Licence To Kill - The Reception
licence to kill daniel craig
John Glen and EON were greatly dismayed when Licence To Kill received a 15 certificate in Britain. Four different versions of the film were released with Britain and Europe getting the most watered down version (in that most cuts were made to violent scenes). The death of Krest in the decompression chamber (where his head explodes) was one scene that had to be trimmed. It must have been a slightly new experience for EON to grapple with censors in this fashion. The 15 certificate in Britain was a big blow because James Bond films had always traditionally been enjoyed by children.
In a 2012 interview, Barbara Broccoli reflected on realism and violence in Bond films and seemed to suggest that, in her view, Licence To Kill might have gone a little too far. "When we did Licence to Kill, that was a lot more violent," she reflected. "It was the first one that got a 15-rating in the UK, and I think we overstepped the mark there, in terms of going a bit too far into the realism. So that’s something we’re always struggling with. When to be realistic, and if so, how realistic and how much."
Studio cost cutting also (much to the irritation of Cubby Broccoli) threatened to damage Licence To Kill before it had even been released. Robert Peak designed stylish teaser illustration and art for Licence To Kill but it was all dumped for a cheaper and far less effective campaign. MGM also discarded a campaign created by advertising executive Don Smolen, who had worked in the publicity campaign for eight previous Bond films. Certainly, the North American poster for Licence To Kill that did emerge must rank as one of the worst posters ever produced for Bond and gives you little clue that it is even promoting a James Bond film. In a sign of the times, Timothy Dalton was featured in casual clothes in all the poster art. The lack of the traditional tux did make the art seem less Bondian and lacking in tradition.
Marketing is definitely something that the modern Bond films are very good at but Licence To Kill plainly dropped the ball. Licence To Kill was severly hamstrung by the penny pinching marketing campaign. The marketing on the Brosnan and Craig films was later excellent. When a Bond film is released today you would literally have to be living on another planet not to notice the marketing and promotional campaign. No stone is left unturned in the quest to inform audiences that Bond is back.
One very shrewd thing the Bond franchise did after Timothy Dalton era was move the release dates of the films to the winter rather than the summer. This has generally meant that Bond films will now open at a time when there is less competition at the box-office. It isn't always this simple (Tomorrow Never Dies famously found itself up against James Cameron's Titanic - but then who would have guessed that Titanic would be so insanely popular and make two billion dollars?) but, for the most part, opening Bond films around October or November has been a profitable strategy and new tradition for EON.
The tagline for Licence To Kill was - 'James Bond is out on his own and out for revenge and out for revenge.' The American trailer for Licence To Kill was good fun because they got Timothy Dalton in to shoot a few framing scenes just for the trailer. Dalton frames the trailer by looking determined and angry in a black outfit and Bond's digital watch is used as a sort of countdown backdrop to the action. "When you get on his bad side your number is up!" went the voiceover. One might argue though that the marketing was overegging the 'oooh, he's really dangerous in this one' angle and losing some Bondian essence in the process.
John Gardner wrote the novelisation of Licence To Kill and had a dreadful time trying to tie the story in with the continuity of the Fleming novels (where Leiter suffered an identical shark attack in Live and Let Die). In the end Gardner rather brushed over the return of Milton Krest (from The Hildebrand Rarity) and had the shark attacking Leiter's false leg from the previous attack. The Felix Leiter in the Gardner continuity must rank as one of the unluckiest people in history to experience two identical shark attacks.
A graphic novel adaptation of Licence To Kill (by Mike Grell, Richard Ashford, Chuck Austen, Tom Yeates, and Stan Woch) was also released by Eclipse Books. This adaptation is nothing to write home about and is sometimes confusing to follow if you aren't very familiar with the film. The main problem with the graphic novel is that Timothy Dalton refused permission for his likeness to be used and the illustrations of James Bond are never consistent in the book. The visual depiction of Bond in the graphic novel frequently changes to the point you are occasionally confused as to who he is supposed to be! In one panel he actually looks like Dalton but in other panels he looks like the Daily Express Bond or even nothing like Bond at all. The Licence To Kill graphic novel is most probably one for completist Bond fans only.
