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

Licence 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 would aggravate Connery loyalists the world over, brought a dash a debonair to the character which saw him star in a record-equalling seven instalments. Beyond those standard bearers, Pierce Brosnan briefly resuscitated a series that would quickly become mired in silliness, before a pumped-up Daniel Craig dragged the franchise into the post-Bourne climate, quickly matching his predecessor’s four turns as the world’s best-loved MI6 agent. Based on his number of appearances alone, Dalton would quickly become a footnote in the Bond Canon, and for many of us, our relationship with the star would be even briefer. Though The Living Daylights gave the series a commercial shot in the arm following Moore’s lowest box office outing in 1985‘s A View to a Kill, Licence to Kill managed a US domestic gross of $34,667,015, the poorest since 1963’s From Russia with Love, and that’s without adjusting for inflation. It did go up against the likes of franchise sequels Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ghostbusters II, so there is that, and the movie fared better worldwide ($156,167,015), but history expected more from a Bond movie stateside.

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 most important 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. Respected film critic Roger Ebert agreed, praising Dalton’s acting nous but suggesting that Dalton took the whole thing too seriously. The Living Daylights, though still somewhat in Moore’s fanciful shadow, was a clear departure from the veteran actor’s loverman modus — no doubt a conscious reaction to the moral hysteria surrounding the AIDS epidemic of the late-1980s —  though director John Glen had been slowly evolving the series since superlative Moore outing For Your Eyes Only, giving us some relatively muted instalments more akin to the modern action formula. It was only natural that there would be embers of the Moore persona when Dalton finally took over, with a couple of cheap puns rolling stiffly off his successor’s tongue, but Welshman Dalton put in a solid inaugural effort, and with his second outing he was really beginning to find his feet as cinema’s irrepressible super spy. Moore will always be my go-to Bond, but it’s something of a shame that Dalton wasn’t given the mantel earlier as initially planned.

Licence to Kill bed

Okay, so that would have left us without Moore efforts Octopussy and View to a Kill — for better and for worse — but imagine what Dalton could have achieved with four instalments to his name. In 1981, For Your Eyes Only was touted as Moore’s final outing as the ageing philanderer shunned the advances of nubile admirer Bibi Dahl (Lynn-Holly Johnson), and 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. In For Your Eyes Only, a movie which plays out like a serious espionage thriller, Moore would unleash his ruthless streak, turning down female admirers and glibly disposing of the likes of heartless assassin Locque by booting the helpless villain over a cliff edge. For Your Eyes Only was the complete antithesis to Lewis Gilbert’s often ludicrous Star Wars cash-in Moonraker, which had been rushed into production two years prior in a misguided effort to exploit the George Lucas revolution. It is easy to imagine Dalton heading a movie like For Your Eyes Only, giving it more of the ultra-ruthless edge it was crying 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.

In hindsight, Glen’s Licence to Kill seems somewhat ahead of its time, perhaps a reaction to an ever-evolving action formula that forged the likes of Martin Riggs, characters with added depth and personality who weren’t afraid to reveal their human side. The franchise was still playing catch-up in that respect, which is presumably why returns for the movie were so comparatively poor, but Dalton’s second outing is somewhat redolent of what the franchise would become in the 21st century. In a post Die Hard landscape, the movie features the kind of high-tech action developed during the late 1980s. It is ruthless and bloodthirsty and lacking the kind of crowd-pleasing compassion predominant in the series, a fact that would allow it the dubious honour of being the first Bond to receive a PG-13 rating, and that was only after certain scenes were cut to please the powers that be. To be fair, the movie is rather violent, a tank of bloodthirsty sharks for once living up to their reputation as an elaborate form of death. Most notable is a rather icky scene involving an air compression chamber and a prosthetic head, which was enough for the MPAA to wheel out the censorship guillotine. Before Licence to Kill, it was unthinkable that a Bond movie would be subjected to such cuts. After all, this was supposed to be family-friendly fun, not a vengeance-filled bloodbath.

Licence to Kill plane

To give the movie its grisly edge, Bond required a plot that would allow him to explore darker territory without alienating those audiences with long-established expectations. In order to achieve this, Licence to Kill would hark back to a somewhat anomalous Bond entry 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 garner 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. Licence to Kill also sheds Bond’s professional skin for a full-blooded vendetta that exposes the character’s human side, and as a consequence the distinctly inhuman qualities more befitting of a man who essentially lives to kill.

In Licence to Kill, it is Bond’s friend’s marriage that is tragically cut short by the implied rape and murder of his lovely new bride following the blockbuster escape of the movie’s serpent-eyed antagonist. 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 1980s. Dalton had demanded that characters be toned down for his tenure, telling producer Albert R. Brocolli, “If you want to believe in the fantasy on screen, then you have to believe in the characters and use them as a stepping-stone to lead you into this fantasy world.” Broccoli agreed, and Licence to Kill‘s outlaw is the personification of that mantra, as is action stalwart Davi, who is simply mesmerising as the cold and calculated Sanchez, a modern-day villain for an ever-evolving audience who would add an extra dimension to both the series at large and 007 himself.

