The good, the bad, and the Bond: Re-evaluating 007 – Licence to Kill
DALTON’s back and this time he has a licence, to Kill! Fun Fact: This was the last Bond film before they brought down the Berlin Wall. Yeah, that’s right, you’re getting political context with your entertainment. Anyway, the review.
Jozef Raczka: Feel free to disagree with me (and please comment if you do) but, for my money, Licence to Kill is the best Bond film of the 80s, purely because it carries on with Dalton’s first James Bond joint, The Living Daylights, but then turns out to not really be a Bond film. I’m always quite fond of Jim’s more low-key adventures, with Live and Let Die still being a fond favourite. What’s great about this one is that the main villain isn’t a world-invading megalomaniac; he’s a drug dealer, a big deal of one, but his main crime: He escapes from prison and hacks up Felix Leiter (recurring Bond ally, played by David Hedison) and Leiter’s wife, Della (Priscilla Barnes), on their wedding night!
This is the closest the Bond series has come to being a plain ol’ revenge flick, Dalton playing the brooding hero trying to bring down Sanchez’s (a cooly effective Robert Davi) operation from the inside. This is almost the prototype of Craig’s run with barely any gadgets, no shitty puns and a well paced build of foreboding atmosphere. Of course this being 80s Bond, there are still a couple of shonky touches. Some of them are more bearable, like the ever wonderful Desmond Llewelyn as Q, and some of them are less so (the still shitty 80s opening credits). Fortunately, nothing in the film comes close to J.W. Pepper levels of inscrutably terrible.
Dalton is at his best here. Stripped of any need to act like Moore or Connery, he stalks the film, a naturalistic angel of death. No arch winks to camera or campy stupidity here; he’s a bruiser and he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty (even going so far as to do a lot of his own stunt work, much to the impressive fluidity of removing those awkward cuts to stunt person). There are moments where he seems a bit more awkward and less self-assured than others but they are well-timed, usually whenever Bond is forced to display his humanity. Also, the little callback to the tragic shooting of Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a lovely little touch and one of the few cases I can think of where they successfully canonise all the Bonds as somehow the same character.
Upon release, and still a bit to this day, people find Licence to Kill to be too violent, too brutal for a Bond film, but that seems to ignore the fact that this is Bond in the era of Scarface. In fact, let’s face it, Sanchez is basically Tony Montana. His is a world of extremes and the jarring quality of the over-violence puts the audience successfully in Bond’s shoes.
I could keep talking about all the reasons this is brilliant: the South American locales look great, there’s a colourful role for young Benecio Del Toro as a sadistic heavy, Pam Bouvier is one of the better Bond girls – an ex-army pilot, CIA informant who acts as neither damsel-in-distress or unwilling sexual object, and (yes, this time again) Gladys Knight’s opening theme is a glorious, soaring throwback to ‘Goldfinger’ that may just better Bassey’s earlier effort. Overall… I’m going over my word limit. It’s right good, watch it.
Daniel Abbott: The Living Daylights remains one of the finest Bond films in the canon. It’s the perfect blend of customary cheese and Timothy Dalton’s invigorating, brooding take on the central role. It was a breath of fresh air after the overstayed welcome of Roger Moore – the swinging house party that just kept going for 12 long years – and provided a thrilling promise of so much more to come.
Sadly, the Welsh dreamboat only got one more chance to step into 007’s shoes. Licence to Kill, his second and final outing, is one of the more divisive entries in the series. Upon its original release in 1989, critics were decidedly mixed in their response to its profoundly dark tone and graphic violence, a stark contrast to the gentle, reassuring camp of Moore’s later years. 26 years on, it’s not hard to see why.
It’s the only Bond film to ever receive a 15 certificate, for a start. When men are fed wholesale to a shark – as longtime Bond associate Felix Leiter (the returning David Hedison) is – there’s none of the old, Blofeldian humour attached. It is stark, bloody and grim. The Florida Keys setting and drug-trafficking focus resonates with the cocaine ore-occupation of the late 80s, and Robert Davi’s Sanchez is an imposing, surprisingly complicated villain.
Dalton’s Bond, already brimming with pathos, reaches new heights of intricacy when, confronted by the body of Della, he vows silent, bloody vengeance on the perpetrators. It’s a subtle, tragic mirror to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, granting Bond the chance for revenge he never received on a friend’s behalf. This is all well and good, but when John Glen (his final stand in the Bond director’s chair) flagrantly inserts punning one-liners, it all crumbles a bit.
Dalton never looked comfortable delivering these quips, and, despite the darker context around them, his intensity never quite gels with the material. The one-liners deflate the mood rather than relieve it; the same applies to Desmond Llewelyn’s beloved Q, whose presence is ill-advised at best and tonally marauding at worst. He’s there to provide levity and, for the most part, he succeeds, but old Desmond looks a little lost and fragile amidst the violence.
It’s a problem that’s easily overlooked in The Living Daylights’ joie de vivre, but here it’s an unwelcome reminder of servitude to the franchise’s genetic quirks. When Licence to Kill cuts loose and immerses itself in the surrounding brutality – “Don’t you want to know why?” – it’s bold, cold and crunchily satisfying. It manages to accomplish what Quantum of Solace failed to do in providing a plausible narrative for Bond to, truly, go rogue.
Overall, there’s a whole lot to love about Licence to Kill. Michael Kamen’s score is superb and melancholic (even if the title theme, good as it is, doesn’t fit the film); Benicio del Toro’s knife-wielding Dario is deliciously sadistic, and even the women receive a good deal more depth than usual. The action scenes are also fantastic, particularly the opening and closing scenes, given more punch by the bloodier stakes.
It’s just a shame that Dalton didn’t get the third shot he deserved, one that might have reconciled his steely approach and franchise tradition perfectly; it was a chance that both Connery and Moore received, after all. Regardless, his double-whammy remains underappreciated, even now, and laid down the gauntlet for any successor. Here’s to you, Timothy.
Editor’s Note: We’ve had a few technical hiccups (at least on my end) for this one, so hopefully this will actually stay published. This time. Maybe.