** (Worth seeing)

Directed by John Glen

Written by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson

With Timothy Dalton, Maryam d’Abo, Jeroen Krabbe, Joe Don Baker, John Rhys-Davies, and Art Malik.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the James Bond series has been so spectacularly successful at the box office. As I look back on the list of titles, it seems to contain an inordinately high number of clinkers and mediocrities. You don’t have to look back any further than 1985’s A View to a Kill to find a movie that lacks the most rudimentary pleasures of a simple chase movie. Once the series even produced a couple of losers in a row: the last Sean Connery episode, Diamonds Are Forever (1971), which the producers tried to make on the cheap after wooing Connery back with an exorbitant salary, and Live and Let Die (1973), the first Roger Moore entry, when the producers still weren’t sure what attitudes to strike with the new star. Even after discounting the flops, there’s an unusual number of merely routine films. Although it’s fashionable to hold up all the Connery films in a block as some sort of sacred canon beyond mortal criticism, From Russia With Love (1963), the second Bond, isn’t much more than a decent thriller-on-a-train. Dr. No (1962) and Goldfinger (1964), whose ethos is closer to the serials of the 40s than the world of Anthony Blunt, have dated pretty badly. And of course, most of the Moore Bonds don’t count for much.

Having confessed that lack of enthusiasm, I think I can say that The Living Daylights is the best Bond since 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, and a worthy companion to Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the three consecutive successes from the mid and late 60s. Timothy Dalton is a huge improvement on Roger Moore; for one thing, he’s the right age for an active secret agent who spends considerable time dangling from a flying transport plane. But more than that he has the cool, coiled elan that Connery used to such advantage. Like the original Bond, Dalton jaunts through the action with an air of imperturbable calm, with only an occasional raised eyebrow or droll remark to indicate his intellectual engagement in the action.

Moore never did get the hang of that attitude. His reactions were more those of a wide-eyed gentleman somewhat surprised at finding himself involved in some public scene, and attempting to escape it with as little fuss as possible. Nothing was to be taken too seriously. To offset this apparent lack of gravity, the filmmakers gave Moore scenes of surprising brutality. In his early films especially, Moore spent a lot of time being cruel to women, even to the point of belting them. This woman-bashing subsided with the popularization of feminist concerns, but the sadistic side of Moore was never entirely squelched. The result was the Bond who most resembled a sociopath, an upper-class galavanter who enjoyed beating up on those–spies and criminals–outside the protection of the law, the Mr. Hyde to Connery’s Dr. Jekyll.

Of course, if Moore was a pitiless bounder, George Lazenby was an out-and-out psycho. This engaging Australian, who sported the best physique of all the Bonds, smiled his way through the entirety of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, even as he blew away dozens of the evil Blofeld’s minions. That film is still one of the most elegantly structured Bonds, really not much more than a single extended chase, chopped up into digestible segments by director Peter Hunt. This was Hunt’s feature debut after a career as an editor and second unit director. In those capacities on some earlier Bond films, he was responsible for devising the chase and action scenes that, along with art direction, have been the series’s strong suits.

Unfortunately for the series, Hunt never worked on a Bond film again, and for years the series was left in less adept hands. Of course, when you think of the Bond films, you don’t really think of directors anyway; in fact, they seem to change as often as Bond changes his evening clothes. Terence Young, Guy Hamilton, and Lewis Gilbert split 10 of the first 11 among them. The rest of the production team is much more stable. Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were the original producers; Saltzman left a while ago and Broccoli carries on alone. Ken Adam was the original production designer; Peter Lamont, one of his assistants, designed The Living Daylights. John Barry has done the music for most of the Bonds, and repeats his chores here. There’s the 15th Maurice Binder title sequence. Richard Maibaum, who’s written or cowritten almost all the Bond scripts, writes here with Michael Wilson, who’s written or cowritten the last four.

Director John Glen sets a new record for directorial continuity by helming his fourth Bond; before that, like Hunt, he had been an editor and second unit director on several Bond pictures. His first directorial appearance paid immediate dividends with For Your Eyes Only, and though he seemed to backslide with Octopussy and A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights is a superlative effort. At their best, Bond stunts are supreme technical achievements and triumphs of editing. The chase scenes in Living Daylights are state-of-the-art, which, though it hasn’t always been the case, should be a given in a series with the Bond reputation. Glen creates some incredible stunts (as a second unit man, he was responsible for the ski chase/parachute jump at the beginning of the otherwise awful The Spy Who Loved Me), whether using his editing skills to create powerful illusions of continuous movement, or his second unit experience to create awe-inspiring stunts (the capper, involving a fight to the death between Bond and his nemesis as they hang hundreds of feet over the ground from an airplane, is the best movie stunt period in years). Combine his bravura technical skill with Dalton’s sleek, understated, debonair heroism, and you have an obvious winner.

