I have mixed feelings about James Bond, but I have to admit that he always puts on a generous show. Exotic locations, extravagant action, and offbeat characters are all constants of the Bond series. Not so constant is James Bond himself. For a while he looked like Sean Connery. Then it was George Lazenby (very briefly), and then Roger Moore.
Now he's taken on yet another face: that of Timothy Dalton, a British actor with much experience on the classical stage. Mr. Dalton does little that I could identify as acting in his first go-round as Agent 007. But he certainly looks the part, and he couldn't be more suave and debonair. Surround him with more than two hours of crash-bang adventure - which is just what director John Glen has done - and you have a package that audiences are sure to gobble up happily.
``The Living Daylights'' begins with a switch on the usual Bond heroics. A powerful Russian is defecting to the West, and Agent 007 is assigned to protect him from possible KGB assassination. Bond spots a Soviet sniper, all right, and it turns out to be - wouldn't you know - an attractive woman. Instead of assassinating the assassin, though, he simply shoots her rifle out of her hand (the way cowboys used to do in westerns) and lets her escape.
Why? Because his instinct told him to, Bond explains. His bosses are furious, thinking he let his quarry go because, well, he never could resist a pretty face. But his instinct was right all along, of course. The defection was a fraud. The assassin is really a potential friend. And Bond's ``license to kill'' hasn't expired - he just doesn't want to use it unless he really has to. Soon he's up to his eyeballs in international intrigue, facing everyone from an American gun-runner to Afghan adventurers.
``The Living Daylights'' has the usual failings of the Bond series, including a macho attitude, a weakness for violence, and a cold-war mentality. When the action moves to Afghanistan, moreover, the screenplay can't decide whether the Afghans are noble anti-Soviet freedom fighters or barbaric dope traffickers. So it gives us some of both.
Over on the plus side, the supporting cast includes such solid performers as Joe Don Baker, inimitable even when he's not in top form, and Art Malik of ``The Jewel in the Crown'' on television. And the womanizing Mr. Bond sticks to one girlfriend this time - who plays classical cello when she isn't polishing her rifle.
I talked with Timothy Dalton recently in New York, during a visit he paid to beat the drum for the movie. He told me that he's a longtime fan of the series and that his favorites are the early pictures with Sean Connery, which he finds more human than the ``technological extravaganzas'' of the Roger Moore era.
``I like those films,'' he says. ``To me they reflected the sense and spirit of Fleming's books, which are terrific adventure-romances.''
Dalton's acting experience includes years on the stage, where he played both modern and classical roles, and films as different as ``The Lion in Winter'' and ``Flash Gordon.'' How does an actor prepare for a role like James Bond, which has a whole history of movies and books behind it?
``You don't pluck a characterization out of thin air,'' says Dalton with an elegant British lilt, ``or do it in abstract, or make decisions that relate to your predecessors' work. You look at the script, and it imposes certain criteria upon you.
``Bond is a literary figure,'' he goes on, ``albeit a popular literary figure. He was born in the pages of Ian Fleming's work. Fleming was his creator. Fleming can tell you all you need to know about him. So the first step is to go those books and read them all and study them. And use your imagination and perception and intelligence to draw out what Fleming was getting at. Then, through yourself, you bring that to the particular necessities of the script you're playing.''
After steeping himself in James Bond novels and movies, Dalton qualifies as a leading expert on Agent 007. What's the essence of James Bond, in his view?
``He's a strange and fascinating paradox,'' Dalton muses. ``Obviously he contains a lot of Ian Fleming himself. It's almost as if Fleming created a man he would have liked to be - a principled, brave, tenacious, almost chivalric adventurer - and filled him with his own sensitivities and ideals and thoughts. Bond is a paradox. He's described as a machine. But he's a sensitive, thoughtful, intelligent machine. That's a contradiction. Machines don't feel. But on every page Fleming is talking about how he feels.''
Dalton says this contradiction - between functioning like a machine and feeling like a human being - is most fascinating when it affects Bond's personal relationships.
``He's a man who, in the nature of his job, cannot possibly have an emotional involvement with somebody,'' says the star. ``On a mission, when you're living in a dangerous and tense world - when your life might end at any given moment - you can't afford that kind of involvement.
``But having pushed Bond to one extreme, Fleming creates in him its opposite: the deep need for love and affection. Two pages down the road of any story, he's met some lady in distress, or a victim or endangered person - and fallen in love with her. So he's got these wonderful contradictions and opposites, which make a very rich and complex man. That, to me, was a terrific discovery.''
According to Dalton, the key to a successful James Bond adventure is keeping the right tension between Bond as a heroic figure and Bond as a living, breathing personality we can all identify with.
``It strikes me that if you hope for audience involvement and identification,'' he says, ``you've got to start with somebody who is human and complex and real. If you want to fly into fantasy, you've got to take off from the ground somewhere. The more you anchor the work in something that's real and human, the more [audiences] will believe the fantasy, the adventure, the excitement. And the more they'll get involved in the humor!''