LICENCE TO KILL (1989): DEBUNKING THE DALTON BOND MYTHS

James Bond aficionados all tend to have their favorite 007. While I prefer the first four films, three of which were directed with style by Terence Young, I do like most of the series. The Roger Moore Bonds get picked on a bit because of their cartoonish qualities. Moore, in realizing the silliness of the scripts, chose to play 007 at an absurd level, and that was not an unwise choice. Even an overblown dud like Moonraker (1979) has its guilty pleasure moments, although by the time of View to A Kill (1985), the franchise had clearly gone stale and desperately needed a reboot. Still, Moore’s good-hearted, light approach was so popular that it proved a hurdle to new Bond Timothy Dalton. When Dalton’s severest, most fundamentalist Bond fanboy critics take their pot shots at the actor, they normally propagate the following myths:

Dalton Myth 1: The Bond producers really wanted Pierce Brosnan, who could not get out of his Remington Steel contract; they settled on Dalton at the last moment.

Fact: The Bond Producers had long wanted Dalton, as far back as 1969. Dalton was approached for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but the actor felt he was too young for the part and turned it down. In 1984, Roger Moore considered leaving the series and Dalton was approached for a second time. However, Dalton’s schedule was full and Moore renegotiated his contract. In 1987 Moore permanently retired from the part and it was Dalton again whom the producers asked first. Dalton was committed to do Brenda Starr (1989) but expressed interest after his deal was done. The Producers then went to Brosnan, who was unable to get out of his Remington Steele contract. Luckily for the producers, Brenda Starr was then put on hold and so Dalton was asked again and finally signed, some eighteen years after producer Albert R. Broccoli first sought him as 007. Broccoli understood the box office appeal of the frothy Moore as Bond, but the producer wanted to get back to the gritty Bond of Ian Fleming and the first films. When Dalton, always a literary actor, insisted that he would play 007 like the Bond of Fleming’s novels, Broccoli believed Dalton was the man for the part.

Dalton Myth 2: The Living Daylights(1987) and License to Kill (1989) were box office failures due to Dalton.

Fact: Living Daylights did very good box office and received the best reviews for a Bond film in twenty-two years. To Broccoli, Dalton was hugely responsible for this reboot of the Bond franchise. When Licence to Kill was released two years later, it was released the same summer as Batman (1989) and did poorly at the American box office. However, the film did quite well in Europe and received good reviews. Broccoli knew that American audiences would be slow in adjusting to a rougher Bond after becoming accustomed to Moore’s superficial secret agent, but he knew the franchise’s long term life was dependent on returning to Fleming’s basics. After a period of years, License developed a cult following among American fans.

Dalton Myth 3: Dalton was fired after Licence proved a disaster. Dalton so damaged the Bond franchise that six years passed before another Bond film would be produced.

Fact: This is the most grossly uninformed myth. Broccoli and Twentieth Century Fox became entangled in legal rights regarding the Bond films shortly after the release of Licence to Kill. Dalton’s contract was for three films, and GoldenEye(1995) was originally written for Dalton as Bond. However, because of the length of time in litigation, Dalton was able to get out of his contract, enabling him to work on other films. Broccoli wanted Dalton back and would have gotten Dalton for GoldenEye a few years earlier. However, mitigating circumstances prevailed and, despite misgivings, Broccoli and his daughter, Barbara, who had just stepped in to replace her terminally ill father, hired actor Pierce Brosnan. Both Barbara and her father preferred Dalton to Brosnan, but they were also both aware of Brosnan’s appeal to American audiences. After Die Another Day (2002), Barbara felt the series was veering back to the cartoonish quality of the Moore years. Salary issues and undisclosed differences arose between Brosnan, Broccoli and the remaining producers. Years before, Barbara’s father had met strenuous resistance from star Roger Moore when the effort was made to craft the films and the character as more “realistic” in For Your Eyes Only (1981), a move American audiences resisted. For Your Eyes Only is now regarded by some as one of the better Moore Bonds, although that is debatable. Whatever the reasons, Broccoli wanted to replace Brosnan with a Bond who had qualities similar to Dalton’s Bond. She found that, and more, in Daniel Craig. It took awhile but the Bond franchise returned to the original Ian Fleming style. That was a James Bond first fleshed out by Timothy Dalton. Dalton was simply ahead of his time and too soon after the long run of the Moore years. It took the middle-of-the-road Brosnan series before American audiences could be weaned off the cartoon expectations they had fallen into. Once Brosnan fulfilled his role, western audiences accepted Daniel Craig, and Craig’s Bond is more closely related to Dalton’s portrayal than it is to Sean Connery. This reboot of 007 is not that different from Christopher Nolan’s revamping of Batman away from the camp parody the series had fallen into and back to the original, edgier conception.

