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Why Timothy Dalton is the best James Bond

Deeply focused and written with an understanding of the literary character, Timothy Dalton’s turn in Licence to Kill as 007, James Bond, is as piercing as ever. It’s even better than his turn in The Living Daylights and holds the most committed performance from any actor in the 60-year series, a real pièce de résistance of 1980s cinema.

James Bond (Dalton), his hair now a powdered mess of inexorable strands, intends to enact vengeance on his enemies – having failed to stop a group of thugs from killing his chum’s wife – before throwing himself into the realms of forgiveness when he rids his greatest assailant from this earthly plane. It’s stunning character development: deeply engaging, and far more rooted in reality to the more far-reaching character arcs of the Daniel Craig era.

It is commonplace to call this approach to acting “Shakespearian” but Dalton’s métier goes further than that, having begun in the realm of historical drama, before returning to the theatre where he harnessed his abilities to bring great truth to the public.

By the time he was cast as the fourth actor to play 007, the Bond films were, for some reason, accused of glamorising the lifestyle of a secret agent, likening the antics to a millionaire playboy sailing across the Atlantic in search of a night’s entertainment. The Roger Moore films were brilliant in what they represented, but they scarcely acknowledged their source material, nor recognised the milieu of spy cinema. For what power, even lush majesty, there is in the books: a kaleidoscopic overview of Europe in post-War distress.

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It took Dalton – barely old enough to watch Dr.No when it aired in 1962 – to bring the spy back to where he belonged. After Moore’s retirement, the films were wise enough to discard double entendre and innuendo for scripts of greater steel and grit, bolstered by John Glen’s lo-fi approach to filmmaking, who typically directed action set pieces with style and gentle pathos.

The action ebbs and flows, never overshadowing the central characters, but helps them test their loyalties to the causes they have committed to themselves. Bond is asked to question his moral code when by when he rejects the oaths of secrecy for a personal vendetta that brings him to the edges of his fragmented soul.

Licence to Kill holds one of the best scripts in the series, partially because it was inspired by Akira Kurosawa‘s liturgical Yojimbo, an essay on man’s malleability in the face of great greed. Dalton shows his instinctive grasp on how to flit from mask to mask, presenting himself as the Bond he needs to be at the time in question.

To Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier, he’s the wayward romantic, aching for resolution in the world of discontentment and distinction; to David Hedison’s Felix Leiter, he’s the professional who would reject each and every extenuating circumstance that would distract him from his mission; and to Robert Davi’s Sanchez, he’s the roguishly handsome tourist who has cast off the shackles of her Majesty’s orders for a more lucrative enterprise.

For once, the role of Bond helps him on his crusade, and his status as a disgraced former officer only helps cement his place in the South American criminal underbelly. The performance deftly repurposes or pastiches past Bond performances, from the turbo-charged energy of the Sean Connery films to the whimsical Mooresque iconography of the Q sequences; and Dalton exudes a physicality that shows how formidable he would be in a real-life fight.

The Welsh-born actor performed many of his underwater stunts himself, as much of Licence to Kill takes place near or just above the oceans. The film’s aquatic locations, interleaving the soul-crushing sequence that sees Felix Leiter lose his leg with the ever continuous presence of aeroplanes entering and leaving the nearby airports, shows how near Bond comes to drowning, and although water helps cement his place in life, it’s a fire that saves Bond’s life, as the spy takes down his ultimate foe with the simplest of devices; a cigarette lighter.

And this is where Dalton’s theatre training comes into the forefront. Bond sighs, a solitary tear forming behind his eye before his lip stiffens, and he remembers his place as a man of great restraint. He turns to Pam Bouvier with a smile, but there’s the scent of uncertainty wading behind his expression as if this was the only time he’d have rejected laughter for an exasperated howl his Etonian education has long prohibited.

It’s a stunning display of acting, a real coup du cinema, but it was Dalton’s final film in the role of James Bond. And yet it was like watching Fleming’s creation bursting onto the screen, with all the colours, contradictions and coldness its author had intended for the role. With only his second film, Dalton had shown that James Bond could be performed as succinctly as King Lear or Hamlet, showing that there was much to the role than martinis and money.