On September 25th, 2012, MGM Home Entertainment released the 'Bond 50' collection, a box set that contains no less than 22 films from the James Bond franchise's first 50 years. In order to provide the most comprehensive coverage, High-Def Digest will review each of the discs in this package separately. For the index of all reviews in this series, as well as details regarding bonus content exclusive to the box set, see our 'Bond 50' hub review.
"Don't find too many normal people in this business."
After seven movies over the course of a dozen years, the clearly past-his-prime Roger Moore finally resigned his post as Agent 007 in 1985. Despite this, no one doubted for a second that James Bond would continue. With an existing tradition safely established, producers of the franchise simply needed to recast the lead with a new actor, the fourth in the series' run. Doing so would prove to be more of a challenge than expected when first choice Pierce Brosnan was forced to bow out of contention due to a television contract he couldn't break. Stepping in to replace him was Timothy Dalton, a Welsh actor who'd been considered for the part as far back as 1969's 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'. Although too young at that time to fill Bond's shoes, Dalton had matured comfortably by the 1980s to the point that he could be taken seriously as a secret agent with a license to kill. And being taken seriously was something very much on his mind. The new star desired to rescue and reclaim James Bond from the campiness of the Moore era. His first attempt was at least partially successful.
'The Living Daylights' is very much a transitional movie. Slotted for release on a strict schedule in 1987, its script was initially written for no particular actor, but still in the vein of the Moore pictures. The casting of Dalton required some last-minute retooling, the results of which leave the film straddling an awkward line between Moore's flippant breeziness and the "hard-edged" spy thriller that Dalton wanted to make.
Produced before the end of the Cold War, the plot finds Bond helping Russian general Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) defect to the West, only to discover that the defection was a ruse designed to fool MI6 into assassinating a rival, more moderate Soviet general (John Rhys-Davies). Koskov, it turns out, is actually in cahoots with rogue American arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker, who'd return to the franchise in a friendlier role two movies later), with whom he's been building a massive drug-running enterprise using embezzled KGB funds. With Koskov's girlfriend, the lovely but frail concert cellist Kara Milovy (Maryam d'Abo) in tow, Bond darts around the globe from Vienna to Tangier to Afghanistan, whereupon he joins up with a band of local freedom fighters to take down the villains' operation.
Dalton claims that he drew inspiration for his take on the Bond character from the original Ian Fleming novels. Fit, energetic and insistent on doing many of his own stunts, the actor is much more convincing in the action scenes than Roger Moore ever was, which came as a massive relief after the last couple of Moore's lazy efforts. Unfortunately, his attempt to play Bond as a steely, cold-hearted assassin is often undercut by his clear discomfort with the puns and forced romance that the script inflicts upon him.
Although its storyline is less fantastical and more down-to-Earth than the franchise had seen in a while, the movie is still inundated with a fair share of the sort of silliness that was considered a requirement of the formula at the time. Q supplies Bond with a bunch of ridiculous gadgets, including a new Aston Martin tricked out with lasers, missiles, retractable skis and a Batmobile-style rocket thruster. An evil henchman named Necros dresses up as a milkman and strangles people with Walkman headphones while listening to one particular Pretenders song over and over again. In a notorious sequence, Bond and Milovy sled down a mountain in a cello case while evading a ski team of machine gun-toting baddies.
Directed by John Glen (his fourth consecutive effort), the film is largely a by-the-numbers affair with routine action and a slightly muddled storyline that can't seem to decide whether Koskov or Whitaker should be the lead villain. Interest picks up when Bond gets to Afghanistan and the scope of the picture expands. The climax features a pretty impressive fight scene staged on a cargo net dangling from the back of an aircraft in flight. However, the political implications of Bond joining the Mujahideen (predecessors to the Taliban) are uncomfortable in retrospect. (Rambo would make the same mistake a year later.)
When Roger Moore retired, so did series veteran Lois Maxwell. Along with its new Bond, 'The Living Daylights' also introduces a new Moneypenny, here played by Caroline Bliss, who is rather dreadful in the part. The theme song by Norwegian rockers a-ha is decent enough as a solo track, but falls flat at the beginning of the movie. John Barry contributed his final 007 score, but sadly kind of half-assed it this time. The music in the film is some of the weakest and blandest he ever composed.
Neither one of the best nor worst of the James Bond movies, 'The Living Daylights' is best appreciated in context of its placement in the franchise's history, at a time when Bond desperately needed to dial back the goofiness and adopt a more serious tone with its new star. The movie doesn't entirely achieve that goal, but was a step in the right direction.
The 'Bond 50' box set marks the first appearance of 'The Living Daylights' on the Blu-ray format. A standalone edition is also available (initially exclusive to the Target retail chain).
Even though all of the discs in the box set that had previously been released back in 2008 remain locked to Region A, first-time Blu-rays such as this one are region-free. The menus on the disc have the same layout and design as the other Bond titles.
When MGM released the James Bond Ultimate Edition DVDs back in 2006, 'The Living Daylights' was part of the batch of titles that were sourced from older high-def masters. The technicians at Lowry Digital were tasked with cleaning up the old transfer via dirt and scratch removal, and other digital tweaking, but did not perform a new 4k film scan on this movie at that time. The Blu-ray comes from the same results of those labors. Like many other Bond discs, the final product is a bit uneven.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer starts off rather poorly. In many early scenes, colors look rather drab, with flesh tones that seem too ruddy and whites (such as snow) that skew towards a bluish tinge. Edge ringing artifacts are sporadically apparent, and the picture is sometimes noisy. Lowry's grain management processes often result in distracting artifacts where grain patterns freeze on screen while the action beneath them continues to move normally.
Fortunately, the 2.35:1 image tends to improve as it goes along. By the time the action gets to the desert locales in Tangier and Afghanistan, the picture brightens up and colors appear more vivid. Resolution of fine object detail, which was adequate but rarely striking earlier, also pulls into better focus. While this is certainly not the best-looking Blu-ray in the 'Bond 50' box set, my impressions in the end are ultimately more favorable than not.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack lacks distinction. John Barry's musical score (sadly, not one of the composer's better efforts) sounds rather blasé. Sound effects and explosions are dull, without much dynamic range.
On the plus side, the 5.1 remix itself is tasteful enough. Directional effects are typically mild, but the zinging machine gun fire during the climax is pretty effective. Again, as with the video, the audio track seems to get a little livelier as the movie progresses.
The disc also offers the film's original Dolby Surround mix in lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 format, but its fidelity is even weaker. Given that the 5.1 track doesn't compromise the character of the mix, I don't see much point in downgrading to this. As underwhelming as the DTS-HD track may be, it's still the better of the two options.
The bonus features on the Blu-ray first appeared on the Ultimate Edition DVD released in 2006. Even though they're all technically encoded on disc at 1080i resolution, the majority appear to have been upconverted from standard definition.
The 22-film 'Bond 50' box set is an outstanding collection of one of cinema's most enduringly popular franchises. In the grand scheme of the series' run, 'The Living Daylights' is a middle-of-the-road Bond adventure. However, coming on the heels of the Roger Moore era, it was a welcome change of pace and a decent introduction to new star Timothy Dalton.
In technical respects, the Blu-ray's video and audio quality are neither great nor awful. The supplements are fairly compelling. 007 fans will find it worth owning whether purchased on its own or as part of the 'Bond 50' package.
James Bond will return.