Timothy Dalton seemed very happy with Licence To Kill and said in an interview that it was a 'great leap forward' after Daylights. However, years later, Dalton would say he liked Daylights better than Licence To Kill. Dalton did give one slightly gloomy interview when Licence To Kill was released where he said he feared Licence To Kill might be the last ever Bond film. He was obviously wrong about this but over the next several years Bond fans could be forgiven for feeling that his hunch was depressingly accurate. What might have prompted Dalton's gloomy prognosis is not known. Maybe he was just tired after a long and difficult shoot.
Licence to Kill premiered at the Odeon Leicester Square in London on the 13th of June 1989. Bond fans tend to be divided on Licence To Kill to this day and that was certainly the case with critics in 1989. Time Out praised an intense Dalton for mitigating a formula that had become 'lacklustre' while Richard Corliss in Time Magazine thought that Dalton was already showing signs of being bored by the role! 'The Bond women are pallid mannequins,' wrote Corlis, 'and so is the misused Dalton – a moving target in a Savile Row suit. For every plausible reason, he looks as bored in his second Bond film as Sean Connery did in his sixth.'
The New York Times was more generous and wrote that 'Dalton's glowering presence adds a darker tone' although they did have some criticisms. 'Dalton is perfectly at home as an angry Bond and as a romantic lead and as an action hero, but he never seems to blend any two of those qualities at once. He does not seem at ease with all of Bond's lines and to the actor's immense credit he seems least comfortable when M meets him at Hemingway's house, a Key West tourist attraction and tells him to turn over his gun "I guess it's a farewell to arms" says Mr Dalton not quite cringing. They have to stop writing lines like that for the Dalton Bond or he'll really be full of angst.'
The Los Angeles Times was less picky and gave Licence To kill a glowing review. 'Every once in a while, [the Bond series] pulls in its stomach, pops the gun from its cummerbund, arches its eyebrow and gets off another bull's-eye. The newest, Licence to Kill, is probably one of the five or six best of Bond.' Newsweek called Licence To Kill 'a pure, rousingly entertaining action movie' but also suggested that Timothy Dalton was yet to make the part of James Bond his own. Derek Malcom in The Guardian praised the darker tone of the film but suggested it might have been a lot better if it had been directed by someone with more flair than John Glen.
Roger Ebert enjoyed Licence To Kill more than Daylights and wrote - 'On the basis of this second performance as Bond, Dalton can have the role as long as he enjoys it. He makes an effective Bond - lacking Sean Connery's grace and humor, and Roger Moore's suave self-mockery, but with a lean tension and a toughness that is possibly more contemporary. The major difference between Dalton and the earlier Bonds is that he seems to prefer action to sex. But then so do movie audiences, these days. Licence to Kill is one of the best of the recent Bonds.'
The Globe and Mail was less impressed and wrote - "... they've excised Bond from the Bond flicks; they've turned James into Jimmy, strong and silent and (roll over, Britannia) downright American.' Andrew Pilkington in 007 Magazine was also unimpressed by the film and felt it was too grim. He said he left the press screening feeling bored and disappointed. Pilkington felt that Dalton was too 'theatrical' in Licence To Kill and seemed to have lost the natural quality he displayed in The Living Daylights. Pilkington noted that there seemed to be a strange lack of buzz for Licence To Kill and that fans outside the premiere seemed less numerous than in past years.
Sadly, Licence To Kill floundered in the North American blockbuster box-office summer of 1989 (Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters 2, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Star Trek V etc) and was considered to be a financial disappointment there. It made around $34 million in the United States - which was plainly disappointing because Daylights had made over $50 million in America and a number of films made over $100 million at the North American box-office in the amazing movie summer of 1989. It is said that MGM basically withdrew the marketing for Licence To Kill after a week and one can believe that because the film plainly struggled to hold its position.
It was clearly an unusual sort of year in 1989 because even films that were not obvious blockbusters like Parenthood and When Harry Met Sally outgrossed Licence To Kill three or four times over in the United States that summer. Licence To Kill's tepid performance in North America was especially galling (and perhaps confusing) for EON because the tougher tone and increased violence was tailored for the American market (where action movies seemed to be becoming more violent all the time). One of the most frustrating things about Licence To Kill's disappointing box-office haul in North America is that the film scored high marks with preview audiences in the United States. With a more committed marketing campaign it could (and probably should) have been a much bigger hit.
