Licence to Kill (1989)

When it’s on: Sunday, 15 March (3.40 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

The 1980s were troubled times for James Bond. There was a pervading sense that the gentleman spy was past his sell-by date, that he’d had his best years. The fag end of the Roger Moore era did him no favours, despite the three 007 films he made across the decade attempting to bring his stories back to earth following the high concept nonsense of Moonraker. And then there’s Timothy Dalton. I’m a big fan of The Living Daylights, his harder edged debut in the role, which added some much needed realism and grittiness to a character that was tipping over into utter silliness beforehand. But it left many audiences confused. This wasn’t the James Bond they knew, Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang from the endless circulation of his films on ITV, who walked away from situations that put both himself and the world in peril with little more than a hair out of place.

Licence to Kill was a further retraction from the Moore years, indeed entering new territory by compelling Bond to go ‘rogue’ in his pursuit of a drug baron. Adjusted for inflation, it’s the least successful of the series, and with The Living Daylights also at the foot of the rankings it pretty much did for Dalton’s tenure. Too convoluted. Difficult to follow. Too arsey a Bond. It seems strange now, with Daniel Craig lending many of the same qualities to the character, to find how little it appealed to viewers. Looking again at the profitability rankings, we find Skyfall is right at the top. Perhaps it was simply the case that Dalton’s take on 007 came too soon. As a consequence, the following decade gave us the Pierce Brosnan entries, a return to the fun escapades at the expense of any real substance.

Not that Licence to Kill is a masterpiece. John Glen directed all the Bond entries from the eighties and did so efficiently. This one carried the lowest budget of any 007 film for some time and was filmed mainly on location around Florida and in Mexico to cut down on the costs of shooting at Pinewood Studios. But there’s also a flatness to his direction, the lack of great cinematography that was traditionally used to fine effect in opening up those glamorous exotic climes where the action took place. There’s nothing especially wrong with it, but then there’s very little to wow viewers either. Even the stunts have a degree of predictability about them, excepting some rather thrilling car chase scenes towards the end that involve massive Kenworth trucks crashing into each other along tight hairspin bends on remote mountain roads. It’s as though the director was uninterested in any of this, preferring Licence to Kill to stand primarily as a character study, that character being Bond and the things he gets up to when he’s no longer working for Queen and country.

The premise is certainly absorbing enough. Licence to Kill opens with Bond celebrating the marriage of his best friend, Felix Leiter (David Hedison). But then things go horribly wrong. Before the wedding, they’ve apprehended that classic scourge of the 1980s, a South American drugs baron, Frank Sanchez (Robert Davi). He escapes from incarceration, with the help of an avaricious agent, played by Everett McGill, and then takes a terrible revenge by murdering Leiter’s wife and then literally feeding him to the sharks. Bond in turn demands retribution, but is told in no uncertain terms that he’s needed elsewhere and has to give up his pursuit of Sanchez. And so, in a thrilling decision, the agent does what we would all like to see him do and turns rogue, losing his ‘licence to kill’ and going after Sanchez his way.

What follows is quite different from the usual fare. The plot follows Yojimbo, the classic Kurosawa tale that’s been much copied since about a samurai who wanders into a town and plays two rival gangs off against each other. Here, Bond steadily infiltrates Sanchez’s circle and gets close to the man himself, feeding him details that lead to the drugs lord killing many of his own henchmen. It’s good stuff, quite gripping to find 007 coldly directing Sanchez’s actions, whilst getting inevitably close to his girlfriend, played by the lovely Talisa Soto. Meanwhile, he’s helped out by Q (Desmond Lleyweln), who’s ‘on vacation’ and, delightfully, gets far more to do than his usual shtick of supplying gadgets, along with agent Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), one of those rare Bond girls who is a lot more involved in the action than finding herself in trouble and simpering into his arms. There’s some great interplay between the pair, both seeing themselves as the ‘senior’ partner and Bond having to take charge because they’re in South America, a man’s world.

Davi plays a good villain, and the film gives him an opportunity to show both ruthlessness and the easy charm that would justify his character having the capacity to make it to the top of his particular tree. Amongst his henchmen is a young Benicio Del Toro in his first major, big screen role.

All told, it’s a better film than the insipid box office and reputation of the time would suggest, and whilst it’s too flawed to deserve the same revisionist love as a classic like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, there’s plenty to like about it, not least its aim to try things with the character that had never previously been done. There’s a sense that Ian Fleming might, for once, have been pleased with the character in this one. Whilst Licence to Kill follows the same basic plot as many 007 films, it’s really interesting to see Dalton take his character down a darker path, one reflected in its ’15’ rating (though in truth, it’s at the lower end of the certification).

