Licence to Kill (1989)


Licence to Kill should have been the first James Bond movie that I saw in a theater on my own money.  I was 17, so largely the barrier to me seeing any particular movie had largely been removed, and theaters in reality treated PG-13 the same as they did PG.  I had a date lined up to go and everything.  That is, until, like most of my experience in my teenage years, she suddenly had other plans.  I was bound to the city bus which, if you know Phoenix, you know is not reliable, and was even worse in 1989.  By the time I got to the theater Licence to Kill was already playing (I wasn't going to let a cancelled date keep me from seeing a movie) and I didn't want to be gone all day.

So, instead, I saw UHF, "Weird Al" Yankovic's cinematic debut, which just happened to come out within the same time period.  Moral of the story, sometimes things work out for the better.

I have seen UHF numerous times since.  It did horribly at the box office, got destroyed by critics and, ultimately, kicked off the careers of a number of comedians and became a major cult film that people at one time would pay upwards of $100.00 for a VHS copy when it was out of print.  Licence to Kill, on the other hand, became known as a financial failure (though, by any measure, it was not, except in the eyes of a few investors) and, to most, just the second and last movie with Timothy Dalton in the role of James Bond.  While UHF still gets quoted and clips get played, Licence to Kill is often mentioned in the Bond canon along with lesser movies like The Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy

While I will never regret seeing UHF instead back on that July day, Licence to Kill, though nowhere near as good as The Living Daylights, still stands head and shoulders above most of the movies with Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan.  It is still a shame that Dalton didn't get the chance to return, as if allowed to even make the amount of movies Brosnan or Daniel Craig did he would have left an indelible stamp on the character.

James Bond's friend Felix Leiter (David Hedison) is getting hitched.  That doesn't mean that he and Bond can't take a moment to capture drug lord Sanchez (Robert Davi).  Unfortunately, just as Leiter and his wife Della (Priscilla Barnes) are getting ready to head off on their honeymoon, Sanchez manages to get free and sends his thugs after the couple.  Bond arrives to see the aftermath and, against the wishes of M (Robert Brown), he goes after Sanchez in his home base of Isthmus City in an unnamed Central American country. 

Bond finds himself aided in his quest by Sanchez's girlfriend Lupe (Talisa Soto) and Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), a pilot who happens to be a former asset of Leiter's.  He also gets help from Q (Desmond Llewellyn) after Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss) gets worried about him.  Posing as a former agent and killer for hire, Bond ingratiates himself with Sanchez and begins to destroy his sophisticated drug operation before going for the man himself.

Timothy Dalton continues to play the role as he did in The Living Daylights: tough, complicated and with a ton of barriers, not even letting his guard down when enjoying a bit of leisure time with either Lupe or Pam.  He would certainly stand out like Luca Brazzi at Leiter's wedding, being the one person always wondering where the next attack would come from.  That is probably why I like Dalton's portrayal so much, and why I wish we saw it more; Bond is not a superhero, but someone barely keeping themselves together at all times.  Going off on a vendetta over an attack on a friend may be out of character for the dapper bond of Roger Moore, but definitely not for this version, who looks like he is just waiting for an excuse. 

The movie's undoing, and least for audiences back in 1989, is that 27 years of being uniquely British, Licence to Kill comes across as an attempt to make an American action film.  In comparison to many of the films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, Licence to Kill is rather tame.  Some of the effects, like the head exploding in the pressure chamber and the shark attack on Leiter, were cut to avoid an R rating, but the thing to remember is that PG-13 was originally meant to be a compromise between PG and R.  No full-frontal nudity (unless artistic), keep the f-bombs to one and go a little lighter on the violence (i.e., all right to show a guy going into a cocaine grinder, just not showing the results in detail) and you were fine.  It was not the anemic, sanitized attempt to pander to audiences that it is now.

That approach got the movie its share of critics.  What happens to Leiter is brutal, and is presented as such, and it is hinted that Sanchez's henchmen may have done a bit more with Della than just break her neck.  The tone, however, was just what Dalton wanted, not to turn James Bond into Lethal Weapon but rather to match the more realistic tone of the books.  There is still kind of a lair - a cocaine processing plant disguised as a retreat for a new age cult - but largely it is Bond versus Sanchez, and Robert Davi plays the role well.  It is one of the first times in a long time that the main villain got more screen time than his henchmen, which is good since Benicio Del Torro might just have outshone him if given the chance, as he appears in an early role as a heavy named Dario.  In a rare turn Dalton and Davi have on-screen chemistry, so rather than being a series of battles leveling up like a video game until the big fight, we get the two actors working off of each other. 

Chemistry is another thing that makes his partnership with Pam Bouvier and Q work as well.  Desmond Llewellyn is given an actual part to play other than presenting a few gadgets.  It is nice to see him get out in the field for an extended period.  With Carey Lowell the series has one of those rare times where they got a Bond girl that can act and, acknowledging that times have changed, can hold her own.  Some of these changes were evident with The Living Daylights and, unlike the previous movies John Glen directed, this one didn't backtrack into silliness or doing Bond by the numbers.

As for action pieces, the capture of Sanchez's plane at the beginning and the tanker chase at the end are two of the best.  While some of the truck stunts may look a bit humorous (especially the cab popping a wheelie), we still get to see something I didn't know could be done - putting a big rig on its left wheels to avoid a rocket - without rigging things or doing camera tricks.  It's one of the best pieces of stunt driving in any film, and it's a shame it's at the tail end of a Bond film that often gets skipped over. 

That is not to say that this entry doesn't have some of the usual problems.  Talisa Soto is pretty, but is more the typical female plot device we see everywhere else in the series rather than contributing much to the story.  Also, the movie is about a half hour longer than it needs to be, given that there is no worldwide crisis and that this is a personal vendetta with a rather normal villain.  Despite Dalton's intentions to have Albert Broccoli steer the series more toward what Ian Fleming may have intended, Licence to Kill does too often feel like it is trying to fit in with its contemporaries.  The thing is even Americans want a British bond; if this story took place specifically in Latin America, with a few callbacks to England (and, again, about a half hour shorter), it would have been received a bit better.  Unfortunately, British tax laws and the refusal to give the movie the budget it needed made some decisions necessary.

The result was that, although it was not a flop as we would define it now, it didn't make as much money as everyone thought it should.  That wasn't the reason for Dalton's departure, however.  MGM, which had bought United Artists when it was on thin ice due to Heaven's Gate, was in danger of going under itself at the time.  Albert Broccoli was in bad health, leading to his daughter Barbara taking over future endeavors, while co-writer Richard Maibaum left the series and himself passed away in 1991.  The follow-up to Licence to Kill, tentatively called The Property of a Lady and meant for a 1991 or 1992 release, never surfaced.  Dalton's contact soon ran out and, in 1994, he announced he would not play the role in the future. 

Honestly, one could watch The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill separate from the movies that came before and after and be highly satisfied, though also frustrated that there isn't more.  If anything his participation forced the series to become unstuck from the 1970s, clearly getting with the times and not just dressing up '70s production techniques with a bit of '80s makeup.  Even over 30 years later it is still quite a unique period of James Bond, but it is still clearly that it was Dalton, more than Pierce Brosnan, that paved the way for the Daniel Craig era. 

Licence to Kill (1989)
Time: 133 minutes
Starring: Timothy Dalton, Robert Davi, Carey Lowell, Talisa Soto, Desmond Llewellyn
Director: John Glen

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