Timothy Dalton’s more intense and serious interpretation of James Bond has won him many fans, as they see his version as the closest to Ian Fleming’s original creation. Of course, many other people found him too dour for an escapist action adventure film, which is also why The Living daylights and Licence to kill are not as light hearted as other Bond films. However, whereas The Living daylights has several things in common with the later Roger Moore films (mainly the cold war era politics), Licence to kill follows a path not trod by any Bond film before. Not until Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, in the 2000s, would any Bond films follow such a vengeful story. In some ways this is the film Diamonds are forever could have been, if Broccoli and Saltzman had decided to do a true tale of bloody revenge following the death of Tracy Bond in On Her Majesty’s secret service. Those fans who were once worried about Quentin Tarantino directing Bond and turning it into a Kill Bill style bloodbath may well wonder what he would have done with the aftermath of Tracy’s death. In Licence to kill, it is Felix Leiter’s new wife Della who is murdered, and Felix himself is seriously injured. Bond is Felix’s best man, who returns to his friend’s home after he realises Felix’s nemesis- the drug baron Sanchez- has escaped gaol and is out to avenge his past failure. He finds the body of Felix’s wife and his friend is also there, but close to death.
Earlier there is also mention of Tracy herself, when Bond is teased about whether he will marry. Della throws Bond her garter, but he shakes his head with a sad smile and walks away. “He was married”, explains Felix, “but it was a long time ago”. This shows Bond as a troubled individual, full of hurt and loss but who is dedicated to the job at hand- that is all he has. When the story takes time to give the character that kind of depth, he becomes far more interesting than just a bloke in a tuxedo who makes witty one-liners. Here, as in On Her Majesty’s secret service, we get a glimpse of that side of Bond. We need him to be an exceptional hero, who defies death at every turn, but we need him to be fallible and have at least one foot in reality. Some may disagree, but Bond in the films should not be a parody of Fleming’s creation- rather a wittier extension of what Fleming created. The later films made with Pierce Brosnan in the role, in comparison; offer us a far less subtle and unconvincing presentation of these hidden traits.
This film bucks many a trend, and at times seems far removed from the usual style and content of a James Bond film. It’s a hard hitting picture and the only one of the films to have earned a “15” classification certificate in the UK, for its violence one would expect. Much of the violence comes from within the villain’s own ranks too, as he exterminates all who fail him, often in very bloody and gruesome ways. Sanchez is a ruthless and despicable villain, bloated with his own sense of self-importance. Robert Davi absolutely embraces the part and makes him a very plausible creation. Because he is a rich drug dealer, he is far more close to reality than some of the megalomaniacs that have appeared in the series over the years.
Here Dalton gives the performance of his admittedly short Bond career, although I did prefer his more traditional approach in The Living daylights. He played Bond rather like a humourless version of Lazenby; in Licence to kill he plays him like Sean Connery could have played him in 1971- as an angry and determined agent out for revenge and justice. He swears a lot in this film too, and earns the dubious honour of being responsible for the series’ bluest dialogue. Admittedly, this is Bond, so he’s not going to be using the ‘F’ word. He had class after all. But the irony is, when Dalton swears, you really like him and want his Bond to win through (not that it was ever going to end any differently). It makes him one of us, and I kind of like that. Dalton is the Welsh no-nonsense Bond after all, so his weary “Piss off” to his would be interrogators is perfect for his interpretation. It also gives him a welcome air of black humour, which makes him funny, and he never was in The Living daylights. “Watch the birdie, you bastard!” and “Turn the bloody machine off!” are two other classic angry Dalton moments. You could never imagine Pierce Brosnan getting so shockingly vocal, and it remains (oddly) one of Dalton’s strengths. We believe in his Bond, even if we don’t like him, and in a story of revenge like this it is never out of place. Bond had never been so cold and ruthless since Dr. No, and while Dalton displays moments of dashing romance as he did in The Living daylights, this outing is a far grimmer affair.
