Wow. This is fantastic. It’s an expertly structured adventure full of intrigue, double-crosses and plot twists, taking Ian Fleming’s best short story as the basis and also building on the promise of For Your Eyes Only. At first, we’re in a shadowy world of the KGB, the Cold War and defections across the Iron Curtain – but the movie then pulls an audacious trick when you realise that’s all subterfuge. This is a *thriller*, not a frivolous throwaway. The script doesn’t assume the audience is stupid: we’re expected to keep up with the plot and wonder what’ll happen next. There’s a real drive and momentum to the whole thing, and the silliness levels are vastly, vastly reduced. Only the lack of any decent female characters prevents it getting full marks. Nine key rings that beep when you whistle out of 10.
Bond: After Roger Moore retired, Pierce Brosnan was cast at the new James Bond – but then had to drop out when he couldn’t get free from a TV contract. Sam Neill also screen-tested for the part. Eventually Timothy Dalton – who’d been considered for the role as early as 1968 – won the job. He’s my favourite James Bond. He’s tough, arrogant, suave, a bit of a snob, easily irritable, and takes things personally – he’s a fascinating and plausible human being, not a super man secret agent who’s emotionally unaffected by the story.
Villains: We get a trio of them. Georgi Koskov (the charismatic Jeroen Krabbé) is a Russian general who stages a defection so he and his cohorts can make a fortune trading in drugs. His partner in crime is Brad Whittaker, a loon of a disgraced-soldier-turned-arms-dealer with a private army and delusions of grandeur – he’s played by Joe Don Baker, who a couple of years earlier had dazzled in Edge of Darkness (this is not the last time we’ll see him in a Bond movie). Finally, their personal assassin is the blond, athletic Necros (body: Andreas Wisnieswki, voice: Kerry Shale), who likes to listen to The Pretenders on his Walkman before strangling people with the headphone cord. (General Pushkin, played by John Rhys Davies, is set up by the bad guys as the film’s villain. It’s a shame this character wasn’t General Gogol as originally planned – the actor was ill and the story had to be rejigged – because it would have been even more interesting to have it be someone we’ve known for several movies.)
Girls: Sorry to be indelicate, but the first woman this new James Bond meets – a bored socialite lounging about on a yacht – might very well be the least attractive ‘Bond girl’ in the whole series. The film’s female lead is Kara Milovy, played by Maryam d’Abo. She’s a naive young woman with a Cassandra Trotter haircut who is manipulated by every single man in her life (including Bond). The performance is good enough, but it’s a real shame we don’t get a stronger female character: surely the wet and gullible Kara was dated even in 1987. Bond’s friend at the Czechoslovakia pipeline has a massive bust, which she uses to distract her boss. Whittaker’s North Africa holiday home is populated by clichéd bikini babes sitting round his pool. Pushkin’s wife (or mistress?), Rubavitch, is played by Virginia Hey from Mad Max 2. (As mentioned, Pushkin was originally going to series regular General Gogol. Gogol’s secretary in The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy was called Rublevitch – coincidence or was this going to be the same woman?) Two cuties kidnap Bond and take him at gunpoint to see Felix Leiter (why they do this rather than just ask him is not clear!): one of them is Catherine Rabett, who later played the lesbian Cissy Meldrum in You Rang, M’Lord?
Regulars: We might have a new, younger Bond – but it’s still the same M and Q. In the pre-titles sequence, the former has a wood-panelled office built into an aeroplane (and is then surprised when the papers on his desk go flying after the door has been opened). Q, meanwhile, gets to go out to Austria to help with Koskov’s ‘defection’ and also has a flash Whitehall workshop. One of the many gadgets in the lab is a boombox that fires rockets: “It’s something we’re making for the Americans,” he gleefully tells Bond. “It’s called a ghettoblaster!” Lois Maxwell has now retired from the role of Miss Moneypenny (she was 17 years older than Dalton, so the flirting would have been interesting). The part has been recast with Caroline Bliss. She’s rather nondescript in an underwritten role, and oddly doesn’t have any scenes at all with M (or indeed outside of Q’s lab). Sir Fredrick Gray appears again, as does Gogol very briefly. John Terry (24, Lost) is pretty wooden as a bland Felix Leiter: he and Bond have no chemistry at all.
Action: Bond and two other double-oh agents parachute onto Gibraltar in the opening sequence: it’s a training mission that goes very wrong. The action highlight is Bond (clearly actually Timothy Dalton) clinging onto the roof of a speeding jeep. Necros’s single-handed assault on MI6’s safe house is fantastic (he poses as a milkman to get past the security gate, then uses exploding milk bottles to cause havoc). There’s a good sequence featuring Bond’s gadget-heavy, winterised, B-reg Aston Martin V8 Vantage, followed by Bond and Kara sliding down a mountain while sitting in a cello case. Bond gets chased across Tangier rooftops, a scene which now feels very Bourne. There’s a quick fight with Soviet prison guards. The Mujahideen attacks an air base while Bond steals a cargo plane full of opium – Bond and Necros end up brawling while dangling out the back of the aircraft. Bond’s confrontation with Brad Whittaker at the climax is, remarkably, the only time the two characters meet.
Comedy: The bickering between Bond and MI6 contact Saunders is really nicely played by Dalton and Thomas Wheatley, and because of that Saunders’s death has a real punch. There are numerous examples of laconic humour in the movie… “Why didn’t you learn the violin?” Bond snaps when he and Kara struggle with her cello case. “We have an old saying too, Georgi,” he says to the bad guy. “And you’re full of it.” Later, after breaking out of their cells, Kara exclaims, ‘We’re free!” – Bond looks at her wearily and says, “We’re inside a Russian air force base in the middle of Afghanistan.” One of the few old-style ‘gags’ in the film is a moment where a shower block gets knocked over, revealing two naked soldiers.
Music: The score is John Barry’s final work on the series – and is an absolute doozy. It has an underlying electronic feel at times, but is still very James Bond-ish. (Barry gets a nice cameo at the end of the movie, playing a conductor.) A-ha’s title song is one of the series’s best. There are also a couple of specially written songs from The Pretenders in the film (which are also often quoted in the incidental music).