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Nick here! Zack let me do this 007-related What Went Wrong entry! Lets begin, shall we?
Licence to Kill, the sixteenth James Bond movie, is probably my favorite Bond movie, but it generally met with low regard within Bond fandom. The film has an unfortunate reputation. Not only was it Timothy Dalton’s second and last Bond film, but it is followed by six years devoid of Bond movies. This, of course, was due to lawsuits preventing further entries, but it gives the wrong impression that LtK nearly killed the franchise. Most damning of all is that Licence to Kill is the lowest grossing Bond film (even after adjusting for inflation).
Licence to Kill received fairly positive reviews when first released. So, what exactly went wrong at the box office? Granted, the film was still profitable, but it definitely underperformed. Even the lesser Bond films such as Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace have made bank. Why not Licence to Kill?
Well, when looking at the film, the production, and when it was release, there were a lot of factors that hurt it. To begin with, when this movie was in production, word got out that it was incredibly violent. While there is some truth to the fact that LtK was more violent than past Bond films, a claim in today’s context is laughable. However, back in 1989, Bond films had a family movie quality about them. Sure, there were violence and sex, but Roger Moore’s era softened it, and the films became much more accessible. Dalton’s previous entry, though very successful, showed a very serious and deadly Bond that perhaps the world was not quite ready for. This might have resulted in Licence to Kill’s underperformance.
Another factor greatly hurting Licence to Kill is that it had a horrible marketing campaign, particularly in the United States. And, honestly, the reason behind it is completely stupid. The film’s original title was Licence Revoked (this, of course, references the fact that Bond relieved of duty in the film). It was that title for quite a long time to the point that many posters and other marketing materials were using it quite liberally. However, because MGM (the then-Bond movie distribution studio) thought America is stupid and would confused the phrase with losing driving privileges, ordered a change. All the marketing already prepared had to be junked. MGM, in their wisdom, also rejected a marketing campaign by the advertising executive who worked on the previous eight Bond films promotion. As such, the Licence to Kill had little marketing before it hit theaters in 1989.
The final, and probably biggest reason why Licence to Kill underperformed at the box office is that it was released in the summer of 1989. Let us look at what other movies were released that summer:
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Lethal Weapon 2
Back to the Future Part II
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Needless to say, it was an insane summer (arguably the first real blockbuster summer as we now know them). With all those heavy hitting films, at least one of them was going to suffer from blockbuster burn out. It happened to be Licence to Kill. Before 1989, Bond films were summer movies. Since then, Bond films were winter movies. The studio learned.
It is unfortunate that Licence to Kill did not meet expectations. It had a perfect storm to underperform. The film, itself, really is pretty good. Dalton gives a knockout performance, Robert Davi is wonderful as the villain, the story is incredibly modern (for 1989), but still very Bond, and it is probably the best fusion of “movie Bond” and “Fleming Bond” to date. Fortunately, Licence to Kill did not kill the franchise (honestly, can anything kill James Bond?), and, in 1995, Bond returned stronger than ever, and it has not faltered yet.