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Dalton’s (Premature?) Swan Song: Remembering “Licence to Kill” on its 30th Anniversary

July 24, 2019 - 4:58 pm   |   by

“With his wealth of dramatic stage experience, Timothy Dalton seemed ideally suited to this harsher take on Bond, bringing both depth and sensitivity to the character while creditably articulating his quiet rage and single-mindedness. This was Bond, but not as we knew him — now much closer to the tone, if not the setting, of the original Fleming texts.” — Thomas A. Christie, author of The James Bond Movies of the 1980s

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 30th anniversary of the release of Licence to Kill, the 16th (official) cinematic James Bond adventure and second (and final) entry to feature Timothy Dalton as Agent 007.

Our previous celebratory 007 articles include Moonraker, Quantum of Solace, From Russia with Love, Never Say Never Again, Live and Let Die, Octopussy, Casino Royale (1967), Tomorrow Never Dies, Die Another Day, Dr. No, The Living Daylights, The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, Casino Royale, For Your Eyes Only, Thunderball, GoldenEye, A View to a Kill, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Goldfinger, and 007… Fifty Years Strong.

The Bits continues the series with this retrospective featuring a Q&A with an esteemed group of film historians and James Bond authorities who discuss the virtues, shortcomings and legacy of 1989’s Licence to Kill. [Read on here...]

The participants for this segment are (in alphabetical order)….

Thomas A. Christie is the author of The James Bond Movies of the 1980s (Crescent Moon, 2013). He has written numerous other books, among them A Righteously Awesome Eighties Christmas (Extremis, 2016), Mel Brooks: Genius and Loving It! (Crescent Moon, 2015), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Pocket Movie Guide (Crescent Moon, 2010), John Hughes and Eighties Cinema: Teenage Hopes and American Dreams (Crescent Moon, 2009), and The Cinema of Richard Linklater (Crescent Moon, 2008). He is a member of The Royal Society of Literature, The Society of Authors and The Federation of Writers Scotland.

Thomas A. Christie

John Cork is the author (with Collin Stutz) of James Bond Encyclopedia (DK, 2007) and (with Bruce Scivally) James Bond: The Legacy (Abrams, 2002) and (with Maryam d’Abo) Bond Girls Are Forever: The Women of James Bond (Abrams, 2003). He is the president of Cloverland, a multi-media production company. Cork also wrote the screenplay to The Long Walk Home (1990), starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek. He wrote and directed the feature documentary You Belong to Me: Sex, Race and Murder on the Suwannee River for producers Jude Hagin and Hillary Saltzman (daughter of original Bond producer, Harry Saltzman). He contributed new introductions for the original Bond novels Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, and Goldfinger for new editions published in the UK by Vintage Classics in 2017.

John Cork

Andrew McNess is the author of James Bond in our Sights: A Close Look at “A View to a Kill” (Xlibris, 2011; and updated in 2015). Based in Melbourne, Australia, Andrew works for a not-for-profit organization that supports bereaved families. He has published scholarly work in subject areas such as youth bereavement, peer support and health promotion. He greatly enjoys combining his writing interests with a lifelong interest in film, and continues to do so via Slivers of Cinema (sliversofcinema.blogspot.com) and a site of Bond-related commentary, A View on Bond (www.aviewonbond.net).

Andrew McNess

The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.

And now that the participants have been introduced, might I suggest preparing a martini (shaken, not stirred, of course) and cueing up the soundtrack album to Licence to Kill, and then enjoy the conversation with this group of James Bond authorities.

Licence to Kill

Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way is Licence to Kill worthy of celebration on its 30th anniversary?

