Somewhere, somehow, something went very wrong with the second and final James Bond entry for Timothy Dalton.
It certainly isn’t his fault, as he did the best he could. Some sources point to the fact that there was a writer’s strike on that affected the script. That would explain a lot, but not all.
Dalton, Timothy Dalton
I stand by my assessment from "The Living Daylights." Dalton makes a great James Bond. Handsome, athletic, serious, dashing. Even with terrible dialogue, Dalton sells. In the film’s first act, we see him interact with Felix Leiter (David Hedison, reprising the role from "Live and Let Die") and his bride, Della Churchill (Priscilla Barnes, the replacement for Suzanne Somers on 'Three's Company"). Dalton is so good, and he and Barnes have such a natural chemistry in their few scenes, that one almost wonders if she and Bond had hooked up at one point. They are wonderful together, and it is a testament to all three actors that the friendship feels real.
Unlike Roger Moore, who approached the role with a wink and a smile to the audience at every turn, Dalton commits completely to the role. It helps that he’s given a solemn task of revenge for the movie. And just as we saw when he was ready to pop Pushkin in "Living Daylights," we totally believe that he will put a bullet in Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) when he suspects she’s working for Sanchez. He’s great. I wish he had done more Bond.
That script … oh, that script
Some resources suggest Michael G. Wilson was left without the assistance of Bond mainstay Richard Maibaum through much of the writing. I’m inclined to believe this theory. The film is actually well-plotted, with a few bumps in the second act, but otherwise it’s a fairly compelling revenge plot. There are a few lost opportunities for drama here that the undeservedly maligned "Quantum of Solace" takes advantage of, namely, that M just lets Bond go and do his thing. The fact that he is stripped of his double-O status has no bearing whatsoever on the story. That could’ve been a great subplot that might come back to haunt Bond just as he’s about to kill Sanchez, for example.
There are numerous plot holes to be found here. How does Kwang know that Bond is going to assassinate Sanchez? How does Sanchez know where Kwang takes Bond? Pam is told by an airplane mechanic there are no planes to buy or rent, she shrugs … and then the next moment is in a plane! Felix seems just fine and perfectly happy at the film’s conclusion, despite missing part of his leg and his new wife being murdered.
And the film is just dragged down by terrible dialogue. Not that Bond films are masterpieces of subtext, but the dialogue is either simply expository or just acknowledgements of that exposition. Here’s where I think all the problems come from. I think everyone from the director to the cinematographer on down to the art director and beyond, with the exception of the actors, just did not care about making this movie.
This was John Glen’s seventh outing as director for a Bond film. He’d previously been a second unit director and an editor, and he has a gift for staging strong action sequences with great use of the frame. While watching this movie, I could not believe he directed this film. There is no moving camera! Literally! Scene after scene, it’s as if he thought, ‘This scene serves no purpose and is boring to me, I'm just going to set the camera up on a tripod and shoot it.”
The same goes for cinematographer Alec Mills, who also worked on "Living Daylights." That film is sweeping, with dynamic compositions, moving and swooping cameras, and a visually appealing film. Mills seems to have taken John Glen’s boredom and transferred it to film with film-school lighting technique. The entire movie is flat, dull to the eye, and lacking in the kind of flair a Bond movie should have.
This extends even further to the sets. They look cheap. The art direction feels lazy. There’s nothing special or reflective of character in the production design. The film was apparently shot in Mexico rather than in London at Pinewood Studios, and one must wonder if this is part of the reason for the lackluster sets. It’s notable that the budget was cut from $40 million on the previous film to $32 million.
Fortunately, the film is very well cast. Props go to Big Hollywood contributor Robert Davi, who plays Sanchez with a cool, almost serene, confidence. This man clearly knows he has the Western Hemisphere at his command, is totally untouchable by law enforcement and has complete control of any situation. I’ve read that he aimed to present a mirror image of Bond with Sanchez, and this is successful in many ways. Both characters are all business in this outing. Both carry a swagger and confidence. Both enjoy the finer things in life. And both demonstrate a ruthless streak. Bond was ready to kill Pam. Sanchez doesn’t just kill people – he either tortures them (poor Felix loses a leg) or they die in really, really awful ways (exploding head in a pressure tank, anyone?).
It’s a shame the script didn’t come together because there’s a lot of interesting stuff to Sanchez we only graze the surface of. He prizes loyalty above all else. He has some unspoken relationship with Dario (a pre-fame Benicio del Toro), one he clearly prizes because of his loyalty. Betrayal is dealt with in vicious fashion. It’s interesting to watch him become unraveled at the end – this supremely confident drug dealer finally cracks. Had the theme of loyalty been played up more, then the idea that he would kill his accountant would have had even more impact (an interesting point, that the accountant was the most moral of everyone, insisting that Sanchez’s customers not get screwed).
It’s interesting that Sanchez cannot contain his rage when things go badly. These are all character traits that Davi brings to life in his terrific work, but I wish the script had allowed him to do even more, because as an actor, we know he’d have been more than up to that task.
I wasn’t thrilled by Carey Lowell, but again, we know she’s a good actress from her subsequent years on "Law & Order." And while she is the official Bond girl in the film, I’m wondering how on earth I ever forgot Talisa Soto. Somehow, in my zeal to fawn over Carole Bouquet, I neglected this incredibly gorgeous, classically beautiful, perfectly figured young woman. Benjamin Bratt is a lucky man.
Nice to see Q in the field. That’s one hell of a stunt – an eighteen-wheeler driving on one set of wheels. And as silly as it was, the moment where we see the Polaroid of Bond and Q as skeleton ducking the laser shot from said Polaroid made me guffaw out loud.
I wish I had more to say about the movie. Some readers have commented that this series has lost the discussion of cinematic elements that helped hold each film together. The problem is that the Bond films lost much of their film artistry as they got bigger and more expensive. There's plenty to discuss and learn about from a weak film, but I'd just as soon point out the things that work, even if there isn't as much detail to go into.
It’s a courageous choice to do a Bond film that is driven by revenge. The urgency for that revenge is very quickly lost, and that is one thing the film needed to maintain. It would have given us a lot more to hang our dramatic hats on, and given us so much more depth to Bond. There is a reference to Bond’s late wife that would have made the revenge angle all the more powerful, but it is dismissed and forgotten.
Dalton, Davi, Soto, the film’s tone, and the overall story are what save the film. It just could’ve been so much more.
I rate the film TWO STARS.
"On Her Majesty’s Secret Service"
"For Your Eyes Only"
"From Russia With Love"
"The Man With The Golden Gun"
“The Living Daylights”
"Diamonds Are Forever"
"The Spy Who Loved Me"
"Never Say Never Again"
“Licence to Kill”
"You Only Live Twice"
"Live and Let Die"
"A View To A Kill"
James Bond will return in “Goldeneye”