Sunday, July 14, 2013

Licence to Kill (1989)


With Timothy Dalton firmly in the role of James Bond, the screenwriters knew what kind of stories they could work on. The Living Daylights had returned the thrills back to the franchise, and Dalton was obviously up for something a little darker. So inspired by some action movies of the day, the crew took a chance with a story that was a little out of the normal frame for a James Bond flick. How did the gamble work out?


British secret agent James Bond (Timothy Dalton) is trying to get his old pal Felix Leiter (David Hedison) to the church on time for his wedding to the lovely Della (Priscilla Barnes). But things don’t go as planned when they take a quick detour to catch the international drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). After nabbing the baddie and tying the knot, Felix is ready for a nice honeymoon.

That’s when Sanchez escapes, kills Della and horribly maims Felix. The authorities in the US have their hands tied. Sanchez is untouchable in his base of operations in Isthmus City. But Bond is angry and is determined to avenge the Leiters. M (Robert Brown) tries to rein him in, but nothing doing. Bond joins forces with the lovely Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) and Q (Desmond Llewelyn) to bring Sanchez down. But does Bond have a hope in hell with his Licence to Kill revoked and an army standing between him and the target?

Good Points:
  • Dalton is excellent in a script tailored to his strengths
  • Davi makes a great villain
  • The truck chase is one of the best in the entire franchise

Bad Points:
  • May stray too far from traditional Bond stories and tone for some
  • The lack of obvious humor will leave some viewers cold
  • That title song is one of the least impressive of the bunch


I enjoy this film every time revisit it. No it isn’t like any of the other Bond films in the original continuity, but it is that unique feel and tone that makes it a great watch. The action scenes are solid, the thrills are genuine, and the acting between Dalton and Davi crackles. Ends the 1980s Bond flicks on a high note.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Licence revoked? Really M, is that the best you can do?
For the longest time, this was one of the most controversial of the James Bond films. You found some folks who loved it and other who hated it. Perhaps loathed even more than The Man With the Golden Gun or A View to a Kill, Licence to Kill was often called the film that nearly sunk the James Bond franchise. Most people point to the huge six year gap between this film and Goldeneye as proof, but in the end, I just think they want to dump on a film that doesn’t deserve it’s poor reputation.

Licence to Kill is a top-notch thriller with some great action and solid acting by the leads. It’s got its flaws, and it never quite reaches the pinnacle of the Bond series. However, it was a excellent attempt to take James Bond into a new direction, something that wouldn’t happen until 2006 with Casino Royale.

One of several impressive stunt sequences in the film.
Like all the Bond films directed by John Glen, Licence to Kill goes for a realistic look, perhaps even more so than the previous film. It feels a bit more like For Your Eyes Only with very few gadgets being utilized (even though the film features Q in his largest role ever). The location shooting occurs in and around the United States, with key scenes occurring in the Florida Keyes, Mexico City (standing in for the fictional Isthmus City) and additional shooting in and around Mexico. The sets, while impressive at times, lack that flashy grandeur that most folks associate with Bond. But the finale scenes that occur around the religious compound and then on the winding highway leading away from it create some of the most spectacular location shooting of the Bond films of the 1980s.

Of key importance are the action scenes. Glen brought a real sense of explosive action to the James Bond flicks, and he doesn’t skimp in this film. The pre-credit sequence that involves a mid-air hijack is a real hoot. Then there’s Bond’s daring escape from the ship, the Wavecrest, which has him underwater, and then skiing behind a plane without any water-skis. But the winner is the incredible truck chase sequence. Sure, it feels a bit like a nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it manages to do some very unique things with the tanker trucks, and pulls off some stunts that I have never seen duplicated before or since. It leads to a wonderful finale that pits Bond against Sanchez, literally mano a mano.

To keep up with the top-notch action scenes you need some top quality sound. You get it with plenty of booming explosions and ricocheting bullets. There’s also quite a bit of underwater action in the film, which causes its own set of sound challenges. Lots of use of silence, bubbles and splashing keep us tied to the thrills.

