There’s a definite cycle to Bond films. They start relatively low-key and gritty (although Bond, as spy dramas go, has never been truly gritty), and then slowly they become more outlandish until it gets to a point where even the series producers balk at the silliness. They slam the series into reverse, making Bond darker and more personal, shunning underwater bases and pools of hungry piranha. Fleming’s books are re-studied to find what it was that made Bond so successful back in the day.
After the hollow volcano of You Only Live Twice, there came On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond falls in love! And that ending! So bleak! Audiences weren’t ready though and the silliness came back far sooner than expected, when Connery returned for the very daft Diamonds Are Forever. Moore’s tenure reached critical mass when he went into space in Moonraker. The result was the meaner, leaner For Your Eyes Only. Brosnan never really got the chance for his dark Bond. By the time he finished fighting mech enhanced bad guys in an exploding plane, and outrunning the sun, the producers saw fit to ditch him rather than the writers who had brought him to that awful place.
Daniel Craig got the dark Bond gig as his opener. Audiences loved it. But before that, Timothy Dalton had made the grittiest Bond yet in 1989: Licence To Kill(otherwise known as Licence Revoked).
The Bond in the books is an altogether more fragile creature than the one often portrayed by Connery and Moore. He’s a guy who pushes himself to the limit, and it’s no surprise to find him breaking a bone or two, or even ending up hospitalized. Up until Licence To Kill, the movie Bond was not someone who suffered any great mishap. Maybe a small scratch on the forehead, perhaps a spot of blood on the corner of the mouth, safely dabbed away with a monogrammed hanky, before Bond kills the bad guy who had the temerity to punch him.
Licence To Kill is the first Bond where a fair bit of that gentleman spy sheen is rubbed away. There were hints of it in The Living Daylights. Dalton’s Bond seemed more real, more vulnerable, and less cartoonish than Moore’s portrayal. It’s hard to imagine Connery’s or Moore’s sharp suit getting ripped and torn, their hair ruffled and filled with dust and debris, their faces red raw and soaked in blood. Yet that’s precisely what happens to Dalton during the course of Licence To Kill.
Starting with one of the series’ better pre-credits opening sequences, Bond is enroute to the wedding of his best buddy, CIA agent Felix Leiter. Along the way, they get a call about a tight time window to capture international drug kingpin, Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi, a man with a face made for playing bad guys). Because they’re pretty cool, off they go, capturing Sanchez, before parachuting from a helicopter to the wedding ceremony.
However, international drug kingpins tend to be overly sensitive guys, taking it personally when someone tries to throw them in the slammer. Sure, Sanchez says, “I want you to know this is nothing personal. It’s purely… business.” But considering what he does to Felix Leiter and his new bride, well, let’s just say Sanchez probably won’t win Businessman Of The Year.
In the books, Bond would sometimes clash with bad guys whose only aim was to make money, gangsters with no interest in world domination. And here, he goes after Sanchez, hell-bent on revenge, and against the wishes of his superiors. It has similarities to a lot of eighties action movies where a charismatic good guy takes down a charismatic bad guy, but on his own terms. Bad guys in the eighties usually have a quirky pet too, and Sanchez’s iguana, draped over one shoulder, fits the bill nicely.
But then producers of the Bond series tend to look at what the current action movie trend is, and cherry pick the bits they like, whilst still keeping it essentially Bond. And if the usual Bond cliches get a more contemporary spin, so too do the Bond girls. Well, superficially anyway. Carey Lowell is one of the more hot-headed love interests, a CIA agent who can hold her own, with a rather saucy location for her gun holster, which the film frequently revels in showing us. Sometimes, she reverts to type, moping around ineffectually whilst Bond gets most of the action. In the end though, she puts all that lovesick nonsense aside, becoming one of the more proactive Bond girls.
Talisa Soto fares less well as Sanchez’s moll. Luckily, Sanchez’s other allies are a bit more interesting, especially a scene stealing turn by a young-looking Benicio Del Toro — he’s not a man to mess around with secret blades in the toe of his shoe. Instead, he simply produces his knife with a practiced flourish, eyes glittering with evil intent. Like Sanchez himself, it’s a more brutal, straightforward kind of a bad guy. And in some ways, far more dangerous than a crazed lunatic in an orbiting space station. Sanchez isn’t a man to tell you his plan, then kill you. He’ll just kill you.
Sadly, it seems audiences didn’t like this change of direction, and it would be 6 long years before Pierce Brosnan took over. Now of course, it’s funny how the crowds can’t get enough of Daniel Craig, like when he’s throwing some guy around a men’s room and smashing shit up, before drowning him in a wash-basin with cold eyed efficiency. Or when he’s being strapped to a chair and getting his bare naked bollocks smashed in. It really is all about luck, and timing. It seems Licence To Kill had neither, and was an undeserved flop, and an unceremonious exit for Dalton.