Bond gets revenge. Licence to Kill is likely the darkest, most gritty Bond film to date. This stems from the fact that this is a revenge film, and that requires some nasty stuff to happen to James’ friends and his sworn enemies. This is the film that earned Timothy Dalton his maligned criticism. Many felt it deviated too far from the familiar Bond style and formula, but the truth is, this was likely the most true to Ian Fleming’s character, as he was originally written. However, I have always liked this film.
CIA turned DEA Agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison) is aided by friend and British spy James Bond (Timothy Dalton) in apprehending sadistic drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) on Felix’s wedding day. However, when Sanchez is broken out of custody, he murders Felix’s new bride, and leaves him for dead after being mauled by a shark. This drives Commander Bond to seek revenge, but M (Robert Brown), his superior in the British Secret Service, denies him this and revokes his licence to kill. This forces Bond to go rogue to exact his revenge on this merciless criminal. He is aided by one of Leiter’s contacts in the capable Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) as they attempt to crush Sanchez’s entire drug empire.
This film is definitely more violent than The Living Daylights, border lining on graphic. Bond holds nothing back, subjecting his enemies to gruesome fates. One man gets exactly what Leiter got as Bond maliciously throws him into the shark tank, but doesn’t survive. Others get quite severe deaths demonstrating that you don’t want to be on the bad side of Timothy Dalton’s 007. Bond goes after everyone hard and fast, but never sacrifices intelligence or savvy. He remains cunning but also deadly. Timothy Dalton slips into this harder edged 007 very comfortably and easily. He takes what he did in The Living Daylights, and just darkens it a few shades. He’s a little more intimidating and dramatically intense showing Bond’s passionate motivations in this personal story. Dalton might not have the opportunity to be very witty or suave, but he delivers on the dramatic weight and conviction that the story demanded. He also has small moments of pain and grief that do penetrate through the screen as he reflects on his maimed friend. The physical demands on Dalton are greater this time out, and he was more than up for the task. You can clearly see his face as he is lowered in a harness from a helicopter early on, or doing any number of daring stunts or fights. I can certainly understand why many never took well to this portrayal of the character. Definitely in this film, he is a fierce animal on a dead-set mission who doesn’t delve into light-hearted indulgences. He stays sharply focused on the matter at hand, and doesn’t allow anything to diverge him from that mission. In both of Dalton’s films, I find what he did with the character of James Bond to be very compelling and exceptionally intelligent.
Now, I am dead serious when I say that Franz Sanchez is one of the best Bond villains I’ve ever seen. Robert Davi is cutthroat and ruthless in this role, taking it also into a very dark and violent place. He’s a very realistic and threatening villain who is a fresh departure for the franchise being that he is a South American drug lord. That is a very identifiable villain for the 1980s in the era of Miami Vice. Davi makes a powerful impression right from his first scene proving Sanchez to be a very formidable villain. That solidifies him as a seriously dangerous adversary for James Bond. The fact that he’s not hesitant over getting his hands dirty makes him even more of an unnerving threat. Of course, having a young and sleazy Benicio del Toro as his main henchman Dario, and nicely villainous Anthony Zerbe as cohort Milton Keyes doesn’t hurt matters, either. Of course, I don’t know what the idea was behind his pet iguana, but chalk it up to Bond villain eccentricities.
The Bond girls of this film are fairly decent. Most would know Carey Lowell as Assistant D.A. Jamie Ross from Law & Order in the 90s. Here, she’s a nicely assertive and sexy female lead pulling enough of her own weight, but her performance doesn’t have that harder edge or strong spirit to measure up to Dalton’s Bond. It’s a good performance, but not a standout one. Talisa Soto is about the same, but with considerably less to do as Sanchez’s reluctant and intimidated woman Lupé Lamora.
It’s interesting to note that the character of Felix Leiter appeared in The Living Daylights portrayed by 36 year old actor John Terry. In this film, he is portrayed by 61 year old David Hedison. He had previously played the role in Live and Let Die, and considering the need for an audience to care strongly about Leiter, the filmmakers decided to bring back a better established, more memorable actor in the role. It goes to show the loose continuity the franchise once had where the same character can be played by two different actors with a quarter century difference in age in back-to-back films. I always found that rather amusing, if not confusing. Regardless of that, Hedison does a fine, admirable job in this outing definitely making Leiter an enjoyable and sympathetic character.
