Monday, 1 August 2016

The Overlooked Bonds: For Your Eyes Only & The Living Daylights

For my last Bond-related word salad, I focused on two of the more... 'unfocused', shall we say, entries in the long-running series. For this bit of nonsense I'm focusing on two films at the other end of the scale. Not only are For Your Eyes Only and The Living Daylights extremely underrated, I would argue that they are two of the very best films in the franchise.

For Your Eyes Only (John Glen, 1981)

Before we get into the movie proper, some context. The late seventies marked a return to form for the Bond franchise -- Roger Moore had figured out how to make Bond his own and the filmmakers had come up with an epic version of the Bond formula that was proving extremely lucrative at the box office. This period also marked the franchise at its most staid.

As well as the last film of the seventies, Moonraker was the apex of this style. While it was a major commercial success, it was also a carbon copy, scene-for-scene remake of its immediate predecessor, The Spy Who Loved Me

With its endless gadgets, repetitive plotting, cardboard characters and space station climax, Moonraker set a new bar for how OTT the franchise could get. The next picture could not be in the same style (after space, where can you go?) and the decision was made to bring the franchise back to earth.

There was a precedent for this -- back in 1967 You Only Live Twice had been the first 'epic' of the franchise. It was also meant to be Sean Connery's last picture in the role, and so when it came time to make On Her Majesty's Secret Service, a decision was made to scale back and go back to the books. Whether this was a creative decision, or motivated by a reduced budget (due to the casting of unknown George Lazenby), it set the template for all re-castings going forward -- all of Connery's successors debuted in (relatively) scaled down adventures and then proceeded to get bigger in scale.

This approach would have been the same for For Your Eyes Only, however at the 11th hour Roger Moore was signed on for what would be his final adventure. And had he decided to go out on it, For Your Eyes Only would have been a more than worthy finish to the Raised Eyebrow's tenure.

And now to the man behind the camera. Before his decade of Bondage, John Glen was editor and second-unit director on several previous James Bond pictures. After For Your Eyes Only, Glen directed every James Bond film in the Eighties.

Glen is often criticized for being bland and uninspired in terms of his visual style, and his tenure is often regarded as a series low point. However, as these films illustrate, Glen was only as good as his material, and when the script was solid Glen shone.

For Your Eyes Only begins with a pre-credit sequence that is, by fan concensus, either great or terrible. The sequence starts with a nice little throwback -- Bond laying flowers at his wife Tracy's (OHMSS) grave. It's a nice link to the past and sets up the movie's more reflective tone and theme of revenge.

Following this, Bond gets in a helicopter to go back to MI6 for a new assignment.
    Suddenly the pilot is electrocuted and a voice pipes through the speakers claiming to be an old enemy.
      We never see his face but he is in a wheelchair, has a bald head and a Persian cat. It's Blofeld! Or not. The thing is at this point Eon did not have the rights to Blofeld or Spectre, and so this was their way of throwing some shade at the rights holder, Kevin McClory. McClory was then beginning pre-production on what would be Sean Connery's second return to Bondage, Never Say Never Again (Working title: Fuck you, Eon).

      This in-joke was probably lost on audiences at the time, and remains a bizarre aspect of the scene that doesn't quite translate. I remember watching it as a kid and getting jazzed up -- I thought it meant Blofeld was going to be the main bad guy for the rest of the movie, and was extremely let down when it was not the case.

      It's a shame because the sequence is extremely well-shot and cut, with Bond having to climb out of the back and clamber on the outside of the helicopter to get inside the cockpit and wrest control of the aircraft back before Blofeld can ram it into a building. It has a genuine sense of stakes and peril, with the helicopter performing loops and deep turns around buildings while Moore's stunt man hangs on. The back-projection work with Moore is not too shabby either, and the inter-cutting between long and process shots is well done. 

      As a FU to McClory and Blofeld, it's a dud. As a palette cleanser from the no-stakes set pieces and gadget bonanza of the late seventies, it's terrific. While the gizmos are still there (the remote control helicopter is straight of Batman), Bond has to think and fight his way out of trouble without help from Q Branch. When Moore sighs with relief after avoiding death, you believe it.

      Cue Blofeld getting tossed down a smokestack and credits.

      I have to admit I'm not a fan of the song. It's catchy enough, but a little maudlin for my taste.

      And I'm probably gonna get some more hate for this, but I'm generally not a fan of Maurice Binder's titles. It just feels like after Thunderball, he starts repeating the same stuff over and over again. Plus, For Your Eyes Only begins the trend of showing the dancing ladies' faces. It loses a little of the style and just starts feeling a little unfinished. I prefer Robert Brownjohn's stuff -- he did From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, which feature clips and credits projected directly onto the models. They are atmospheric and pulpy in a way that most of Binder's are not. Granted, if Brownjohn had stuck around for a dozen movies, maybe my thoughts would be different.