Thomas A. Christie: Licence to Kill marked an end of an era in many ways. It would be the final James Bond movie to feature Timothy Dalton in the lead role, the last time that John Glen would occupy the Bond director’s chair, and of course it would also be the series’ Cold War-era swan song. Though the USSR was not to feature in the film (barring the odd throwaway line), when the series returned to prominence in the mid-1990s the world would be a very different place — the Berlin Wall had been demolished, the Soviet Union would collapse shortly afterwards, and the US would be a unipolar superpower. In terms of film history, Licence to Kill is a fascinating curio. Bond was far from an invincible, wisecracking superspy here, instead becoming the epitome of cold fury who was being driven by revenge. With his wealth of dramatic stage experience, Dalton seemed ideally suited to this harsher take on Bond, bringing both depth and sensitivity to the character while creditably articulating his quiet rage and single-mindedness. This was Bond, but not as we knew him — now much closer to the tone, if not the setting, of the original Fleming texts. At this stage in world history, geopolitics were going through significant turbulence, and Licence to Kill was the response of the Bond creative team to an increasingly precarious global environment. Looking back, it is fascinating to see just how far they were willing to depart from the series’ recognized formula in order to embrace not only a world where old international certainties were fast eroding, but an increasingly slick and rapidly-changing cinematic landscape where the boom in action movies throughout the 1980s had abruptly left the Bond cycle looking rather quaint and out-of-touch by comparison.

John Cork: Licence to Kill is James Bond’s crucible. It was the film that destroyed Bond and started the path to transform 007 into the modern, well-drawn character we know today.

The film asked, what happens if we strip 007 bare? What if we take away his licence to kill? But somehow the filmmakers went further, inspired by Timothy Dalton’s purist approach and serious take on the character. They seemed to ask: what if we take away his aplomb? His coolness under pressure? His wit? His elegance? His unerring judgment? What if we took away the grand scale of his adventures, the sweeping sense of majesty, the midlife-crisis cars, the élan with which Bond approaches his work, the consequence-free sex, the smoldering sensuality, the aspirational branding, the top-tier production budget? What if we took away virtually everything that separates 007 from a generic 80s action hero? The answer was that Bond lost his audience.

Licence to Kill placed 36th in U.S. box office in 1989, behind Fletch Lives, Karate Kid III, Star Trek V, Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon II, Back to the Future II, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In short, it was near the bottom of the franchise film food chain, only under-grossed by cheap horror film fare like Nightmare on Elm Street 5, The Fly II, and Friday the 13th Part VIII. The film’s devoted fans blame the marketing campaign, tough summer competition, budget constraints, and everything except the film itself, but (to paraphrase Shakespeare) “the fault is not in our stars, but in the hands of our intellectual property rights holders.” The film is charmless, concocted during a time of falling 007 box office revenues, studio cutbacks at MGM, and a search for direction among the Bond creative team.

But there is much to celebrate. It is the film that finally killed the Roger Moore-era humor that Roger himself lost the ability to control after The Spy Who Loved Me. It is a film with spectacular action, a couple of great performances, and a fascinating Yojimbo-inspired script. Yet the loss of humor was not replaced with real emotional weight to most of the scenes. Since viewers had never had a consistent Felix Leiter, Bond’s friendship with him and passion for revenge was diminished. The script, outlined by Maibaum and Wilson, was largely written by Wilson because of the Writers Guild strike of 1988. As clever as many aspect were, the film had too many characters, a complex plot that involved a televangelist setting the price of cocaine in the United States while leading a religious cult, and Bond’s anger resulting in the unforgivable deaths of British agents.

Ultimately, it is the film that proved that James Bond is indestructible. If the character could survive Licence to Kill, he could survive anything. 

Andrew McNess: It was the series’ first notably dark excursion, coupled with a lead actor showing significantly more intent to brood than charm; in essence, to take the Bond character somewhere closer to his literary origins. What stands out to me as especially worthy of celebration, though, is the moody — and beautifully sustained — dynamic between Dalton’s Bond and Robert Davi’s Franz Sanchez, and the sense of Licence to Kill almost being an “anti-revenge” action thriller. Bond’s efficacy is contingent on him recognizing that he must extend his mission to a greater good than merely one of revenge. I like the title Licence to Kill because the film, within its escapist trappings, explores what makes one an effective — as opposed to destructive — holder of said licence.

Coate: What do you remember about the first time you saw Licence to Kill?

