Timothy Dalton, the Bond with a killer’s eye

There’s a lot to be annoyed about right now, but in my nerdy brain one of the things that most irks me is that due to New Zealand’s ongoing Delta outbreak I’m probably not going to be seeing the long, long-delayed new James Bond No Time To Die any time soon. 

It stinks, but it is what it is. The cure for that, though – watch some of the other 24 James Bond movies! And with all the talk ramping up about this being Daniel Craig’s final Bond adventure and who the next Bond might be, I felt like taking a look back at the brief tenure of the almost forgotten Bond, Timothy Dalton.

Dalton only managed two Bond movies, the shortest tenure as 007 outside of George Lazenby’s 1969 one-off in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Dalton’s term got stymied by delays and legal wrangles (a perpetual Blofeld-level villain in the Bond industry) and after waiting five years for his third film to kick into gear, he left and was replaced by the shiny if a bit insubstantial Bond of Pierce Brosnan. 

Dalton had been earmarked for years for James Bond – he was offered the role way back in 1968 before Lazenby, but he waited to take it on until he was a bit more seasoned and closer to 40. Yet although Dalton’s tenure was short, and the movies he were in never quite rise to Skyfall or Goldfinger levels of greatness, he was for a short time an excellent James Bond. 

Dalton is not exactly underrated by Bond fans – in fact, he’s been called “under-appreciated” so often that he’s actually maybe getting a bit over-appreciated in some circles. But I think for the general public, Dalton’s tenure is sadly barely remembered, which is a shame, because he was very good and unlike almost every other Bond before or since, he didn’t wear out his welcome by the end.

The Living Daylights ramps down the puns and gadgetry of Roger Moore’s tenure for a more realistic tone. But it’s saddled with a rather convoluted plot and rather than one indelible bad guy like the best Bond flicks, it’s got at least three jousting with each other. (Although any movie that features Joe Don Baker as a Bond villain I very much approve.) The story revolves around corrupt arms deals and people caught in between callous leaders during the fading days of the Cold War. It feels rather timely viewed 35 years on, with its climax featuring Bond riding into action in war-torn Afghanistan. Debuting with a minimum of pomp, Dalton’s Bond is immediately comfortable – ice-cold and professional with a hint of something more. He’s far less showy than Moore or Connery and it’s easy to see he’s the direct forefather of Craig’s own approach to Bond. 

Dalton’s second Bond, License To Kill, is stripped-down and streamlined, a straightforward tale of Bond seeking revenge against a drug dealer who crippled his friend. James Bond “going rogue” has been done a few too many times by now, but this was the first time in the movies – you get the sense that Bond is a tiger being let out of his cage. It’s rather brutal and got a very Miami Vice/Death Wish vibe to it, a world away from Roger Moore fighting on moon bases. It faltered badly in the US – License to Kill stands out as still the worst-performing of the Bond movies financially in the US with a mere $35 million, and it had the bad fortune to open in the summer of Batman. Yet it holds up far better than many other Bonds do with its angry Dalton anticipating Craig’s debut in Casino Royale. Dalton really comes into his own in License, doing a lot with his shark’s smile and never letting you forget for long that Bond is basically a hired killer. As the sinister drug dealer Sanchez, Robert Davi is one of the better Bond villains of the ‘80s. License deviates a lot from the Bond “formula” which hurt it in the go-go ‘80s, but today its mean streak and Dalton’s unsparing performance make it work well. 

What’s interesting in both of Dalton’s movies is that the fate of the world is never at stake. No nuclear annihilation or killer viruses here – these are smaller-scale battles, even if they are capped with plenty of explosions and daring chases. It was a brief blip for Bond. With the Pierce Brosnan era, big, bold Bond was back, inflated to ever more ridiculous extremes until Casino Royale came along to downsize everything once again. 

A fusion of Sean Connery’s alpha-male physicality, Moore’s wit, Craig’s wounded brute, Brosnan’s slick polish and Dalton’s glittering carnivore’s eye would probably be the iconic “best Bond,” but Timothy Dalton came very close to giving us a Bond that stepped right out of the novels. It’s a shame he didn’t get a better run, but those are the breaks, 007. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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