Insecurity. Impulsiveness. A soul damaged by his day to day work. A scenario whereupon the main character must question both his conscience and his duty. A man who must alleviate vulnerability for a stealth of aggression. An assassin who must put aside his ego in order to accomplish his mission affectively.
When Daniel Craig performed in such a manner in 2006, he opened to Bafta nominations, critical plaudits, two ‘best Bond’ pats on the backs from former 007`s Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan and starred in the best-selling James Bond film, ‘Casino Royale’. When Timothy Dalton attempted a similar performance in 1989, he opened to public disdain and ‘Licence To Kill’ would gross less at the U.S Box Office than any other Bond film. Admittedly, Craig benefited from a bigger budget and a better script, but Craig`s film would almost have certainly been rejected by contemporary movie audiences. In hindsight, Dalton may have gotten a raw deal for what is certainly a great performance in one of the more solid actions of the 007 series. Twenty -five years after the release of ‘Licence To Kill’, one thing is unequivocally certain: Dalton and company were on to something!
‘LTK’ was Dalton`s second, and last, Bond film. Coming straight off the heels of Roger Moore in 1987, Dalton was a radically different Bond to his predecessor. Immersing himself firmly in Ian Fleming`s novels, Dalton represented the most accurate version of Fleming`s Bond on screen. Immersing himself into the role as a ‘blunt instrument’, Dalton shook up the character that none of his predecessors Sean Connery, George Lazenby and Moore had done. Rejecting double entendres for single ones and acerbic wit for an intensity, Dalton focused on Bond`s psyche and represented him as a human being, where Connery and Moore showed Bond as the male archetype. Dalton`s debut ‘The Living Daylights’ (1987) was an excellent starter, a cracking Bond adventure showing a vulnerability within the character not seen since ‘On Her Majesty`s Secret Service'(1969). Dalton`s performance was certainly the most animated the character had been since Sean Connery`s marvellous performance in ‘Goldfinger’ (1964), although Dalton`s psychological transgressions were a million miles away from Connery`s stylish portrayal.
‘LTK’ followed ‘TLD’ two years later. Unlike previous Bond films, which had merited a ‘Parental Guidance’ rating, ‘LTK’ had a ’15’`s certificate slapped on its cover. It was certainly justified. The opening sequence alone featured the villain beating his lover, while further sequences involved amputation, serial drug consumption and aquarial implosion. James Bond himself, who traditionally maintained a good composure during fight sequences, found himself battered and bloodied in the film`s finale. Six years earlier, Moore`s Bond sailed to a fortress in a submarine disguised as an alligator. In ‘LTK’, Bond threw a man in a shark infested pool for maiming his friend!
The film`s gratuitous violence has been the film`s albatross. True, the film was noticeably more violent than its predecessors, perhaps owing to violent testosterone activities displayed in ‘Lethal Weapon’ (1987) and ‘Die Hard’ (1988) than previous Bond films. But as graphic as some of the scenes are (villain Sanchez`s inflamed death is a particularly difficult one to sit through), the deaths are few and far between in ‘LTK’. James Bond himself only kills ten people in the film. A high number, yes, but contrast that to the countless people mercilessly gunned down by Pierce Brosnan`s Bond in ‘Goldeneye’ (1995) and ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ (1997) and suddenly, the film does not seem as sadistic as later films in the series. From a compositional point of view, the kills displayed in ‘LTK’ show either Bond or Sanchez at their worst moments and show the darker sides of the character. It also links the characters together in an insatiable way. Both risk everything they have for loyalty over money; both use violence only when necessary and in moments of great extremity. It links the characters and it is clear to the audience upon seeing the two together that they are not too dissimilar; Bond himself could have made a capable gangster. Again, violence and it`s shape on character would be explored in greater detail in ‘Casino Royale’ (wherein the newly recruited James Bond discovers the side effects to violence), but as mentioned earlier, ‘LTK’ pointed the way to a direction that would be better shown in future films.
The plot is one of the more unusual plots as James Bond films go. James Bond leaves Her Majesty`s Secret Service to avenge his friend Felix Leiter (David Hedison)`s maiming and wife`s murder. Entering into drug Baron Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi)`s circle, he attempts to sow seeds of distrust amongst his operatives. Rejecting traditional Bond formula in favour of a lone samurai tale, Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson`s script remains one of the more radical and original scripts of any James Bond film. It`s more rooted in reality than many of the James Bond films released after ‘From Russia With Love’ (1963). It also features some of the best action sequences the film had seen up to that point, most noticeably the aircraft sequence within the pre-credits sequence and the oil tank chase scene at the end of the film. Davi plays Sanchez masterfully, and may be the best villain since Christopher Lee`s Francisco Scaramanga in ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’ (1974). Benico Del Toro`s appearance as a sociopathic henchman is another highlight; his use of knives was so masterful, he actually cut Timothy Dalton during the film`s shoot! The music (composed by Michael Kamen) is also solid, it`s use of Latin music is more appropriate to the film`s darker style than John Barry`s classic Bond score would have been ( although the same cannot be said about the title song, sung by Gladys Knight. It remains one of the series worst!)
