License to Kill – 30th Anniversary Retrospective

10 mins read

Let me take you back to the summer of 1989. Where I was a James Bond obsessed 12 year old, eagerly awaiting the next instalment of the franchise. In a summer that was pure cinematic nectar for a young boy. With License to Kill joined by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Batman.

However, after discovering License to Kill would be a 15 certificate, this 12 year old was felt deflated. Knowing that there was no chance I could pass for fifteen at the local Granada Cinema. Of course I had underestimated the ability of my father to negotiate my way in into the film with cinema staff. My summer saved from disappointment as I sat in the 1930s auditorium waiting for the film to start.

30 years later, License to Kill still holds a special place in my heart. A place defined not only by nostalgia but also by its groundbreaking divergence from its predecessors. It is true that License to Kill divided public opinion among Bond fans on its release. But could it be the case that it was simply ahead of its time?      

The challenges of re-invention

License to Kill came at a difficult point in the Bond franchise. Both rising costs, studio changes and a decreasing cinema audience hitting revenues hard. In addition to this, while audiences needed a change from the Roger Moore era of Bond. They had equally become accustomed to the light hearted approach he fostered. With Timothy Dalton’s excellent and under-appreciated debut (The Living Daylights) struggling to find its new audience. In a film that began the reinvention of the Bond character, in a changing post cold war world.

Originally titled ‘License Revoked’, License to Kill was the first Bond film fully outside of the Fleming books. Its title quickly changed to an American market where the title played to thoughts of a driving penalty. Meanwhile due to rising studio costs in the UK it was the first Bond film to leave Pinewood Studios. Notably being filmed abroad in its entirety.

In addition to the finance challenges of the filming schedule. License to Kill also faced distinct challenges with its core audience. As discussed briefly above, Roger Moore’s period as Bond had led to an injection of humour. Alongside tried and tested action sequences. With Moore’s later films following a strict formula that many audiences had come to expect and enjoyed.

At this point it is important to state that this is in no way a criticism of Moore, who is still held in high regard. His version of Bond fitting the time and place of its creation. However, it would also be fair to say that by Moore’s final films Bond had fallen into lazy filmmaking. Consequently never seeking to try new ideas or challenge the audience. With this in mind, there were clear concerns that the character of Bond himself had strayed from Fleming’s vision. Ultimately becoming a parody of itself, while struggling to adapt to new political realities in our world.

License to Kill’s mission was therefore clear if daunting. Not only continuing the transformation of Bond’s character, started The Living Daylights. But also, taking Bond back to basics, while allowing him to adapt to a changing world. In addition to this License to Kill needed to compete with the high grossing action films of the time. Films that has slowly moved the action genre into a more adult world with Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. Providing a fresh take on the all action hero while successfully engaging new audiences.

Redesigning Bond for the late 1980s

The pressure to continue Bonds run undisrupted only heightened the need to ensure the challenges did not delay filmmaking. Consequently, not allowing sufficient time to reimagine the role and the genre it inhabited.  

Taking a leaf from other successful action films of the time. License to Kill chose an adult film route, dispensing with the PG certificates of the past. While also allowing Dalton to continue to strip back the Bond character to his literary routes.

In addition the story chose to reflect the drugs trade of the late 1980s. Consciously moving away from the tried and tested narrative of the cold war drama. While moving Bond into a modern world of extortion, violence and greed. Likewise License to Kill introduced a Bond who bled, a Bond who was ruthless, and a Bond who believed in revenge. While beginning the process of dispensing with the dated and sexist imagery of women as pure play things in the Bonds universe. With Carey Lowell leading this charge, as a CIA agent who equals Bond’s skills and ruthlessness in many scenes. And while License to Kill doesn’t go as far as it could in the transformation of women on screen it does start a important process of change.

In addition the above, License to Kill also dispatched with the dated and often predictable Bond villain. Gone were the unrealistic notions of world domination. Replaced by greed, control and status in the dark underworld of drugs and crime. The villain of the piece played by Robert Davi providing a truly scary adversary. While Bencio del Toro’s young henchman is full of ambition, violence and hate.  

This is also a film that enables Dalton to build on his superb debut as Bond. While also taking the character in a new direction. In other words allowing Bond to return to his literary roots, while also modernising the core character. Ultimately providing us with a stripped back Bond, who follows his instincts at any cost.

License to Kill safety earns the 15 certificate given on its release. With a truly dark and different feel to anything that came before it in the Bond franchise. While the increased rating allowed for action sequences that pushed the boundaries of the franchise. Equally its location based filming takes Bond out of tried and tested formula of the past. Creating a new and fresh aesthetic that is based in reality rather than huge studio sets.

I would argue that License to Kill was ahead of the time on release. The resulting vision of the film opening a door to the modern franchise. With both Casino Royale and SkyFall the natural successors to Daltons time as Bond.

This is the Bond film that bravely accepted the challenges of a dying franchise. However, as with all brave decisions, they are often dependent on time and place. And for License to Kill the audience simply wasn’t ready to leave the safety of the Moore years behind.

Due to the legal wrangling that halted the James Bond franchise in the years following License to Kill, this would sadly be Dalton’s final foray. And while Brosnan would eventually return the franchise to the safety of the Moore era. Dalton’s work would once more find its feet in the hands of Daniel Craig as the modernisation of Bond found the right time and right place for success.

Director: John Glen

Cast:  Timothy DaltonRobert DaviCarey Lowell, Benicio Del Toro, Desmond Llewelyn, Talisa Soto

Robert Davi also appears in The Goonies

Read more about James Bond in our Essential Collection

Previous Story

Benjamin (Review)

Next Story

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind