’re not entirely sure what just passed between them until a few minutes later. I love the scene, and I think it’s the scene where you really see Dalton as Bond. He’s reckless, very angry, and not afraid of brutality. It’s a very different character from the sweet, romantic English gentleman we’d seen in previous scenes with Kara. This scene is the reason why I think Dalton could have been a fantastic Bond if he’d been given a longer contract. The fates decreed it would not be so, and so I must just be thankful that he got to return at all, and savor what little we have.
We will see Dalton again, so let’s not get too sad. Things only get better from here on out.
-The late 80’s version of the Bond theme is just…unsettling…
-The orchestra is playing Mozart’s Symphony # 40. Why do they stop after the first movement?!
-I love the Russian woman who “distracts” the technician while Koskov escapes. She’s amazing.
-I’m not sold on the new Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss). She’s got a good new take on the character, and she seems quick-witted, confident, and intelligent, but she and Bond don’t have much chemistry.
-Q’s ghetto blaster…
-My mother was the Bond fan in the family, and she introduced my brothers and me to the series, and we loved it, but when we asked her about this one, she said, “I don’t know, but I do know they slide downhill in a cello case!” So that’s the scene I always remember.
-We’ll see Joe Don Baker again in the Modern Bond era, playing a different character. He’s like Octopussy…except not.
-There’s so much smuggling going on towards the end. I can’t keep track of it all. Diamonds, weapons, opium, money: it’s all changing hands and I have no idea what is being traded for what.
-I love how Kara is a totally able, competent pilot until Bond has taken care of the bad guys and comes up to the cockpit. Then, he has to save them all from the mountain she was all of a sudden flying into.
-And yay, Kara gets to play in Vienna!
-Love Gogol’s cameo at the end. He’s a good guy now. He’s come a long way from his introduction in The Spy Who Loved Me.
-No boats this time. Bond ends the movie in a concert hall.
Join me next week as we finish up the brief Timothy Dalton era with the brutal License to Kill in which Bond succumbs to the lure of the dark side! *ominous music*