James Bond Overdose Part 16 – Licence to Kill (1989)

I just learned that “license” is the American spelling of “licence.” So that’s fun.

Licence to Kill is a fantastic Bond movie that just happened to do badly at the box office and kill the franchise for almost six years. I’m not sure why audiences didn’t care for this one. It’s definitely one of the most violent Bond films to date, the first in the series to earn a PG-13 rating in America, but at the time it was released, violent action movies were the norm. This was, after all, the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon era. I’ll put this in perspective. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the most embarrassingly awful of the Star Trek movies that even the most die-hard of Star Trek fans wishes never existed, outperformed this movie at the American box office by about 20 million dollars.

It might have been a lack of audience enthusiasm for Timothy Dalton, or it may have been poor reception of the heightened violence, but either way, Bond fans have a hard time deciding what they think of this one.

Felix Leiter (David Hedison) captures drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) on the way to his wedding, but when Sanchez escapes and murders Leiter’s wife, Della (Priscilla Barnes), and cripples Leiter, James Bond (Timothy Dalton) goes rogue, is stripped of his license to kill, and pursues Sanchez in a fiery quest for revenge, aided by Sanchez’s kept woman Lupe (Talisa Soto), Ex-CIA agent Pam Bouvier, and Q (Desmond Llewelyn) in his first (and only) big field assignment.

I think it’s a finely crafted action thriller with just enough humor to keep things from getting too oppressive. I think Dalton is really able to find his footing with the Bond character here. It’s almost like a better, more believable version of the more human Bond that George Lazenby tried to create in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Dalton’s Bond in this movie seems a bit more vulnerable, which makes his blind rage all the more effective. A lot of the sarcasm and quips have been pared down for this performance, and it really helps the character a lot. It’s sad that this film’s poor box office performance contributed to Timothy Dalton choosing to leave the series, because I think this film showed real promise, but that’s because hindsight is 20/20. Looking back at it, it’s easy to see what makes this a really good Bond movie, but the climate of the time it was released just wasn’t conducive to much growth.

The pre-credits sequence is a good happy contrast to the rest of the film. I do find Leiter to be a bit of a cheesy cowboy, especially in one shot where he’s running towards the camera, surrounded by DEA agents, in slow motion. And the capture of Sanchez’s plane is so easy, it’s almost laughable. The one thing that keeps this from getting too cartoonish is a brutal scene in which we see what kind of man Sanchez is. He beats Lupe and has her lover’s heart cut out when he finds them together. It’s short, but it lets the audience know that this isn’t a throwaway villain.  After the credits, when Sanchez’s escape is intercut with the festivities of Felix and Della’s wedding, the tension is very real because the audience already knows what a brutal fellow this guy is. It just gets worse from there, and after about fifteen minutes, the happiness of the pre-credits sequence is forgotten. So, even though the film starts on what could be seen as a silly note, it’s handled pretty well. Plus, after all these years, it’s nice to see Felix Leiter getting the spotlight.

The thing that really makes this film work so well is actually Bond’s decision to go rogue. Up until this point, Bond films had a pretty general formula established, and this one plays with the formula just enough to shake things up. Bond has disobeyed orders before, and has done his own thing, but in this one, we see him getting a bit unhinged. He’s not trying to learn anything, nor is he trying to prove anything to anyone. He’s just out for revenge, and the inherent darkness of such a plot really serves to add a dash of something new to the series. It was around this time that there were talks of rebooting the franchise with The Living Daylights being a prequel. While that didn’t pan out (and we’re glad it didn’t), I think Licence to Kill is a way to reboot the series without rebooting it. Things will get a bit more tamer several years down the road when James Bond returns, but this entry is a nice transition out of the Classic Bond and into the Modern Bond era, giving the character a bit more humanity and the capacity to make mistakes.

I don’t want to spend much time on the opening credits. Gladys Knight’s theme is pretty good, merging the opening notes of “Goldfinger” with a soulful ballad. The animation that accompanies it is sort of humdrum, though, and the version of Knight’s song that we actually hear is a shortened, modified version that doesn’t have the same impact as the actual full version, which I quite like. But, it is worth noting that this is Maurice Binder’s last opening credits sequence. In terms of the music in general, Michael Kamen’s score is ok, but it’s nowhere near as fun or memorable as some of his other scores (most notably that of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).

