Has enough time passed so that Timothy Dalton’s brief stint as James Bond can be re-evaluated? I have to admit that I was not taken with his debut outing, The Living Daylights (1987), with its ties to the Roger Moore era (it was written while he was still Bond), it felt a little too milquetoast, but the leaner, meaner follow-up Licence to Kill (1989) was a big improvement. Essentially a revenge movie, it saw Bond go rogue to avenge a friend that made things more personal for 007 – something that we hadn’t seen since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). At the time, Licence to Kill was criticized for being too brutal in its depiction of violence and not as humorous as previous efforts. Interestingly, it is this grittier approach that anticipated Daniel Craig’s current run as Bond.
The film opens up with Bond (Timothy Dalton) en route to the wedding of his DEA buddy Felix Leiter (David Hedison) in Key West, Florida. However, Felix is informed (via a passing Coast Guard helicopter no less) that notorious drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) has been spotted in the Bahamas. Obviously, the DEA agent has been after this guy for some time and can’t pass up an opportunity to get him, so he takes off with Bond along for the ride as only an “observer” (yeah, right). Sanchez is as nasty as they come, traveling to the Bahamas to retrieve his estranged girlfriend Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto) from a man she ran off with. While he “disciplines” the beautiful young woman by whipping her lower back, his psychotic enforcer Dario (Benicio del Toro) kills her lover.
With Bond’s help, Felix captures Sanchez and they both manage to parachute and land out in front of the church just in time for the wedding. So far this seems like business as usual for a Bond film with the trademark exciting prologue, but after the typically stylish opening credits with the theme song belted out with gusto by Gladys Knight, Licence to Kill takes a decidedly darker turn as Sanchez not only escapes protective custody, with the help of a double-crossing DEA official (Everett McGill), but exacts some nasty revenge on Felix. First, Sanchez has Dario rape and kill Felix’s wife (Priscilla Barnes) and then feeds the DEA agent to a hungry shark.
On his way home, Bond hears about Sanchez’s escape and heads back to Felix’s house to find what’s left of the bride and groom (incredibly, Felix is still alive, just barely). Bond makes it his personal mission in life to track down Sanchez and destroy him and his operation even if it means disobeying a director order from M (Robert Brown), his superior, and having his license to kill revoked.
Timothy Dalton does an excellent job in Licence to Kill, building on the foundation he established with his first outing and one wonders how much better he could have been if he had returned to the role. Sadly, it was the last time he got to play the iconic character. The actor is quite convincing as the normally objective secret agent who is driven to extremes when a close friend is almost killed. Much like Sanchez, loyalty is important to Bond and both men are willing to kill when it is put to the test. Early on, Dalton shows a fun-loving Bond enjoying a rare lull between globetrotting adventures, and when things get deadly he is all business. This time, though, when he’s efficiently dispatching bad guys, it’s personal, each one killed for Felix and his wife.
For all of his ruthlessness, Sanchez does live by his own code, valuing loyalty over everything else, which, of course, is the Achilles’ heel that Bond uses as leverage to infiltrate the drug lord’s organization. Robert Davi is excellent as Sanchez, giving the brutal baddie his own unique spin, like the sly smile he gives when the DEA loads him into an armored truck bound for prison. In several scenes there is a mischievous glint in Davi’s eyes as if to suggest that Sanchez gets off on the brutality he inflicts on others. He even has a whimsical affectation in the form of a pet iguana that sports a diamond-encrusted collar.
The lovely Carey Lowell plays CIA informant Pam Bouvier, one of Felix’s contacts, and whom Bond first meets at a scuzzy bar where she brandishes a shotgun when Dario and his buddies show up, so you know she can handle herself. It’s a pretty amusing introduction as Pam and Bond meet and start a bar room brawl. She’s smart, beautiful, tough, and a crackerjack pilot, but even she can’t resist Bond’s charms. Lowell’s appearance takes on a decidedly sexier turn when Pam transforms herself into Bond’s “executive secretary,” complete with a no-nonsense short hairdo and shimmering evening dress when they crash Sanchez’s swanky casino.
Las Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton has a comical turn as a cheesy television evangelist and Sanchez middleman, aptly named Professor Joe Butcher complete with faux sincere catch phrase, “Bless your heart.” Newton displays an oily charm that is pretty funny, especially when Professor Joe tries to get Pam alone for a personal “meditation” session and manages to keep his cool even when she turns the tables on him. Talisa Soto is the requisite eye candy and set up as the obvious stunning beauty of the film, but I always found Lowell much more attractive. Benicio del Toro brings a certain psychotic reptilian charm to his role, but gets little to do other than glower menacingly and failure to kill Bond on several occasions.
There’s certainly no shortage of exciting action sequences in Licence to Kill, like when Bond waterskies behind a drug-running plane with his feet and attached via a harpoon gun! Even the final showdown between Bond and Sanchez is much more savage and visceral than one usually finds in these films, but it had to be that way because of what Sanchez did earlier on. This is definitely a harder edged Bond film that gets bloody frequently, between shark attacks, human combustion and crushing, which may have also turned off fans used to the relatively bloodless Roger Moore era. Ironically, the more intense violence was an attempt to appeal the U.S. market. Even the cheesy one-liners Dalton spouts are few and far between, coming across as grimmer than usual.
That being said, Licence to Kill has all the requisite elements of a Bond film: beautiful women, a rich and powerful villain and plenty of thrilling action set pieces – it’s just that the tone is considerably darker and there is much more at stake for Bond this time out, which I found refreshing at the time. This was a rare Bond film that saw 007 get his hands dirty, both literally and figuratively. Unfortunately, the producers didn’t explore the ramifications of this until Skyfall (2012), which took a fascinating look at a Bond burnt out from the two previous films.
Like many Bond films, its villain reflects contemporary ills that plague the world and in this case drug smuggling with Sanchez representing the thriving South American drug cartels. Alas, it seems that fans weren’t crazy about a Bond revenge movie and Licence to Kill was regarded as another Dalton misfire with disappointing box office returns in North America (it was the lowest grossing of the series in the U.S.) and mixed critical reaction. By the time the next installment was made, the actor had moved on and was replaced by Pierce Brosnan. Rather interestingly, the next time the Bond franchise tried to make a revenge tale with Quantum of Solace (2008) it too was met with a critical backlash and derided by fans. As a result, Licence to Kill remains an intriguing change of pace in the Bond canon, an oddity where the filmmakers pushed the tone of the film to one extreme, almost is if compensating for the one in The Living Daylights. Perhaps if Dalton had appeared in another Bond film the powers that be would have made some adjustments to create a film with a better balance. Sadly, we will never know.
Further reading: check out John Kenneth Muir's excellent look at the film.