It’s over, before it had barely begun. One of the greatest tragedies of the whole of the Bond series is Timothy Dalton’s restricted contribution, cut off as he was in his prime after just two films. There were a number of factors that conspired to put paid to Tim and his time drinking martinis, not least the failure of Licence to Kill to find an audience. Marketing wrangles and rights issues put paid to a new film with anyone for the best part of four years, and by the time that was sorted the legacy of Mr Dalton amounted to just two films. Licence To Kill may have had the most significant impact of any Bond film from what has followed, but in terms of the revolution it so craved it can best be described as a work in progress.
Licence To Kill is a film caught almost fatally between two stools. Sat proudly on one is the Daltmeister, pushing his Bond closer to Ian Fleming’s creation than anyone on screen before him, and probably since. Dalton’s Bond ranges closer to anti-hero than ever, set on his personal quest of vengeance and so driven by loyalty he’s prepared to abandon his employers and some of his peripheral principles to get the means to deliver the required end. On the other stoll, with wobbly legs and an unfortunate case of woodworm, is the film’s reluctance to let go of some of the hoarier staples of the series. The most obvious case in point is Q’s arrival, which does its best to derail all the good work done earlier and the number of times that Bond insists Q go home, only for Q to promptly ignore him and then stand conspicuously on the road side before slinging expensive gadgets into a hedge becomes a great embarrassment.
It doesn’t help that Licence To Kill comes over as the most overtly American Bond ever made; it may just be a coincidence that Bond’s only made one further brief trip to the US in Casino Royale since. With a selection of North American locations, a soundtrack from Die Hard / Lethal Weapon composer Michael Kamen and even the brief scene with M moved outdoors, the feeling is of an American action movie, with too much of the distinctiveness to the Bond films lost in the mix. It served to render Tim’s performance an interesting footnote in the annals of Bond, rather than the more overt game changer it could have been, and one which could have seen Dalton truly making the role his own.
It didn’t help that some of the casting choices weren’t great; while Davi and Del Toro do great work on the bad guy side, much of the rest leaves a little to be desired and in keeping with much of the rest of the series, neither Bond girl is an especially great actress. There’s also some rough editing in the action sequences – such as the tanker chase, which leaves the henchman with the bazooka looking particularly inept after Bond takes several seconds to put the tanker on two wheels before he promptly and skillfully shoots underneath it -which if tightened up could have elevated them to true greatness.
All that said, this hard edged Bond still had an influence, not least in starting the debate each time a new film in the series opens about how close to Fleming’s written creation the screen incarnation is, and should be. Without Licence To Kill showing how much it was possible to shake up the formula – even if audiences didn’t warm to it at first – and the legacy on Dalton’s own career has included a selection of deliciously evil bad guys in everything from Hot Fuzz to Doctor Who. So while Licence To Kill isn’t one of my own favourite movies in the series personally, its lasting impact isn’t to be underestimated. Here’s five more reasons that Licence To Kill continues to leave its mark.
1. Licence to come up with brand new titles
There were still others available, from The Hildebrand Rarity to 007 In New York, but having long dispensed with the actual content of Fleming’s novels, it’s mildly ironic that the most noted attempt to return to the character on the page dispensed with a title on the front cover that Fleming himself had created. A brief flirtation with the titles reared up again in the Craig era, but thankfully Quantum Of Solace soon put paid to that. It’s just a shame that Licence Revoked, the original title of choice, got ditched at the last minute, as that would have made more sense in the context of the story.
2. Licence to admit people over 15 only
Bond films, not to mention movies in general, were on the cusp of a new era in the UK, with the new 12 rating just around the corner. Initially, Licence To Kill could barely even dream of that as the first cut submitted to the BBFC would have picked up an 18 rating uncut. The new, colder approach ran the risk of being box office poison, and a number of repeat visits over the next few months, coupled with a realisation that they couldn’t wait for the new rating if they wanted people to actually see the film, left Licence as the first Bond film to pick up anything higher than a PG. The Living Daylights is still to date the last film to pick up that rating, thanks to that 12 / 12A category and a general softening of attitudes in twenty years, and the Bond that followed has become synonymous with the category of mild peril, bloodless violence and a single strong swear word. At least this one was there to show them the way.
3. Licence to release Bond films in winter
It’s a shame that so much was lost in attempting to crack the American market, once in love with Bond in his early days but starting to become an irrelevance. This was the last Bond film to get a summer release in the US, and the crowded marketplace that summer, with Lethal Weapon 2 and When Harry Met Sally opening around the same time and Batman, Honey I Shrunk The Kids and Ghostbusters 2 still monopolising the multiplexes, saw Licence To Kill finish 36th on the US box office list for the year. Since moving to the autumn, no Bond film has finished lower than 14th in a given year and four out six, the first two for both Brosnan and Craig, have been in the top 10 at year end.
4. Licence to have an action scene on a bridge
True Lies? 2 Fast 2 Furious? Mission: Impossible 3? All had an action scene set on Seven Mile Bridge in Florida, and two of them also featured big armoured trucks transporting captives. Bond, as always, showed the way.
5. Licence to grab a plane in mid-air
I’ve already commented previously on Christopher Nolan, and how the finest director working today (who really should do a Bond himself one day, at which point I would probably suffer a fatal geekgasm) has been influenced by his love for Bond films. Anyone who saw The Dark Knight Rises prequel in cinemas late last year won’t have to wonder too hard where Nolan got the idea for a mid-air plane grab from, although anyone’s who’s not seen that yet is in for a treat as Nolan has taken it to another level. Seriously Chris, do make time in the diary for Bond 24 if you can.
Next time: It’s the sexist, misogynist dinosaur, or misogosaurus sex to give him his correct genus. It’s Goldeneye.
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