Let's remember though that Licence To kill did good business around the world even if it didn't completely set the world alight in North America. Licence To Kill made $156.2 million in total - which was respectable but still $40 million down on The Living Daylights. While John Glen felt that Licence to Kill was his best Bond film out of the five he had directed, he later expressed the view that the poor box-office performance of the film in America was a consequence of studio trouble and a confused marketing campaign.
"The thing is that MGM was going through absolute turmoil at that point," said John Glen. "We had, I think, three or four different people on publicity during the course of making it – they were changing every few weeks. So what happened was that they didn’t seem to put the effort into selling the picture. If you look at the way they sold Goldeneye, it was a huge campaign, and they did a great job and spent a lot of money on it. They spent a lot of money on Licence to Kill, but it didn’t seem to me to be sold as it should have been. I put that down to the fact that the studio was upside-down, heads were changing, people were switching jobs, and new people were coming in all the time. It was a very difficult period."
Amazingly, speculation about Timothy Dalton's future as James Bond began before the dust had even settled on Licence To Kill. The British tabloids ran stories in the summer of 1989 that the studio wanted to replace Dalton with Pierce Brosnan. The shadow of Brosnan increasingly loomed over Timothy Dalton's Bond so heavily that in 1990 a number of people noted that a (soon to be discontinued) cover on John Gardner's latest Bond novel Brokenclaw seemed to illustrate James Bond to look like Pierce Brosnan!
After Brosnan lost out on Bond in 1986, Remington Steele (after two comeback movies in which the lack of enthusiasm by Brosnan was all too apparent) had been swiftly cancelled again - which made NBC's decision to briefly reactivate the show feel all the more petty and pointless. It was fairly obvious that NBC only brought back Remington Steele because of the publicity and prestige of having the new James Bond actor in one of their shows. Cubby Broccoli had refused to play this game with NBC though.
Brosnan's career was stuttering circa 1989. The films he had made (Nomads, Taffin, The Deceivers) received poor reviews and he was still struggling to escape from the world of TV miniseries. The one bright spot for Brosnan had been the decent 1987 thriller The Fourth Protocol - in which he did well as a ruthless Russian agent on a secret mission to set off a nuclear device in the West. All in all though, Brosnan would probably have snatched your hand off if you'd offered him James Bond in 1989.
After his initial outbursts at NBC, Pierce Brosnan had shown his class by mostly staying silent about losing out on playing Bond in The Living Daylights. He did this largely out of respect for Timothy Dalton - who he personally knew and also liked. Brosnan did though shoot a 007 inspired Diet Coke commercial in 1988 in which he played a James Bondish Milk Tray Man style character who dodges ninjas and hangs on the side of the train before settling down in a carriage to enjoy a can of coke with a beautiful woman.
liecence to kill dalton
The speculation about Dalton's future was obviously a consequence of Licence To Kill not doing nearly as well in the United States as the studio and EON might have hoped. While there might conceivably have been a few MGM executives in 1989 who would have been perfectly happy to put Dalton in the Aston Martin ejector seat and hire Pierce Brosnan, there was zero chance of this actually happening. Dalton was under contract to make a third film and still had the full support of Cubby Broccoli and EON.
Besides, there was no reason to believe that with a better marketing campaign (and a bit more luck with the box-office competition next time around) a third Dalton film couldn't be a success. It's not as if Timothy Dalton's two Bond films had completely bombed. Both got plenty of positive reviews and turned in a profit. If anything, the prospect of a third Dalton film was rather intriguing now because it would fascinating to see what direction it took.
Cubby Broccoli made some public comments after the dust settled on Licence To Kill where he suggested that Licence was lacking some of the wry humour and fun which audiences had come to expect from James Bond. Dalton's third Bond film then was expected to undergo a slight course correction and be a slightly lighter and more outlandish affair than Licence To Kill. There's no reason why Dalton couldn't have worked in a film that was less 'angry' than Licence To Kill. Dalton had already displayed some charm in the generally lighter Living Daylights. It wasn't as if he was only capable of playing a grumpy James Bond intent on killing everyone.