Christie: The first thing to occur to me when I first saw Licence to Kill was how dark and uncompromising it felt in comparison to the films that had preceded it, even including The Living Daylights. While John Glen’s artistic intention to return the series to its gritty, Cold War roots has been well documented, suddenly we were faced with a Bond movie that seemed to owe more to the likes of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard than it did to the postwar geopolitics of Ian Fleming’s novels. If Roger Moore’s one-liners and safari suits had taken the Bond cycle to one extreme, we were now at its polar opposite — Timothy Dalton’s take on the character was hard-headed, relentless, and perfectly epitomized Bond’s forebodingly obsessive qualities. Audiences were faced with a Bond who was abruptly suspended from his intelligence duties, whose inner torment and desire for vengeance had made him unpredictable, possibly even unstable, and which took the narrative in a markedly different direction from the expected norm. This surprisingly stark shift in tone may have signaled a jarring break from what many viewers might have anticipated from a Bond film, but it definitely shook things up and made the storyline considerably more interesting as a result. There was also an undeniable sense of contemporary relevance to proceedings, determinedly moving the focus from the flagging East-West espionage plotlines of earlier eighties entries in the series and instead centering on issues such as the international drugs trade and organized crime cartels.

Cork: I wrote a feature film (The Long Walk Home) that was being shot in Montgomery, Alabama, where I grew up, during the summer of 1989. I went to see Licence to Kill on opening night at the late show after a long production day. I had not seen a Bond film for the first time in my hometown since The Man with the Golden Gun. A year earlier I had visited the set in Key West and had high hopes, as always, for the film. But my mind was deeply distracted when I saw Licence to Kill. The film I had written was facing its own struggles, and I was pouring my heart and soul into making sure nothing was overlooked on that end. It was hard for me to just sit back and escape into Licence to Kill. That has not changed over the last 30 years.

McNess: I saw the film at the then-Cinema Center in Melbourne, Australia. An overriding memory is of audience members nearby, in particular a father with his young daughter and son. The thought crossed my mind: “Uh-oh. He thinks he’s bringing them along to a spy romp.” And in due course, the children twisted and turned at the passages of sadism. The father was a busy man, regularly comforting and placating.... I also remember feeling there was a film missing between this and the comparatively sunnier, romantic The Living Daylights, a film that would have brought us more gradually towards the darker, more brutal and cynical world of Licence to Kill. In a way, 1985’s A View to a Kill would have been the more appropriate ’bridging’ film, given the sadism exhibited by the Christopher Walken character. I felt that Licence to Kill had crossed a line in dark qualities. I certainly wondered if the Bond team were asking too much of their loyal audience. That said, I was totally engrossed by the film. It quickly became a favorite.

Coate: In what way was Robert Davi’s Franz Sanchez a memorable villain?

Christie: Licence to Kill is a film which is not sold short when it comes to antagonists. Jockeying for screen time are Anthony Zerbe as the calculating researcher/henchman Milton Krest, Anthony Starke as the scheming financial advisor Truman-Lodge, Everett McGill’s treacherous DEA official Ed Killifer, and Benicio del Toro as volatile bodyguard Dario. Yet as Franz Sanchez, Robert Davi’s performance easily overshadows all of the competition in the villainy stakes. Davi’s performance was impeccably matched to Dalton’s hard-edged Bond; this drug lord was not only economically powerful and professionally influential, but someone whose every word and action seemed to contain an undercurrent of potential menace. Far from the larger-than-life Bond villain of years past, Sanchez always seemed to carry a realistic air of threat, and — by emphasizing the overarching importance that the character places on loyalty above all else — Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum’s screenplay ratchets up the tension by underscoring the increasing peril of Bond’s strategy of appearing to become one of the kingpin’s confidantes, growing close to him before eventually enacting his long-gestating betrayal/vendetta. Davi famously threw everything but the kitchen sink into the role, researching Ian Fleming’s novels and the dynamics of South American drug cartels with great care. Employing a very respectable Colombian accent and sporting an intimidatingly well-built physique, his method acting approach paid dividends by bringing a tangible sense of danger to Sanchez whenever the character is present.

