James Bond 007: Licence to Kill (1989)

In his review of The Living Daylights, Anton called it a “soft reboot” of the series. Timothy Dalton, the fourth actor to play James Bond in the Eon Productions films, brought a new energy and hard edge to the character. But in many other ways, as enjoyable as The Living Daylights is, it isn’t a huge departure from the what the series had become during Roger Moore’s tenure.

Dalton’s second and final performance as Bond in Licence to Kill stirred things up once again. It’s as if the series producers decided for a more significant makeover after the gentle tweak of The Living Daylights, putting Bond up against an entire decade of eighties action films. While Dalton’s Bond is still the angry, dangerous charmer he was in The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill is a darker, more violent film.

Opinions on Licence to Kill are split between those who feel the film is a failure, lacking the charm and panache of the series to that point, and those who see it as an undersung, underrated entry, offering a version of Bond closer to the character in Fleming’s novels and containing some of the best action and stunt sequences of any of the eighties Bond films. I find myself in the second camp, applauding the dangerous feel of  Licence to Kill. It’s successful as an action film rather than as a spy film with some action in it. It also manages to justify its greater orientation toward action through the interesting things it does with the character of James Bond. In Licence to Kill James Bond re-stakes his claim to being a great action hero, after being a pioneer of the genre. In addition, the film makes a significant gesture toward exploring the psychology of Bond by recalling the tragedy that befell the character in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Licence to Kill is not only one of the most violent Bond films in the series, but it also frees Bond, at least for a significant part of the film, from many of his most frequent and iconic elements. The film begins with Bond in the Florida Keys, attending the wedding of his friend and CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter, with David Hedison reprising his role from Live and Let Die (the only actor aside from Jeffrey Wright in the Daniel Craig films to play Leiter twice). On route to the wedding, Leiter gets ordered by his DEA colleagues to apprehend a dangerous drug lord, Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), whom they have located in the area. Bond decides to join Leiter in apprehending Sanchez in an impressive mid-air maneuver after which they parachute down to the wedding, celebrating both Leiter’s special day and his capture of a dangerous man.

Unfortunately, Sanchez is shortly freed by a corrupt cop (Twin Peaks’ Everett McGill) and returns during Leiter’s honeymoon to murder the new bride, Della. Then, with help from his American business partner Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), Sanchez feeds Leiter to a shark, leaving Bond’s ally severely wounded. Upon hearing this news Bond begins a one-man vendetta to avenge his friend. When M shows up in Key West (at the Hemingway House landmark!) to reassign Bond to Istanbul, Bond refuses and threatens to resign. While M’s retort is a good one—“We’re not a country club, 007!”—he nonetheless strips Bond of his 00 designation and orders him to hand over his weapon, which Bond refuses to do. Bond escapes and goes on the run from his superiors in order to enact his own justice.

The original working title for the film was “Licence Revoked,” and the idea of Bond working on his own for his own motives has an interesting thematic effect. The Bond films had previously explored the conflict between personal and professional duty in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and there is a sense in which the personal loss that Bond suffers at the end of that film offers an added reason for his vengeance here. Bond has never been a sentimental character, but in one sense the brutal efficiency with which Bond goes after Sanchez and his associates is not only revenge for Felix Leiter and his murdered bride Della, but for Bond’s own murdered wife, Tracy. The film makes a brief but explicit reference to Bond’s former wife in a scene just after the wedding, in which Bond says goodbye Leiter and Della. The fact that Bond too has lost a wife at a villain’s hand adds texture to the simmering anger that Dalton brings to his performance. Bond’s pursuit of Sanchez is revenge for all the villains who ever hurt him, a summative gesture that a film like Connery’s last Eon production, Diamonds are Forever, should have embraced.

Ironically, a James Bond stripped of his government-sanctioned licence to kill becomes, in this film, more deadly than ever. For example, Bond doesn’t hesitate in feeding the treacherous DEA officer to the same sharks that maimed his friend. Over the course of the film he mows down dozens of Sanchez’s men. Part of this violence is motivated by story, by Bond’s anger and single-minded determination, but also by the need for Bond to keep pace in a cinematic arms race that erupted during the eighties in films like Rambo, Commando, RoboCop, and even Lethal Weapon. This resulted in Licence to Kill earning the series its first PG-13 rating. Licence to Kill was the first Bond film to not take its title from an existing Fleming story, and while it has elements of other Bond stories to it (Milton Krest and his ship the Wavekrest are drawn from the short story “The Hildebrand Rarity” and Leiter’s mauling by sharks from the novel version of Live and Let Die), the film was an original script written with both Dalton’s portrayal of Bond in mind and as a reaction to the landscape of action cinema in the decade.