      And now to the plot: A British spy ship, the St Georges, operating in the Aegean sea strikes an underwater mine and sinks. This is a problem for MI6, because the ship was carrying an ATAC machine -- a targeting computer that helps relay information about Britain's submarine fleet. Afraid that the Russkies could get to it first and cause trouble in a potential war, the top brass have one of their local contacts, Sir Timothy Havelock, try to locate the wreck.

      After he is assassinated, MI6 sends Bond to find his killer and locate the ATAC. As he becomes embroiled in this Cold War caper, Bond has to contend with two new variables -- a jocular old smuggler (Topol) and Havelock's daughter Melina (Carole Bouquet), who is on her own mission of vengeance.

      Despite the fact that Moore is notably older (53) and Bill Conti's score is a disco-driven nightmare, this movie kicks so much ass. 

      Just in terms of action, this movie has it all. I've already written way too much on the pre-credit sequence, but all the set pieces are marked by two things you do not generally get with Bond action scenes: a reliance on our hero's wits and a sense of peril.

      The car chase is based on a clever reversal of expectations. As Bond and Melina try to flee the villain's mansion, his gadget-laden supercar is blown up. Bond is then forced to make his escape in a shitty little Citreon. It's such a rubbish un-Bondlike vehicle, at one point it tips over while trying to take a corner. 

      The rest of the movie's action is constructed along similar lines, in a variety of different contexts -- chased by a psychopathic decathlete in the Italian alps; attacked by a michelin man in the submerged wreck of the St Georges; chasing a car down on foot; and finally, scrambling up a sheer cliff face while an enemy sentry above him knocks out his pitons. 

      In all of these sequences, Bond has no gizmos to fall back on, and no easy ways out. 

      The only real gadget on offer is a massive computer that Bond and Q use a crude facial recognition program to find out who his opposition is. 

      Bond and Melina eventually figure out where the wreck of the St Georges is, gain an unlikely ally and destroy the ATAC in a final melee with the villains at a mountain-top church in Greece.

      Baring a few weird shifts, the script is pretty strong here. Longtime scribe Richard Maibum was joined by producer Cubby Broccoli's step-son Michael G. Wilson, who would co-write all of Glen's Bond movies, and replaced his father as a producer on the franchise with 1995's GoldenEye.

      With Moonraker's release, the filmmakers had adapted all of the books they owned the rights to (Eon would only gain the rights to Casino Royale in 1999). And so they moved on to the various Short stories Ian Fleming had written featuring his creation.

      All of the films of the Eighties would be based, in some respect on material from these short stories, which had been collected in two collections, For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy & The Living Daylights (which was a posthumous release which collected all of the remaining stories Fleming had not published in his lifetime).

      The script for For Your Eyes Only takes elements from a couple different sources: the plot to recover the ATAC is based on From Russia With Love's Lector decoder; Melina's desire for revenge and the attack on the swimming pool is taken from For Your Eyes Only, the supporting characters of Kristatos and Colombo, as well as the assault on the warehouse, are taken from Risico, and a sequence in which Melina and Bond are tied to a buoy and dragged through the coral reefs was taken from the novel Live and Let Die

      Despite all of these different sources, the script flows very well, and the new cast are generally well-rounded.

      The character Columbo, played with a surplus of charisma by the great Topol (Fiddler on the Roof), is one of the great Bond allies. A smuggler with a code of honour, he helps Bond uncover the real villain and save the day. 

      While he is not onscreen for long, Michael Gothard also makes an impression as Kristatos' hit man Locque.

      It's rare to get a henchman who manages to be effective without a distinctive look or gimmick, and somehow Gothard pulls it off. He also gets one of the series' best death scenes.

      The movie is not without flaws.

      The ski chase, while filled with great moments, goes on way too long. Conti's score, which I've already mentioned, is particularly egregious here.

      The character of Bibi, a sixteen-year-old figure skater who falls for Bond, should have been cut out entirely. Shrill and annoying, she contributes nothing to the story and serves only to emphasise the limits of Bond's lechery. While it is nice to see 50-something Roger Moore has standards, it's a weird comic subplot that feels out of place in this more strait-laced thriller.

      The villain, Kristatos, is also a bit underwhelming. Granted, he serves the story and Julian Glover plays him well, but he never gets a real signature moment that sticks in the memory (apart from the keel-hauling). 