Licence to Kill girls

In order to enact vengeance on an all-too-real threat stripped of the colourful megalomania audiences were accustomed to, Bond hands in his resignation and goes rogue, his unusually violent and personal vendetta more befitting of author Ian Fleming’s literary creation. Dalton gives us a cold fish to rival even the most unconscionable Bond villain, fully living up to his reputation as the finest actor to ever wield the Walther PPK. Here, Bond resembles a spy like never before, infiltrating Sanchez’s operation and gaining his trust as a highly skilled confidant whose experience as an 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.” And that’s Bond’s approach here: to play one side against the other, to pit one character against the next with a coldness rarely glimpsed. He is careful, controlled and oh so clever, and when he finally decides to pull the plug on Sanchez, he doesn’t stand a chance.

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 elements that fans have come to expect from one of the most successful formulas in modern cinema. Amid the violence and real-life political resonance we are treated to just enough of the gaudy and the spectacular to make this series variation fundamentally Bond. Gone are the Moore innuendos and comical characters, but the glitz and the glam remain, as do the fantastical stunts and gadgets that wowed children the world over ― not least those giant children who would never truly shed their Bond infatuation. For those who had scoffed at Moore’s cosmopolitan portrayal, Dalton was the perfect antidote, Bond’s unyielding determination and duplicitous tactics more befitting of a character first conceived way back in 1953, and there is a ruthless, borderline-misogynistic side to the character that paints Bond as the no-nonsense, alpha male spy originally intended.

Licence to Kill Bond

There are plenty of grandiose visuals here too. We are immediately treated to the aforementioned pre-credit opening, one which sees 007 and his buddy parachute into a wedding ceremony after casually taking care of some decidedly risque international affairs — a truly spectacular entrance that could only ever take place in the realms of fantasy. 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. This scene was actually the inspiration for the opening of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, another formula update that wouldn’t see the light of day for almost a quarter of a century. 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.

Of course, whenever something evolves there are elements that leave a rather disgruntling hole. After all, human beings are creatures of habit, and change often signals a passing of the guard from one generation to the next. Perhaps one of the biggest questions regarding the Dalton formula is, are the more grounded characters as memorable as days gone by? They’re certainly less caricaturistic, but for me they’re no less befitting of a spy franchise, and the likes of Sanchez are more developed and intriguing than most. Even a young Benicio del Toro, afforded little screen time as our antagonist’s bright-eyed henchman, is instantly unforgettable. The cast may not be as grandiose or as colourful as we were perhaps used to, but they remain larger-than-life personalities who possess an air of reality which allows the movie added credence, offering a first glimpse of what the evolving franchise would become post-Brosnan.

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, a ruthless narcissist who doesn’t take too kindly to betrayal. This is punctuated by the grisly fate of Anthony Zerbe’s Milton Krest, a suitably treacherous underling who defies his boss’s ethos of loyalty over money and plays victim to the movie’s most infamous scene. 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. Lamora is an oppressed figure of unrestricted beauty and Bond is the indomitable force who sets her free, though unlike previous damsels she proves herself a resourceful personality. In Licence to Kill, both women stand tall next to a commanding male presence.

Bond Dalton

Just as important to the Bond package are those titular themes synonymous with the series, and Licence to Kill is blessed with another memorable effort in Gladys Knight’s soulful title song. For years the series relied on spectacular, big band artists before testing the new wave waters during the late 1980s. Tracks such as Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill and Ah-Ha’s The Living Daylights successfully tweaked Bond’s commercial package for a new generation of fans, proving two of the most unique and memorable tracks in the series. Admittedly, Licence to Kill isn’t quite as significant; in fact, many fans of the series prefer Patti LaBelle’s end credits ballad If You Asked Me To. With Licence to Kill, Knight reverts back to early tradition somewhat, and Bond themes are generally more befitting of a woman’s touch. It may lack the sheer audacity of someone like Shirley Bassey, subdued by the kind of studio production that is very much of its era, but Knight’s soulful flourish feels both modern and vintage, embracing the contemporary by adding a touch of the traditional.

In a way, that’s how I view Dalton. This was an actor who embraced one of cinema’s most iconic characters at a time when his stock had fallen to levels never before witnessed, an outsider tasked with updating Bond to meet the sophisticated trends of modern action cinema. Ultimately, 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 warranted a much longer tenure. Dalton came close to starring in ‘Bond 17‘, which was at a pretty advanced stage before legal disputes involving MGM/UA put the series on hiatus until 1995, by which time Brosnan had been passed the Walther PPK and Dalton had moved on to other pastures.

Whether a longer tenure would have been beneficial is anyone’s guess. A bad screenplay is enough to draw the curtain on any Bond — just ask Pierce Brosnan — and a third instalment may have been enough to sully Dalton’s perfect record. In a sense, such a short tenure may actually have worked in the actor’s favour. It’s better to burn out than to fade away, and for a very brief period Dalton burned brighter than most would give him credit for, giving us a Bond of great authenticity who was ultimately ahead of his time. Ian Fleming would have been proud.

Licence to Kill logo

Director: John Glen
Screenplay: Michael G. Wilson &
Richard Maibaum
Music: Michael Kamen
Cinematography: Alec Mills
Editing: John Grover

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