And featuring Wayne Newton. Yes. Wayne. Newton.
With the exit of John Barry from the musical side of the James Bond franchise, the producers were on the look out to alter the musical make up of the series a bit. Since the film was very much inspired by the current crop of late 80s action flicks, they turned to the man who created the scores for two of the most popular films of the genre. Michael Kamen had scored both Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. He took his action sound, one that is functional and exciting, and combined it with Monty Norman’s James Bond theme. He added a Spanish guitar to add color (and playing the Bond theme a number of times). He also created a lovely piano love theme for the character of Pam. The final result is a musical score that works fine in the film, but doesn’t really stand out, or grab your attention like Barry did or Arnold would in the 1990s films.

Gladys Knight performs the title song for Licence to Kill. It has a very late 80s adult contemporary feel to it. It’s an interesting choice, one that pulls away from the poppy sounds of Duran Duran and a-Ha. But the song is too leisurely and sedate to really work with the film. I’m surprised they didn’t go for a more Latin sounding tune to match the locale of the film. For the end title theme, Patty LaBelle sings, “if You Asked Me to”. It is a decent enough song, but one that would be made famous by Celine Dion a few years later. Kamen was brought in late on the film, so he had no input on the sound of either of the tunes. But he had worked (and would work) with pop and rock artists on projects, so it wouldn’t have been new territory for him. It’s a shame we didn’t get to hear what he could have come up with.

Bond and weddings just never work out.
For me the movie works because of the excellent work by Dalton and Davi. Both men have interesting characters to explore. Both men get some great scenes together. And both men change as the movie progresses. Prior to the Daniel Craig era, Licence to Kill was the only Bond film to really explore who James Bond was (although a fair argument could be made for Dr. No or On Her Majesty’sSecret Service). One of my favorite moments from Dalton is when Della tells James that he needs to settle down with a nice girl. Dalton allows a painful memory shoot across his eyes for a couple seconds and then offers a thin smile. After Bond leaves, Felix explains that Bond was married once, a long time ago. It’s a great bit of subtle acting by Dalton, and it shows one end of the range he takes the character through.

The script allows us to see many sides to Bond. Obviously the first scenes show him at ease with his friends, and enjoying the wedding. But once Sanchez escapes and unleashes his vengeance, we see a side of the character we’d never seen before. James Bond loses control. The rage, frustration and boiling anger are simmering just below the surface for the first half of the film. Dalton is actually pretty intimidating in these scenes, and it makes perfect sense that M revokes his Licence to Kill. It isn’t until Bond sees the impact of his relentless and thoughtless pursuit that he is able to channel that anger. Suddenly the cool professional is back, and Bond is back in control (for the most part). He’s still very angry, but Dalton shows that the reins are clearly back on and the focus is on getting to and destroying Sanchez.

Sanchez is so confident that he confronts Bond in a
pink shirt.
Davi plays the flip side to Bond. He’s a man in complete control at all times. He is confident with his money, power and loyalty of his team. Even his capture is treated as nothing more than a temporary distraction. But as Bond begins to undermine the team, and cause Sanchez to question the loyalty of his crew, the cracks start to show. Davi plays it all perfectly, supremely confidant as the movie opens. But like Bond, he can run hot, and as his rage begins to take hold, Davi allows the cold fury show. By the end of the film, Sanchez’ world is literally in flames, he can’t trust anyone and Bond is moving closer and closer for kill. Davi never goes over the top, but his desperation is played in his eyes and in his carriage. The confidence is gone, but in its place is the ruthlessness of a cornered animal.

"But James I have no idea what the point of my
character is?"
The rest of the cast does a solid job. The two ladies in the film offer a mixed bag of sorts. Talisa Soto’s performance used to really annoy me. Lupe is essentially Sanchez’s woman. Of course she meets Bond, falls for him, and then helps him out a few times. Soto seems a bit too na├»ve or dim at times. Her falling for James seems to come out of nowhere. But watching the film this time, I think it may be more of an editing issue. I think a few scenes were cut developing her character a bit more, and it makes her performance look off. Carey Lowell has the more interesting part. She’s tough, she’s lovely and she can take care of herself. Her attraction to Bond is obvious and their relationship works a lot better. She ties with my favorite Bond girl from the 1980s (between her and Melina Havelock from For Your Eyes Only).

