Timothy Dalton got a bit of a raw deal when he finally relented to take on the mantle of Bond, James Bond in 1987. He was first asked 20 years before in 1967, but felt he was far too young at only 21 years old, and, more importantly, didn’t want to be the first actor to follow Sean Connery. He was again asked in 1979, but did not like the direction the series had been going in at the time. It’s a shame then, that after such a long time he ended up playing Bond in two of the most unmemorable films in the series.
That isn’t to say they’re bad films, they’re both very solid – Licence to Kill in particular is actually very good. It’s just in the larger scale of the Bond series of films, everything is just a bit… forgettable.
They lack the iconography and cultural cache of the earlier instalments, and the freshness of the more recent films; they exist in that murky period of the late 1970s to mid 1990s. And this is a real shame as Timothy Dalton gives us a really, really good interpretation of 007. Had he been provided with some more iconic films there’s no doubt he would be widely accepted as one of the best Bonds, rather than frequently being forgotten about. Like George Lazenby.
It sounds strange to be saying that Dalton’s films are both solid and well made, and also say they’re forgettable, but that’s weirdly just what they are. Neither of them have a memorable villain; The Living Daylights’ major bad guy isn’t introduced until halfway through, and their plan is vague at best (it’s something to do with selling guns to Russians but there’s Afghan opium and diamonds somehow involved), whilst Licence to Kill features Agent Johnson from Die Hard as a South American drug baron.
He’s a decent baddie, but chances are you only remembered he’s the antagonist when we just told you (incidentally, Special Agent Johnson (no relation) also makes a brief appearance as a DEA agent). None of the Bond girls are particularly memorable, though again, not because they’re bad, they just get lost in the mid-table. Even the theme songs are forgettable: Gladys Knight is hardly unknown, but the fact she did a Bond theme surely is. Likewise, it would be a safe bet that not many people remember A-ha performed The Living Daylights theme, if you ever go on Pointless.
One accusation you can’t level at the films, however, is that the leading man is forgettable. From the off, Dalton makes the character his own; he shrugs off the cheesy jokes and eyebrow raising of Roger Moore, instead casting Bond as a more serious professional who gets the job done by any means necessary; one of his first lines is “stuff my orders”, which sets the tone to come. Some things never change of course, as he retains a distinguished taste for women and drink, as always. The Living Daylights is a decent first outing for Dalton, in which he clearly carves a fresh identity for himself and the character, though there are still traces of the previous film’s style due to John Glen carrying over for his fourth outing as director.
It is in Licence to Kill, however, that Dalton’s Bond really comes into his own. After a group of Sanchez’s goons (including a super creepy and super young Benicio del Toro) break into CIA ally Felix Leiter’s home on his wedding night, murder his new bride and dunk him into a shark tank, Bond seeks revenge.
When this personal vendetta gets in the way of his MI6 work, M has no choice but to suspend his licence to kill. Bond responds by going rogue, insinuating himself into Sanchez’s inner circle, then acting like the ronin in Yojimbo and playing different factions of the cartel against one another to exact his revenge.
This is a very different Bond to the one we are familiar with, though he shares more than a few similarities to Daniel Craig’s tougher, more ruthless 007. He even shares a weapon with a palm reader in the grip, à la Skyfall, though this one is disguised as a camera, something Ben Wishaw’s Q explicitly rules out.
This new central driving focus for the character – revenge – injects a previously unseen level of violence to the franchise; Licence to Kill was the first, and still one of only three Bond films to be rated 15 (the others being the next two in the series, Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies), and many scenes are genuinely shocking. Felix’s leg being chewed off by a shark is gruesome, especially for a Bond film, and one particularly unpleasant scene sees a character literally explode in a shower of claret after a pressure tank is rapidly de-pressurised.
Some of these moments are especially shocking as 007 is often the one dealing out the gore. Early in the film, Dalton kicks Everett McGill’s (Ed Hurley from Twin Peaks) traitorous cop into the aforementioned shark tank with a chillingly dead eyed coldness we haven’t quite seen the like of before or since in the franchise. Sure, no iteration of Bond has been one to pull punches when villains cross him, but none of them have made single minded justice their drive for an entire mission like Dalton does, or conveyed a sense of fury and hatred as fully as he does at pivotal moments in Licence to Kill. Nor have they set a nefarious villain soaked in petrol on fire with a lighter, real up close and personal like. Dalton did, and didn’t even flinch.
We’re all worse off for the legal troubles surrounding ownership of the franchise that followed the release of his second outing as Bond, as the years of delays led Timothy Dalton to stand down as 007. If he had stayed on for more than two films, he would certainly receive far more recognition than he currently does. Regardless, his impact on the emotional depth of Bond, and the darker side of his character is undeniable. It’s being felt even more so now, a quarter century after his brief run, in the grittier direction Craig has taken him this past decade. For him to have left such an indelible mark on such an iconic character with just two films (though you could argue with just Licence to Kill), is a major achievement.