Writer Michael G. Wilson has admitted that the idea of Bond freed from MI6 control has a touch of the notion of a “ronin” from Japanese samurai lore and the films of Akira Kurosawa, especially Yojimbo. The way Bond ingratiates himself into Sanchez’s operations and plays the two sides of Krest and Sanchez against each other is certainly reminiscent of Kurosawa’s film. The idea that secret agents of the Cold War were like the vassal warriors of their respective nations—and what their ultimate purpose post-Cold War would be—is one that is explored in later films, like John Frankenheimer’s Ronin and even the subsequent Bond film, GoldenEye.

While the world of 1989 was a long way from Connery’s 60s, the geopolitical landscape of the collapsed Soviet Bloc from GoldenEye was not yet fully realized. Instead, Licence to Kill sends Bond to the fictional country of Isthmus and Isthmus City, a barely concealed version of Panama and Panama City. The drug lord with connections deep in the government would have been resonant to viewers as it draws parallels to the rule of a drug cartel-backed Manuel Noriega in Panama at that time, until his deposition by US Forces later the same year. Robert Davi plays Sanchez as a cunning and dangerous man. Even though he is “only” a drug lord, Sanchez effectively rules Isthmus, and is as interested in “loyalty” as he is in money. Sanchez, for all his brutality, is cut from the same cloth as Kananga in Live and Let Die, an opponent who offers a worthy challenge for Bond even if his schemes aren’t world threatening.

Licence to Kill was the first Bond film to avoid filming in the U.K., with Florida and Mexico standing in as both themselves and the fictional Isthmus. For the first half of its runtime, Licence to Kill not only situates Bond thoroughly in the Western Hemisphere, but strips him of his MI6 support, his gadgets and his polished demeanour as he cuts through Krest’s and Sanchez’s operations. Once Bond teams up with CIA operative Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) and heads to Isthmus,familiar elements begin to re-emerge though. The sight of Dalton’s Bond decked out in a tuxedo entering the casino feels right. It is as if the film itself deconstructs and then reassembles Bond over its run-time. Once Q joins Bond in the field (at Moneypenny’s request), working as a field agent and providing him with plenty of gadgets, Bond has regained almost all his necessary pieces, despite his rogue status. The idea of the geriatric and genial Q, played as always with a wink and a sparkle by Desmond Llewelyn, as a field agent is one of the film’s sillier notions, and occasionally defuses the more serious tone of the film.

But when I refer to the darker, more serious tone of Licence to Kill, what I’m really talking about is the fixation on Bond’s vendetta. For all its exploration of Bond’s psychology, that exploration is still primarily through his actions. And the action the film does consistently deliver is of a greater intensity than the other films in the series to this point. Licence to Kill draws on the influence of then contemporary action films at the same time that it remains influential to this day. Take for instance the film’s opening sequence, where Bond and Leiter go after Sanchez by helicopter, capturing him by hooking the back of his plane and inverting it in mid-air. Surely, known Bond-aficionado Christopher Nolan took inspiration from this sequence when filming Bane’s thrilling escape at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises.

Perhaps the best action sequence in the film is the ending chase, where Bond goes after Sanchez’s four tankers of cocaine and gasoline. The progression and setting of the climactic sequence clearly draws its inspiration from Raiders of the Lost Ark’s famous desert truck chase, while increasing the number of explosions and the scale of the destruction.  Re-watching the film in in 2015, I couldn’t help but think of later film’s featuring chases with semi-trailer hauling rigs, such as Terminator 2 and even Mad Max: Fury Road, which perhaps speak to its cinematic legacy. While not quite on the level of those other action masterpieces, the ending of Licence to Kill is nonetheless a legitimately memorable action spectacle.

