By the time of A View to a Kill‘s release in 1985, Roger Moore had portrayed the charming and deadly British secret agent James Bond a total of seven times, and in the twelve years since he had first taken on the role the world had changed significantly.
Former actor-turned politician Ronald Reagan had replaced Jimmy Carter as the President of the United States, the rise of the Yuppie culture had further divided the social classes, technology had advanced with computers now becoming household devices and fashion had become more excessive and outrageous.
Moore had been the perfect gentleman spy for the 1970s; a suave and charming hero in his mid-forties, a killer of both ladies and megalomaniacs intent on world domination. But by the dawn of the 1980s he had shown signs of ageing beyond that of his character, and even before the release of his Bond swan song, Moore appeared to be growing tired of the role.
The first half of the decade had seen a rise in a new breed of action hero, with which elegance and subtlety had been replaced with muscles and one-liners. Sylvester Stallone had created a new action hero with First Blood, in which Vietnam vet John Rambo declares war on an abusive sheriff, while Arnold Schwarzenegger had become an overnight movie star with his lead roles in Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator. If James Bond was to survive in this new political and cultural climate then he would need do adapt and move with the times.
On 7 August 1986, a little over a year after the release of A View to a Kill, Timothy Dalton was announced in the press as the fourth James Bond. The Welsh actor had already come close to the role twice before; the first in the late 1960s following the departure of Sean Connery after the release of You Only Live Twice, and then once again in 1980 when Moore seemed reluctant to return following the science fiction disaster of Moonraker.He had been the first choice for Albert R. Broccoli, who had overseen the franchise since its inception in 1963 with Dr. No, but due to scheduling conflicts he almost lost out to a young TV star called Pierce Brosnan. Having already gained popularity in the United States through his role of the soap drama Remington Steele, Brosnan seemed like an ideal second choice, but when NBC ordered the production of six feature-length episodes, he was unable to commit to the role. By this point Dalton was available and became Roger Moore’s successor, while Brosnon would replace Dalton in the role a decade later.
Dalton had a different personality and appeal to Moore, just as he had to his two predecessors, Connery and George Lazenby, and with each reinvention of the series the character of James Bond would take on a new life. Displaying more of an intensity and less of the laid-back charm that had made Moore so appealing, Dalton’s incarnation of Bond would be far more ruthless and brutal, in some ways closer to how the character had been portrayed in the original Ian Fleming novels.
One of the men most responsible for steering Bond through his Roger Moore years was Michael G. Wilson, the stepson of Broccoli, who had spent much of his childhood on movie sets and had watched as the franchise had developed beyond Connery’s reign. After joining Eon Productions, the company that had overseen the series since Bond’s big screen debut, Wilson’s first official involvement with Bond was in the publicity department during the making of The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977. Two years later he earned an executive producer credit on Moonraker, before making his writing debut with 1981’s For Your Eyes Only.
This would also mark his first collaboration with Richard Maibaum, the man who had helped to personify Bond with his script for Dr. No, and together they would work on a total of five screenplays, their last being 1989’s Licence to Kill. For Dalton’s first appearance they had wanted to return to the roots of the character, exploring his childhood overcoming the death of his parents and his rise through the Nave to 00 status, but Broccoli had little interest in this concept and so The Living Daylights, Dalton’s introduction as Bond, would instead focus on a Soviet defector.
Bond’s return to the big screen had not been as spectacular as Broccoli and MGM, the parent company of distributor United Artists, had hoped for. The box office takings had been respectable but not phenomenal, yet while critical reaction seemed mixed one constant praise was how Dalton had helped to bring a sense of realism to the role, after several of Moore’s outings taking the fantasy element too far from the real world. Bringing back Dalton for a second appearance seemed like a no-brainer, and while The Living Daylights seemed to give the franchise a more adult spin, this would be nothing compared to his next adventure.
Bond 16, as the production would initially be known as, was a revenge tale, in which Bond embarks on a personal mission to bring the killer of his close friend to justice. John Glen once again returned as director for the fifth and final time. He had worked behind the scenes on several Bond productions, taking part in the complex skiing chase from the opening of The Spy Who Loved Me, before rising to the director’s chair with For Your Eyes Only.
The Airborne Warning and Control System locate a plane belonging to the notorious drug smuggler and gangster Franz Sanchez deviating from its course and landing at Cray Key in the Bahamas. On his way to his wedding, DEA Agent Felix Leiter’s car is intercepted by a helicopter and informed by his men that Sanchez has finally been located. Unwilling to allow him to escape, Leiter climbs aboard the helicopter, accompanied by his best man, James Bond, and set off towards Sanchez’s home. After finding his lover Lupe Lamora in bed with another man, Sanchez orders his execution before whipping Lamora into submission, but moments later a helicopter arrives, alerting Sanchez to the danger. Leiter and his men storm the island but are met with resistance.
Sanchez manages to escape in a plane, leaving Lamora behind as the DEA waste no time in pursuing him. Desperate to apprehend him before they went Cuban airspace, the helicopter hovers over the plane as Bond is lowered down, attaching a rope and hook around its tail and carrying him away over to the church, where Leiter and Bond are able to parachute down to the wedding while Sanchez is taken away to face justice.