Cork: Robert Davi as Sanchez ranks as one of my favorite Bond villains. He plays the part with a smoothness and sense of menace that I just love. You can tell there is something vile inside of him, but also something very insecure. He’s the one Bond villain where you get the sense that it is indeed lonely at the top. He plays his mistrust without any of the feverish paranoia of lesser actors, but with cold resolve. He also has some great lines: “What did he promise you? His heart? Give her his heart.” And my favorite, “Remember, you are only president…for life.”

Davi manages to rise above the Univision TV movie look of the film, as does Benicio del Toro, who is also one of my favorite Bond henchmen. He brings so much to the film in a modest part, and truly gives viewers the heebee jeebees with his lecherous desire for vivisecting humans.

I also enjoyed Anthony Starke as the yuppie Regan-era MBA capitalist.

Unfortunately, the film was populated with oodles of other lieutenants: Milton Krest, Professor Joe Butcher, Killifer, Pres. Lopez, Heller, and all of them added very little to the proceedings.

McNess: Davi brings a nice sense of poise and dash to Sanchez. When Sanchez quips with the businessmen, the overall effect of this transports me back to a jollier model of Bond film. In these moments and others, Davi brings a sense of fun to proceedings that Dalton’s fuming Bond ultimately cannot. In totality, of course, Sanchez is a reprehensible figure, and Davi delivers many an unsettling moment. However, as Bond actively — and very coolly — goes about creating distrust in Sanchez’s mind, it is difficult not to feel a sliver of sympathy for Davi’s devil. When Sanchez’s empire is literally crumbling around him, there’s a psychological dimension to the fevered proceedings. It’s a different proposition to simply watching a super-villain fume at the destruction of his warped ambitions. When Sanchez finally breaks into a shouting rage, I find the moment oddly cathartic. He may be despicable, yes, but he is also the manipulated man of the piece.

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Licence to Kill

Coate: In what way was Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier (or Talisa Soto’s Lupe Lamora) a memorable Bond Girl?

Christie: Pam Bouvier and Lupe Lamora were contrasting characters, both of them credible romantic partners for Dalton’s emotionally raw Bond. Whereas both people are smart and independently-minded in different ways, Lamora is depicted as having an existence which seems wholly dominated by Sanchez’s controlling influence, meaning that her character is inevitably reflected in the light of her intimidating partner’s abuses. By comparison, Bouvier is portrayed as being Bond’s professional equal in every sense — an expert pilot, skilled intelligence operative and highly experienced in the field, she matches him every step of the way in terms of competence and resilience. Both Carey Lowell and Talisa Soto demonstrate admirable chemistry with Timothy Dalton’s Bond, though Bouvier’s unrelenting resourcefulness marks her out as the more memorable character overall. Soto brings depth and emotional sensitivity to Lamora, and she articulates the manifold complications inherent in the character’s perilous relationship with Sanchez as well as Lamora’s growing feelings for Bond. In the end, however, the no-nonsense Pam was arguably the most professionally accomplished supporting character that Bond would encounter throughout the eighties — a figure who was much more than simply a romantic interest — and as such she would point the way to further such cerebral and technically proficient characters in later years of the franchise.

Cork: Carey Lowell is charming person, but her character, Pam Bouvier, suffers from Carey trying to match the grit and anger that Timothy Dalton radiates in every scene. Try as she might, Lowell can’t convince me that Pam is the angriest woman in the world, nor that she has fallen hopelessly in love or even lust with James Bond. Like Holly Goodhead, another American agent who crosses paths with Bond, her motivations seem muddied, her emotions seem born out of story convenience, and unlike Chiles as Holly, there seems to be no concept of character consistency on which she is hanging her performance. Lowell is a talented actress, but Licence to Kill is not her finest hour. I don’t blame her.

On the other hand, I like the mercenary heart of Lupe Lamora as played by Talisa Soto. There is an Asia Argento-like sense of emotional fragility, willingness to manipulate, and opportunism in her character that I find compelling. One gets the sense that Lupe has half-a-dozen reasons for every choice she makes, some of which may not even be clear to her. She’s used to men pathetically fawning over her, to winning by playing the fragile victim. At the end, I love seeing her twisting everyone to bend to her will. When I see her with President Lopez at the end, I can hear, I Could Be Surprisingly Good For You, from Evita playing in my head.