However, the film is not perfect. There are some glaring errors within the picture. Firstly, the film is not as well cast as it could have been. Dalton and Davi are both excellent, but many of the other actors fail to maintain their high standard. Most awfully miscast is David Hedison as Felix Leiter. A fine actor, who played Leiter marvellously in ‘Live and Let Die’ (1973), he simply looks too old to play a DEA agent convincingly. The shot of a sixty something old Leiter commandeering a drug bust at the beginning of the film is sillier than anything Roger Moore did in his later films. While the presence of a familiar Felix Leiter put in place to assuade sympathy from the audience was a clever idea; but director John Glen may have been better off reprising the more aptly aged John Terry from ‘The Living Daylights’. Secondly, the two Bond girls are not as well written as they could have been. Taliso Soto`s Lupe Lamora is horribly underwritten and her Soto`s fake Spanish accent is mediocre at best. Carey Lowell`s Pam Bouvier is a stronger character, an alpha female who can fire a gun and commandeer a mission almost as well as Bond can. But the film`s finale represents her almost as a school girl; her tears upon seeing Bond with Lamora seem somewhat passé for a film released in 1989! True, the two leading ladies prove more admirably than many of their compatriots, but neither are as memorable or as affective as Maryam D`Abo`s brilliant performance in ‘The Living Daylights’, a denigration of character, rather than a worthy successor!
The film`s second great error involves some of the film`s sillier scenes in the film. One particular annoyance involves a lorry doing a ‘wheelie’ in the film`s great oil tanker chase scene. It may not have been as silly as Bond driving a moon buggy in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (1971) or surfing over shoddy CGI effects a la ‘Die Another Day’ (2002), but for a revenge thriller, it seems archaic and cheap. The film`s final clip involves a winking fish, a scene that may have been at home in some of the Roger Moore films, but here it seems like a tacky trick, meant for a cheap laugh. Thirdly, the film lacks a visual style that makes it stand out amongst many of the other action films of the nineteen eighties. Director John Glen seems more at home filming the action sequences than he did filming the glossier side of the film. Certainly, the scene in which Bond plays in a Casino lacks the visual edge Terence Young and Peter Hunt could bring to similar scenes.
Those gripes aside, the film is good. Very good, in fact. Q`s role is beefed up nicely to a co-starring role. There is genuine affection visible between Desmond Llewelyn and Timothy Dalton on screen. Certainly, when Bond comments that ‘[Q] is one hell of an operative’, you know he means it. Llewelyn never again played such a large part (he died in1999), and his successor John Cleese merely played the traditional role of a Quartermaster in ‘Die Another Day’. The film also features some wonderful pieces of dialogue. Bond`s remarks that he is more of a problem eliminator than a problem solver is one of the series best lines.
The film`s greatest strength, however, is Mr. Dalton himself. Following his fine performance in ‘TLD’, Dalton ups the ante here, giving a brilliant performance as a demon ridden Bond. At times forceful (particularly when he threatens Bouvier in one of the film`s tenser scene), at others horror stricken (evident after finding Leiter`s maimed body), Dalton also shows a lighter side to his character when necessary. Certainly, he seems genuinely grateful to Q and Bouvier towards the latter half of the film for standing by him, even when his own authorities abandoned him. He also underscores the film with subtle nuances, leading Sanchez on to believe that he is a changed man. Finally, his cry of joy after killing Sanchez is a wonderful demonstration of Dalton`s strength as an actor. Free from the demons that have permeated his soul (he has acted to avenge Leiter`s wife, even if he could not avenge his own), Bond`s relief is one of the series more poignant moments.
In some regards, Dalton really was a cut above the other Bonds as an actor. Whether or not he is anyone`s favourite Bond, there is no doubt that as an actor, Dalton was hands down the best. His Shakespearian Theatre background gave him an edge that only Daniel Craig has rivalled (but not bettered) in terms of versatility and actorial development. His portrayal of James Bond as an assassin locked with his nothing but his demons has an edge to it. It may be the closest portrayal of Ian Fleming`s James Bond. It is the type of performance that Sean Connery shied away from, Roger Moore refused to play and Pierce Brosnan and George Lazenby were incapable of playing. Only Daniel Craig has come close to such a performance, although he may have gone too far in that direction, not least because of his hulking physicality. Certainly, by ‘Quantum of Solace’ (2008), Craig`s Bond comes across more as a belligerent thug than an intelligent spy. With Dalton`s refined sense, it was his intensity that comes across more than his physicality. Writer Ian Fleming would have been proud!
‘LTK’ performed pretty poorly globally and Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli considered selling some of the shares he held in the franchise as a result. A legal suit between MGM and Eon put the brakes on a third Timothy Dalton project. By the time pre-production came about for ‘Goldeneye’ in 1994, Dalton`s contract had expired and he bowed out to pursue further roles in stage, film and theatre. Pierce Brosnan took the mantle, although to a changed Bondian universe. ‘LTK’ would mark the final contribution from title designer Maurice Binder (although, his style of credit sequence had become somewhat old fashioned by the nineteen eighties), director John Glen (who had been involved with the series since 1969 and directed all five of the eighties releases) and screenwriter Richard Maibaum (who had been involved with the series since Dr. No). Albert R. Broccoli also bowed out of producer`s chair for ‘Goldeneye’, leaving it to daughter Barbara Broccoli and stepson Michael G. Wilson to overlook the series.
With twenty five years to look at it, how does ‘LTK’ fare? Pretty well. It certainly delivers on a strong story that shows the darker edge of James Bond. The film`s conclusion, wherein Bond kills Sanchez using the lighter Felix gave him as a present, has to be the most poetic scene yet written for a villain`s death. ‘LTK’ is not the best Bond film; it`s not even as strong as Dalton`s other entry ‘The Living Daylights’. But even if the film did not have either the audience to continue in such a manner during the nineties, at least it was a style EON returned to with Daniel Craig, giving the series the kick up the arse it really needed at that point!