Flickering Myth’s writing team count down to the release of Skyfall by discussing their favourite James Bond films; next up is Rohan Morbey with Licence to Kill…
By the late 1980s James Bond had become a mere imitation of the character has was in the series’ early entries; Roger Moore’s final turn in A View To A Kill was an embarrassment to the franchise and the series had become more comedy and innuendo focused than a spy thriller. Something had to be done and that something was the introduction of Timothy Dalton in 1987’s return to form of The Living Daylights; however, it was his follow up feature two years later which brought Bond into the modern age. If anything, Licence To Kill was too realistic for the series and that is exactly why it has always been my favourite Bond film.
In the 1970s the franchise could get away with producing the comedic parodies with Roger Moore as the lead and the endless list of unbearable sight gags because there was no one else to match the character when it came to the big action scenes. The 1980s, however, saw far tougher and harder action films getting made with the emergence of stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone and producers like Joel Silver and Jerry Bruckheimer at the forefront. By 1989, James Bond had to compete in a world which now featured genre-defining films like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard and onscreen heroes like Indiana Jones. For the first time it was now Bond who was inspired by others and it was he who had to adapt. ‘Nobody does it better’ no longer applied.
“His bad side is a dangerous place to be” read the tag line for the teaser poster, and that set the standard for what was to follow.
Licence To Kill was a departure from the previous fifteen films in several ways. It was the first of the series not to take its title from a novel from creator Ian Fleming, it was the first time Bond was going on a mission of his own, and it was the first time we saw a Bond film for mature audiences only. Gone were the submarines, megalomaniac villains, underground lairs, gadgets, and cringe-worthy one-liners which Bond had become synonymous with and in came drug dealers, machetes, torture by feeding people to sharks, heads exploding in pressure chambers, and people being cut up in giant shredders. Here was a James Bond film with a razor sharp edge and enough pure action set-pieces to rivals any Martin Riggs or John McClane.
Thanks to a stripped down and unapologetically dark and violent story, Timothy Dalton gets to play a Bond without very little humour or the need to be stuck with a glamorous but empty-headed female sidekick. Dalton’s Bond gets to openly cry because he’s a human, not a robot or one dimensional construction. He chooses to go out on a revenge mission and directly disobey orders from his employer and in doing so we see Dalton portray the most human Bond not only in the emotional scenes but in the action scenes too. The action scenes wonderfully merge the unique Bond elements such as water skiing and sky diving with the harder edged Joel Silver-like touches such as the lorry chase and final huge explosions which light up the screen. My personal favourite scene is when Bond allows one of the men responsible for Felix’s shark torture to suffer the same fate. Cold, brutal, and unflinching.
Despite being as good an 80s action movie as any which wasn’t headlined by the usual Hollywood stars, Licence To Kill was overlooked at the box office in the summer of 1989 in favour of two of its main rivals in Lethal Weapon 2 and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and by a film which not even Indy could match up to – Tim Burton’s Batman. It remains the only film in the series to be notoriously edited to get even a 15 certificate (which, of course, ruined its chance at box office glory) and remained cut on TV, VHS and DVD until only recently.
Licence to Kill was like no other Bond before it and like no other since. It was dark, brooding and adult, and was exactly what James Bond needed. A Bond film like this could never be made in this way again and because of that Timothy Dalton’s second and sadly final turn as James Bond remains one of the series’ most important and best.
Read our ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ review of Skyfall here.