License to Kill – 30th Anniversary Retrospective

Let me take you back to the summer of 1989. I was a James Bond obsessed 12 year old, eagerly awaiting the next instalment of the franchise. That summer 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 into the film with the cinema staff – my summer saved from disappointment as I sat in the 1930s auditorium waiting for the movie to start.

Thirty years later, License to Kill still holds a special place in my heart. Its place is 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, as rising costs, studio changes, and a decreasing cinema audience hit 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. However, Timothy Dalton’s excellent and under-appreciated debut (The Living Daylights) had proved a critical taste for change, if not a wholehearted audience one.

Originally titled ‘License Revoked’, License to Kill was the first Bond film to sit outside the Fleming books. However, its development was far from smooth, as rising studio costs in the UK hit production. Meanwhile, its original title posed problems in foreign markets, leading to a quick change after publicity had started. But its most significant challenge would come from leaving its home at Pinewood Studios following a large fire.

However, in addition to the financial challenges of filming abroad, License to Kill also faced a series of distinct challenges within its core audience. As discussed briefly above, Roger Moore’s period as Bond had led to an injection of humour alongside a series of tried and tested action sequences. Moore’s later films had followed a strict formula that many audiences had come to expect and enjoyed, a recipe The Living Daylights had begun to tweak with a mixed audience reaction.

At this point, it is essential to state that this is in no way a criticism of Moore, who will always be held in high regard. His version of James Bond, tied to the time and place of its creation. However, it would also be fair to say that Bond had fallen into lazy filmmaking cliches by Moore’s final films. Consequently, these films had never sought to try new ideas or challenge the audience with contemporary themes. With this in mind, it could be argued that the character of Bond had strayed far from Fleming’s vision by the mid-1980s. Here Bond had become a parody of itself, while struggling to adapt to a series of new political realities in our world.

Therefore, License to Kill’s mission was explicit if daunting, as it sought to transform Bond’s character further – a mission started in The Living Daylights. Here Dalton would build upon his first outing, taking Bond back to basics, while allowing him to adapt to a changing world. In addition, License to Kill would face down the more adult world of the action flick born through Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.

Redesigning Bond for the late 1980s

Taking its cue from other successful action films of the time, License to Kill chose an adult route, dispensing with the PG certificates of the past. This would allow Dalton to strip back the Bond character further while embracing his literary roots.

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 at the same time 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. But, Dalton also wanted his Bond to move away from the dated and sexist imagery of the past; here, women began transitioning from sexual objects to all-action partners. Carey Lowell would lead this charge as a CIA agent who equals Bond’s skills and ruthlessness. And while License to Kill doesn’t go as far as it could in the transformation of women on screen, it does start an essential process of change.

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 piece’s villain played by Robert Davi provided a terrifying adversary, while Benicio del Toro’s young henchman was full of ambition, violence and hate.  

License to Kill safety earned its 15 certificate on release. Its dark and different atmosphere, a landmark in the Bond franchise. The adult rating, allowing, for action sequences that pushed the boundaries of the franchise while offering something unique and new. Equally, its location-based filming would strip Bond of tried and tested formulas of the past, creating a new and fresh aesthetic that is based in reality rather than giant studio sets.

License to Kill was ahead of its time on release, opening the door to the modern franchise we have today. Here Daniel Craigs Bond is undoubtedly the successor to Daltons. Dalton would bravely accept the challenge of rejuvenating a dying franchise. However, as with all brave decisions, they are all too often dependent on the time and place. And for License to Kill, the audience wasn’t quite ready to leave the safety of the Moore years behind.

Due to the legal battles of ownership that followed, the James Bond franchise would hibernate following License to Kill, and it would be Dalton’s final story. 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