Overall, I feel like there’s not much to Timothy Dalton as James Bond. He does not have an especially imposing presence on screen; he’s not particularly attractive compared to his Bond counterparts (although by no means unattractive); and the two films in which he starred were, in my opinion, middling in terms of overall quality.
After 13 Connery and Moore films filled with condescending sophistication, rampant womanizing, witty one-liners, and a good deal of campy kitsch, Dalton’s Bond seems oddly quiet and brooding. He doesn’t say much, and when he does it is not especially powerful. He’s not as skilled with the humorous quips, nor does he seem to demand the authority, charm, or sophistication of the Bonds who came before him. It was, in fact, quite strange to see Bond in a bulky leather jacket and knit sweater, rather than a suit, for much of The Living Daylights.
(photo credit: http://swaggernewyork.com/2012/11/14/6-swagger-picks-bond-inspired-pieces-every-man-needs-right-now/)
His character, especially in Licence to Kill, moves from one extreme to another--at one moment a brutally violent killer, the next a flirtatious and sweet companion. Granted, I like the dimension more emotion can bring to the character of Bond. Who knew Bond could be so driven by sentiment, when he goes rogue to avenge Felix? And I kind of like that he and Bouvier are flirtatious with each other. It was much more believable than Bond’s typical “I deserve to have you” attitude, the “we just survived a crazy mission, we should obviously have sex now” pattern of Moore’s films, or Dalton’s unconvincing sappiness and swooning over Kara in The Living Daylights (those two had some of the worst on-screen chemistry I have ever seen; not to mention, it is nearly impossible to believe that in 1987 Bond would be attracted to a woman so completely dependent and ineffectual). Moving between extremes might bring more interest to Bond, but the maneuver ultimately lacked subtlety and nuance, and for me, Dalton does not successfully convey a naturalness in either gear.
Dalton’s take on Bond was quite a jarring departure from Connery or Moore. I can understand how a generation who grew up on either of those two actors in the role might resist Dalton, relegating him to the bottom (always just above Lazenby) on any number of online polls of the “best Bond.” After Connery and Moore, you expect Bond to be larger than life, rather than fading into the background; cocky and quick-witted, not brooding and humorless; indifferent to his female conquests, not adoringly sentimental and practically monogamous (admittedly, as I have read elsewhere, this lack of promiscuity--he only sleeps with one woman in The Living Daylights, two in Licence to Kill--is attributable to an historical context dominated by the relatively early years of an AIDS epidemic).
There are those who, having gone back to view Dalton’s films with a new eye, point out that he was actually ahead of his time and predated Craig’s darker portrayal of 007, arguing that Dalton should be viewed as the best Bond ever (see, for example, this article or this one). But while they claim Dalton as the best Bond, their claim hinges on an argument that Dalton’s interpretation of Bond is merely the most authentic to the Bond created by Fleming in his original novels. In my opinion, this is not a solid base on which to rest one’s claim. Granted, I have never read any of the Bond books, so I cannot make any kind of judgment about an actor’s authenticity to them, but I imagine most of the people who watch Bond films have also never read the books. So shouldn’t the film Bonds be judged on their own merits, rather than compared to the Bond in Fleming’s books? Also, if the movies are not authentic to the books--from what I have gathered, nearly all of them simply take their titles, a few character names and plot points, and pretty much completely re-write the story--then why should an actor’s portrayal of Bond be judged on his allegiance to the books? Even more significant, only one of the books that bear the titles under which Dalton stars, The Living Daylights, was written by Ian Fleming. The other, Licence to Kill, was written by a John Gardner. So to defend Dalton’s portrayal of Bond as the best because it is closest to Fleming’s envisioning of the character seems to me to be little defense at all.
However, everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion. If someone prefers a more broody, sentimental Bond, so be it. But someone could also argue that Bond is best when womanizing, cracking jokes, and always wearing beautifully cut suits with a dashing smile. I simply feel like Timothy Dalton did not inhabit the role of Bond in the same way that his predecessors did. He never felt completely comfortable in the role from what I could see and failed to make it his own or make a real impression at all.
A few other thoughts on the films overall:
The technology has definitely improved with the times--wireless phones, desktop computers, and some seriously heavy weaponry. It makes me wonder if the Bond franchise is reaching a point where the crazy gadgets that made Bond cool in the ‘60s will soon make little impact as they become merely reality rather than futuristic fantasy. It has also contributed to some exceptionally gruesome death scenes and major violence in recently viewed films.
While I was not a particular fan of Dalton’s Bond, I think that part of the reason he is less praised than others is the fact that his films are less likely to be played on television, especially The Living Daylights. The history surrounding Britain and America’s role in Afghanistan and with the Mujahideen is problematic today, at best. But watching it forced this ignorant and confused viewer to read up on that history and actually learn something. And while I say “play it all the time; educate our populace!”, perhaps that’s exactly why it’s not played--it’s probably not a history America is comfortable fessing up to on network or cable television on a regular basis.
I have a problem with the choice of actress to replace Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny. At least Maxwell was obviously older than any of the girls Bond slept with, and I could use that as a reason for why Bond might not take advantage of her also--she could be seen as either “over 30” and therefore unattractive in Bond’s entitled mind or as something of a mother figure in later movies. As much as I hate to admit it, Caroline Bliss is simply not right for the role because she is far too attractive. Without those glasses she is totally Bond’s type, and it is hard to believe that Bond would not be seducing her any chance he gets. I guess I have to work on believing that Bond is actually capable of caring for a woman without wanting to sleep with her--that Moneypenny is maybe like a sister to him?