Q and Pam doubt the veracity of your claim.
Licence to Kill gives us the final hurrah for two of the London cast members. This is the last time Robert Brown would tackle M. He was always a bit non-descript in the role for my tastes, but he never hurt the films. Then there’s Caroline Bliss as Moneypenny. Bliss has a short scene and doesn’t make much of an impression. Q on the other hand gets quite a bit of screen time, when he arrives with gadgets in hand and ready to help. He has come great interplay with Bond and Bouvier and brings a bit of lightness to the darker portions of the film.

One of the main complaints I see about this film is that it does not feel like a James Bond film. I can understand why some viewers feel this way. It was obviously inspired more by Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and Miami Vice than any of the traditional spy films. One of the main elements of those series is that the main hero is not infallible. I think that is one of the reasons some folks just don’t like this movie. James Bond makes mistakes, gets beaten up and actually ends up dirty and bloody by the end. But that is the point of the story, to show that Bond cannot loose his cool if he is to succeed in his work. Dalton’s performance helps underline this element of the script.

The truck chase if filled with exciting and impressive
stunt work.
One thing I think that folks also miss is that even though Q has a larger role in the film, gadgets do not save the day. In fact, most of the gadgets end up hindering Bond or being useless. The final third of Licence to Kill actually has Bond unarmed and without his gadgets. Instead he relies on his wits, his natural charm, and his friends to help take down Sanchez. He keeps pushing Sanchez's buttons until the man get sloppy and starts making mistakes. The final confrontation occurs between an unarmed and bloody James Bond, and an enraged Sanchez wielding a machete. It’s a deconstruction of the James Bond myth in many ways.

In 1989 folks weren’t ready for that. A lot of Bond fans still lamented that Pierce Brosnan didn’t’ get the role. The shadow of Roger Moore’s lighter approach to the character loomed large over the franchise. And while the script was intriguing, it was too bloated with other elements that weren’t needed. Removing the subplot with the Chinese agents, the cover operation using the religious cult and even the character of Lupe could have brought the running time down on this movie, and turned it into a lean mean ass kicking machine. Instead, the film drags a bit in places and feels like it is spinning its wheels.

Pam revokes Newton's licence to sing.
On top of all that the film ran into some production problems including a name change. Originally this film was title Licence Revoked, but there was fear that the title would confuse some American audience members. The switch in title forced the marketing team to have to come up with new material on the fly and the film ended up with one of the worst marketing campaigns in a year jam packed with huge movies including: Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Back to the Future: Part 2 and Star Trek V.

It’s a shame really, because the movie ended up being one of the worst performing Bond films, and it really didn’t deserve that title. Dalton was often blamed for the poor performance of the film, and folks seemed quick to dismiss his two films once Goldeneye hit.

Timothy Dalton had a rough time with "true" Bond fans.
But time has shown his films were some of the best.
Licence to Kill finally got some more respect around the release of Die Another Day. By this time the poor scripts of the Brosnan era were taking their toll, and people were looking at the older films. Suddenly Dalton’s films seemed like a breath of fresh air, and Licence to Kill in particular seemed to be something unique and entertaining in the franchise. It’s not hard to see its impact on the Daniel Craig era, especially in elements of both Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. So I say, if you haven’t seen the film in a while, revisit it, and see how Dalton’s performance really holds up, and how a dangerous thrilling James Bond adventure can be just as entertaining as a light, over the top romp with a megalomaniac.


  1. I always like when films go beyond the stereotypes. Kind and gentle people can lose their tempers. Violent angry people are capable of random acts of generosity. We all are complex enough to act "out of character" sometimes, and there is no reason why Bond and other fictional characters shouldn't, too.

    I also liked this one -- maybe it helped that I'm not really a fervent Bond fan.

    1. You make a great point. I've talked to a few folks who are fans of action movies, and not really James Bond. And they love this movie. The thing is, while it does have a lot of action, it's not really one of the most action packed of the franchise.

      But the violence in this film is probably the most brutal. Sanchez is one nasty customer and he does some pretty heinous things. No other villain really went that far.

      I think that edge in the villain appealed to them a bit more. For the most part the villains of the 1980s Bond films were more realistic. But Sanchez was probably the best developed of all of them.