Licence to Kill’s 30th anniversary: 007 falters in the U.S.

Licence to Kill's poster

Licence to Kill’s poster

Adapted and updated from a 2014 post.

Licence to Kill, which had its world premiere 30 years ago today, is mostly known for a series of “lasts” but also for a first.

–It was the last of five 007 films directed by John Glen, the most prolific director in the series.

–The last of 13 Bond films where Richard Maibaum (1909-1991) participated in the writing

–It was the last with Albert R. Broccoli getting a producer’s credit (he would only “present” 1995’s GoldenEye).

–It was the last 007 movie with a title sequence designed by Maurice Binder, who would die in 1990.

–And the it was last 007 film where Pan Am was the unofficial airline of the James Bond series (it went out of business before GoldenEye).

It was also the first to falter badly in the U.S. market.

Economy Class

Bond wasn’t on Poverty Row when Licence to Kill began production in 1988. But neither did 007 travel entirely first class.

Under financial pressure from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (which acquired half the franchise after buying United Artists earlier in the decade), Eon Productions moved the home base of the production to Mexico from Pinewood Studios.

Joining Timothy Dalton in his second (and last) outing as Bond was a cast mostly known for appearing on U.S. television, including Anthony Zerbe, Don Stroud, David Hedison (his second appearance as Felix Leiter), Pricilla Barnes, Rafer Johnson, Frank McRae as well as Las Vegas performer Wayne Newton.

Meanwhile, character actor Robert Davi snared the role of the film’s villain, with Carey Lowell and Carey Lowell and Talisa Soto as competing Bond women.

Wilson’s Role

Michael G. Wilson, Broccoli’s stepson and co-producer, took the role as lead writer because a 1988 Writers Guild strike made Richard Maibaum unavailable. Maibaum’s participation didn’t extend beyond the plotting stage. The teaser trailer billed Wilson as the sole writer but Maibaum received co-writer billing in the final credits.

Wilson opted for a darker take, up to a point. He included Leiter having a leg chewed off by a shark from the Live And Let Die novel. He also upped the number of swear words compared with previous 007 entries. But Wilson hedged his bets with jokes, such as Newton’s fake preacher and a scene where Q shows off gadgets to Bond.

Licence would be the first Bond film where “this time it’s personal.” Bond goes rogue to avenge Leiter. Since then, it has been frequently been personal for 007. Because of budget restrictions, filming was kept primarily to Florida and Mexico.

The end product didn’t go over well in the U.S. Other studios had given the 16th 007 film a wide berth for its U.S. opening weekend. The only “new” movie that weekend was a re-release of Walt Disney Co.’s Peter Pan.

Nevertheless, Licence finished an anemic No. 4 during the July 14-16 weekend coming in behind Lethal Weapon 2 (in its second weekend), Batman (in its fourth weekend) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (also fourth weekend).

Glen and Maibaum were done with Bond, the latter being part of the 007 series since its inception.

Bond 17’s Fembot

Initial pre-production of the next 007 film proceeded without the two series veterans. Wilson wrote a treatment in 1990 for Bond 17 with Alfonse Ruggiero that included a deadly fembot. Scripts with other scribes were then written based on that treatment. But that story was never made.

That’s because Broccoli would enter into a legal fight with MGM that meant Bond wouldn’t return to movie screens until 1995. By the time production resumed, Eon started over, using a story by Michael France as a beginning point for what would become GoldenEye. Maibaum, meanwhile, died in early 1991.

Today, some fans like to blame MGM’s marketing campaign or other major summer 1989 movies such as Batman or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But Licence came out weeks after either of those blockbusters.

And, it needs to be repeated, Bond couldn’t best Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which also came out weeks earlier.

In the end, the U.S. audience didn’t care for Licence. The movie’s total U.S. box office of $34.7 million didn’t match Batman’s U.S. opening weekend of $40.5 million. Licence’s U.S. box office was almost a third less than its 007 predecessor, The Living Daylights. Licence to Kill sold the fewest tickets in the U.S. among James Bond films.

Licence to Kill did much better in other markets. Still, Licence’s in worldwide ticket sales represented an 18 percent decline from The Living Daylights.

Blood Is Thicker Than Water

Some 007 fans blame a lackluster U.S. advertising campaign. However, Michael G. Wilson said in 2015 that Eon “really run the marketing ourselves” and the and the studios involved “execute it.” Did that apply to Licence to Kill? Or was Licence somehow an exception?