Ultimately, a sad end for the actor’s brief association with 007, and it would take six years for him to return in Goldeneye, his licence returned but much of the fire restrained. Even my DVD copy (I own the Special Editions, which are packaged in a very nice tin case) is an apologetic, limp affair, featuring a somewhat ‘soft’ transfer that has all the feel of a ‘just one for the completists’ attitude towards it. The ‘Making of’ documentary is quite a fun watch, particularly the crew describing their adventures during shooting on the remote Mexican roads, which had been closed to public use due to the sheer number of accidents and fatalities it had claimed. By all accounts, they came across a number of ‘apparitions’ and spooky episodes, vehicles moving of their own accord and the like, and of course the famous photograph one crew member took of an explosion, his still picking out a hand in the flames. Spooky…

Licence to Kill: ***

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11 Replies to “Licence to Kill (1989)”

  1. Was Dalton cast in the role too soon? Interesting idea, and maybe not too far off the truth. He’s easily my least favorite Bond, and this film would challenge Quantum of Solace for the lowest rank in the series for me. I don’t know when I last watched the DVD and I never seem to be in the mood to revisit it.

    1. Thanks Colin. There are some Bond films where it feels, for whatever reason, that no one was trying very hard, don’t you think? Quantum was definitely one of those, a complete dog’s dinner of a movie that I’ve no wish to see again. The Man with the Golden Gun was another that springs to mind. I quite like Dalton, but maybe as you suggest it was a case of the right man at the wrong time.

      1. Oh yes, Golden Gun is another instantly forgettable film. The series does seem to have the knack of producing a very successful follow-up to these occasional low points though.

  2. I shall swim against the tide and say I’m a fan of Licence to Kill, Man with the Golden Gun and Quantum! None are amongst the series’ best offerings, though.

    I’ve not seen LTK for years now (I’m due a go watching most/all of the Bonds, actually), but in the case of Quantum… well, this isn’t the place to mount a defence of it, but I do think it suffered from comparisons to Casino Royale and the Bourne movies. Judged on its own terms with some distance, I think a lot of it works.

    1. Thanks Bob. I’m sure ITV will get around to screening Quantum again soon enough, and I’ll be there to cover it, possibly revise my current harsh opinion, though you mention the comparison with Casino Royale and under those terms it was a bit shabby for me, also when measured against the later Skyfall. Hmm, does this mean Spectre will be a load of shite?

      As for Licence to Kill, I quite liked it and certainly thought it was a cut above some of the duds – Diamonds, Golden Gun, Octopussy. I guess the point I was making was that it’s tempting to view it as a hidden gem, a forgotten classic like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and it just isn’t. A sold three starrer though.

  3. I agree with a lot of what you say here Mike, the modern Bond wouldn’t exists without Dalton, but he got caught in between the two styles. The rather flat photographic look shows its desire to compete with American action product more than anything. The new Blu-ray it a massive quantum leap in terms of quality by the way (and is uncut). I do really admire the way that the tanker truck finale, very much Glen’s idea, is handled across the three planes of action simultaneously and the way that is is authentically Fleming by basing so much of it in LIVE AND LET DIE (the novel). On the other hand, cartels and drug smuggling are just the wrong topics. And the LETHAL WEAPON style score by Kamen, apparently done virtually in a matter of a few weeks, just doesn’t do it for me though there are good moments.

    1. Thanks Sergio. I’m still to upgrade to Blu-Ray. It isn’t a cost thing, so much as knowing I’m taking a leap into something new and will inevitably update a rather large collection of DVDs with hi-def content, and almost certainly the Bond films will be up there when it comes to repurchases.

      I agree about the score – the film really misses John Barry.

      1. I have noticed how cheap Blus are now so I’m sure I’ll make the investment at some point, like a Johnny Come Lately, just in time for the new fad to emerge! I must say that if we’re talking about purely digital taking over then I think that’s a shame – I like the physical objects.

      2. It’s amazing, but shortly no one will be collecting films the way we have been able to for the last 100 years – forget 9.5, 16, Super 8, LaserDisc, DVD & Blu-ray – you can;t stick a digital download on a shelf and that is where people’s home cinema collections are going to be – in the cloud. From an archiving standpoint, it’s a nightmare that’s already happening and with no apparent way to turn back.

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