A subject that seems to regularly come up in conversation at Fantasmo is who is/was the best James Bond. I confess that while I enjoy the films quite a bit, I’m more of a casual fan in the sense that I haven’t done much study into their history beyond what I’ve picked up from the occasional documentary or commentary. For some reason they’ve just never inspired me to the extent that I want to do a lot of independent research. Having said that, I have seen them all numerous times over the years and certainly have an opinion on which actor did the best job in bringing Bond to life. There are several criteria one may use in forming an opinion including such traits as sense of humor, ability to carry off action, charm and cool, and faithfulness to the source material among others. Where your opinion lies probably has a good deal to do with where you place the most value. Interestingly I think that each of the actors who have portrayed Bond tend to have their own unique area of focus. It’s not like there were two of them who had a hard emphasis on humor for example. In my own case, I place value on a gritty portrayal that tends to mirror the novels. With that in mind there’s just one man who has done it right . . . Timothy Dalton.
Now some of you may think I’m picking Dalton just to be different, but let me assure you that’s not the case. You see Dalton tends to get a pretty bad rap in my opinion, and part of that is due to the fact that his films were rather poorly received at the box office. In fact they almost killed the franchise, but that is no reason to down his performance. To understand why Dalton’s Bond efforts drew such a lukewarm reaction, one has to look at where the series was when Dalton came along. For over a decade (1973-1985) the face of Bond had been Roger Moore, and he had a pretty tremendous run. Up until the last few films Moore’s reign saw record attendance, and he certainly was able to carry the torch of popularity that Connery had passed along. The thing is Moore’s Bond was quite a bit different than Connery’s in that he played the humor to the fullest, and often at the expense of the more serious side of Bond. Connery without question injected some humor into the role, but he balanced that with an air of toughness that let you know he was very capable. Moore on the other hand tended to delve into slapstick, and (for my money) never completely sold the notion that he was a capable tough guy. But he was fun to watch and audiences ate it up for better or worse.
By the time 1985 rolled around Moore had unquestionably become a little long in the tooth to be playing Bond. The quality of the Bond films had been on a steady decline in the early 80’s and his final outing, A View to A Kill, was just plain tired (he looked it and the movie felt it). The only thing that stood out was the awesome theme song by Duran Duran. Unfortunately one still had to sit through the rest of the film after the song ended. Even the presence of Christopher Walken as the villainous Zorin couldn’t save it! So audiences’ most recent experience with Bond had been quite lackluster, which set the stage for a mood of indifference as the franchise soldiered on. But the potential for disaster was also heightened by the fact that a generation had come to know Bond as a tongue-in-cheek hero and king of one-liners. While the memory of Connery was still present, there’s no question that the audiences of the disco 70’s and outrageous 80’s were expecting a hero in line with what they had experienced for the majority of those eras (1971’s horrendous Diamonds Are Forever as the lone exception). One only needs to look at the incredible popularity of the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, etc. to conclude that this was the case (note Steven Seagal is not included in that list because he’s all business all the time).
So into a flailing franchise that had been saturated in humor for a good, long while walked a new sheriff. From the outset Timothy Dalton came in looking to steer Bond back into the character depicted in the novels – all business with just a dash of humor here and there. And on that front he succeeded with flying colors. The Bond of The Living Daylights was an entirely different animal than audiences had previously experienced. True Connery could be serious at times, but that was always somewhat overshadowed by his playboy image (the same could also be said of the underrated George Lazenby). Dalton barely has time for the ladies, and is pretty much a one woman guy in his Bond outings. As a result the focus of the films is more on Bond getting the job done, and usually in a rather no nonsense fashion. Furthermore, Dalton’s brooding physical appearance only serves to enhance his serious performance. Recently Fantasmo All-Star Chris J. brought up the fact that Dalton actually looks like a villain, and he has a point. Dalton has a look that makes you wonder whether or not you can trust him, which makes his actions unpredictable to an extent. One always had a certain sense about how far the previous Bonds would go, but Dalton has moments in the first outing (and very much so in the second) that leave the viewer uncertain (e.g. threatening to kill John Rhys-Davies for a suspected transgression).
