IN MY LAST BLOG POST, I was chatting about how the 16th Bond film, Licence Revoked, suffered an undignified and expensive last-minute name change to Licence to Kill. That wasn’t the only thing going wrong behind the scenes on one of the least inspired, least successful entries in what is, for the most part, a reliable series.
To begin with Timothy Dalton, who had made his début in 1987’s The Living Daylights, was certainly the 007 with the rottenest luck. First approached by the producers in 1969 to replace Connery for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Dalton’s conscience or sense of purism wouldn’t allow him to accept the part, believing himself to be too young. In 1981, however, he was all set to take over in For Your Eyes Only; a condition of accepting the rôle was that the script take Bond in a darker, more gritty direction that took more cues from the Fleming novels and short stories. In the end, Dalton didn’t end up appearing in that film either, but the script intended for him supplied Moore with one of his best, and certainly his darkest, outings as Bond. By the time Dalton was finally ready, in 1987, the tables were turned, and The Living Daylights sees him awkwardly making his way through a script intended for Moore. The resultant high-camp doesn’t sit well with the character Dalton is playing, and the picture is largely confused and forgettable, with a few honourable bright spots. GoldenEye, an exceptionally sharp scipt written especially for Dalton, would eventually star Pierce Brosnan, and in the meantime Dalton was lumped with the only script written for him that he would ever actually appear in, something called Licence Revoked.
In many ways, it was to be the tentative first modern Bond, in the sense that many series mainstays were either gone or on their way out. The early entries are magnificent pictures due to their good fortune in having a wonderful production team behind them. It was time to prove that the formula could outlast its creators: it was the first film not to bear a title from Fleming, and the last for some time to use any Fleming elements in its script. It was the last to star Timothy Dalton. It was the last written by Richard Maibaum. It was the last directed by John Glen. It was the last with titles by Maurice Binder. It’s the last to depict Bond as a smoker, and the last in which the original version of Felix Leiter appears. It’s the last outing for second Moneypenny Caroline Bliss, and second M Robert Brown; it will be the last appearance of a Male M until 2012’s Skyfall. It was the last Bond production by Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, though he would be retained on GoldenEye as a consultant producer. Harry Saltzman and Peter R. Hunt had long since left the series, and it was the first film following John Barry’s departure. It was also the first to feature a photographic, rather than a painted, poster; would receive a novelisation, just like all of Brosnan’s entries, and unlike most of the previous pictures; and it was the first to subject Bond’s masculinity to scrutiny, something that has been retained in all eight subsequent films.
You have to admire Dalton, for his devotion to the Bond literature, his willingness to put artistic integrity before commerciality, and the fact that he’s a damned fine actor, not to mention that his overlooked status in the franchise makes him automatically sympathetic. But I’ve always found that Sean Connery’s ability to play high charm with a threat of violence that may explode from under the surface at any moment to more authentically capture the character of Bond than does Dalton’s portrayal, which is a perpetually ticked-off but ultimately not very dangerous type of rogue. The Licence Revoked script picks up on the worst aspects of that characterisation, stripping out even the tenderness that makes up for the many flaws of The Living Daylights. Here, Bond is as totally cold as he ever got, going up against a bunch of drug-dealing lowlives responsible for various acts of rape, torture and murder, including putting his friend Felix Leiter in a coma. Naturally, Bond goes into a full-on white rage, murdering his way through a script full of such horrors as shark feeding frenzies, maggot tanks, viscerally exploding heads, bad guys burnt alive, crooked televangelists and huge clouds of cocaine dust. He even attacks his old friend M, going rogue without a Licence to Kill (it’s never explained why he escapes prosecution for going on a murder-spree, nor what strings could possibly have been pulled to see him reinstated by the time of GoldenEye).
A Bond script is a plastic thing, though, and surely a series of rewrites could have salvaged Licence Revoked, were it not for the unfortunate timing of the 1989 Writers’ Strike. Director John Glen was on his fifth Bond outing by this point; a former second-unit director, he made efficient, satisfying and cheap Bond pictures with none of the grandiosity of Guy Hamilton, the cool of Terence Young, or the humour of Lewis Gilbert. One of those directors might have found some hidden inner charm or flair that would give Licence to Kill an identity. Glen’s approach is workmanlike and drab, doing nothing to compensate for the lack of an engaging script.
