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Licence to thrill: why Timothy Dalton’s Bond deserves more praise

After months of delays, it seems James Bond will indeed return. Daniel Craig’s fifth film as the MI6 agent should finally arrive in cinemas in the autumn. But whenever Bond returns, so does the same old question. I can see it happening already. Two fans have queued up for popcorn. They’re deep in conversation about the double-take pigeon in Moonraker (1979), when the person ahead of them turns around. They’re just trying to be friendly, but too late! What they thought would be the start of a quick chat between strangers is, unbeknownst to them, the most divisive utterance they could ever make.

“Who’s the best Bond then?”

Faster than a DB5, they reply. One thinks it’s Connery. The other Moore. The Bond fan two spaces back intervenes: “Brosnan, obviously.” Oh no. Popcorn is thrown in frustration, kernels flying towards them like bullets from a golden gun. The Brosnan defender ducks, but it’s hit the Craig fan behind them! They turn on the spot like they’re in the gun barrel sequence. Within minutes, the cinema is in ruins, and half the Bond enthusiasts have ended up upside-down in the popcorn machine. The winner of the fight adjusts his bow tie and quips “a-maize-ing” with questionable delivery, before being escorted out and banned by the security guards.

OK, it’s probably not going to end up like that. I hope. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating just how much disagreement there is. My answer? Depends. One afternoon, I might want to watch Roger Moore fight on top of a train in Octopussy (1983). Another day I might prefer Daniel Craig taking on Le Chiffre in Casino Royale (2006). I do, however, have one Bond that I feel really needs more attention.

Timothy Dalton.

Dalton is rarely the first Bond actor that people think of. He only had two films, The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill (1989). He didn’t star in as many as Sean Connery or Roger Moore, and he hasn’t appeared as recently as Pierce Brosnan or Daniel Craig. Even George Lazenby is remembered for only appearing once. He was also Bond just as the Cold War was about to end. Dalton’s Bond is one that was unlucky timewise. The second half of The Living Daylights in particular feels like it has nothing to say about global situation that hadn’t already been said in Moore’s films.

Whereas Brosnan’s Bond got to explore the unipolar world in Goldeneye (1995), Dalton never got a third film after the Berlin Wall came down, partly due to delays after a legal dispute about rights issues. Licence to Kill’s revenge story is more tailored towards Dalton’s interpretation of the character, but it’s also a violent and atypical Bond movie that I suspect people would struggle to rewatch as easily as, say, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) or Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). I don’t think the Dalton era is forgotten because it was bad, just very unlucky.

It was right to follow Roger Moore with a more solemn portrayal

Why does it deserve a reappraisal then? Firstly, it was right to follow Roger Moore with a more solemn portrayal. Don’t get me wrong, I think Moore made a great Bond, but Dalton provides a nice contrast and it’s refreshing to a more serious, dare I say irritable, figure on missions again. He’s still got a sense of humour, but it’s incredible easy to imagine he’s a spy, and one who often has some brutal tasks to be getting on with. This is the most realistic version of Bond, at least until Daniel Craig. After the enjoyable but entirely improbable scenes the previous instalments gave us, from submarine cars to space battles, it’s nice to experience something different again. Dalton I think introduces a certain type of aggression into the character which works well, and which would later work for Craig’s version.

He’s also the coolest Bond. His Aston Martin from The Living Daylights is magnificent. His quips come across more as a man brushing off deadly threats than someone just making cheesy puns. He’s clinging onto cars about to fly off the side of Gibraltar, throwing punches on planes and getting involved in explosive tanker chases. His films, and their stunts, are some of the most visually impressive ever, not just in the Bond series but in all of cinema. The two Dalton films aren’t exactly the most emotionally complex. They’re nothing like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) or Casino Royale (2006), but they are undeniably and ridiculously exciting, regardless.

Another reason why I enjoy Dalton’s 007 is that while his films might not always be considered the best in the franchise, I don’t think either of his two films are anywhere near the bottom. While neither film is perfect, there’s nothing in either that particularly bothers me while watching them. Yes, Connery might be popular, but then there’s Thunderball (1965), where you almost hope that the villains will explode the nukes just to end the film. Moore had some great films, but then there’s The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), where it feels like he’s been told to play the role as Connery would, only for that to not work. Brosnan had Die Another Day (2002), a film… actually yeah, he had Die Another Day. But both The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill are really entertaining films which, while imperfect, are plenty of fun and both get ignored too often.

Timothy Dalton is a truly overlooked James Bond. I think he is often forgotten because of bad luck, not bad films. I don’t think he’ll ever be the most popular Bond, and I don’t think either of his films will ever be voted the best Bond adventure in any major polls, but it would be nice to see them receive some more positive attention. Perhaps once No Time to Die is released, people will look back on the previous movies and notice them.

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