Licence To Kill is the most personal Bond film since 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (an excellent film, flawed only by an inexperienced lead in star George Lazenby. Secret Service would have benefited greatly from Dalton’s tenacious, exotic 007. Despite Dalton’s misgivings about his age at the time, he was already an experienced actor in 1969. Dalton conveys determination and a romantic streak. Licence is also the most violent of all the Bond films.  It opens with an unfaithful girl getting lashed across her back while her lover’s heart is cut out by her boyfriend’s henchmen. The villain’s ends are particularly imaginative and gruesome. Several deaths are accomplished with the aid of the animal kingdom: one villain is killed in a drawer full of maggots, another is dropped into a tank with an electric eel, and the traitor is fed to a shark while Bond looks on, unflinching. Licence explores the horror realm when a villain’s head explodes in decompression chamber. A couple of victims are impaled, one at the end of a harpoon and a second on a fork lift.  A henchman gets ground up in a straw cutter, while his boss (a very good, intense Robert Davi) is doused in gasoline and set on fire. For these reasons, Licence was the first Bond film to receive a PG-13 rating (overseas it was released in an even gorier R-rated version.) Bond’s one-liners, delivered with cold precision after several deaths, are unsettling.

The more vulnerable Bond actually bleeds in this film; and Dalton’s portrayal, while not to the liking of those who prefer a two dimensional spy, was unique in a way that Brosnan couldn’t be. Brosnan’s Bond, while seething with sexual edge, seems an all too eclectic mix of the proceeding Bonds. Dalton’s almost Shakespearean 007, in hindsight, proves the more exceptional; his portrayal will eventually lead to the earthy Bond of Daniel Craig.

Where Licence to Kill falters is in the direction of John Glen, whose pedestrian style hampers the film (although it is clearly the best of Glen’s films for the series and he does excellent work in the action sets). Still, with a more stylish director, this film might have been a film on par with the Terence Young Bonds. There are some considerable missteps: the set-up allows Bond to resign his position and go his route alone without the aid of Q and his gadgets. After this potential direction is suggested, Glen cheats by bringing Q back in, even though the expanded role of Q is an unexpected pleasure. The finale is nearly a fatal blunder. Bond’s CIA friend Felix Lighter has been permanently maimed when fed to shark, while his wife has been raped and killed on their honeymoon. This is the impetus for Bond’s quest for revenge, emotionally echoing the harrowing memory of the murder of Bond’s own wife on their honeymoon. Yet, at the end Felix is in bed with babe nurses, gives 007 a sprightly wink, and says “Can’t wait til the next mission, James!” It rings a false, final note to all that has proceeded it. Bond’s Akira Kurosawa-like goal to infiltrate, dismantle, and destroy the drug empire of Franz Sanchez is achieved through shrewd manipulation of Sanchez’ demand for loyalty.

Carey Lowell plays the main Bond girl here. Licence, like Living Daylights before it, resists the standard sexist stereotyping. In the first Dalton Bond, this was done by keeping Bond monogamous (a first for the series). Here, it is the girl who saves Bond, far more often than the other way around.

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About Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker is fine arts painter, filmmaker, and has a masters degree in theology. He currently lives in Portland, oregon with his wife: Aja Rossman-Gray.
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