My first secret-agent mission started just before bedtime one chilly night when I was 7 or 8, sometime in the fall of 1987 or early 1988. My dad pulled me aside, told me to leave my clothes out next to the bed when it was time for pajamas and said to just pretend to go to sleep until my brother was asleep across the room. I was puzzled but intrigued and followed the instructions as given until sure enough he reappeared in my bedroom door, motioned for me to be quiet while getting up and dressed again, and then meet him in the hallway.
There, at the top of the stairs, he whispered the rest of the plan: We were going to the movies, but neither my mom nor my brother could know about it. I tiptoed down the stairs to the kitchen, silently grabbed my shoes and coat from the hall closet and then dashed down the stairs to the laundry room and the door to the garage while my dad loudly told mom he was heading out “to the show.” I could barely suppress the giggles as we piled into the car and slipped out under the cover of darkness so I could see my first James Bond movie on the big screen at our local second-run theater — The Living Daylights.
The movie opens with a flashy action sequence, Bond and some other MI6 agents participating in a NATO training exercise to covertly infiltrate a military base on the Rock of Gibraltar. One of them is an undercover assassin, though, and murders several paintball gun-toting trainees before Bond (Timothy Dalton, in his first appearance as 007) catches up to him. After the credits (and one of the worst theme songs in the Bond catalogue), we find Bond and a fellow agent meeting at a symphony concert in Czechoslovakia to facilitate the defection of a high-ranking KGB operative, Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé).
Bond is providing sniper cover as the defector escapes but decides at the last second to shoot the gun from a would-be assassin’s hand when he recognizes her as the cellist from the symphony who’d caught his eye just moments before. Bond takes Koskov to the border and helps him escape to London, where Koskov informs MI6 that new KGB chief Leonid Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) has reinstated the Cold War policy of “smiert spionam,” meaning “death to spies,” and is killing British agents.
Bond is dispatched to find Pushkin and kill him but first returns to Czechoslovakia to find the mysterious cellist, Kara (Maryam d’Abo). He quickly discovers Kara is actually Koskov’s girlfriend and the whole defection was a ploy. Bond helps her escape to Austria in the film’s signature action sequence — an extended car chase in an Aston Martin loaded with classic Bond gadgets that eventually culminates in our heroes sledding down a mountain on top of a cello case. In Vienna, Bond learns that Koskov has ties to an eccentric American arms dealer named Whitaker (Joe Don Baker). After another agent is murdered by Whitaker’s towering henchman Necros (Andreas Wisniewski), Bond takes off to Tangiers to hunt down Pushkin and finish his mission.
There, Bond confronts Pushkin and learns the KGB is also after Koskov for planning these assassinations and embezzling government funds. Kara is duped into helping Koskov capture Bond, and they fly to Afghanistan. Bond escapes with Kara and an Afghani prisoner named Kamran Shah (poor, perpetually typecast Art Malik, the go-to actor anytime Hollywood needed to cast someone vaguely Middle Eastern in the 1980s and 1990s). Shah turns out to be the leader of the local mujahideen rebels, fighting against the Russian invaders. Bond joins forces with the mujahideen to win the day, fleeing with Kara, a cargo plane and a half-billion dollars’ worth of opium. Bond and Necros duke it out while clinging to a cargo net trailing the plane in flight, a really cool bit of stunt work absolutely ruined with a dumb resolution and an even dumber pun. While Necros is clinging to his foot, Bond cuts the laces on his boot with his knife until it slips off and Necros plummets to his death. Kara asks where he went. Bond says: “He got the boot.” It’s as cringey as it sounds. Bond and Kara escape, Bond returns to Tangiers to deal with Whitaker, etc. All in all, it’s a pretty basic Bond film.
As an adult, I can confidently say Dalton is the worst Bond by a long shot. He lacks Sean Connery’s charisma and looks, Roger Moore’s sense of humor, Pierce Brosnan’s debonair charm or Daniel Craig’s physicality. There’s no chemistry between him and D’Abo, no witty back-and-forth with the villains, no sense of 007 as an exceptional superspy. He goes through the motions of the action sequences, too, unable to even pull off a convincing run. If anything, Dalton’s performance serves to prove that playing James Bond requires more than just a British accent and formalwear.
