I know what you’re thinking: “What the hell is this, a James Bond blog?”
It is now.
And I want to address what is perhaps the most controversial time in James Bond history: the 1980’s.
When the series was started in the 1960’s, it defined a decade. When you think of film history during that time, you can’t help but imagine Sean Connery in a white tuxedo electrocuting some poor bastard in a bathtub. Everybody was watching that stuff.
It was thought that upon Connery’s departure, there was no way that the series could continue. The man WAS James Bond. Then Roger Moore appeared and brought stability to the franchise. Although he wasn’t the best Bond (IMO), we likely wouldn’t have 007 today if it weren’t for him.
But the 1970s were a strange time. Moore’s first two outings attempted awkwardly to fit in with the pop-culture by emulating blaxsploitation and kung-fu films. Neither attempt worked. After a three-year hiatus, Bond returned with The Spy Who Loved Me. Although considered a classic, its follow-up Moonraker went over the top by attempting to compete with the sci-fi hits of the era.
Although a massive hit, the Bond producers realized that they were hitting the cocaine a little too hard with Moonraker. They needed a return to the basics. It was also the beginning of the 1980s. And one man was tasked with bringing 007 into the new decade: Director John Glen.
I feel that John Glen did to James Bond was what Rick Berman did to Star Trek: He made a noble effort, continued the popularization of the series, but upon departure…it was clear that deep changes needed to be made. And Glen left a dark shadow over the series that would continue into the Pierce Brosnan era.
But the producers faced another problem. The 1980s were the AMERICAN years. Capitalism, extravagance, the rise of Donald Trump, and even MORE cocaine. James Bond, however, was able to maintain relevance due to the Cold War. And although poshness was in vogue, Roger Moore was decidedly too British.
In 1985, at the age of 57, Moore stepped down from the role.
The late 80s also saw the rise of a new genre: the VIOLENT action-films. While action movies as a whole were popular long before this time (i.e. the James Bond films!), they were increasingly becoming far bloodier and realistic, as evidenced by Robocop, Aliens, Die Hard, etc. James Bond in comparison was simply cartoonish and safe.
After completing The Living Daylights, both Moore’s replacement, Timothy Dalton, and John Glen felt that they needed a “harder-edged Bond”. The result was License To Kill, released in 1989, and remains perhaps the most controversial in the series. It’s either hated or respected, and it remained the most violent Bond until the Daniel Craig era.
The last time I watched License to Kill from start to finish was probably 10 years ago. Although I included it in my top 10 Bond films, much of it I forgot. I’d also usually come to the defense of Timothy Dalton. Although I consider it one of the better 007 movies, there are clearly many, MANY, problems.
And problem number 1 rests with Timothy Dalton.
Since the Craig era, history has revised its position on Dalton. Many once accused him of jeopardizing the series, to which Pierce Brosnan would later come in and save it. Then Daniel Craig was cast, and many now see that Dalton was trying to do what Craig would later SUCCESSFULLY do.
Daniel Craig would have CRUSHED the part in License to Kill. Timothy Dalton didn’t. While Dalton looks fine when in action, I never bought the delivery of his lines. I didn’t buy that he was a ladies man. He just looked like a man that was mildly peeved that he had to be in this movie.
While Carey Lowell was perfectly fine (IMO) as the leading Bond girl, her interactions with Dalton were just strange. It’s unclear where the failure of their chemistry rests. Was Dalton too playful, and slightly creepy? Did the screenwriters quit giving a shit? Did John Glen not know what he was doing?
James Bond was just plain a complete bastard to Lowell’s character. And it’s unclear what the reasons were for this. However, my interpretation was that Bond was just trying to playfully push her buttons….not that he actually BELIEVED the shit he was saying. Either way, that point was never made clear.
The first half of the movie, which takes place in the Florida Keys, is also a bit off. I don’t think that the screenwriters OR the director truly understood Americans. They would have been better off not trying to play up the American caricatures, but this was the 80s afterall. Plus, go back and take a look at Felix Leiter’s office. It’s like all that they knew about Americans was that we liked SPORTS. Not any particular team. Not any particular sport. Just SPORTS!
But one of the biggest criticisms of this film is, even more so than other Bond films, this one is particularly dated. Michael Kamen’s score is usually a key point. The movie also engages several 80s clichés. Yet honestly, I find that most of these work. Sure the theme song is a little lazy, but Kamen’s score is one of the best in the series. Even when the action scenes are meandering about, the music usually tightens it up. Bond movies are very much a part of their decade, and that’s part of their charm.
Yet one of the most overlooked aspects of License to Kill is the role of the villain, Franz Sanchez, played by Robert Davi. God bless Davi. Regardless of what you think of his politics, when the man’s on screen…he steals the scene. But the filmmakers chose to do something different with the villain: they decided to make him likeable….even empathetic at certain times. I don’t know if that was intentional, but either way, Davi does an incredible job. Easily a top 3 villain (if not the best).
In fact, Davi’s charisma greatly overshadows Dalton’s. Almost to the point where you wish DAVI could play Bond.
John Glen directed 5 James Bond movies…all in the 80s. He went 4-1 with his villains (falling flat in only The Living Daylights). His direction might have had flaws, but the one thing the man could do is direct bad guys.
But ultimately the failure of this film rests not with John Glen and Timothy Dalton individually, but rather their inability to achieve each other’s vision. Glen showed that he was competent enough to direct a “heavy” film with For Your Eyes Only. A brief look into Dalton’s career shows that he’s a great actor. But both Glen and Dalton’s styles simply didn’t mesh.
Dalton wanted a return to Ian Fleming’s Bond. Glen also wanted a “harder-edged” Bond, but at the end of the day, his style was still camp. License to Kill therefore became an odd mixture of goofiness and late-80s violence…an attempt that would later divide Bond fans for generations to come. *
Even though this film continues to feel out of place within the James Bond canon, it provoked a re-evaluation of the character. It stripped away the campiness of the Roger Moore-era, and provided a vision of Bond that was all too human. Perhaps that didn’t sit well with the audience at the time, but now that we’re in the Daniel Craig era, we can appreciate this film for what it’s worth.