"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, September 6, 2013

Licence to Kill

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.


  1. Hi J.D.,

    I am a big supporter of Licence to Kill and Timothy Dalton, so it is a pleasure to read your supportive and intelligent review.

    Like you, I feel very strongly that the Craig approach is the Dalton approach, essentially.

    Only now everyone seems to accept it, whereas in the late 1980s, it was perhaps too much too soon.

    I still find Timothy Dalton's two entries very faithful to the Bond novels by Fleming (at least in terms of Bond's demeanor and behavior...), and consider them far preferable to the Brosnan Era, which I tend to find dated now, and even unwatchable.

    By contrast, Licence to Kill today seems very modern and up-to-date. I should also note -- as you do -- that Davi is extraordinary as Sanchez, a great Shakespearean villain undone by his demand for and adherence to loyalty over logic. He makes for sadistic nemesis, to be certain...

    Great review, and thank you for the shout-out, my friend.

    All my best,

  2. I really liked Timothy Dalton's time as Bond as I thought it was the most underrated films of the series. It would set the tone for the Daniel Craig era while I also think Dalton brought a breath of fresh air to the role. There was a bit of humor in his role but all he needed was that sense of duty and charm that Bond is known for and he did that. In fact, Licence to Kill is ranked as my fifth favorite Bond film w/ The Living Daylights at #11.

  3. LICENCE TO KILL truly feels like (and practically is) a Golan and Globus Bond movie and should be celebrated as such as far as I'm concerned. I plowed through about half the franchise (and would have done all of them but Amazon Prime rotated them out) and the same tonal inconsistencies people gripe about are not exclusive to LICENSE TO KILL believe me.

  4. This excerpt from my write up will probably explain what I was trying to get at:

    "I remember seeing this in the theater back in '89 and being disappointed, but after finally watching it again, Licence to Kill was either a lot better than I remembered or, more than likely, something finally clicked for me this time through. Yeah, a lot of folks, myself included, were down on this grittier, grislier, and (definitely) more violent version of Bond and how they basically plugged him into a terribly clich├ęd and completely telegraphed plot more suitable for Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or even Michael Dudikoff, saying it doesn't jive properly as a Bond film. Well, nine films into this retrospective and I can definitely say that kind of drastic tonal inconsistency is a problem NOT exclusive to Licence to Kill.

    "Here, Team EON basically did what they always did: cash in on popular cinematic trends; this time the 1980's action/revenge movie (with nods to Lethal Weapon and Scarface, and a definite Michael Mann / Miami Vice aesthetic in the wardrobe and production design), and then tried to pound the usual 'round' Bond tropes into this very square hole. So, if anything, Licence to Kill is a model of consistency."

  5. Recently saw it, my favorite part about it was seeing a very young Benicio del Toro playing a villain. Recently bought this one, saw it and enjoyed it, I agree with you, it has some pretty gruesome moments! That scene where they explode that guy inside of this chamber? Damn! Extreme! And Benicio's demise? Dang! The film feels like a different Bond film because it's not your typical Bond adventure, in which Bond is following MI6 orders, on this one as you mentioned, it's personal, I actually liked that about it. Having Bond working essentially on his own, killing some bad guys out of pure revenge.

  6. License to Kill, holds a special place in my life long fandom with Bond. My Dad introduced me to the World of Bond with a double feature of the new release of Thunderball and the second feature of Goldfinger. My Father and I saw every Bond film after that together. Licen to Kill was the last we saw together, as he succumbed to cancer later that year 1989. But the torch he and I created was passed on because my 1st born son, and his 1st grandson was there with us to see his 1st James Bond adventure. My eldest son and I have seen every Bond Movie after that together. I will always have an appreciation for License to Kill, and a regret that Timothy Dalton didn't get to play Bond 007 more than twice, due the studio litigation.

  7. Dalton may be my favorite Bond. As John pointed out, he actually captured the James Bond character portrayed in the novels. I liked the aspect that he is a killer that doesn't like killing, but he's just damned good at it. You really get the feeling in both of his films, that he doesn't pull the trigger lightly. "Licence to Kill" is the better of the two films, and one of the few films of the first 20 that actually developed James Bond as a character. Because this becomes personal for him, we understand him a bit more. As others have pointed out, this all seems to be a prototype for the Craig era. It's a shame Dalton didn't get one more film. I think he could have given us one of the best Bond films of the franchise. The two we did get are both really good, but just missing a key element to make them great.

  8. John Kenneth Muir:

    Thank you for the kind words!

    We are certainly in agreement on this film! I have to say that I was never crazy about Dalton as Bond despite really liking LICENCE TO KILL when it first came out, but my estimation of him has grown over the years and I feel he has gotten a raw deal from fans. I am right there with ya re: Brosnan whose Bond films are fine but I am hard-pressed to remember anything about them.


    I agree with you about this film been so underrated. I think it is starting to get the props it deserves and is being re-evaluated. I think it has aged quite well - something I can't say about a lot of the Moore or Brosnan films.

    W.B. Kelso:

    Heh! Nice reference to Goland and Globus. I think I know what you mean. It does almost have that kind exploitative vibe of their films, doesn't it?

    You said:

    "This excerpt from my write up will probably explain what I was trying to get at:"

    Nice! I really like what you said, there. It makes me wish I had come up with some of those observations.

    Francisco Gonzalez:

    Yeah, it is cool to see Del Toro in there - too bad he doesn't get to do too much, but I have to remember that he was just starting out. He certainly makes quite the impression and plays a really nasty guy.

    I too like the personal approach of this film - how it is basically a revenge picture. It was something different, at the time, from a typical Bond film and still feels like an oddity from the rest of the canon. But in a good way.

    Guy McCoy:

    Well said! I know what you mean about forging a personal connection with these films. My grandfather loved Bond movies and it was our ritual to go see one every time they came out in theaters and then, I would go with my dad sometimes. So, watching them now always makes me think of both of them, esp. my grandfather who died years ago. And yeah, too bad Dalton never got a chance to make another Bond film if only!

    Roman J. Martel:

    Y'know, I've never read any of the Bond novels - something I really should do. I have heard that Dalton really nailed the way the character was portrayed in the novels. I agree with you about the personal aspect of the film - that is something that I really connect with also and I think that is a huge part of the appeal, for me, of the Craig era Bond films.