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Everyone's Right About Some Films

CRITIC AT LARGE

August 04, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

How is it, somebody in the audience always asks, that the critics and the paying customers see movies so differently? Who, the questioner is suggesting, are the critics writing for?

What the question usually alludes to is, let's say, the reported fact that "Space Dracula," which the critics loathed, is breaking records everywhere and grossed $4 million in its first weekend in Albania alone.

The latest James Bond expedition, "The Living Daylights," is a current case in point. Many critics, here and abroad, have greeted it with sighs of ennui unmatched since the last time Harold Stassen announced he would run for President again.

But the film is said to have opened in Europe to better business than any of the previous Bond films and it appears to be finding and pleasing audiences domestically, even though it is the 15th in a series now a quarter-century old. (It is the 17th Bond outing if you count "Casino Royale" and "Never Say Never Again," which were done under different auspices.

The quick and easy answer to this divided response is simply that the critics live for the thrill of the new, while the customers may find pleasure and comfort in the familiar. It is the difference between trying new dishes in new restaurants and returning to a place where the food and service were grand before, or several times before.

Nobody is wrong. The critics aren't wrong to want originality and daring, new themes and new approaches to excellence; that's the name of their game. But viewers are entitled to the satisfactions of the familiar, especially when it meets their expectations of a high professional luster, as "The Living Daylights" does.

Critics and audiences don't invariably disagree, of course, in their enthusiasms or their dismissals. What the critics do when things are working right is to convey the excitement of the unfamiliar and the daring--the seekings after excellence where it hadn't been found before--and to take the audiences along with them.

The critics are also right to complain that there isn't enough originality around, and that too many remakes, sequels and extensions are finally going to bore the larger audience as well. The law of diminishing returns has not been repealed, even though Agent 007 appears to have a special license to ignore it.

The appeal of the Bond films is a fascinating study. Part of that appeal is undoubtedly that, over their 25 years, the production team led by Cubby Broccoli has achieved a certain mastery of the preposterous--preposterous women, villains, gadgets, action, plots, dialogue. And a preposterous hero.

Bond himself over the years and in various hands has gone from the exceptional (but not quite incredible) lone operative in an old fictional tradition to the superheated, superstud superhero who is light years beyond reality, half matinee idol, half robospy.

What is at least mildly interesting about "The Living Daylights" is the evidence of some minor course corrections, as if to pull Bond back from the preposterous to the mildly fantastic, possibly en route to the merely improbable.

It has not happened a moment too soon. The series had gee-whizzed and joshed itself into several corners and the extravagances had become wearying, like a dinner that begins with a double-rich chocolate mousse and proceeds via pie a la mode and three other desserts to a chocolate sundae finale.

The mechanicals and the stunt folk had taken over; Bond had become a quippy figure strolling through. Even in its own escapist terms, the series had been losing that involving, embracing human dimension without which no movie from Mickey Mouse on up can do without.

Timothy Dalton, earnest and purposeful to the point of stuffiness, is a Bond much closer to Fleming's original. If Bond's hedonism had taken over from the heroics as the films went along, you might have the feeling that this Bond is all business. He might even leave a martini unfinished--shaken \o7 or\f7 stirred--if duty called.

What will become of Bond's love life remains to be seen. I hazard a guess he will remain untethered, because part of his appeal has always been that he has no ties, even if, at tender moments, he wishes he did.

He is, as ever, a potent fantasy figure who still gets to audiences, if not--17 outings later--to the critics.

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