As the world waits to see if Daniel Craig will reprise his role as James Bond for a fifth time, one thing is certain: His legacy will be that of a darker, more emotionally volatile Bond, which we were introduced to in Craig’s debut outing, Casino Royale (2006, Martin Campbell); however, amongst all the hype for Craig’s more “realistic” and “gritty” portrayal, it is often forgotten that we have, in fact, seen Bond portrayed this way before. At the end of the 1980s, Timothy Dalton was swearing and fist-fighting as part of a vengeful, wayward, and sometimes anti-heroic interpretation of the secret agent in his second Bond film, Licence to Kill (1989, John Glen). The tone and content of the film were darker to such an extent that it was the first Bond film to be rated “15” by the British Board of Film Classification, and it is still the only installment in the series to have this rating. Licence to Kill takes us on an emotionally charged manhunt, as Bond disobeys his boss, M, and seeks revenge on those responsible for the dismemberment of his friend, Felix Leiter. Looking at the Vesper Lynn storyline in Craig’s films, one can draw some similarities, but unlike its more modern counterpart, Licence to Kill produced less than impressive box office takings and isn’t particularly well regarded amongst the other films of the series. In the Eon Productions documentary, Everything or Nothing (2012, Stevan Riley), Executive Bond producer Barbara Broccoli suggests that the audience at the time just wasn’t ready for the gritty Bond of Licence To Kill, but now that it seems that they most definitely are, it is worth revisiting this thriller and appreciating its darker elements, which contributed to a more complex Bond character and storyline a long time before Craig arrived on the scene.
Setting the Scene
In a way, you can’t really blame the Licence to Kill audience for not being ready for a grittier Bond. They had, after all, been used to Roger Moore’s rather flamboyant portrayal of the character for over a decade previously (1973 – 1985). Moore’s extensive use of sexual innuendos was such that you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a Carry On film with one-liners such as, “I’m keeping the British end up, sir!” (From The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977, Lewis Gilbert). Dalton took over the role at a point when the audience had seen Bond dress up as a clown, bake a flan, and snow-surf to a Beach Boys soundtrack, especially with these particular activities having featured in Moore’s last two Bond films. (He seemed to get sillier as his films went on.)
In contrast, Dalton wanted to portray a more realistic action hero, which he did to some extent in his first film, The Living Daylights (1987, John Glen), but it wasn’t until his second film, Licence to Kill, which was written specifically for him in the role, that he really made his mark.
A More Human Bond
When the film opens, we are immediately presented with a more three-dimensional Bond, as we get to see the world beyond his spy missions. Bond is actually participating in a social event with friends! (We didn’t think he had any real friends!) The event being the wedding of long-standing ally, Felix Leiter, with whom he is being chauffeured to the church as his best man. Meanwhile, the darker tone of the film is already being set by wanted drug dealer, Sanchez, who has risked returning to US soil to retrieve his kept woman and to deliver her punishment for attempting to run away: a severe whipping, the horrendous scars from which we see later in the film. The parallel storylines of the pre-title sequence come together when Bond and Leiter’s journey to the wedding is interrupted by a call from the Drug Enforcement Administration to capture Sanchez, which they do, quite literally, with the use of a helicopter tow cord.
The emphasis on Bond and Leiter’s friendship is continued immediately after the opening titles through the Wedding Reception scenes. Here, Bond, Leiter, and the bride, Della, exchange just enough friendly quips to convince the audience that all three have a deep affection for one another.
Licence to Kill has been criticized for being a little too slow to get going, but these scenes are important for combatting the heartless loner trait usually associated with Bond and convincing the audience of his emotional connection to Leiter and Della. This gives more meaning to the subsequent events: Sanchez escapes prison, kills Della, and feeds Leiter to a shark in scenes that are genuinely quite unsettling. (There is no chance of a laughable Austin Powers parody here; Leiter screams, bleeds and is visibly dismembered by the shark.)
The scene in which Bond finds Della dead and Leiter close to death is actually rather moving for a Bond film, and it is to Dalton’s credit, as an accomplished actor, that he manages to convey a real sense of emotional depth and believable motivation for his ruthless revenge mission.
Bond as Cowboy
It is at this point that Dalton’s Bond gains his unpredictable, gritty attributes, and he takes on a role much like that of a cowboy in a Western. After a stand-off with his own boss, M, which in itself feels very much like a Western cliché, Bond defies the orders of her majesty’s government and becomes a lone ranger. Throughout Licence to Kill, Bond is constantly negotiating between key binary themes of the Western genre: an unruly self-interest and the call to civilization (which comes from several of his MI6 allies). There are some visual nods to this idea of Dalton’s Bond as a cowboy, such as his participation in a saloon brawl, leading to one of several occasions in which he is seen to bleed; however, it is the inclusion of narrative devices and themes associated with the Western genre that make the story of Licence to Kill so much more complex and darker than its predecessors.
Infiltration into the villain’s inner circle and issues of morality can be considered quite common aspects to the Western genre, and these are brought to the storyline through Bond’s pretense as Sanchez’s ally. Rather than using Sanchez’s hospitality as an opportunity to kill him there and then, Bond instead leads Sanchez to think, incorrectly, that one of his men has betrayed him. Bond then watches unflinchingly as Sanchez murders him in a particularly gruesome fashion (so gruesome they often cut out part of this scene when the film is shown on British television). In this sense, it feels like Bond’s quest for vengeance has caused his morals to become somewhat twisted.
Bond also wrongly accuses his ally, Pam, of being in league with Sanchez, in a scene which sees a disheveled-looking Dalton storm into her room, pin her to a bed, and point a gun at her face. It is probably the most aggressive treatment of a woman since the Sean Connery era. Thankfully, Dalton’s Bond is made to realize the error of his ways when Pam corrects his misunderstanding and warns him that “there’s more to this than your personal vendetta.”
All in all, this makes the character of Bond and his filmic journey much darker and more complex as his personal feelings lead him to become irrational, make mistakes, and some questionable decisions – far from the usual flawless way in which he completes his missions for MI6.
The End of the Story
I don’t think I need to tell you how it all ends – it sticks to the usual Bond formula in that sense – but the climatic petrol tanker chase sequence is particularly well done and Sanchez’s demise, though grisly, is satisfying as Bond gets to tell him the reason for his revenge before sealing his fate.
After a questionable marketing campaign riddled with flaws, Licence to Kill’s initial takings at the box office were less than impressive and subsequent legal issues involving Eon and MGM/UA meant that Dalton’s Bond story ended there and he didn’t get to make the third film that might have helped him to firmly establish his more gritty, wayward hero with audiences.
I think Licence to Kill is still very watchable amongst some of the more intense action films of today, which tend to include complex heroes, and if you are a fan of Daniel Craig’s Bond, then I would certainly recommend watching this film. There is, of course, the added bonus of getting to see a young Benicio Del Toro as a very creepy henchman.
Sarah Kelley is an independent film & media scholar from Bristol, UK. She is particularly interested in the James Bond films, not just as a fan, but also due to the ideas about British culture and identity that they convey to audiences worldwide. She would like to explore this subject further through doctoral study.