Despite the occasional overblown claim by the producers that Bond must reflect the real world this has never really been the case. We never saw Bond fighting ISIS or battling child traffickers or people smugglers. We never saw Bond fighting in the Falklands War. We never saw him fighting in the Gulf Wars. The topicality of Bond is a superficial sort of gloss that amounts to one of the writers calling Donald Trump a real life Bond villain or Barbara Broccoli saying that in today's climate Bond women can no longer wander around in bikinis with a secret microtape stuffed down their underwear. The Dalton films were grounded by the standards of Bond but they were not radically realistic.
Another criticism of Dalton's Bond that surfaced after Licence To Kill was lack of humour. Humour was the biggest difference between the James Bond books written by Ian Fleming and the James Bond film franchise created by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. The films gave Bond (played by the peerless Sean Connery) deadpan quips and witty lines. Humour became an essential part of the franchise. Sean Connery and Roger Moore had impeccable timing when it came to dispensing the trademark Bond quips. These quips sounded less natural though coming from the mouth of Timothy Dalton. Timothy Dalton always seemed to be searching for a subtext in his lines but sometimes a quip is just a quip and didn't have to have any great significance beyond that.
It's not really as if the Dalton era required much of a course correction. Both of his films had a respectable critical reception. Years later, no one suggested Daniel Craig should leave the role after his second film Quantum of Solace proved to be a critical misfire so why should Dalton have had to leave after Licence To Kill? All it probably required was for a third Dalton film to be more like Daylights than Licence To Kill and freshen things up with a new director. A new director was clearly on the cards anyway as Dalton seemed less than enthusiastic at the prospect of working with John Glen again. Timothy Dalton is alleged to have requested at the time that his third Bond film should have a new director.
A few years later Dalton left the production of Christopher Columbus: The Discovery after John Glen came onboard as director in place of George Pan Cosmatos. In his memoir, John Glen said - "While waiting for his third Bond assignment, Tim had agreed to play Columbus. My arrival, however, seemed to initiate a change of heart and Tim soon decided he didn't want to appear in the film after all. I don't know whether Tim thought that appearing in another John Glen film would typecast him, but I hope that his departure wasn't entirely due to me. Whatever his reasons, the official story was that Tim had decided not to play Christopher Columbus because of 'creative differences' - whatever that means." It was a lucky escape for Dalton in the end because Christopher Columbus: The Discovery bombed and swept the board at the Golden Raspberries. The failure of the film pretty much ended Glen's career as a movie director and he was reduced to directing episodes of Gerry Anderson's Space Precinct for television.
In their overview of Licence To Kill, 007 Magazine suggested that the third Dalton film should be directed by John McTiernan, Richard Donner, or Lewis Gilbert. Although these would clearly have been interesting and talented choices it is probably doubtful that two Hollywood directors as high profile (not to mention expensive) as McTiernan and Donner would have been realistic possibilities at the time. John McTiernan was red hot after Predator and Die Hard and would probably have been too busy anyway. Lewis Gilbert had of course directed You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker for EON. It's highly doubtful EON would have gone back to Gilbert (who was knocking on a bit by now) but it's a rather enticing thought to think of the director of The Spy Who Loved Me having a stab at a Tim Dalton film! I'd have paid money to watch that.
Nothing too radical was really required for a third Dalton film. If anything it just needed to be a little more conventional. The Bond franchise had faced far bigger headaches in its past and would again in the future. There was the headache of replacing Connery for OHMSS and then the headache of replacing Connery AGAIN after Diamonds Are Forever. The mediocre reception to The Man with the Golden Gun required something of a course correction back to the extravaganza Bonds of the sixties. The excesses of Moon raker then required a course correction to the more grounded (for Roger Moore at least) For Your Eyes Only. Years later, the creative dead end experienced by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson with Die Another Day led to a four year hiatus and a complete reboot of the franchise. Making a third Timothy Dalton film was child's play compared to some of these past and future headaches.
* The above article is an excerpt from the book Timothy Dalton's James Bond - The Retrospective.


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