      And the ending, featuring a talking parrot and a flirty Margaret Thatcher, feels like a completely different film. In fact, it feels more like Moore Bond than the rest of the movie.

      In the end, For Your Eyes Only is a solid action thriller with a good story, some interesting characters and strong set pieces. It's biggest flaw is that, stripped of the goofiness of its leading man's tenure, it lacks a certain distinctiveness.

      That aside, it remains an involving couple of hours. And with its back-to-basics approach and focus on Bond's ingenuity, it served as a template for future developments in the series. The scene where Bond kicks a villain's car over a cliff remains one of the series' darkest, and an early sign of where the  portrayal of the character was going.

      If you're a fan of Dalton and Craig, their darkness and grit starts here, with jolly Roger and his flared trousers. 

      Bonus trivia: French filmmaker Robert Bresson loved the movie, and brought it up in interviews. For Your Eyes Only's profits helped bring United Artists back from the brink following the release of mega flop Heaven's Gate.

      The Living Daylights (John Glen, 1987)

       Forgotten between the cartoonishness of Octopussy and the 'We love the Eighties!' aesthetic of Licence to Kill, Timothy Dalton's first adventure has much to recommend it. For me it is the best Bond picture between OHMSS and GoldenEye.
        Following the release of For Your Eyes Only, the Bond franchise entered a rut. For Your Eyes Only was meant to mark two shifts -- the end of Moore's tenure, and the excess of the late Seventies.

        In the end, with no clear successors in place, and a rival production (1983's Never Say Never Again) featuring original Bond Sean Connery, the producers kept Moore on for two more instalments. I've already gone into my love for Octopussy, but there is no denying that movie is a schizophrenic mess. The less said about Moore's final outing, 1985's A View To A Kill, the better.

        Now 57, Moore was past the point of being believable in the lead role, and resigned following the release of his seventh film.

        His successor was another good-looking actor who had made his bones as the lead of a comedy thriller TV series: Pierce Brosnan.

        Sadly, the news broke early, which led the network responsible for Brosnan's hit series Remington Steele to pick up his option for another season.

        Unwilling to share an actor with another company, Eon had to part ways with the Irishman and a suitable substitute was quickly drafted: Timothy Dalton.

        Dalton was primarily a stage actor, and brought a completely different vision to the role. A fan of the films and the books, he had been approached to play the role when Connery bowed out in 1967, but at 25 he felt he was far too young to step into the Scotsman's shoes.

        Dalton's Bond is completely different from his predecessors. Burying himself in Fleming's books, he adopted a terse, cold persona that was far closer to the character of the novels. Unlike the others, Dalton has few one liners, and is brusque to the point of asshole-dom with female company. He is not charming, and while he has plenty of ladies, Dalton's Bond never comes across as a ladies man. He feels more like an unstable hitman one day away from going off the rails.

        Dalton is the marmite of the franchise. For some fans, his portrayal is mana from heaven. For others, he's a boring stiff who misses the wit and charisma of the character.

        For me, I'm half-and-half. It's clear Dalton is uncomfortable with the more flippant puns of the character, and does not have the same kind of 'star' charisma of the others.

        However, his intensity and more laconic take on the role remains extremely interesting to watch.

        The key difference is that, unlike Connery and Moore, where there is always a degree of distance (helped by the sense of humour), Dalton invests the character of Bond with a sense of pain -- his Bond reacts to his actions in a way that feels real (which makes the one liners always feel unnecessary).

        This investment means that Dalton manages to do something which few Bonds have done, and that is make the relationship with the Bond Girl feel believable and relatable.  For a Bond often criticised for being stiff and cold, there is a sense of genuine affection to his bonding with the cellist Kara Milovy that feels earned, rather than expected.

        The major problem with Dalton's portrayal is that it's clear the filmmakers have not quite figured out how to tailor the character of Bond to him -- the humour falls flat, and Bond's philandering never feels natural.

        Ever since Casino Royale came out, I've felt that Daniel Craig's Bond is what Dalton's Bond was striving to be -- Craig's version comes across as more naturalistic, charismatic and, what I feel is most important, funnier. Humour should never be dismissed with Bond. It's the seasoning that helps smooth over his less appealing qualities.

        It's not a fault of the performers -- it comes down to the fact that the filmmakers working with Craig took the time to figure out how come up with ways of making Craig's strengths mesh with Bond's attributes.

        Dalton never had that chance. He leapt into the franchise at short notice, which meant the script -- while different in tone and style from the Moore era -- still carried the whiff of his predecessor. This issue would also plague Licence to Kill, where the script was hampered by the 1988-89 Writers Guild strike.    

