The Timothy Dalton era has a rather poignant place in the 007 history. It was arguably the first time it adapted James Bond with accurate precision from the Ian Fleming novels. The aspirational elements, like traveling around the globe and driving luxury vehicles, were still there. But this version also portrayed an individual that was traumatized by the world. Ideally, it should have been received with enthusiasm, but audiences at the time were too accustomed to the more lighthearted takes of the past to embrace it. However, now that people are used to dark and violent characters with enough heart to root for, like Jason Bourne, Marvel’s Netflix Daredevil or Christopher Nolan’s Batman, Licence to Kill is actually quite relevant.
The biggest achievement of the movie is easily Timothy Dalton’s pitch perfect performance, which informs us about Bond’s personal details that aren’t included in the script. You can tell that he used to be a genuinely noble and heroic man that experienced too much horror to stay that way, so he decided to become a cynical human weapon to maintain his mental sanity as much as possible. For instance, in Felix and Della’s wedding, he’s in a rare situation: casually enjoying life and the presence of his friends. He doesn’t need to use his super cool persona as a mask because he’s in an intimate environment where he feels safe. But when drug dealer Franz Sanchez orders Felix’s torture and Della’s murder, Bond remembers why he became who he is. For one reason or another, things never stay under control for long in his life, and that motivates him to fully unleash his anger and brute strength. Dalton maneuvers his acting with the precision of a Swiss watch, going back and forth between broody and charming seamlessly.
One of the most brilliant aspects of Dalton’s Bond is that he’s a master strategist. Contrary to what his colleagues think, he doesn’t let his impulses get the best of him. He gets close to Sanchez to infiltrate and destroy his social circle with deception tactics because he likes the thrill of the chase. Not to mention the pain he’s bringing to Sanchez. It’s a sadistic and reckless mindset, but at the same time, one that comes from a desire to enjoy life in the most dire circumstances, a determined sense of justice and a keen survival instinct. His actions aren’t necessarily the most orthodox, especially given his inner situation. But in the end of the day, they get successful results.
Bond movies normally revolve around nefarious plans to control a market, destroy the economy, etc. That element in Licence to Kill (Sanchez’s drug enterprise) is pushed to the background in order to keep the stakes personal. That is conveyed most prominently in the climax, where the catharsis doesn’t come from the destruction of the secret laboratory, but from Bond killing Sanchez with the lighter Felix and Della gave him in their wedding. The fact that Sanchez said “you could have had everything” right before is a testament to how life was strictly business with him, whereas Bond was motivated by intimate reasons, as questionable as they were.
Dalton is accompanied by a very charismatic cast. Robert Davi chews scenery like there’s no tomorrow as Sanchez. His relationship with Bond is simultaneously warm and dripping in tension throughout the film. A young Benicio del Toro makes the most of his short screen time as the loathsome henchman Dario. Every moment he appears I want to repeatedly punch him in the face. Then we have Carey Lowell as the plucky CIA agent Pam Bouvier, who is treated in an uneven fashion. She constantly proves that she’s Bond equal in every single way, and yet Bond patronizes her whenever he gets the chance. The fact that he kisses former Sanchez’s mistress Lupe and then decides to be with Pam immediately afterwards doesn’t do any favors. That toxic behavior wouldn’t be an issue if it was portrayed as a character flaw, but the movie actually rewards and celebrates Bond for indulging in it. It’s an unfortunate element that gets in the way of an otherwise compelling characterization. As for Lupe, well, she’s definitely the weak link, since she’s more of a plot device than an actual character (a recurring problem with women in the 007 series as a whole).
John Glen’s direction is a unique beast. For the most part, he commits to the gloomy tone he sets (the idea was to channel R-rated action movies at the time). But to stop things from becoming too sour, there are some occasions where he takes turns to Cartoon City (especially in the scenes with the slimy Professor Joe Butcher). It’s part of why the movie is such a blast to watch. The addition of Gladys Knight’s sugary theme song into the mix contributes to that peculiar tonal collage.
Bond films live or die with their visuals and set pieces, and in that department, Licence to Kill fares generally well. The Miami Vice-ish aesthetics, though not ugly by any means, are definitely a downgrade from the gorgeous production design and cinematography in The Living Daylights. To be fair, they keep the theme of danger lurking in beautiful locations as a parallel for Bond’s elegant and suave personality disguising his internal demons. The opening and ending sequences have excellent action craftsmanship (those truck flips are for the ages), and the infiltration/espionage scenes do a good job making you feel like Bond is playing with fire and explosives (literally in one of them) thanks to their unsettling atmosphere.
As for its legacy, it helped to establish a directorial mold that defined the best 007 entries in the subsequent years. To be more specific, adventures with a strong emotional core covered with a layer of grit and a twisted sense of humor; a concept that was efficiently adopted by Martin Campbell in Goldeneye and Casino Royale, and to a lesser extent, Marc Forster in Quantum of Solace and Sam Mendes in Skyfall. In fact, Daniel Craig’s Bond is essentially cut from the same cloth as Dalton’s, since they’re both sociopaths with a dodgy, but mostly reliable moral compass.
Licence to Kill asks if being James Bond is really as cool as it seems, and the answer is… kind of? Who doesn’t want the skills to dispose of terrorists like they’re paper tissues? But that brand of life comes with a heavy burden that ultimately leaves you with permanent emotional scars. Bond, however, comes to terms with that fact and decides to confront it the best way he knows. The power of that idea is what, in my opinion, makes the movie, and especially this portrayal of Bond, earn a worthy space in the 007 pantheon.