McNess: With two obsessive characters at its core, essayed by stro0ng actors, it’s hard for the supporting cast not to be somewhat overshadowed. Good support is good support, though, and I think Carey Lowell does a terrific job. I especially like the confrontation between Pam and Bond, where she urgently impresses upon Bond that much more is at stake than his personal vendetta. Thematically, that’s the climax of the film, and Lowell and Dalton carry the moment with great conviction. There’s also an interesting contrast that emerges between the film’s two central female characters: Pam and Talisa Soto’s Lupe Lamora. Lupe is initially a vulnerable, haunted figure and Pam a headstrong one; but as the film progresses a very canny dimension is revealed in Lupe, and Pam’s headstrong ways betray a level of very human vulnerability she may not care to admit.

Licence to Kill newspaper adCoate: Licence to Kill was the fifth and final Bond film directed by John Glen. Can you discuss his contribution to the series as director?

Christie: When Glen assumed the director’s chair in the eighties with For Your Eyes Only, he made clear his intention to pull the series back from the grandiose fantasy plots of the late seventies and signaled a return to the Cold War realism of the franchise’s early days. Given that the world of the 1980s was markedly different from that of the sixties’ golden age of the spy movie, however, his efforts received a mixed critical response. For every low-key triumph like For Your Eyes Only, which was evocative of the Bondian espionage plots of old, there was an accompanying note of skepticism in some quarters for the stately pace of Octopussy and the unconvincingly threadbare digital modernity of A View to a Kill. It took the arrival of Dalton’s harder-edged Bond with The Living Daylights, and that film’s commendably multifaceted plot, to truly lend the energy that Glen’s creative intentions required. While Licence to Kill did not feature a large number of spectacular action sequences in comparison to some other Bond movies (though the opening plane pursuit and the harrowing oil tanker chase at the film’s conclusion are admittedly both well-handled), it did emphasize the fact that Glen’s general approach — and that of screenwriters Wilson and Maibaum — was more inclined to focus on character dynamics, tension and intrigue rather than outlandish pyrotechnics. Similarly, Licence to Kill marked something of an endpoint to Glen’s attempts to situate the Bond series within a greater level of realism, increasing the level of violence (the film was the first Bond film to be rated “15” by the British Board of Film Classification) [similarly, in the United States, Licence to Kill was the first entry in the series rated PG-13 by the MPAA] and heightening the general sense of danger as Bond goes rogue and leaves behind even the nominal safety-net of his MI6 licence to kill in order to pursue his own personal, obsessive vendetta against Sanchez and his narcotics operations. With its contemporary edge and political relevance, Licence to Kill was as close as the Bond movies had ever come to the realm of the modern spy thriller at that point, certainly since the Bondmania of two decades beforehand.

Cork: I’ve met John Glen on a number of occasions. I think he gets too little credit for what he brought to the Bond universe. He’s a genuinely good person, skilled at getting the complex machinery of a Bond film working together, figuring out just the right images needed to deliver a scene. He directed the Bonds at a time where the contribution of the director to the series was diminishing. As Michael G. Wilson’s creative input grew, so did the input of other members of the creative team, such as Peter Lamont (who lobbied for Licence to Kill to shoot in Mexico), and, after 1985, Alan Ladd Jr. who ran MGM/UA. The result was often a lack of a singular vision for Bond during the 1980s. The conversation regarding whether Bond would kick a car off a cliff in For Your Eyes Only was between Michael G. Wilson and Roger Moore, as was a similarly frustrating conversation about the “dig two graves” line of dialogue. Glen deftly negotiated the many competing interests and navigated the unusual situation of his producer also being his screenwriter. Glen had an instinct for how far he could push Bond. It was his idea to put Roger in clown make-up in Octopussy, something that worked better than most fans like to admit, and to have Bond and Kara escape guards by converting her cello case into a make-shift sled. I feel like Licence to Kill was a noble experiment, an attempt to get at the core of what Timothy Dalton could bring to the character. Audiences made it clear that this was not what they wanted or expected from a Bond film, but Glen deserves credit for giving that take on 007 his full effort, and the film has a dedicated fan base that will ever be grateful that the movie was made at all.

