Licence to Kill didn't fail – it's one of the most influential Bond films
Though it earned a mixed reception, 1989's 007 outing starring Timothy Dalton now feels like a trailblazer.
It's not often that you'll see 1989's Licence to Kill celebrated as the best of Bond – too frequently, Timothy Dalton's second outing as 007 languishes near the bottom of lists, written off as a misjudged attempt to compete with violent '80s action cinema.
The film strayed too far from the classic Bond formula, its critics would argue, and failed to connect with audiences as a result. Not helping its muddied reputation is the fact that following its release the Bond franchise went on a then-unprecedented six-year hiatus, with Dalton replaced as leading man when the series did eventually resume with 1995's GoldenEye.
It's true that the film is a significant departure from what came before. Drawing more heavily on the source material of Ian Fleming's novels than any movie in the series since the early Sean Connery entries, Licence to Kill sees Bond on a mission of vengeance, our hero ousted – at least temporarily – from MI6 as he seeks bloody retribution against Franz Sanchez (played by Robert Davi), a drug lord responsible for maiming Bond's CIA ally Felix Leiter (David Hedison) as well as the murder (and, it's implied, the rape) of Felix's new bride Della (Priscilla Barnes).
The Man with the Golden Gun, this ain't.
It's also undeniable that the movie earned a mixed reception from contemporary critics – though there were some positive notices for Dalton's performance and attempts made to modernise 007, The Guardian argued that Licence to Kill lacked "flair", the Daily Express called it "dull" and "tiresome", while The Sunday Times lamented that "any vestiges of the gentleman spy [...] by Ian Fleming" had disappeared, with Bond they claimed now a vengeful vigilante akin to the protagonist of the same year's Batman movie.
The numbers also speak for themselves – though it grossed more than four times its budget, Licence to Kill earned the lowest box office return of any Bond film to date (adjusted for inflation).
The notion though that the film's producers regarded it as a failure, pulling the brakes on Bond until they were able to return with a revived franchise and new star in the form of Pierce Brosnan, is provably false. Pre-production on the 17th film in the franchise, intended to again feature Dalton as Bond, began in May 1990 – a poster for the planned sequel was even displayed during the 1990 Cannes Film Festival.
It was a lengthy legal tussle between MGM, parent company of the Bond series' distributor United Artists, and Danjaq, owners of the Bond film rights, that led to production stalling for a number of years, with Dalton's original contract expiring by 1993. In April the following year, he released a statement announcing his "difficult decision" to step away from Bond, explaining that while he'd been asked to resume his role, it was "now time to leave that wonderful image behind and accept the challenge of new ones".
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With the benefit of hindsight, Licence to Kill also feels less like an anomaly in the 007 franchise and more like a trailblazer. Bond going rogue, not carrying out a government-assigned mission but instead pursuing a more personal mission with extreme prejudice? You might be describing either Licence to Kill or any of the Daniel Craig-starring films that followed his debut in 2006's Casino Royale.
The similarities don't end there, though. As in Craig's entries, the mood is dark, the puns are sparse, and Bond's womanising is kept to a minimum, with both female leads – Carey Lowell as ex-Army pilot and DEA informant Pam Bouvier and Talisa Soto as Sanchez's girlfriend Lupe Lamora – having a part to play in the narrative other than acting as "disposable pleasures".
Bond's relationship with Sanchez is also pleasingly complex, an undercover 007 psychologically toying with his unwitting opponent in a foreshadowing of the games of cat-and-mouse he would play with Casino Royale's Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) or Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) from 2012's Skyfall.
There is absolutely a strong flavour of '80s action cinema to Licence to Kill – Frank McRae, known for a memorable turn as an irascible police captain in 1982's 48 Hrs, plays Bond's accomplice Sharkey, while both primary antagonist Davi and supporting player Grand L Bush (Leiter's DEA colleague Hawkins) are lifted from the cast of the previous year's Die Hard – but remove its 1980s skin and the film sits neatly alongside Craig's less outrageous, more personal Bond outings which were so warmly received by critics and audiences over the past two decades.
Dalton's Bond, it appears, simply landed at the wrong time – the series faced the almost impossible task in the late 1980s of segueing from the frothier films starring Roger Moore that fans had become used to into the types of movies that could compete with the action movies du jour, violent thrillers like 1987's very un-Bond-like Lethal Weapon.
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Reverting to formula might have left 007 looking outdated, but changing too much risked inviting criticism that the franchise had lost its flavour. Craig – for all the unwarranted flack he earned over his casting – actually faced less of a challenge, with the popular Jason Bourne series of films having set a precedent for escapist spy thrillers that nonetheless featured a flawed, vulnerable protagonist.
It's no surprise, then, that Dalton was such a fan of his successor. "There’s a case to be made that Daniel Craig is the best Bond ever, or at least in a very long time," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2012. "With Roger Moore it was a pastiche that almost became a parody at the end. And with Pierce [Brosnan], I think he wanted to go darker and deeper but that wasn’t what those movies were.
"Daniel Craig’s Bond movies are absolutely modern, up-to-date versions, but they’re also the legitimate heir of [the first two Bond movies] Dr No and From Russia with Love."
Looking past the reviews and the disappointing box office – both perhaps symptoms of a contemporary audience simply not being ready for the stripped-back Bond that Dalton was offering – and an unrelated hiatus, what's left when examining Licence to Kill is in fact a formula for future success, albeit one that wouldn't profit 007 for another 17 years.