Licence to Kill (1989)

James Bond film #16 (Timothy Dalton Bond)

Licence to Kill (1989)

If anyone ever wanted to see James Bond in rampage mode, they need look no further than 1989’s Licence to Kill. Running with the darker realism of The Living Daylights (15), Licence to Kill sees Bond going vigilante after a Colombian drug lord destroys Felix Leiter’s life. The film that follows has the most graphic violence of any Bond to date and an almost complete lack of light-hearted moments. It’s the most we’ve ever strayed from the Bond film formula, replacing all the campy elements of the franchise while retaining the spectacular action, and the film excels because of its willingness to stand apart from its predecessors

The pre-credit sequence drops us right in the middle of an operation, with Bond and Felix (now a DEA agent instead of CIA) capturing Franz Sanchez, a big-time Colombian drug lord, before parachuting down to Felix’s wedding with Priscilla Barnes. In short time after the credits end, Sanchez escapes, tracks down Felix, then has Barnes raped and murdered. As if that wasn’t dark enough, he then partially feeds Felix to a shark, causing the recurring Bond ally to lose a leg and an arm. The “new wife murdered” deal echoes Bond’s most tragic hour, so he turns his back on MI6 to seek vengeance on Sanchez.

Sanchez is by far the most ruthless villain Bond’s ever encountered, played by Robert Davi in a smug way reminiscent of gangsters like Al Capone. He’s terrifying, putting an emphasis on loyalty that benefits his henchmen when they’re good to him but that earns them macabre deaths when he believes they’ve double-crossed him. Bond takes advantage of Sanchez’s severity and sows plenty of distrust among the whole operation, Yojimbo-style. His handling of this perceived undermining results in some gory moments, such as when he throws one of his henchmen into a pressure chamber and watches as his head blows up. Other graphic moments that show how far Licence strays from its cartoonish antecedents include Benicio del Toro falling into a mechanical grinder and another henchman getting speared through the torso by a forklift.

Dalton seems right at home with the new violent tone. In his first film as Bond, Dalton aired his strengths and weaknesses with the character; the filmmakers tailored the second film for them. The one-liners are drastically reduced, the few remaining getting growled out as insults to the injuries he inflicts. He actually gets bloodied and bruised, showing a vulnerability to Bond that amps up the danger pervading the film.

Getting in on the danger is competent Bond girl Pam Bouvier, an ex-Army pilot who actually has the capabilities of an ex-Army pilot (surprising for a Bond girl). She wields a shotgun and insists on helping take down Sanchez even when Bond tries to send her and Q away. Sure, she gets hung up on Bond and shows jealousy when he’s with Lupe Lamora (Sanchez’s mistress and secondary Bond girl), but it’s so much easier to accept Dalton’s charm than the aging Roger Moore’s. He’s young and fit, and the seductions aren’t so immediate. It’s way more believable to have these women steadily fall for Dalton than immediately get in a tizzy over old man Moore.

There are a few remnant campy elements hanging around, and while they’d be acceptable in 70s-era Moore films, they’re egregious within the far more serious tone. A bar fight that introduces del Torro’s character reeks of stagey fighting, with bar girls dancing the entire time and a stuffed swordfish getting used as a weapon. Worse is near the end, after the film has firmly established its tone, when Bond drives a semi-truck cab on two wheels both ways (rearing back and tilting sideways). Still, these minor issues get eclipsed by the persistently pissed off tone that Bond and the rest of this film take, and in the end they can be forgiven since, after all, we ARE still watching a Bond film.

Licence to Kill is a Bond film unlike any other, a violent tale of personal revenge instead of a fun espionage romp. It takes a while to get used to the new tone, but once the film settles (around the time Bond arrives in the Republic of Isthmus), it’s a quality (and brutal) action flick with far more serious stakes than any other Bond.

Final rating: 7/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

  • For the first time ever, Felix Leiter is played by the same actor for two different Bond films. Inexplicably, it’s NOT John Terry from the previous film, but David Hedison, from Live and Let Die (8) 16 years prior. I guess it’s not entirely inexplicable, though. John Terry was a bro.
  • Also unique to this Bond film: the amount of swearing. Bond tells someone to piss off, and one of Sanchez’s lackeys gets frustrated and yells out “Shit!” as things turn South for them.
  • I kinda liked Truman-Lodge. But, you know. I guess he had to go.
  • Benicio del Torro is young and psychotic and awesome. Wayne Newton is used surprisingly well as a televangelist middle man.
  • I think Bond riding on the outside of planes is like when a dog sticks its head out the window. Just something he does because he likes the sensation.
  • Although Dalton is the fourth actor to play James Bond, Licence to Kill still marks a clear end to an era which can now be called “Classic Bond”. Following this film, there’s a mass exodus of the long-standing crew from the series, most notably producer Albert Broccoli (guiding the series since day one); director John Glen (director of all the 80s films and editor prior to that); screenwriter Richard Maibaum (having written or co-written every Bond film except for You Only Live Twice (5), Live and Let Die, and Moonraker (11)); and title designer Maurice Binder (responsible for the iconic credit sequences and creator of all of them except for From Russia With Love (2) and Goldfinger (3)). Already having exited the series is composer John Barry (whose last film was the previous Bond, The Living Daylights) and producer Harry Saltzman (who dissolved his partnership with Broccoli after The Man with the Golden Gun (9)). All of these guys deserve some respect for sticking with the series so long, but I am thrilled to get some new brains behind Bond.
  • Also on the way out: Robert Brown as M, who never really made much of an impression on me (though this movie probably had the douchiest M ever) and Caroline Bliss as Miss Moneypenny, whose tenure was so brief that she suffers the same fate.
  • Holy crap, black people in a Bond movie that’s not Live and Let Die! Far out.
Bond Girl Fate

Pam Bouvier

(Carey Lowell)

Main Bond Girl:An ex-Army pilot who insists on helping Bond against Sanchez. Hooks up with him on a boat before winning him over in the end and presumably banging him in a pool.

Lupe Lamora

(Talisa Soto)

Villain’s Mistress Bond Girl: Knows Bond is an agent after he wakes her up with a threat. Sleeps with him later anyway. Tries to once more in the end before getting rebuffed and ending up with el Presidente viejo.

 

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