You Only Live Once: How Licence to Kill Dragged Bond into the 21st Century

License to Kill poster

VHS Revival grabs Bond by the lapels courtesy of Timothy Dalton.
When it comes to Bond, Timothy Dalton has found himself pretty low down in the pecking order.

As the first actor to fulfil the male fantasies of a generation, Sean Connery will always be regarded as the true original. Roger Moore, whose eyebrow-raising quips were not for everyone, brought a dash a debonair to the character which saw him star in a record-equalling seven instalments. Pierce Brosnon briefly resuscitated a franchise that would quickly become mired in silliness, before a pumped-up Daniel Craig dragged the franchise into the post-Bourne climate, matching his predecessor’s four turns as the world’s best-loved super spy. Based on his number of appearances alone, Dalton would quickly become a footnote in the Bond Canon.

For those who feel this way about the outsider restricted to only two 007 outings, I’ll boldly go on record and say it: Licence to Kill is one of the best Bond movies in the entire series. With 1987’s The Living Daylights, Dalton gave us the kind of cold and calculated agent that ruffled some critical feathers: after years of decrying Moore’s tongue-in-cheek variation, suddenly Bond was too serious. The Welshman put in a solid inaugural effort, but with his second outing he was really beginning to find his feet, and although Moore will always be my go-to Bond, it’s something of a shame that he didn’t take the mantel earlier as initially planned.

License to Kill

Okay, so that would have left us without Octopussy and A View to a Kill, but imagine what Dalton could have achieved with four efforts to his name. In 1981, For Your Eyes Only was touted as Moore’s final outing as his ageing spy shunned the advances of nubile admirer Bibi Dahl (Lynn-Holly Johnson), but the movie would paint Bond in a more serious light, giving us the kind of spy thriller that laid waste to many of the outdated embellishments of earlier entries. It is easy to imagine Dalton heading a movie like For Your Eyes Only, and giving it the ultra-ruthless edge it cried out for.

James Bond: In my business you prepare for the unexpected.

Franz Sanchez: And what business is that?

James Bond: I help people with problems.

Ironically, John Glen‘s Licence to Kill seems somewhat ahead of its time, a fact that no doubt had a bearing on those who saw Dalton as a Bond who didn’t fit the picture. In a post-Die Hard landscape, the movie features the kind of high-tech action developed in the late 1980’s. It is ruthless and bloodthirsty and lacking the kind of family-friendly compassion predominant in the series, a fact that would see it as the first Bond rated PG-13.

License to Kill Carey

In order to give it that edge, Bond required a plot that would allow the character the chance to explore darker territory, without alienating him from those audiences with long-established expectations. In order to achieve this, the movie would hark back to a somewhat anomalous Bond featuring another marginalised actor, and the cruel and untimely death of wife Tracy Di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg). 1969’s On her Majesty’s Secret Service was another poorly received outing that would go on to receive future acclaim, and mostly because of a sub-plot which exposed a human side to the globetrotting philander who was often shaken but never stirred.

In Licence to Kill, it is Bond’s friend’s marriage that is tragically cut short, not only by his death, but by the rape and murder of his lovely new bride. The man responsible for ordering those atrocities is the wonderfully ruthless Franz Sanchez, his pockmarked portrayer, Robert Davi, holding both a physical and occupational resemblance to General Manuel Noriega, an international drug trafficker whose money-laundering would finance Panama’s banana republic during the 1980’s.

License to Kill Davi

In order to enact vengeance on an all-too-real threat stripped of the colourful megalomania audiences had been used to, Bond hands in his resignation and goes rogue, his unusually violent and personal vendetta calling on that rarely seen human side. Here, Bond resembles a spy like never before, infiltrating Sanchez’s operation and gaining his trust as a highly-skilled confidant whose experience as ex-CIA proves too much of an asset to pass upon. Writer Michael G. Wilson compared the script to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, a story in which a samurai ‘without any attacking of the villain and his cohorts, only sowing the seeds of distrust, manages to have the villain bring himself down.’

Franz Sanchez: Señor Bond, you got big cojones. You come here, to my place, without references, carrying a piece, throwing around a lot of money… but you should know something: nobody saw you come in, so nobody has to see you go out.

But Bond wouldn’t be Bond without some of those fantastical embellishments, and the film retains many of the winning features that fans have come to expect from one of the most successful formulas in cinematic history. Amid the violence and real-life political resonance, we are treated to just enough of the gaudy and spectacular to make this series variation fundamentally Bond. Gone are the Moore innuendos and comical characters, but the glitz and the glam remain.

License to Kill Dalton

Before one of the most shocking deaths in Bond history, we are treated to a pre-credit opening which sees Bond and his buddy parachute into a wedding ceremony after casually taking care of business. Another wonderful stunt sees Bond escape from the clutches of his underwater foes by harpooning himself to an amphibious aircraft before water skiing aboard mid-flight. Later, a thunderous high-speed chase sees a cargo truck balance on one side to avoid an oncoming rocket. When it comes to thrills and spills, Licence to Kill has moments to rival the best of them.

Perhaps one of the biggest questions regarding the Dalton formula is, are the more grounded characters as memorable as days gone by? But the fact is, Dalton’s movies are not comparable, and judged in their own terms I think the answer is a resounding yes. The movie’s cast may not be as grandiose or as colourful as we are perhaps used to, but they remain larger-than-life personalities who possess an air of reality which gives the movie added credence, offering a first glimpse of what the evolving franchise would become post-Brosnon.

James Bond: [Pam kisses Bond] Why don’t you wait until you’re asked?

Pam Bouvier: Why don’t you ask me?

Davi is prudently monstrous as the no-nonsense Sanchez, while underling Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe) is suitably treacherous as the man who defies his boss’s ethos of loyalty over money. The prerequisite Bond Girls are also quietly spectacular. Carey Lowell’s ex-Army pilot is a strong-willed, natural beauty, and the sight of her and the lovelorn Lupe Lamora feuding over 007 is a welcome reminder of our hero’s charms in the face of so much retribution.

Bond Dalton

Just as important to the Bond package are those titular themes synonymous with the series, and the movie is blessed with a memorable effort in Gladys Knight’s soulful title song. Although quintessentially 80’s in terms of production, the movie drops the synth-pop sounds of previous instalments and goes back-to-basics, delivering a ballad reminiscent of the golden age of Bassey that is both modern and vintage.

In a way, that’s how I view Dalton. His was a character ahead of his time, an outsider tasked with updating Bond to meet the sophisticated trends of modern action cinema. In the end, he came and he went, but he acted as a valuable conduit for an evolving formula, a thankless task performed with the kind of calculated panache that deserved a much longer tenure.

Cedric Smarts




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