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Licence to flop: The trouble with Timothy Dalton

The James Bond series is the most famous and longest-running film franchise of all time, with the 25 movies enthralling audiences with exotic locales, high octane action, and complex political plots. 

But while 007 is partial to a Vodka Martini and a sharp-fitting suit, his character has certainly shifted over time, in line with the men who’ve played him. Yet one could argue one key element that has made the movies all the more enduring is the success in replacing the person portraying Bond. 

Since the debut of Dr. No in 1962, the shapeshifting superspy has been portrayed by six very different actors, with each playing James Bond in their own unique way. With talk of Aaron Taylor-Johnson being cast as Bond number oh-oh seven (yes, YES Dr.!), let us swing back to the good-old-bad-old 1980s — before the fellow Bucks boy was even alive, damn it — and revisit the man responsible for possibly the most unloved/misunderstood/miscast iteration of 007.

While most fans are divided on whether or not Sean Connery, Roger Moore or Daniel Craig delivered the best interpretation of the character, Timothy Dalton’s portrayal is often overlooked. It‘s not completely his fault; he got caught in a crossfire of contractual issues, what with Pierce Brosnan forced to hand over to Dalton at the last minute because of Remington Steele obligations and legal disputes preventing Dalton from getting a third film. But it means that many don‘t have a firm grasp on this Bond, and the actor remains in the footnotes along with one trick pony George Lazenby. Let me explain…

James Bond of the British secret service is by and large a cool, calm and somewhat stoic character. And while he is charming in his movie universe, the superspy’s appeal is seldom depicted through a charismatic performance. It’s instead communicated to the audience through the reaction of the characters around him, while the overacting plots are largely defined by the villains he battles.

In the bulk of Bond films, 007 is simply a handsome (Daniel Craig excepted), classy and refined employee of MI6 (definitely Daniel Craig excepted) who keeps his nerve during action scenes and his British end up during love scenes.

Though the art of moviemaking has to evolve with the times, there is nothing wrong with a simple characterisation like this, and these desirable yet not fully defined traits make Bond an effective flesh for fantasy figure on the big screen. 

However, being composed and unruffled isn’t exactly the best way for act-ors to show off their chops. A character who doesn’t flinch at explosions is cool to the admittedly majority male audience, but for a performer it robs them of portraying the emotional honesty that would likely accompany such harrowing events. 

While it was unfair of the British tabloids to dismiss Daniel Craig before he’d even started filming, calling him (“Bond not Blond, remember?), there is no denying that as formidable an actor that he is, Craig never fitted the classical look of how originally described, and seen on the screen, to look like. A henchman, absolutely, as does Tom hardy, but as the suave spy? Well, the rough diamond won, though his gritty, no-nonsense persona was critically important to the future success of the series.

On the other hand, Timothy Dalton fitted the bill perfectly. His dark hair, blue grey eyes and not overly muscular build (OK, we’d now call it weedy) made him look almost exactly like Fleming described the secret agent in the books… in the 1950s. 

Should the films reflect the times we live in or the post-war period the books were set in? Because as fun pulp fiction romps as they were, the Ian Fleming novels are period pieces — relics of a less enlightened and more misogynist era. Whereas the films, with all their sponsorship, product placements and eternal quest to appear relevant in order to attract new and younger audiences just can’t afford to be.

While it’s true that the Daniel Craig quintology adopted a darker and more serious tone than many of those that came before it, lest we forget it was Dalton’s late eighties era that instigated a return to a grittier and more grounded Bond after the fantastical campery of the Moore years.

During his short self-serious stint as 007, Dalton built a reputation as a risk taker, doing far more of his own stunts in The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence To Kill (1989) than his predecessors, and insisted on eschewing many of the one-liners that had made the more lighthearted entertainer era of Roger Moore so popular. 

After the increasingly quippy, creaky Moore had been pensioned off (you could actually hear the bones rattle in A View To A Kill), The Living Daylights was an enjoyable spy espionage affair presenting a more realistic Bond with less flippancy and no silly super-weapons, though sadly Dalton’s 007 was played with an accountant‘s charisma. Really, he played Bond like a bank manager who’d just completed a day release course on Shakespeare.

If I had to play the labels game, I wouldn’t class Timothy Dalton as premium Bond or junk Bond but he was certainly an acquired taste, not to mention something of a killjoy. The Welshman was clearly intent upon bringing the Bond series back to its roots, portraying the sort of dangerous, international agent of espionage that was described in Fleming’s novels. and many fans — myself included — applauded him for it. 

Whether or not the general audience was ready for this new, grittier take on Bond, is a question that remains open to this day. 

As I’ve alluded to, I think the main problem was Dalton himself. There is no two ways of saying this, but he was an unsexy charisma-free zone. Modern Bonds essentially have to have the brutal musclebound sexiness of Connery and Craig or the sophisticated suaveness of Moore and Brosnan. Like Lazenby, poor old Tim had neither, and it’s all the more disappointing seeing as Dalton’s father was a spy during the Second World War.

Even Debbie McWilliams – who‘s cast every Bond film since 1981’s For Your Eyes Only – described Dalton’s casting as a “very sudden event” at a 60 Years of James Bond event at the BFI:

To be honest with you, I don’t think he ever felt quite comfortable. It was so different from anything he’d ever done.”
There lies the rub: Connery was magnetic. Lazenby was sweet. Moore was handsome (well, until Moonraker). Brosnan was beautiful. Dalton was just meh and kind of nondescript, caught between a rock and hard place, but, conversely, with an air of authoritative theatricality better suited to the Shakespearean type roles he’d made his name with. That’s why he was so perfect as a patrician establishment figure Time Lord in Doctor Who a few years back.

And don’t even get me started on the goon grin. I wince every time Dalton’s Bond does that wide mouthed squinty eyed laughy romantic smiley thing with his fancy woman. He forgot he was the ruthless womaniser and came off like a soppy pseudo Laurence Olivier without the tache but with one or two beards.

Now 78, it must come as a bit of a blow to the old chap to discover that if he were to study the inflation-adjusted figures for the franchise, his two turns are the least commercially successful outings in 007’s history. 

It’s a shame because they’re not bad movies at all, but for all its plus points (Robert Davi being unnervingly underplayed is one of them), Licence To Kill just didn’t feel like a Bond film*. Which is something you could never accuse Casino Royale or Skyfall of. 

Nice one, Morrissey…

At the movie company meeting

On their hands – a dead spy 

And oh, the plans they weave… 

Whoever is the next Bond has his work cut out. Bless their heart.

James Bond and the French connection: 70 years of 007 is here

Steve Pafford

* Far from being Penny Dreadful (ho ho), it‘s easy to forget that Licence To Kill was actually a big box office success in Britain. Not as commanding as that summer of 89‘s blockbusters Batman and the third Indiana Jones instalment featuring one Sean Connery, but in terms of seats sold it did top the movie charts in its second week of release during the last week of June. I was staying with my dear Aunt Julia and her Bondfan hubby Jürgen in Tunbridge Wells when it was out. And, as the previous time I‘d visited them we had gone to see Octopussy (their second screening, but my first) at the very cinema where David Bowie‘s parents had met, I thought we might repeat the situation; to which Julia succinctly stated the case that many felt : “I like Timothy Dalton as an actor, but as Bond… I‘m not sure.” 

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