However, in an attempt to make Bond more morally palatable to the baby-boomers who now make up the main audience for these films, Broccoli, Maibaum, Wilson, Glen, et al have made some curious switches that, perhaps inadvertently, have made Bond even more of a reactionary figure than he has always been. The most obvious change is in Bond’s attitude toward women. For one thing, in The Living Daylights, it’s woman, not women. Bond is now a one-woman (at least per picture) man. Of course, the films were never as sensual as they made themselves out to be. Binder’s title sequence always had more sex than the entire rest of the picture, and the little bit of nudity here is typically peekaboo. But Bond always did find women throwing themselves at him, even if moments before they had been lobbing hand grenades, rather than love notes, through his window.

Bond meets Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo) soon after he sees her sawing away at her cello in a Prague concert. Bond is in the Eastern capital to spirit out a Russian general (Jeroen Krabbe) who says he wants to defect, and has specifically asked for the protection of James Bond. As the general slips away from the concert hall, Bond, watching over him from a sniper’s nest, sees the lady with another kind of ax cradled in her arms: a rifle with a sniperscope. However, rather than dispatching her (efficiently as Connery would have, pleasantly as Lazenby would have, or gleefully as Moore would have), Dalton merely shoots the rifle out of her arms. After such a warm introduction, of course, a courtship is bound to follow.

Bond had detected, you see, that Milovy wasn’t a real player in the game. The way she held the rifle indicated that she wasn’t a KGB assassin, and, apparently, that the Russian defector wasn’t legit either. The Bond pictures, like many spy novels and films, put great faith in the “game,” the system of rules by which East and West spy on each other. The rules are necessary because all the players are in one way or another outlaws, devoid of the protection of their governments (as in “deniability”). So there are gentlemen’s agreements to make sure things don’t get out of control.

Within that game, however, Bond has a special dispensation, a license to kill. And to justify that license, the Bond pictures came up with one of their greatest contrivances, the criminal genius Blofeld. Though obviously modeled on traditional movie villains as old as Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, Blofeld stood out from the run of Cold Warriors when the Bond films first started. He was always trying to trick East and West into going to war with one another (at his most devilish) or playing them off each other for monetary gain (at his greediest). At any rate, he was no gentleman, and he cheated at the game.

Of course, Blofeld’s role in status quo power politics was similar to that of third world countries in real life, and from the start, Bond found himself bound for battle in third world settings. The first killers in the entire series were a trio of Jamaicans pretending to be blind beggars. And in Living Daylights, we are only finally assured that the Afghan horseman (Art Malik) who snatches Bond and Milovy from the desert is a good guy when we find out he went to Oxford.

That was always an implicit thematic thread, however. Explicitly, the U.S. and the USSR were almost always progressing toward some peace agreement when Blofeld would start one of his devious plans (like stealing spaceships in You Only Live Twice). However, a few films ago, Moore/Bond picked up Blofeld in a helicopter and dropped him down a factory chimney. It was a humiliating end for the once great criminal, because it wasn’t even the climax of the film, but one of those special effects scenes the Bond pictures like to open with. Of course, after all those years, Blofeld was getting a little old; new villains keep a Bond young, and the Moore Bond needed more youthful elixir than most. But only Blofeld’s gargantuan evil was burnt up in that fire; not the notion of the prevailing status quo.

The action of The Living Daylights revolves around the plot of the Russian general and a crooked American arms dealer (Joe Don Baker) to run a scam involving weapons, drugs, and jewelry. Period. No nuclear devastation, no battle in the stars. Just a relatively small-time grift that, as usual, has the Russian KGB and the British secret services (such as they are) call a truce. This is a mighty small provocation for two sworn ideological enemies to unite over, and it tends to blur the moral differences of the superpowers and array them against all smaller, independent entities. To further underscore this, the renegade American isn’t based in the U.S., but Tangiers, an Arab country. And the bad Russian’s plot unfolds not in Mother Russia, or even the Eastern bloc (after his escape from Prague), but in Afghanistan. Plus, the bad guys’ henchman is a weirdo Russian who refers elliptically to some kind of revolutionary group he has organized in the motherland. Throw in the cooperative Oxonian Afghan, and it’s clear that only action undertaken under the purview of one or both of the superpowers, no matter how insignificant, is acceptable.

Not that Glen and company are grim about any of this. The Living Daylights might be reactionary hooey as far as its worldview goes, but it’s really fun hooey. For one thing, they’ve put 007 back in an Aston Martin, a car almost as sleek as its owner, and added a battery of lasers to its armament. There’s the familiar race down the ski slopes that is now part of virtually every Bond outing (though we miss the requisite scuba diving). Dalton does his “Bond, James Bond” line very well, and he fights and speaks with economical grace. There’s even an hommage, if you can believe it, to The Third Man. Glen was an assistant editor on Carol Reed’s film about postwar decadence, and has actually returned to the amusement park where one of that movie’s most famous scenes took place, and duplicated it. It’s not as saturated by weltschmerz as Reed’s version; in fact it’s almost sprightly in comparison (though it does end with the movie’s most chilling death). But of course, Reed was worried about the shape of the world to come, while Glen is celebrating it.