Dalton’s performance and demeanor certainly rankled the Moore crowd, but for folks (the seemingly few of us) who wanted a menacing Bond it was just what the doctor ordered. And as far as Dalton’s appearance being too villainous . . . well it worked for Charles Bronson! While the film made a decent $50 million at the box office, it was a far cry from the heyday receipts during the Moore era. Despite the disappointing debut, the Bond producers (to their credit) stuck with Dalton and the darker themes for the next Bond outing License to Kill. In fact, License to Kill was probably the grimmest Bond film since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (which is arguably the best Bond film of them all). The film opens with beloved Bond sidekick Felix Leiter getting fed to a shark after his new bride is killed in front of him. Then Bond resigns from the service to undertake a revenge quest against the villainous Robert Davi. Seriously, minus the big budget and Bond prestige this is the stuff of a 70’s revenge flick. When License to Kill is playing it straight it really works. The opening scenes are appropriately intense, Bond’s flight from his superiors is well done, and his staging of Davi’s downfall is satisfying – especially how he sets up the demise of Anthony Zerbe (The Omega Man). Possibly the most gratuitous use of a decompression chamber in cinema history!
Alas, likely due to the reception of The Living Daylights, the unfortunate decision to inject inappropriate humor into the film rears its ugly head now and then. And I don’t mean a here and there quip, I’m talking about dreadfully miscalculated blockbuster fun moments. Just to give you the most egregious example, the end has Felix Leiter (minus a leg and a wife) trading barbs over the phone with James (who has just burnt Robert Davi to a crisp) as though nothing ever happened. Come on! Given what they’ve gone through and their backgrounds these guys should be tracking down Davi’s most extended relatives for payback. Nope, just some lighthearted banter and business as usual. And don’t even get me started on the uncalled for decision to make Wayne Newton a central player in the climax of the film. You’ve got to be kidding me Broccoli family! Were Robert Goulet and Steve Lawrence busy or something?!? Nothing can bring a serious film down faster than kitsch casting, and this one is no exception. I’m sure this sounded like a fun idea when the producers were sitting around discussing the project, but it was no fun for those of us who had to sit through the film.
In the final analysis License to Kill was an unsuccessful attempt to marry the humor of the Moore era with the new Dalton sensibility. The result was a film that failed to satisfy either crowd, and the box office returns were dismal (among the worst ever for a Bond film). The longest lapse between installments followed as the producers regrouped and gave audiences a period to forgive and more importantly forget. The truly unfortunate thing is that the blame for the debacle often gets laid on Dalton’s shoulders, when in fact he turned in another amazing performance. The real problem was the misguided attempt by the producers to veer away from the serious tone that was in the process of being established. The Living Daylights was a change in direction and audiences just needed a chance to absorb that. Returns for the film were solid, and had they kept on track with License to Kill the audience would have likely continued to build. Sigh. Instead we had one near perfect Dalton film, and another one that was a missed opportunity for greatness. The even greater tragedy is that we then got a decade of blow-dry Bond Brosnan who, despite his popularity, was in my opinion the most vacuous Bond. Even when he tried to do serious (Die Another Day) it was a woefully half-hearted effort compared to Dalton.
If you haven’t seen the Dalton Bonds in a while, I highly recommend you revisit them. They play a little better now in a time when gritty heroes are more commonplace. Obviously the Bond folks realize this as well, as the Daniel Craig Bond is traveling in that direction. The jury is still out on him with me, as he plays it a little too rough around the edges. He’s all brute force without the clever . . . but hopefully that will come. It may be surprising (given my feelings about Dalton) that my favorite Bond film is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. That’s because it strikes the perfect tonal balance between serious and fun, and gave us the greatest ending of a Bond film to date (which Craig’s Casino Royale echoes with less success). Interestingly the producers offered the film to Dalton before Lazenby, but Dalton turned it down feeling he was too young at the time to play the worldly Bond. Maybe he was right, but I suspect On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have been a bona fide masterpiece had he taken the part! Oh well.