Nobody gives Timothy Dalton credit for saving the Bond franchise, but in essence he did just that with 1987's The Living Daylights. He brought the series back down to earth, and for the first time in a long time, the character of James Bond was recognizable as Ian Fleming's creation.
And it really was Dalton's doing. Writer Richard Maibaum and director John Glen had prepped the film as just another Roger Moore outing, but when Dalton unexpectedly became the new Bond, the whole thing was retooled, partly simply to fit Dalton, obviously a younger, tougher presence, but largely at Dalton's insistence--he'd read Fleming's books, and that was the character he hoped to play.
The Living Daylights may not be top-tier Bond--the plot is absurdly complicated, the humor often feels forced, the whole thing runs at least twenty minutes too long--but it represents the first time in damn near two decades that it seemed like the curators of the franchise actually expected audiences to care about what they were seeing, when the storytelling and characterizations were more than rote--when, in other words, the film attempted to function as an organic whole, not a random assemblage of proven elements.
Yes, the Moore years had been popular. And most of his movies were fun, when viewed on the proper level. (Hey, I even like Moonraker. Kind of.) But they continued to be released to diminishing returns--audiences still showed up, but they likely went home feeling empty. In the era of Star Wars and the Indiana Jones pictures, spectacle for its own sake wasn't enough anymore.
The common perception is, Dalton's two Bond outings were failures, and he nearly killed the series. In fact, The Living Daylights was a success on a par with Moore's later outings--the glory days of the series were simply behind it. And while License To Kill did underperform financially, it was due more to a crowded marketplace and poor advertising--though not officially based on a Fleming novel, it contained more of a feel for his work than any movie since On Her Majesty's Secret Service. And it likely gave the producers some sort of baseline when they rebooted the franchise--keep the serious tone of the Dalton pictures while re-adding the elegance of the Connery years.
And it worked, mostly. The Pierce Brosnan era was certainly the most financially successful the series had been in ages (though not as successful as often claimed--I'll try getting to that in a future post), but creatively, they sure were a mixed bag. Goldeneye was about as good as it could possibly have been, and I still say time will confirm my view that The World Is Not Enough is one of the best of all, but Brosnan's run was marked by a thin patina of flop sweat, as if the producers weren't quite sure of themselves, tossing in elements at will, consciously tooling the character and his stories to what they thought audiences wanted, not to what the filmmakers wanted.
Sadly for Brosnan, his tenure ended in a blaze of bad faith, as Die Another Day tries so desperately to be all things to all audiences, it fails on even the simplest level: it's downright unwatchable, from the cartoonish CGI to the already-dated speedramping and AVID-crazed editing to the unwanted cameo from past-her-prime icon Madonna. It's easy enough to see what it tried to do: Combine a Fleming-styled grittiness with the broad spectacle of the Moore era. But it has no idea how to do either, and fails miserably at both.
It did okay at the box office, but so had recent Bond knock-offs like xXx. And just because it made money doesn't mean anyone liked it. If felt like just another disposable entertainment, there and gone. After being the Bond that recaptured the public's interest, would Pierce Brosnan kill the series?
No. But first, Brosnan's Bond would have to die.