Unfortunately, there’s not much to say about the opening credits sequence of Licence to Kill. It’s even more generic than that of The Living Daylights with various female figures dancing around, and the image of a roulette wheel spinning behind them. The title song by Gladys Knight is fairly good. It has a bit of a sweeping romantic quality with a lot of soul in her vocals. It’s a nice change of pace from the previous two films, but probably not quite as memorable.
On the far better side of things, I really have to hand it to the action scenes of this film. The filmmakers really pushed them to a whole new level with amazing mid-air stunts, exhilarating water skiing getaways, and the spectacular finale with the Kensington trucks. The pre-credits sequence is excellent with Bond being lowered down from a Coast Guard helicopter to tether in Sanchez’s plane, and then, James and Felix parachute down to the front of the chapel for the wedding. Bond is put into plenty of lethal peril in some nicely imaginative ways. He even gets to tangle with some ninjas. The climax is full of fire and explosions during a tanker truck chase down a desert highway. It’s an awesome sequence giving us plenty of original and memorable moments. Bond and Sanchez fight on the moving tanker truck until there is one final dramatic moment which has a beautiful and brilliant personal touch of revenge.
There is a James Bond style maintained in this action-revenge storyline. He uses his skills of espionage to infiltrate Sanchez’s organization, getting in close to him to both discover in the inner workings of it, and to destroy it from the inside out. He turns Sanchez against his own men by laying the seeds of distrust and betrayal in him. It’s quite a skillful revenge with Bond using his intellect instead of pure brutality, but always knowing he’s at the edge of danger at every turn. James is well aware of this being a personal vendetta, and he consciously tries to keep his friends and allies out of the crossfire. Regardless, they choose to help him anyway because the danger is so high that he needs all the help he can get, and it’s great seeing that loyalty, especially from Q. Miss Moneypenny is even so worried about James that she cannot even do her job properly. All of these character elements and emotional attachments are nicely woven into the story, and gives the audience a chance to see James’ concern for them and vice versa. Despite his unwavering determination for revenge, Bond keeps enough of his senses about him to not seek it at the expense of others. This is his own mission, and no else need risk their lives for his own gratification. So, despite how dark this Bond appears to be, he hasn’t lost sight of his humanity.
Scoring duties for Licence to Kill were taken over by Michael Kamen, who was a brilliant composer through to his passing in 2003. I immensely enjoyed what he did on this film. His score has its own distinct style and sound while still adhering to the classic Bond themes and feel. He brought something more rousing and dangerous, matching the film’s tone exquisitely. I love his arrangement of the James Bond theme as it is used quite a bit in various action scenes. Again, it has a unique flavor without making a drastic change. The sprinkles of Latin musical flair for some of Sanchez’s best moments was a fine touch. Overall, it’s an excellent score.
Topped off with some excellent and solid cinematography by Alec Mills, who also shot The Living Daylights, this really is a solid, hard edged Bond action picture. Surely, it might not be palatable to all fans of 007, but I think it definitely has its audience. In light of the success of Daniel Craig’s run with the character, going back to a more grounded and realistic style and tone, I think many should give Licence to Kill a fair watch. Timothy Dalton really delivers a very dangerous and action-packed performance that impresses me. It’s only unfortunate that the franchise got stalled out after this due to legal and financial issues, and by the time they were resolved, Dalton chose to bow out of reprising the role. While both of his outings are particularly good, I don’t think he got the chance to do his quintessential Bond film. Licence to Kill was not well received, and in the hotly competitive summer of 1989 with Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Back to the Future, Part II, and Ghostbusters II, it was difficult to be financially successful as well. Still, I continue to give Timothy Dalton credit for taking the franchise in a more serious and respectable direction which did set a good stage for Pierce Brosnan’s run. Thus, James Bond will return in GoldenEye.