Friday, November 7, 2008

Timothy Dalton

part of the Bond Blogathon

One of the many pleasures of Edgar Wright's superb action satire Hot Fuzz (2007) was the brief but exciting re-emergence of Timothy Dalton as the villain. He was surprisingly funny and in surprisingly good shape for someone who is now over 60 years old (he still looked 40 to me). If not for the generally insane brilliance of the film overall, Dalton would probably steal the show.

I hope one day that people revisit Timothy Dalton's brief but effective run as James Bond in Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill (1989). I was perhaps more open-minded about his work because those were the two films released theatrically when I discovered Bond, but they still hold up well today.

I feel the final act in Afghanistan of Living Daylights is ultimately a bit of a let down now, but Licence to Kill is one of the very best Bond films in my opinion, as it blends the best of old-school Bond--gritty nihilism, grotesque characters and settings, thrilling action sequences, and a story rooted in Bond's own evolution throughout the series (his relationship to Felix Leiter, his past marriage to Traci), without ever for a second being sentimental.

A lot of this works though because Dalton was a great James Bond. He was dead serious but still retained an inherent charisma. Likeable, but never silly. That's a hard balance for playing James Bond. He never quite mastered Bond's playfulness (as Craig did in Casino Royale)--he couldn't bring himself to say some of the cheesiest lines with a straight face, but at least (unlike Moore), he made an admirable go of it:

"You didn't think I'd miss this performance, did you?"--can you believe I saw Living Daylights thirty times as a kid and never once realized he was talking about sex there?

Supposedly Dalton was to take over for Sean Connery in the late 60s and play Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. That would have been a trip--my favorite childhood Bond starring in my favorite Bond film. He would have been a good fit for the material, but he was probably right to have turned down the opening because he felt at the time was too young (he was also supposedly intimidated by Connery's legacy).

Dalton only got the role in the mid-1980s, however, because Pierce Brosnan couldn't get out of his Remington Steele contract. Ironically, the rumor is that he was only offered OHMSS because Roger Moore couldn't get out of his The Saint contract. Its also ironic of course that Brosnan did end up playing the role to greater success, and with greater longevity, after Dalton.

Its unclear whether Dalton was never brought back in 1991 because legal fights over Bond rights postponed the franchise's production, and he just lost interest in the part while waiting, or if Bond producers waited out his contract so that they could hire Brosnan instead. It was probably a combination of both, as it seemed to have been a slow but amiable parting.

Dalton did follow up Bond with a memorable performance as a Errol Flynn-like Hollywood star-turned-secret Nazi in Disney's The Rocketeer (1991), but quickly fell off the radar thereafter.

Supposedly, Living Daylights was a hit for its time, which I didn't remember. Licence to Kill, however, was a huge bomb in a crowded 1989 summer marketplace (look up the franchise titles that came out that summer--Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future II, Star Trek V, Honey I shrunk the Kids, Ghostbusters 2). The darkness just didn't register.

I said in an earlier post that I believed then after Licence to Kill tanked there would never be another Bond film. I think this wasn't only because the film bombed, but because I remember having a feeling of Bond fatigue. One Bond film every other year for the last 26 years--by the end of Moore's run I think audiences were sick of Bond, and the box office success of Living Daylights was probably more rooted in the novelty of the new actor than interest in the movie or franchise itself.

I've always felt that Dalton's performances and legacy suffered from a certain Bond fatigue in the late 1980s--where people were just sick of this tired, cliched old character, especially as the Cold War was coming to a close. I think Goldeneye succeeded in part because of Brosnan's appeal and the fact that it was a solid film in the classic mode--but I also think it succeeded because the six year absence was enough time to rekindle demand for the character (a four-year layoff didn't hurt Craig in Casino Royale, either--Brosnan left just in time to avoid becoming the Bond who overstays his welcome, ie, Moore).

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