With a critical eye, I can tell you with great certainty that this plot badly misses the mark. It’s in a battle with itself between being a serious John le Carré-style geopolitical espionage story or an over-the-top popcorn flick full of one-line zingers and cartoonish villains. The result misses on all counts, taking itself too seriously to be fun but also letting too much silliness undermine the serious tone. This also isn’t Bond’s most problematic outing in terms of its female characters, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear. Viewed through a lens of the whole series, it’s in the bottom third, entirely forgettable if it weren’t the disappointing debut of a new Bond actor.
As an adult assigned to think critically about this film and its place in the canon of Bond films, I can see all of the flaws. I rewatched the movie this week for the first time in 30-plus years in preparation for this assignment and was actually a little disappointed not to have a more instant connection to the film. I have such a clear memory of the great escape to the theater, but that pre-credits action sequence wasn’t ringing any bells for me. For a second, I was convinced I’d misremembered which Bond movie I’d seen that night, but then it clicked. There’s Bond, pulling a sniper rifle from under a hotel mattress and coolly assembling it. He pauses before he goes to the window, turning the lapels of his tux up so his white shirt doesn’t give him away as he lurks in the shadows searching for an assassin in the windows across the street. That detail clicks it all into place for me, and suddenly I’m a kid again, soaking up every nonsensical plot twist and staring wide-eyed at every stunt. I had my own popcorn — with butter, even! — and my own Sprite, and I got to stay up late to see a grown-up movie with my dad. A James Bond movie, like the ones my dad liked to watch with his dad.
I remember wishing I could have a car with skis and a jet engine. I remember spending hours designing my own secret-agent gadgets on the big rolls of drafting paper my dad would bring home from work. I remember my dad covering my eyes in the theater when one of Bond’s allies unzips her work coverall to distract a guard during Koskov’s escape. (In retrospect, that may have been overcautious as the literal unzipping is about as graphic as it gets, but I understand.) I didn’t know much about the KGB or opium or Afghan freedom fighters, but I did spend lots of time reading up on crimefighting and spy craft in that most-revered of spy manuals,The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook. Most of all, though, I remember that feeling of giddy excitement sneaking out of the house, being a part of something secret and fun and special with my dad.
There are a lot of things that make up my love of movies, but I know that experience was a formative one in a specific way. I still love going to the theater. Even now, when I can watch just about anything I want from my couch on a screen the size of a wall, there’s something magical about the theater. Watching the trailers before the movie on the big screen instead of your phone, settling in with a giant popcorn and eating half of it before the opening credits, getting lost in the darkness and the surround sound and the story … it’s not just watching a movie, it’s going to the show. I still go to the movies with my dad most of the time when I go. Our tastes are a little divergent now — Pops always says he’s not into a movie unless something explodes in the first 10 minutes while I’m more willing to watch something with a slower pace — but there’s still plenty of overlap. I wouldn’t trade those times for anything, even if it means sitting through the occasional Equalizer or Death Race reboot.
Again, as an adult with kids of my own, I certainly realize that my dad definitely did not just steal his second-grader out of bed in the middle of the night without my mom knowing about it. She may not have known about the buttered popcorn and the Sprite, but any James Bond fan knows secret agents don’t always follow the rules. In retrospect, I know I’ve never been stealthy enough to sneak my shoes and coat out of a closet without the whole house hearing, and I know that we probably slipped out in the “middle of the night” to see an 8 p.m. show. I know all that and it doesn’t matter a bit. The memory is what matters, that feeling of sitting in the dark theater with my dad, doing something special, something more than just catching a movie. Despite my feelings today about The Living Daylights, I can’t think of a better introduction to that concept, the idea that going to the movies is an experience in and of itself, than James Bond.