Timothy Dalton, we hardly knew ye. This is only his second outing wearing 007’s tuxedo, but it would prove to be his last. The Bond franchise has a long history of legal troubles, but they had a nasty flare-up after Licence to Kill hit theaters. In addition, a crowded summer movie market was blamed for lackluster box office performance. The series was held up for six years, at which point Dalton moved on and Pierce Brosnan came on board.
You may remember from last time that I criticized Dalton for appearing to think he was a nice-guy romantic lead instead of a cold-hearted agent with, well, a license to kill. He also seemed uncomfortable with the comedic requirements. Both of those issues remain here, but the plot is much more of a straightforward action movie, which lessens their impact considerably. Fact remains, Timothy Dalton seems to be playing a character completely other than James Bond. It’s like he fundamentally doesn’t understand who 007 is.
In the end, Dalton never made much of an impression during his brief tenure in the series, and his failure to ‘get’ the character makes him probably the worst actor to take on the role of James Bond. Which is a shame, because there are no problems with his acting. If his movies existed outside of the 007 franchise, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with his character. Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan had one or two highs during their runs, which saves them in the ranking, but their lows should be considered crimes–far outdoing any offenses Dalton may have committed.
Licence to Kill (1989)
Bond’s longtime CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter, gets hitched! In true secret agent style, Leiter and his best man James Bond get held up taking down a bad guy before the ceremony, forcing them to parachute their way to the church. But wedded bliss is sadly short-lived when that bad guy, a drug lord named Franz Sanchez, springs loose with the help of a corrupted agent and wreaks bloody vengeance on the wedding night. Leiter is left horrifically maimed when Sanchez feeds his leg to a shark, while the bride is killed outright.
From there, this Bond movie is essentially a revenge tale–which makes it so much less convoluted compared to the mess that was The Living Daylights. Bond knows American agents have been too corrupted by Sanchez’s money to pursue him properly, so when M tries to force him away from the chase, Bond resigns his position with MI6. Then he goes on a single-minded quest for vengeance. It’s the closest 007 has come to starring in a Charles Bronson movie.
The action sequences feel reinvigorated here, too. There will be no silly sledding across a border in a cello case here! The first half of the movie makes the most of its Key West setting–even though there are sharks and underwater fighting, for once it doesn’t feel like a sad retread of Thunderball.
Sadly, progress quickly grinds to a halt the second Bond gets south of the border–and the plot begins to strain to get more complicated than it needs to be. Still, Licence remains a well-needed breath of fresh air. The Roger Moore years devolved into camp with wildly varying degrees of success–mostly misses. Living Daylights was essentially just another Roger Moore adventure, but with a different actor playing the part. Licence rebranded 007 as a realistic action hero spy. It is to the franchise’s detriment that the reinvention didn’t last long into Pierce Brosnan’s tenure.
It has to be said though: the whole business with a fake religious cult/meditation institute headed by a smarmy televangelist played by Wayne Newton as a front for Sanchez’s drug factory? Just weird. If those scenes had been cut the movie would have flowed much better (not to mention that it would have been half as convoluted).
Notable Moments: Licence to Kill is the last Bond film to date to premiere in the summer. It faced stiff competition from Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, and The Abyss. Ever since, 007 movies have been released in either the fall or winter. Tension over the box office struggles contributed to the delay of the next Bond movie, as well as ensuring that this would be the final Bond film to be directed by John Glen (Glen had directed five consecutive Bond adventures beginning with 1981’s For Your Eyes Only). Longtime producer Albert Broccoli fell ill in Mexico during filming and never appeared on set for another Bond movie. In addition to the exits of Dalton, Glen, and Broccoli, Caroline Bliss and Robert Brown would depart the franchise as well (as Moneypenny and M, respectively).
Having been left maimed, the character of Felix Leiter would not be used again until the series was rebooted with Casino Royale in 2006. No actor had ever played Leiter twice until David Hedison, who had appeared in Live and Let Die, returned for this movie. Coincidentally, the only other actor to play the part more than once is Jeffrey Wright, who debuted in Casino Royale.
This is the first 007 adventure not to be named after a novel or short story written by Ian Fleming. Casino Royale would be the only subsequent Bond movie to use one of Fleming’s titles.
In recent years Dalton confirmed media speculation that producers were forced to tame 007’s lustful habits in response to the AIDS epidemic at the time. He had initially denied the rumors while doing press for the film.
Gadgets: Moneypenny dispatches Q to help Bond even though he’s ostensibly quit. She’s such a softy. Q provides an exploding alarm clock, a camera that fires like a gun, and a Polaroid camera that takes x-rays of its subjects even as it shoots a deadly laser at them (why you would want to kill someone at the same time you x-ray them is up for debate). But in a fun little twist, 007 doesn’t use any of these gadgets. The only person to use one of them is Q himself, who employs a radio hidden within a broom to communicate with the Bond Girl.
Ally: None that survive long enough to qualify. So let’s give it to Q, who has his largest amount of screentime to date assisting 007 in this go-round.