Regarding the violence that turned a lot of people off, by today’s standards it’s not that bad, but I can definitely see why it might have shocked audiences. The scene in which Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe) explodes inside the pressure chamber is pretty shocking, even though it’s really audience imagination that fills in the gruesome details. As a kid, I remember being more horrified by the scene in which Benicio Del Toro is dropped into that grinder thing (even though you really don’t see anything). Looking back, I think people were more offended by the suggestion of violence than of the violence itself. By today’s standards, the movie doesn’t really feel that bad, but coming on the heels of previous entries, the contrast between this film and the preceding Bond films is pretty clear. Either way, I don’t think it hurts the film at all. Rather, it complements the darker revenge theme well.

I do also want to heap a lot of praise on the cast. I love how well everyone works together. Robert Davi is an excellent villain, mostly because he’s not a megalomaniac who’s trying to start a world war; he’s a much more plausible villain. I know him as Acastus Kolya, a recurring villain from Stargate: Atlantis, and had forgotten that he was  even in this movie, but he’s a very strong character, one whom you think could actually be a match for Bond. He’s never silly or over the top. He’s a truly menacing character.

Also, the female leads, Lupe and Pam, work well. Unlike previous Bond films where the two Bond girls fall into the pattern of one being the nice one who turns evil or dies halfway though and the other whom Bond ends up with in the end, these two are given pretty equal footing throughout. Talisa Soto (Lupe) gives us a world weary, stronger variation of Maud Adams’ Andrea Anders from The Man with the Golden Gun. She’s a kept woman, but one who hasn’t lost her fire. She kowtows to Sanchez’s brutality, but once he’s out of the picture, she remains a strong, unbroken character, unlike Andrea. Her heavy eyes have seen a lot, but she hasn’t given up on herself, which makes her a fantastic character.

Pam is a bit of a weaker character, but only because the script can’t seem to make up its mind about what to do with her. When we first meet her, she has this Princess-Leia-esque fire to her, especially when she’s bickering with Bond after their escape from the bar. Later on, she swings between being a strong character, to being a weak side character, which isn’t Carey Lowell’s fault. When she is given the chance to shine, she shines really well. For huge stretches of plot, though, she’s just relegated to waiting in the wings for the plot to have need of her again. By the end, when Bond and her have that romantic moment in the pool, we don’t really feel like they’ve had enough time to actually merit a romantic moment in the pool. I like the character, but I think she could have been used better.

This is getting really long, so I’ll wrap this up. Long story short, I love this movie, and think that fans and non-fans should really give this one a chance. Even if you hate Bond, if you like 80’s action films, this one deserves a place among that list. And if you’re a huge Bond fan, you should give this a re-watch, because it tends to get overshadowed by the big classics. I promise you’ll enjoy it.

Random Observations
-Della kisses Bond a lot…
-In this we say goodbye to Robert Brown as M. He wasn’t a part of the series for a long time, but I think he did very well.
-Benicio Del Toro is so young!
-Dalton’s angry face is pretty scary. Would not want to make him mad.
-Finally, a good old fashioned underwater fight. We haven’t had one of those in a while.
-Wayne Newton…
-Dalton’s Bond apparently prefers Blackjack to Baccarat.
-Uncle Q – I love Q in this, especially since it’s probably his biggest Bond role. He’s “on vacation” from MI6 and helping Bond out in his “mission.” It’s awesome to see him doing the whole field agent thing.
-I loove the tanker truck chase.
-Not sure why Sanchez continues to hold onto the truck, even after he sees the driver jump out the door…but at least it leads to that moment of poetic justice where Bond has his revenge.

Next time, we enter the Modern Bond era with a new Bond, a new M, a new Moneypenny, and a whole lot of awesome!

Edit: Also, I just found out. Happy 71st birthday, Timothy Dalton!

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