        However, while a few moments jostle, The Living Daylights represents Dalton's best showcase in the role, and taken as the protagonist of this singular adventure, he is a fine lead.

        Onto the movie!

        The first new Bond in 12 years, and it starts with a bang -- M briefs a trio of 00s in his office, then a door slides open and you realise this office is in the back of a plane.

        The agents are on a training exercise in Gibraltar and this is their final briefing. They turn and jump out of the plane, parachuting down to the island where they engage the sentries armed with paint guns.

        However, someone else is also waiting for them -- a mystery assassin who proceeds to kill the agents and leave a mysterious message (Smiert Spionam: 'Death to Spies'). Bond gives chase, kills the assassin and winds up on the deck of a yacht with a bored socialite. Cue credits.

        As a set up for a new era and a new Bond, this does the business. While the credit sequence continues the trend of being dull and uninspired, the song by a-Ha is one of my personal favourites.

        It's not a favourite of most, but it's always stuck in my head. I like the theme to Licence to Kill as well. There's something about the meshing of Bond-style music with the styles of the Eighties that is very enjoyable. Don't ask me what the lyrics mean -- I'm as lost as you are.

        After the credits, we get a look-in from Ian Fleming. The set-up for this movie is a straight adaptation of the short story that gives the movie its title.

        Bond goes to Bratislava to assist with the defection of a Russian general, Koskov (Jerome Krebbe) during a concert. The KGB has dispatched a sniper to watch him, and Bond's job is to eliminate the killer during the general's escape to their safe house.

        When Bond recognises the assassin is the beautiful cellist he was oogling during the performance, he shoots at the rifle instead. 

        Whereas the short story ends here, the movie resolves the mystery of Bond's comely opponent.

        Back in the UK, Koskov is barricaded in an MI6 safe house (a palatial country estate). He tells M that General Pushkin (John Rhys Davies), the new leader of the KGB, has begun a covert war to eliminate western secret agents.

        Before his bizarre claims can be substantiated, Koskov is kidnapped by an unknown assailant dressed as a milkman.

        Every Bond has a signature villain, and Dalton's is Necros. 

        Unlike so many henchmen, Necros is a professional who is capable of doing his job. He wears disguises, is familiar with a variety of weapons and gadgets, and is physically more imposing than Bond himself. He's so badass composer John Barry gives him his own theme song.

        In a lazy summary, he's basically an evil Daniel Craig, but in terms of the series, he is a spiritual successor to Robert Shaw's superlative Red Grant (From Russia With Love). Without the gimmicks of most hench persons(?), he's just an anonymous killer who you couldn't pick out of a crowd -- which is why he is so great.

        The sequence in which he infiltrates the safe house and kidnaps the general is fantastic in its arbitrariness and brutality.

        Particularly noteworthy is the brief scrap with one of the general's minders -- it's rare that another MI6 agent is shown to be a competent fighter (how many times has a Bond movie started with a 00 dying?), and it feels like a genuine struggle where either combatant could come out on top.

        Following the general's escape, Bond smells a rat and goes on the hunt for the mysterious cellist.

        What he unearths is a complicated scheme involving Koskov, a Trump-like arms dealer, Afghan mujahideen, an icebox full of diamonds and half a billion dollars worth of heroin.

        The movie ends with a massive assault on a Soviet airbase in the middle of Afghanistan and a great, vertigo-inducing fight between Bond and Necros out the back of a cargo plane.

        The Living Daylights is terrific. The story has plenty of twists and turns, gadgets are smattered throughout, and everything feels far fresher than its been in decades. All the set pieces matter and have weight, the characters all have motivations, and Bond feels like a human being.

        As with For Your Eyes Only, the movie has some flaws.

        Though she meets the requirements of the role, Maryam d'Abo's Kara Milovy (the cellist/sniper) is not really much of a character. She lacks agency and just hangs onto the men around her.

        The bigger problem (really the only one) is the plot. It is really complicated. It's not as crazy as Octopussy's, but it suffers from the same problem: with such a complicated series of red herrings and double crosses, the stakes do not come into focus until the third act. And with two villains, the movie needs two climaxes in order to resolve the story, and it just goes on a little too long. If the movie had simply focused on General Koskov and Necros, the movie would be a stone cold classic. As is, it's still one of the best films in the franchise, but a few rungs below the true greats.

        The Living Daylights marked a brief rejuvenation for the series, where it felt like the series would have a chance to really experiment with the formula. Sadly, it took awhile for the franchise to fulfill the promise of Dalton's debut. 

        Previous reviews

        Diamonds Are Forever & Octopussy

        Quantum of Solace

        Second Look

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