License to Kill – 30th Anniversary Retrospective

Its June 1989, I am 12 years old and eagerly awaiting the next instalment of the Bond franchise. Timothy Daltons second film playing the iconic spy.

After discovering the certificate of the film, I felt deflated, knowing that there was no chance I could pass for 15 at the local Granada Cinema. Luckily, I had a Dad who could negotiate my way in with the box office staff. Nearly 30 years later, it is time to explore what made this Bond film so different from its predecessors. Dividing public opinion among Bond fans, while providing a 12 year old me with a film experience and portrayal of Bond I will never forget.      

License to Kill came at a difficult point in time for the franchise, with rising costs, studio changes and a decreasing cinema audience. Following on from Dalton’s excellent and underappreciated debut in The Living Daylights this was a film that needed to continue the reinvention of Bonds character, while finding its place in a changing post cold war world.

Originally titled License Revoked, this was the first Bond film to use a title outside of the Fleming cannon, and the first Bond filmed wholly outside of the UK due to rising costs in UK production. License Revoked quickly found a new name to reflect the possible challenges in the U.S market place, where many could interpret it as a driving penalty, becoming License to Kill.

This was a Bond film also facing unique challenges with its audience base, Roger Moore’s period as Bond had led to the injection of humour alongside tried and tested action sequences, with Moore’s later films following a standard formula that audiences expected and enjoyed. This is not a criticism of Moore, who is held in high regard, but does point to lazy filmmaking, never seeking to try new ideas or challenge the audience. There were clear concerns that the character of Bond had strayed from Fleming’s vision, it had become a parody of itself, struggling to adapt to new political realities in our world.

License to Kill’s mission was clear if slightly daunting; it needed to continue the transformation of Bond’s character, started by Dalton in The Living Daylights, taking Bond back to basics while ensuring a modern perspective in a changing world. Alongside this challenge, License to Kill needed to place Bond into a modern context, removing the outdated cold war perspectives while providing audiences with a story fitting the late 80’s climate. High grossing action films of the time (E.g. Die Hard and Lethal Weapon) had moved the action genre into a more adult context while providing a fresh take on the Hero, successfully engaging new audiences.

The pressure to continue Bonds run undisrupted, ensuring the delivery of a film on time, heightened these challenges, not allowing sufficient time to reimagine the role and the genre.  

In response to these challenges, License to Kill chose the adult route, dispensing with the PG certificates of the past, while allowing Dalton to strip back the Bond character to his literary routes. The story chose to reflect the drugs trade, moving away from the tried and tested models of previous films into the dark world of dealing, extortion and violence; a truly brave direction of travel for the franchise, reflecting public fears of the time. License to Kill introduced a Bond who bled, a Bond who was ruthless, and a Bond who believed in revenge. Equally License to Kill begun the process of dispensing with the dated and sexist image of women as pure play things in Bonds world. Carey Lowell leads this charge, playing a CIA agent who equals Bond’s skills and ruthlessness in many scenes. While License to Kill doesn’t go as far as it could in the transformation of women on screen it does start a process, that would be continued in later films.

License to Kill also dispatched with the dated imagery associated to the villain. Gone is the unrealistic notion of world domination, replaced by the need for money, control and status in the dark underworld of extortion, drugs and organised crime. Our Villain played by Robert Davi is truly scary and real, never constrained by the unwillingness to remove those in his way. Bencio del Toro as the young henchman of Davi is full of ambition, selfish need and violence, clearly showing a young man who has been groomed for his role over many years.  

Dalton builds on his superb debut as Bond, taking the character in a new direction, while bringing his wealth of stage and screen performance to the role, creating a Bond that Fleming would have been proud to see on screen. Dalton also provides a modern interpretation of an old character, changing the relationship Bond has to women, allowing Bond to view females as equals, rather than victims. This is a stripped back Bond, who follows his instincts whether they match or not with the views of the British Government.

License to Kill earns its 15 certificate rating, with a dark foreboding feel, coupled with action sequences that push the boundaries of the franchise, providing realism and depth. Its location based filming, while problematic during production, takes Bond out of tried and tested formula of previous films, truly offering the audience something that feels new and different.

License to Kill is a Bond film ahead of the time it was released, its vision and scope play more to the films that have entered the Bond canon since Casino Royale (2006) than the films that followed Dalton. Equally, Dalton’s Bond is a template for the later modern interpretation of Daniel Craig, a realistic and human portrayal that pays reverence to Fleming’s vision.  

This Bond film accepted the challenges of a dying franchise and bravely introduced audiences to a different approach. However, as with all brave decisions, they are dependent on the place and time, and for License to Kill the audience wasn’t quite ready. This being said the break in Bond that followed was not a result of the film, but instead lengthy legal battles over the franchise. Unfortunately, those legal battles over the Bond franchise led to this being Dalton’s final performance in the role, but his legacy would continue, especially in Craig’s vision and performance.

License to Kill has never received the praise nor attention it fully deserves, a film that was unafraid to challenge and provided a template for the future that is truly under appreciated.

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