Another sorely felt loss to the Bond formula was sex, vetoed due to AIDs. The Living Daylights reformed Bond; he’s a chaste, yet deeply romantic and tender figure. It’s one of only a handful containing a convincing romance, along with From Russia with Love, The World is Not Enough and Casino Royale. Licence to Kill doesn’t lack sex; depicted or implied sexual violence is commonplace, but its already unlikeable protagonist is made more inhuman yet by his seeming sexlessness. There are women for him in the picture, two of them in fact, but the bizarre culmination of their flirtation is that he pushes both of them into a pool, like some kind of sensually asexual psychopath able only to get his jollies through humiliation. It should be noted that he blows off Felix Leiter, the friend that all this revenge was supposedly in aid of, to do this. Not to fuck either girl, or even both at once, but to push them into a pool while a fish winks at the audience. Even the cringing nature of Moore’s romance with young-enough-to-be-his-daughter Tanya Roberts in A View to a Kill is preferable.
Something else A View to a Kill had that Licence lacks is a great theme song. “Licence to Kill” is probably the worst of the lot, histrionic, synthetic and ultimately forgettable.
Floundering to find a market and making do without classic elements and without writers able to write around that absence, the producers looked to American audiences to secure a future for Licence Revoked. The change of title was made to court American audiences, who apparently found the existing one comical, it being a phrase commonly used by the DMV, a favourite fallback target of American humour. Changing the title at this point, however, with much promotional material already printed, cost the producers not just in cash but also in marketing momentum.
The issue may not necessarily have been in changing the title partway through production, but in gearing up the marketing machine before a sensible title was settled on. There’s something dark and enticing to my ears about the Licence Revoked title, but at least Licence to Kill more clearly connects with the Bond brand. That brand was less in evidence given other tweaks to the established formula also presumably tailored to please American audiences; Licence to Kill plays out as an American action film of the 80s, an influence underlined by the hiring of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard composer Michael Kamen. There’s an anonymity to Licence to Kill‘s violent revenge fantasy, as if it could just as well be Dirty Harry, or Death Wish, or any number of similarly mean-spirited, hard-boiled flicks. It’s that approach which earned Licence to Kill a 15 certificate, further hurting its commercial potential though adequately warning kids away from the amped-up violence* of a series already more adult-oriented than its legions of kid fans would lead you to believe. The Sunday Times‘ Ian Johnstone was put off, finding that the film had eradicated “any traces of the gentleman spy” envisaged by Fleming; Bond here is “remarkably close both in deed and action to the eponymous hero of the Batman film”.
He makes an apt comparison. Either Jaws or Star Wars is usually cited as the birth of the Summer blockbuster, but in truth it’s not a phenomenon that arrived fully-formed, as evidenced by the conflicting citations of two different pictures from different Summers. Batman was huge in an unprecedented way, not a word-of-mouth success like Jaws or Star Wars but a marketing juggernaut, impossible to avoid even months in advance of the release date. You can see why Licence to Kill chose to borrow elements of its approach. But going up against it in the box-office is a decision that smacks of hubris. In fact 1989’s whole Summer season was a brutal gauntlet, with action audiences pulled in different directions not just by Batman, but also Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade**, Lethal Weapon 2 and Ghostbusters II, all of them not just better films than Licence to Kill but also healthier representatives of their respective franchise.
All told, you can’t fault audiences in 1989 for not connecting with Licence to Kill. It failed both at bringing Bond convincingly up to date and at paying tribute to the series’ well-loved roots, both tasks managed seemingly effortlessly in GoldenEye . Of course, that film would have its own painful birth, after six years of legal and financial stresses and the loss of Tim Dalton, who would even express an interest in Kevin McClory’s Warhead 2000 A.D.. Still, Bond was saved, and would never find himself in any trouble again…until Quantum of Solace appeared, an underwhelming Bond which fails to connect with the classic formula due to a rushed production schedule, a name that audiences hated, a writers’ strike, and a sad desperation to piggyback on popular action tropes. It even lacked a proper romance for Bond, and its failure meant we wouldn’t see another outing for four whole years, leaving its successor the difficult task of reinvigorating the franchise all over again. If only the producers had had an example to learn from, there…
*Milton Krest’s horrible death scene certainly lingered with me as a child, as did Benicio del Toro’s jeering rapist: “We gave her a niiiiice honeymoon!”
**Complete with meta-Bonding Sir Sean Connery