For Dalton, Glen, Maibaum and even Broccoli (he yielded the producer’s duties on GoldenEye because of ill health), it was the end of the road.

Michael G. Wilson, despite his enormous impact on Licence to Kill, remained in place. Blood (even adopted blood), after all, is thicker than water — or even box office receipts.

6 Responses

  1. Maybe the majority just disliked Dalton as Bond. Like Fleming’s own description, he was a dull man who had interesting adventures.

  2. I will agree, the world wasn’t ready for a new serious type of James Bond 007. Back then. But the late Albert R. Broccoli and Co. was determine that After Sir Roger Moore’s Tenure, Timothy Dalton was the Right Choice. However, I personally liked Both of Dalton’s Bond films and they are probably Today are the Examples of what Daniel Craig’s Bond version of Ian Fleming’s Blunt instrument all about. Happy 30th Anniversary ”LICENCE TO KILL” cast & crew.

  3. Dalton never got the scripts he deserved and Licence to Kill was a considerable step down from The Living Daylights. Bond’s character was highly inconsistent in this picture. There were times when he was the Bond of yesteryear who threw quips and admired the ladies and yet there are several moments in the film when he’s highly irritable for no reason. As Ian Dundross summarized in his analysis of the film, Licence to Kill was little more than an imitation of the action thrillers that were being churned out on a regular basis in the 1980’s. I think it’s a decent film a but does this material does justice to Fleming’s invention ? Hardly.

  4. American grosses for the Bond films had been sliding for several years before LTK, and for whatever reason Americans hadn’t taken to Dalton (TLD grossed less than a million more than AVTAK).
    Batman, Lethal Weapon, and Indiana Jones were newer American franchises and obviously more appealing to Americans. The grim and gritty approach to the Bond films wasn’t really accepted by American audiences until the Austin Powers and Bourne franchises had made their mark.

    One can scoff about Honey I Shrunk the Kids doing better than LTK, but didn’t Happy Feet outdo Casino Royale at the box office? Let’s also remember that every single Bond films after LTK has avoided opening in the summer–they’ve all opened in fall or winter As for marketing, what Wilson said about conditions in 2015 can’t be automatically applied to 1989. As the book “Some Kind of Hero” notes, there was “a muddled, consistent, and poor funded marketing campaign…it was fair to say that the constant flux at MGM/UA had not helped matters with regard to promoting and funding the roll-out of the film.”

    LTK deserved to do better. It starred a Bond closer to Fleming’s than any other and adapted a good deal of Fleming with sterling results. It matched the grittiness of Fleming’s LALD to the modern action film and was no more imitative of 80s action thrillers than Craig’s films were of the Bourne series. The film’s plot and villain were superior to the convoluted TLD as well. A fall opening and superior and better funded marketing campaign might have helped the film at least match TLD’s box office.

  5. re: Happy Feet and Honey I Shrunk the Kids.

    1. Happy Feet opened the same weekend as Casino Royale. Yes, it did do better than Casino. It also was considerably shorter, allowing for more showings in theaters. Also, Happy Feet was No. 1, followed by Casino at No. 2.

    2. Honey I Shrunk the Kids had been out for *weeks* and still did better (No. 3 for the weekend) than Licence to Kill (No. 4).

  6. @ revelator60:

    Fleming had a lot more than “grittiness” occuring in that story. The voodoo theme of the book turned what could have been just another pulp thriller into a gothic horror. Also unlike Licence to Kill, the book emphasized the deep camaraderie between Felix and Bond. The Bond of that story treasured what few allies he had, Felix and Quarrel, in his dangerous world. When Bond and Solitare arrived in Florida after narrowly escaping Big’s henchman, there was Felix waiting for two to arrive to provide a much needed sanctuary from the danger. When Felix was maimed, you actually felt something because the story built up to that moment. There also a surprisingly moment of vulnerability from Bond when he actually cried after he and Solitare. None of this makes it into Licence To Kill. Bond is determined to avenge himself upon a mundane drug baron and God forbid you get in his way. That James Bond exhibited plenty of hostility towards people trying to help him, frustration whenever he didn’t get his way, and a recklessness that indirectly cost the lives of innocent agents. Licence To Kill is a decent action film but is it Fleming’s work ? Hardly.

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