McNess: Given John Glen’s second unit and editing background, you expect some intense and operatic action — and Glen has most certainly delivered.... In each film he directed, he delivered a handsome, expansive, largely functional mise en scène, and by Licence to Kill that style was looking a bit old-fashioned alongside the moody stylings of a Lethal Weapon sequel or a Tim Burton Batman film. However, when I revisited Licence to Kill in 1995, anticipating Bond’s return in GoldenEye, Glen’s style felt a breath of fresh air. Of course, when GoldenEye appeared, it was clearly adhering to the moodier stylings, what with its regular reliance on tight close-ups, moving camera and shadowy lighting. It was probably a wise commercial decision, but it wasn’t what I was hoping for.... Glen has said the balance between hero and villain fascinates him. It first struck me with A View to a Kill — where Glen gave ample time to the non-verbal dance between Roger Moore and the film’s two offbeat villains — that Glen, for all his adroit handling of the action, is intrigued by the special effects his actors give off. This intrigue reaches a peak with Licence to Kill. While giving us a very intense first half of action spectacle, in the film’s second half, he successfully relocates the momentum in character; namely, that simmering tension between Davi and Dalton. Also, what is often overlooked in John Glen’s direction of the five 1980s Eon Bond films is the ominous build-up he carefully ensures precedes each of the action set pieces. Great stuff.

Coate: Where do you think Licence to Kill ranks among the James Bond movie series?

Christie: While the film sharply divided reviewers at the time of its release, Licence to Kill has managed to critically redeem itself in more recent years. As a result of its lackluster financial performance, at least amongst US audiences, it has unfairly attracted a reputation as the film which effectively stalled the franchise for some years (when in fact there were a number of complex factors behind the series’ temporary retreat from the public eye). Today, it has been positively re-evaluated by many who have praised the uncompromising tone of Wilson and Maibaum’s screenplay, Glen’s directorial style upping the ante when required by the action sequences, and of course Dalton’s laudably hard-hitting approach to the central character. There was greater psychological complexity on display here than at many previous points in the franchise’s history, with Bond’s troubled psyche taking center stage in ways which were jarring for audiences of the late eighties, but which now seem prescient and praiseworthy in light of the Daniel Craig films which would arrive several years later. Because the film is so markedly different in structure and mood compared to other entries in the Bond cycle, Licence to Kill defies straightforward comparison, but for anyone who enjoys Bond films which tend towards realism (or as close as the franchise ever gets to it), this is about as dark as the series has ever become. Fans of the more fantastical elements of the Bond movies will definitely want to look elsewhere.

Cork: Licence to Kill is just not my cup of vodka martini. There are many things I like about it, but the experience of watching it ranks just above a kidney-stone attack on my to-do list. I don’t believe James Bond and Felix Leiter have a social life outside of the missions they share. I don’t believe James Bond would be anyone’s best man at a wedding. I don’t believe MI6 agents would take over one of Key West’s premiere tourist attractions for their local headquarters. I don’t believe Bond would assault fellow MI6 agents. I don’t believe Pam Bouvier knows how to fly a plane or drive a semi. I don’t believe Scarface is a good inspiration for a Bond film. But I like the Yojimbo portion of the script, with Bond getting inside Sanchez’s head, inspiring him to destroy his own organization. Yet, the lack of a character that feels like 007 to me leaves this film low on my list. It landed at 22nd on my chart created in 2012 (thus, not including SPECTRE, but including Never Say Never Again and the 1967 Casino Royale).

McNess: I find it a particularly effective and distinguished Bond film, and so I would rank it highly. If my yardsticks were box-office takings or audience consensus, then, of course, I’d be obliged to place it further down the ranking.

Coate: What is the legacy of Licence to Kill?

