The Living Daylights Turns 30

What did critics say about Timothy Dalton as Bond in 1987?

Okay, you might be wondering what kind of BS I am trying to pull here by not writing my own review of The Living Daylights. After all, I reviewed The Lost Boys, Adventures in Babysitting and La Bamba, so why not celebrate 30 years of Timothy Dalton's version of 007? The answer is simple and oddly controversial; I am not, nor have I ever been, a fan of the James Bond movies. 

Friends, family, and colleagues have questioned this opinion on numerous occasions, especially my late mother who named me for the original James Bond, Sean Connery. Yet, I maintain, Bond does nothing for me, regardless of who plays him. I find the series flimsy and out of step with the times, especially during my lifetime when the age of irony slowly became the age of sincerity and Bond rarely changed and when he did, he only became dourer. 

Then Bond was surpassed in the superspy genre by a pair of blockbuster franchises far more entertaining and clever than anything in the Bond canon: The Bourne franchise and Mission Impossible. Some might say I am biased in favor of 'Murica' because I prefer my super-spies to be American, but genuinely speaking, both Bourne and Mission are movies of their time that happen to better at being spy movies and adventure series than Bond ever has been or likely ever will be. 

But, that doesn't answer the question of why I am turning this review over to critics from 30 years ago instead of writing my own review. I mean, it has been years since I watched and loathed The Living Daylights, what if my relative youth could give way to a more mature take on Timothy Dalton's 007? It's certainly possible but the bare fact of it all dear reader, I refuse to pay Amazon $2.99 to watch a movie I have already seen too many times. 

So with that, and my clear anti-Bond bias laid bare, let's dig in to what the biggest name critics of 1987 felt about The Living Daylights. Strangely enough, it's hard to find 30-year-old movie reviews so the fact that I found 6 newspaper reviews of The Living Daylights feels like yeoman's effort, especially since Google has scrapped its easy to search newspaper archive. Here's what the critics said back in 1987. For those wondering, the film has a 70% positive rating on RottenTomatoes but only two links were contemporary to the film, the rest are modern, revisionist takes.  

Gene Siskel

The skinny half of TV's legendary Siskel and Ebert at the Movies was the staff film critic for the Chicago Tribune back in 1987 and while his written reviews often paled to his television work, he did spill plenty of ink in his day. Of the Living Daylights, Siskel called the film "not bad but stiff and mechanical." Of the then new James Bond, Timothy Dalton, Siskel damned Dalton with the faint praise that he was better than Roger Moore but that he lacked the "manliness or charm of Sean Connery." Of Bond babe Olivia D'Abo, Siskel says little other than that she and Dalton "lack chemistry." Read the review for yourself on the Chicago Tribune website. 

Roger Ebert

One cannot speak of Gene Siskel without mentioning his legendary, Pulitzer Prize winning partner, Roger Ebert. Mr. Ebert gave The Living Daylights two stars but that doesn't tell the story; he always despised the glib star system imposed on him by editors, though he kept it for his own website. Anyway, fitting the tone of the two stars Ebert says The Living Daylights hangs on the lower rungs of the Bond movie franchise, this was the 15th film in the series, but offers the faint praise of "the stunts were nice." Ebert hit on something that rarely occurs to me when I think of James Bond, absurdity. In Ebert's conception, the Bond franchise is built on the rye absurdity of the Bond capers. Silly gadgets, big explosions, and more sex partners than your average modern rapper are the hallmarks of the franchise. Having grown up with Dalton, Brosnan, and Craig, my Bond has always been a tad on the broody side, though Brosnan seemed to have a modest sense of the absurd, I never really think of the absurdity of Bond. Maybe if I had I might enjoy the franchise more, then again, if the franchise knew it was supposed to be absurd, that might help as well. Ebert notes that both Connery and Moore were in on the joke of the franchise but not Dalton whose humorlessness combines with a dull leading lady and unconvincing villain to create a two star Bond movie disappointment. Read Roger Ebert's review at RogerEbert.com. 