I would argue that Licence to Kill operates as both a Bond film and an example of the violent eighties-action film. One of the reasons this combination works is that the Bond films always combined the kind of humourous one-liners typical of the eighties era (compare Sean Connery’s puns with Arnold Schwarzenegger's), with a visual extravagance in the spectacle of violent action, exotic locales, and beautiful women. This makes Licence to Kill particularly interesting because it is the continuation of the Bond series’ legacy in really jump-starting the action genre; Licence to Kill is both a reaction to its contemporaries in its intensified violence and a kind of elder-statesmen to those films because of its pedigree. It manages to combine goofy concepts that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the Moore films, such as Wayne Newton’s Professor Joe Butcher using his televangelism to communicate drug trades to Sanchez’s associates or the strange winking fish at the film’s end, with brutal violence, as when Bond pushes Sanchez’s henchman, Dario (played by a young Benicio del Toro!) into a grinder, or when Sanchez uses a hyperbaric chamber to implode Krest’s head. The balance in tone between brutal and humourous is something that I always considered a hallmark of eighties action films, and while there are both goofier and grittier Bond films, Licence to Kill pulls off the balance between the two the best of any film in the series.

The treatment of women in this film is also noteworthy. Licence to Kill has two main Bond girls: Lowell’s Pam Bouvier, a counterpart CIA agent, and Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto), Sanchez’s beleaguered girlfriend. Bouvier is an improvement on previous female agents, like Barbara Bach’s Agent XXX in The Spy Who Loved Me. While still beautiful, she is actually competent in her own right, and Lowell’s performance is spirited and memorable (at times she reminds me of a young Charlize Theron). Soto’s Lupe isn’t as good. She acts as an inside-ally to Bond, who recognizes her abuse at the hands of her lover and his drug trade colleagues. Dalton’s Bond here never exploits his seductive charms to the extent he did even in his first outing, and yet Lupe still falls for him somewhat unconvincingly. Dalton’s Bond here seems more irresistible than seductive. But perhaps it’s the fact that Bond is motivated in this film by the death of two women, both Leiter’s wife Della and the history of his wife Tracy, that strangely mutes the character’s usual sexist attitudes. At the same time it is true that the film uses women mostly as plot motivations rather than fully developed characters of their own. Nevertheless, Licence to KIll can boast one of the best Bond girls of the eighties, and a move toward exploring Bond’s own relation to women as a formative piece of his psychology—a move the series would return to later on.

After Licence to Kill the series took its longest break yet. Six years separated the film from GoldenEye, during which Timothy Dalton decided to resign the character and the world’s political climate completely changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. While that break can be attributed in part to legal issues surrounding the ownership of the character, it also offered the series the chance to truly make a major change. As I will mention in my upcoming review of GoldenEye, it marked another chance for the series to “reboot.” In this sense, despite their great distance, Licence to Kill and GoldenEye are strangely linked, as they collectively ushered the character on screen through a major transition period, albeit on either ends. Some of the thematic interests of Licence to Kill would be taken up more thoroughly in GoldenEye, and each film reflects the series adapting to the dominant filmmaking modes of its time.

For as much as it operates as a series makeover, it is possible to look at Licence to Kill as the final hurrah of the series to that point. GoldenEye would make Bond a blockbuster, more in line with the filmmaking of the era, but Licence to Kill, for all its eighties-action trappings, is still of a piece with the earlier 007 films. It was the last film in the series by director John Glen, and the last one that was primarily produced by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli. Neither Robert Brown as ‘M’ or Caroline Bliss as Moneypenny would return to their roles. It is a culmination of the Bond film as action film in a decade well known for action spectacles, and a film that recognizes Bond as a character with complex and personal motivations. It’s a shame that Timothy Dalton never got to make more Bond films, because he remains one of the best actors to play the character. But at least with Licence to Kill he put his stamp on the series and delivered one of the most interesting and entertaining entries.

8 out of 10

Licence to Kill (UK 1989)

Directed by John Glen; written by Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum based on the character created by Ian Fleming; starring Timothy Dalton, David Hedison, Robert Davi, Carey Lowell, Talisa Soto, Anthony Zerbe, Frank McRae, Benicio del Toro, Everett McGill, Wayne Newton, Desmond Llewelyn, Robert Brown, Caroline Bliss.