It is a back to basics Bond as well, in the sense that there are hardly any gadgets or flippant humour. Ironically, Desmond Llewelyn, who is gadget master ‘Q’, makes his largest appearance in any Bond film. His extended cameo, as he joins Bond in the field, is most welcome, if a bit implausible. ‘Q’ isn’t the most able bodied person to help Bond. And after all, what are the chances of ‘Q’ getting that secret service gadget bag through customs? Carey Lowell is a spirited romantic pairing, as CIA agent Pam Bouvier. She’s a determined girl, and her rapport with Bond is pleasing to watch. She also has a good knack of handling guns and vehicles! Rather less inspiring to watch, is Sanchez’s ill treated girlfriend, played by Talisa Soto. She fills her place in the narrative though, and shows Sanchez up as a true bad guy. There are some nicely handled romantic moments there too, which Dalton always looks more sincere about, compared to his predecessors… “Why don’t you wait until you’re asked?”… “Why don’t you ask me?” And David Hedison returns as Felix, becoming the first actor to play Leiter on screen twice (Hedison had previously appeared in Live and let die in 1973). It’s good to see him again as well, and he actually gives Felix an air of familiarity, which we need in this film if we are to care about his plight. Robert Brown and Caroline Bliss make their final appearances as ‘M’ and Moneypenny respectively. Whether either of them was missed in the long term is perhaps a discussion for another time, but Bliss is only in this film for a matter of seconds. Whereas ‘Q’ gets more screen time, Moneypenny has the shortest of all her appearances. Blink and you’ll miss her.
Licence to kill does fulfil the promise of making Dalton’s Bond more reminiscent of Fleming’s literary hero. Dalton’s portrayal is right on the money as far as that’s concerned. The trial of revenge ultimately takes Bond to an explosive climax on a mountain road with some out of control tanker trucks. The stunt work, as always, is exceptional. Licence to kill is a bold and assertive adventure, which proves how adaptable the Bond formula can be. Sadly, it often looks a bit cheap (which is strange, given its $40 million budget; $10 million up on The Living daylights). Perhaps it’s down to the grittier presentation. John Glen’s direction is as reliable as ever, and this was his fifth consecutive Bond, although it was to be his last. Also making his final contribution is Maurice Binder, who supplies some decent title sequence graphics. Sadly, Maurice passed away just two years later.
The music this time around is by Michael Kamen, and is a forgettable but serviceable score. John Barry is missed (yet again), but in time David Arnold would provide a trusty replacement in the more recent films. Barry would never return to score a Bond film, although he would continue to provide music for many other blockbusters up until his death in 2011. Fortunately, Michael Kamen has never returned to score a Bond film either. Although I do like the theme song, by Gladys Knight, which is very Barry-esque and was quite a big hit at the time. It is worth mentioning at this point how important and influential both Binder and Barry were to the series as a whole. As with Ken Adams and Terence Young, their creative legacy lives on in the style of the latest Bond films. Without them, the celluloid world of James Bond would be far different.
I think Licence to kill is a great thriller, if you can get past any possible reservations regarding the style and content. It was the first Bond film not to take its title from an original Fleming story too (although as is usual, several elements were lifted from various Fleming books). However, it’s still a much darker story than usual. This is quite a change from the usual Bond fare. Because of that, and its bold attempt to try something new, I believe it warrants some praise and attention. But, whatever I think, Licence to kill was not a massive hit at the box office, in relation to past Bond films. Whereas The Living daylights had grossed over $191,000,000 worldwide (beating the takings for Roger Moore’s last two films), Licence to Kill struggled to reach over $156,000,000. Not a flop by any means, but lousy promotion and a less ‘traditional’ storyline than usual had perhaps put audiences off paying money to see it. But despite that disappointment, and still struggling for a consistent style and direction, the Timothy Dalton era looked set to continue into the ‘90s. But the next few years would throw that possibility into serious doubt.
Uncertain times where ahead for the James Bond film series.