Christie: Licence to Kill was very much a product of its time — a film which attempts to bring Bond kicking and screaming into the volatile geopolitical environment of the late eighties. It was an ambitious undertaking, but whether due to its experimental nature or the underwhelming box-office takings in the US (though overall worldwide takings remained reasonably healthy), it conformed to an intriguing new pattern that the series seems unlikely to follow too closely in the future. Of the two entries in the Bond cycle to feature Timothy Dalton’s Bond, this was arguably the one which best typifies his strengths as an actor — a Bond who, while as intelligent and capable as ever, suddenly seemed much more vulnerable and human. While Dalton’s take was certainly not to the taste of every critic (The Daily Express’s film reviewer Ian Christie [no relation] memorably dubbing the actor “Grim Tim” at the time of the film’s release), his no-nonsense approach paved the way for the later explorations of the Bond character during parts of the Pierce Brosnan era, and especially in the Daniel Craig years. While the nineties would present the series with entirely new creative challenges with the dawning of the New World Order, Licence to Kill performed an often-overlooked transitionary role in moving Bond from the series’ long-established formula into new and less certain ideological and thematic territory.

Cork: Licence to Kill is a film that just keeps on giving in weird, unexpected ways. You could see the star Benicio del Toro was going to become in the film. The song If You Asked Me To made a minor ripple when the film was released, but in 1992 Céline Dion topped global charts with her version. It is one of the great love songs of the era. The sequence where Sanchez escapes custody on Seven Mile Bridge in the keys inspired two filmmakers to create iconic sequences. James Cameron took the idea of rescuing someone from a moving vehicle on the bridge to another level in True Lies in 1994. In 2018, Christopher McQuarrie created his own version of the scene in Paris for Mission: Impossible—Fallout. These examples point to a real influence the film has had over the decades.

Yet, the real legacy can be seen in the 007 that appears in GoldenEye. During the 1980s, MGM’s financial troubles attracted various operatives and entities who attempted to capitalized off of the studio’s assets, including, eventually, Giancarlo Parretti. He pledged profits from future Bond films to secure a loan to purchase MGM. That all went up in lawsuits. By the time Parretti was out of the picture, having defaulted on his loan, the new management, led by Frank Mancuso and John Calley, took a strong interest in the relaunch of James Bond. Michael G. Wilson, still a vital voice in crafting the stories, was no longer co-writing the screenplays. Richard Maibaum had passed away in 1991. John Glen would not return to direct. Cubby Broccoli, present for story conferences, was no longer deeply involved in the day-to-day aspects of running Danjaq and Eon, the two companies that together held the rights to Bond and produced the films. Instead, Barbara Broccoli worked closely with Michael. Barbara took a strong interest in answering the question, “Who is James Bond in the 1990s?” She re-read all the Bond novels in order and, working with her half-brother Michael and lifelong Bond fans like the late writers Michael France and Richard Smith, embraced a return to the elegance, sophistication, and animal sexuality of 007. I was around during the development of GoldenEye, and I saw how hard Michael and Barbara fought to create a clear vision of Bond that felt consistent, considered, cool, and confident. That stemmed so much from the feeling that in the end, something had been missing from Licence to Kill, something vital to the character of James Bond. It speaks to the talent of Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli that they found that something, and they have held on to it tightly.

McNess: It is often said Dalton’s Bond was ahead of the times and the precursor to Daniel Craig’s Bond. The crucial difference between the two, though, is that Craig’s Bond, no matter how rough around the edges, likes himself. With Dalton’s Bond, there was always an underlying sense of self-loathing. The continued box-office health of the series suggests that Bond must, by and large, be comfortable with who he is and what he does. All I can say is, Dalton was a fantastic experiment — and Licence to Kill is a Bond film I treasure, if you’ll pardon the gushiness. Without Licence to Kill, I doubt we could have moved so comfortably from the Brosnan era to 2006’s Casino Royale.

Coate: Thank you — Thomas, John, and Andrew — for participating and sharing your thoughts about Licence to Kill on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.

The James Bond roundtable discussion will return in Remembering “The World is Not Enough” on its 20th Anniversary.

Licence to Kill

IMAGES

Selected images copyright/courtesy 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, CBS-Fox Home Video, Danjaq LLC, Eon Productions Limited, MGM Home Entertainment, United Artists Corporation.

 

- Michael Coate

Michael Coate can be reached via e-mail through this link. (You can also follow Michael on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

Licence to Kill (Blu-ray Disc)