How 'Licence to Kill' Put the James Bond Franchise on Ice

Licence to Kill Timothy Dalton as James Bond - Photofest - H 2019
The film, which opened 30 years ago Sunday, was far too gritty and serious for its time, but the Timothy Dalton adventure ultimately paved the way for Daniel Craig's 007.

Licence to Kill was a noble misfire.

Timothy Dalton's gritty and grounded final outing as James Bond couldn't compete with the summer of 1989's slate of escapist sequels (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and epic blockbusters (Batman). Most audiences didn't want the film's gritty realism or to watch a brooding 007 seek violent revenge against very real-world villains (in this case, drug lords). While Licence to Kill, along with studio MGM's complicated legal and financial issues at the time, put the Bond franchise in a moratorium for six year, it also helped pave the way and set the tone for the future of the franchise.

Thirty years ago Sunday, Licence to Kill entered the crowded summer marketplace and its filmmakers couldn't have picked a worse time to play with Bond's escapist formula of martinis, girls, guns, puns and explosions. The film is Yojimbo by way of Miami Vice, a far (if not inspired) cry from the Bond audiences grew up with. Kill was the first Bond movie to have James' license to kill revoked, as he embarked on a personal vendetta to avenge the attempted murder of his good friend, CIA Agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison) — on Leiter's wedding day, no less — that resulted in the death of Leiter's new bride. So Bond goes rogue (again, a then-novel idea), armed with go-fast boats and bloody fisticuffs out of a Michael Mann movie as he infiltrates drug lord Sanchez's (Robert Davi) inner circle and takes down his cocaine empire.

Indiana Jones was cracking jokes and punching Nazis with his dad. Batman fought a Joker who liked to play Prince music while he defaced priceless art. Lackluster box office indicated audiences wanted a Bond who veered closer to the one they grew up with — a more Roger Moore-era Bond, not a 007 that watches blank-faced as a traitorous Miami DA is eaten by a shark.

But for some fans, the film marked the return to the intended spirit of Ian Fleming's novels — and a welcome departure from the lighter fare of recent Bond missions. What were deemed as failures or shortcomings in the film then are now regarded as successes.

Licence to Kill takes a page from the Casino Royale novel by having Bond and Sanchez serve as mirrors for each other; both are sophisticated men of means, but one has crossed the line. While the script fails to explore beyond surface level the moral and ethical toll Bond's bloody vengeance takes on him, it affords the character a true sense of danger and menace not felt since Sean Connery's early Bond movies. For the first time in the series' history, you're actually afraid of Bond. He's a killer, not a tuxedoed quippy hero. That edge, while met with a tepid response in 1989, was embraced by the four-quadrant multiplex crowd 17 years later.

Like Licence to Kill before it, Daniel Craig's Casino Royale embraces the darker side of Bond. Royale refers to him as a "blunt instrument" that Judi Dench's M tries to fine-tune into a scalpel. In doing so, the movie takes a page from Licence to Kill by servicing that through character-driven action set pieces that are smaller in scale than in previous Bond outings. Both movies put the audience at ground level with 007 — they play everything out at human height. That way, each loss Bond suffers or victory he bloodily earns feels like one of our own.

Where audiences blanched at Dalton's Bond killing bad men in cold blood in Licence to Kill, they seemed to all but root for (or, at the very least, let slide) Craig's Bond dispatching baddies in a similar fashion. Blame this on the early aughts turning away from the explosions-first, Joel Silver-excess of '80s action movies to present fans with more relatable, more realistic, portrayals of the extraordinary heroes headlining our favorite franchises. (Christopher Nolan's dark and serious Batman Begins helped open the door for Casino Royale to knock down.)

Given the success of Craig's run, it's hard to imagine a time when audiences soured on this take before. In the 30 years since Licence to Kill's release, thanks to what Craig's Bond has done, fans have come to better appreciate what Dalton's last film was trying to do.