Bond Girl: Well, if nothing else Pam Bouvier is a vast improvement from the likes of Stacy Sutton and Kara Milovy, the two previous title-holders. For her part, actress Carey Lowell is certainly game. She’s not a spectacular actor in the part, but to be fair to her the script hardly calls for her to be. Bouvier is mostly a tough gal (well, as tough as Bond Girls from this era were allowed to be), but she’s still primarily there to be pretty more than anything else. Credit where it’s due, though: Bouvier isn’t just another object in need of rescuing; she comes back to help 007 in the final battle… even if her help basically amounts to rolling up in a truck to drive him away after his fight is already over.
Lowell fits with Dalton’s attempts to turn 007 into a romantic lead–she’d be great in a romantic comedy. But that description doesn’t actually fit in with the overall rebranding of James Bond as a realistic action hero. If this were a Roger Moore Bond movie, she’d be A-OK. Here, with an awkward love triangle between her and the Supporting Bond Girl… no thanks. In the end, she’s inoffensive but strictly middle of the road.
Supporting Bond Girl: Sanchez’s girlfriend, Lupe Lamora, has virtually as much screentime as the official Bond Girl, but doesn’t get the guy in the end. Which is a ridiculous thing to be writing about a Bond movie, proving once and for all that no one should ever try to make James Bond a romantic figure. Seriously, the script strains so hard to make 007 an upright romantic lead when he’s sleeping with two women at the same time. They even try to have Q explain to Bouvier that sometimes Bond’s job forces him to get close to other women. Puh-lease.
Like Bouvier, Lamora is strictly middle of the road. Unlike Carey Lowell, though, I have criticisms of Talisa Soto‘s acting. She’s sweet enough, but her delivery is wooden as hell. Maybe I’m a lot more forgiving of Lowell because her delivery wasn’t nearly as stiff as Soto’s.
Villain: The Cold War was coming to an end, prompting producers to make the decision to go for a more topical class of villain. Enter Franz Sanchez: leader of a drug cartel, a subject making headlines all over the world at the end of the 1980’s. In keeping with the realistic, topical vibe, Sanchez (played by Robert Davi) eschews the usual parade of tics and eccentricities that typically engulf all Bond villains. No scars, webbed hands, or third nipples for this guy! He’s ruthless, for sure, but he’s also on the bland side. I know, it seems bizarre to accuse a guy who fed 1/4 of Felix Leiter to a shark of being forgettable, but who do you think of when you think of Bond Villains? Blofeld, Goldfinger, Scaramanga, perhaps Silva. I’m willing to bet that the name Franz Sanchez doesn’t come up.
Henchman: Oddly enough, Sanchez has a surplus of henchmen. But let’s skip right to the most likely candidate: Dario, Sanchez’s menacing associate played by a young Benicio Del Toro. Are you sensing a theme in which even though Licence to Kill is a relatively solid entry in the Bond series, the sum of its parts skew toward the underwhelming? More of that here. Dario is absent for large swathes of the movie as other henchmen come and go, which means it’s hard to get a sense of who he is or why he should be scary. He seems slightly unhinged, but how could you really tell other than the manic gleam in Del Toro’s eyes?
As an aside, Del Toro is one of three actors who would go on to win an Academy Award in his career after appearing in a Bond movie (four if you count the unofficial Bond Girl Kim Basinger). The others are Sean Connery himself and Judi Dench. Actors Christopher Walken, Halle Berry, Javier Bardem, and the upcoming villain Christoph Waltz had already won their Oscars by the time they appeared in the franchise. Dench began her run as M with Goldeneye in 1995, won an Oscar in 1998 (for Shakespeare in Love), and continued to play Bond’s boss through 2012, when she costarred with Bardem.
Theme Song: After two consecutive grabs for the youth of America, producers went old school with Miss Gladys Knight in all her pop-gospel grandure. Fun fact: the hook, with its blaring horn, was directly inspired by the legendary theme to Goldfinger. Now seriously: who wrote the lyrics to this song?! “I got a license to kill, and you know I’m going straight for your heart.” Is that romantic? Because I’m actually terrified right now. “Please don’t bet that you’ll ever escape me once I get my sights on you.” It seems very clear that Gladys Knight will take you to the river, then leave your body there with a cement block tied to your feet. I never would have guessed that Gladys Knight would go full-out Silence of the Lambs, but if I ever see that woman I am RUNNING for the midnight train to Georgia and never looking back. It’s always the ones you least suspect. Fun fact: despite the overall tone of menace, the very Christian Ms. Gladys actually objected to being required to sing the word ‘kill.’ Maybe that’s why I could swear she adds a ‘t’ to it at times, and “Licence to Kilt” is something they really should have used in a Bond movie with Sean Connery. That man looks good in a kilt.
Grades: Movie: 4/5; Bond Girl: 3.5/5; Villain: 3.5/5; Henchman: 2.5/5; Theme Song: 2.5/5
You can find links to all the Bond movie reviews as well as ‘Best of’ and ‘Worst of’ lists on my Bond Project page. Up next: Goldeneye.