Janet Maslin

Janet Maslin was the first female lead film critic at the New York Times and served in that capacity for 22 years following a stint as a music critic for Rolling Stone, this lady has seriously cool critic cred. Ms. Maslin is infinitely more kind to both The Living Daylights and the then new Bond. Of Timothy Dalton, Maslin writes that while Dalton is "less ironic than Sean Connery, less insistently suave than Roger Moore, his Bond has his own kind of charm." Maslin enjoyed what she considered a world weariness that Dalton brings to Bond, something that would make sense if continuity of the Bond character mattered. Dalton is Maslin's favorite part of The Living Daylights which, in the end, she concludes "At this late date the James Bond formula doesn't require much modification. Keeping it afloat, as The Living Daylights succeeds in doing, is accomplishment enough." Read Janet Maslin's wonderful wordplay on the New York Times website. 

Desson Howe and Rita Kempley of The Washington Post

Kids, 30 years ago, there were magical places called newspapers where professional writers worked with editors to craft stories and, yes, movie reviews. Such a thing seems quaint and nearly forgotten in the democratized era of the internet but in 1987, the position of film critic was prized, paid, and respected. In fact, The Washington Post actually employed two critics and sent them to get two different opinions of the same film. In July of 1987, Desson Howe and Rita Kempley both wrote reviews of The Living Daylights, both middling in their respect for the film. Kempley's is the more favorable of the two going so far as to call Dalton's Bond "the best Bond ever." Kempley is a big fan of the newly chastened Bond who, as both Ebert and co-worker Howe note, has been brought into the current times of 1987, with a tacit acknowledgment of the AIDS era, by having only one love interest and no love scenes. According to Kempley, conservative Bond is even more classy and debonair than his ladies man cohorts. You can read Kempley's review on the Washington Post website.

As for Desson Howe, he's now Desson Patrick Thompson, long story, check his Wikipedia entry, he gave up film criticism to work as a speech writer for President Obama. The Living Daylights was among Desson Howe Patrick Thompson's earliest reviews as a critic for the Post, having only joined the veteran Ms. Kempley in the Post Style section a few months prior. His background in cinema studies at American University doesn't come into play here but he has a lively wit in its place, cheering the end of Roger Moore's Bond and pitying the poor Timothy Dalton that he now must carry the mantel. Both Post reviews are heavy on history and plot but rather light on insightful critique. Kempley clearly enjoyed Dalton but is light on the detail as to why he's now "the Best Bond." Howe, on the other hand clearly disliked the film while pitying the "Brit Yuppie" Dalton and his place in the Bond universe. You can read Mr. Thompson's review on the Washington Post website. 

Sheila Benson of Los Angeles Times

Without question, and despite my fealty to the legendary Roger Ebert, my favorite original review of The Living Daylights came from then Los Angeles Times film critic Sheila Benson. Rather than suffer the latest Bond movie, Benson uses her review to recount the story of how she lost her review of The Living Daylights via a transcript of the call she received from her editor asking for her review. While she manages to work in some plot details and some fair criticisms of the franchise as a whole, the standout here is the banter, written in the playful style of His Girl Friday if Rosalind Russell had been a movie critic. It's immensely charming and ends with Sheila ruefully admitting that she's outgrown the Bond franchise. Little did she know that she'd keep growing, staying on as a critic at the Times through Dalton's second and final outing as Bond and working as a critic through Daniel Craig's first Bond outing before giving it up to be a Book Critic (note to self: consider career change prior to 2019 Bond reboot) while the movies kept staying the same.

So what have we learned from this trip inside the movie critic wayback machine? I am not missing much in re-watching The Living Daylights. None of our 30 years ago critics had much praise for the film with only Rita Kempley giving a definitively positive review. Yet, in fairness, modern critics have seemed to take to Dalton's Bond as the proper precursor to Daniel Craig's equally, if not even dourer 007. Many modern critics love the current James Bond even as the franchise turns out one knock off of Mission Impossible and Bourne after another. Craig is more hype than hero but modern critics love his grit, and his indie cred from the over-hyped international indie Layer Cake. That modern critics see Dalton's seriousness as the true predecessor to Craig's beloved modern Bond, it's no surprise that modern critics are re-appraising The Living Daylights, boosting the film's Rotten Tomatoes score and altering the history of the movie in the process. To them I say, go on without me boys, I've got better things to do. Does anyone have Sheila Benson's phone number? 

Sean Patrick
Sean Patrick

I have been a film critic for more than 17 years and worked professionally, as a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association for the past 6 years. My favorite movie of all time is The Big Lebowski because it always feels new. 

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The Living Daylights Turns 30