On the 22nd anniversary of License to Kill, here's to you, Timothy Dalton
The '80s were not a kind time to James Bond. Always an actor-driven franchise, it rolled into the decade in the waning years of Roger Moore, who would from The Spy Who Loved Me on through Octopussy and A View to Kill, his last entry, see declining profitability in the franchise as people lost interest in his outsized, comic-book portrayal of Bond in favor of the gritty realism that was coming into vogue at the time. And thus came Timothy Dalton, popularly remembered as "the worst Bond" (except for George Lazenby, who roughly four people even remember played Bond in one ill-fated movie). But maybe it was a rap he didn't deserve.
The best Bond, of course, was and ever shall be the first: Sean Connery, whose suave, charismatic Bond set the tone for the films in a way that could never really be undone. Although Roger Moore played Bond in the most films of the series -- and moreso than for Connery, it was the Moore era's unabashed formulaic silliness we'll always remember in send-ups -- Connery was the ultimate template for a Bond that split the difference between the serious, volatile action-Bond of creator Ian Fleming's stories and the flip playboy of Moore's extremes.
So it sort of makes sense that, following Moore, the series would swing to the other end of the pendulum, invoking the serious Bond of the original novels. In his two-movie tenure of The Living Daylights and License to Kill, Timothy Dalton played Bond straight-up. Gone was the smooth bemusement of Connery and Moore; Dalton's Bond was a wild-card who seemed constantly on the brink of losing control, burned-out and even kind of sad. More a human than a hero.
It wasn't, at the time, a portrayal that stuck. License to Kill failed to make money -- it was released at the same time as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Lethal Weapon, and it just couldn't compete. The series itself was retired until 1995, when it returned with Pierce Brosnan, the most Connery-ish Bond since Connery, and the one-liners returned.
It's interesting, though, to note that, if it were released today, License to Kill might be a lot better received; after all, Daniel Craig, the latest Bond, took a surprisingly similar tack in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, playing the character closer to Fleming's character (and Dalton's performances) than anyone in 1989 would probably have expected would ever happen again -- and he sold it. Both movies garnered strong performance at the box office, and Craig is slated for another Bond movie at some point in the future.
So I think it's worth taking a look back at the worst Bond. Dalton was a little humorless, sure, and he sometimes looks a little cross-eyed, and the set-pieces are a little dated (which, admittedly, the dated-ness of serious Bond does not hold up as well as the dated-ness of silly Bond), but you just might find that Dalton was as legit a Bond, in his own way, as anyone else ever was. He beats the hell out of George Lazenby, anyway.