Facing a life behind bars Sanchez offers the agents interrogating him $2 million to assist in his escape, a temptation that is too much to resist for Ed Killifer, a close friend of Leiter. During the journey to prison, Killifer beats the driver of the van and breaks Sanchez from custody, escaping under water to avoid detection. After their wedding, Leiter and his new bride Della are abducted by Sanchez’s hoodlums, where he learns of Killifer’s defection, before Leiter is eaten alive by a shark.
As Bond is checking in at the airport he is informed that a drug dealer has escaped and, knowing that it must be Sanchez, returns to Leiter’s home to find Della’s corpse lying on her bed, while a half-dead Leiter lay in his office with a note attached that reads, ‘He disagreed with something that ate him.’ When he is told by DEA Agent Hawkins that Sanchez is beyond their authority, Bond refuses to walk away and launches his own investigation, leading him to Milton Krest, a shark hunter who now claims to run a marine research facility.
After witnessing Krest leaving in a small submarine, Bond sneaks into the complex where he finds a large quantity of Columbian cocaine. He then comes face to face with Killifer, but during their fight he falls into the shark tank, much to the satisfaction of Bond, having refused to take his bribe. The following day, Hawkins leads him to M, the head of MI6, who orders Bond to back away from Sanchez as it has clouded his judgement and could result in political ramifications. Bond threatens to resign but M, angered by his gesture, revokes his licence to kill and orders him to relinquish his weapon.
Bond refuses and makes his escape, travelling with his friend Sharky to the Wavekrest, a research vessel owned by Krest that is far out to sea. Sneaking into one of the cabins and placing a blade against the throat of a sleeping Lamora, he orders her to keep his presence a secret, but through the window he sees a tied-up Sharky brought onto the boat. Krest opens fire on Bond, forcing him to jump into the ocean, but he manages to steal the money from Sanchez’s latest drug deal and makes his escape on a plane.
One of the most notable difference between Licence to Kill and the previous Bond movies is how its villain is merely a corrupt drug lord and not a criminal mastermind. In this respect, the Bond movie closest in tone to this was Live and Let Die, Moore’s first outing in the role, in which he tried to foil the heroin trade of the deadly Harlem drug dealer Mr. Big. Robert Davi has spent his career being typecast as either a villain or an antagonist of some kind, from his role as a thief in The Goonies his appearance as an abusive FBI Agent in Die Hard. Proving to be one of the most exotic and underrated women in the franchise, newcomer Talisa Soto was cast as Sanchez’s beautiful-yet-tragic girlfriend Lupe Lamora. As with Glen, Dalton, Wilson and Maibaum, Licence to Kill would mark Robert Brown’s swan song in the series, having portrayed M a total of five times, before being replaced by Judi Dench for 1996’s GoldenEye.
Bond discovers that one Leiter’s informants remains alive with knowledge of Sanchez, Pam Bouvier, whom he manages to locate in a rundown bar. They are soon surrounded by henchmen led by the sadistic Dario, but following a shootout they manage to escape on a boat. While retreating to Isthmus City and taking refuge in a hotel, using the money from Sanchez’s botched drug deal he enters a casino and is approached by Lamora, posing as the card dealer. She warns him to leave before it is too late, but he manages to lie his way into Sanchez’s office by pretending to be a hit man searching for a new employer.
Bond manages to prove himself to be a reliable asset and is allowed into his inner circle, gaining the trust of Sanchez while Krest, who was framed by Bond to appear as the thief of the drug money, is executed for his supposed treachery. He is unable to convince Dario of his loyalty, however, but as he is about to kill Bond he is saved by Bouvier. Dario would provide an early appearance for Benicio del Toro, the acclaimed actor who would later take significant roles in The Usual Suspects, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Che.
As his base is destroyed by fire, Sanchez makes his escape but is pursued by a plane flown by Bouvier, a former pilot. Bond jumps from the aircraft onto the truck carrying the cocaine, kicking out the driver and driving another truck off the road. After having his tyres shot out by henchmen he is forced to abandon the truck as it hangs off the edge of a cliff, but at the last moment he decides to unhook the back, allowing it to roll down a hill towards Sanchez, forcing his car into a ditch.
Bond finally manages to claim his revenge when he climbs onto the back of the last remaining truck that Sanchez has commandeered and causes the fuel inside to leak. As Sanchez heads across the side of the truck to investigate he is attacked by Bond, while the driver jumps out for fear of his life. The truck rolls off the road and crashes, leaving both Bond and Sanchez batted and bruised. But when Sanchez prepares to kill Bond with his machete, Bond pulls out a lighter and ignites the fuel that Sanchez is covered in, causing him to burst into flames.
Licence to Kill had proved to be the darkest and most violent of the sixteen James Bond movies released up until that point, and in many ways could be considered a precursor to the Daniel Craig era that would come two decades later. The movie was forced to undergo cuts in order to be granted a 15 certificate by the British Board of Film Classification due to containing ‘moderate bloody violence and injury.’ Released in the United Kingdom in June 1989, the reviews were far more positive than The Living Daylights but overall failed to match the success of its predecessors.
For the first time in the history of the franchise, seven years would pass between James Bond movies, with 007 remaining inactive until Pierce Brosnan took on the role in GoldenEye. This had less to do with the poor box office performance of Licence to Kill, though, and more due to legal issues, with Kirk Kerkorian selling interest in MGM to Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti. It would be several years until the company were secure enough to provide the support needed to resurrect James Bond.