LICENCE TO KILL
Directed by John Glen
Written by Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum
Premiered 13 June, 1989
First things first: the film opens with the first significant change to the scoring of the iconic gun-barrel sequence; though Monty Norman's James Bond Theme comes in when Bond shoots the camera and the blood streams down the screen, prior to that the music playing is not recognisable at all. This will prove meaningful in due course.
Wedding bells! Not for our man James Bond (Timothy Dalton), of course - he's in the Florida Keys to act as best man at the wedding of his very good friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison, the first man to play Leiter a second time; he previously showed up in 1973's Live and Let Die). Oh, but that would be an awfully silly and low-key opening for a Bond picture, which is why Bond and Leiter are interrupted on their way to the church by DEA agents who want Leiter's help apprehending shadow druglord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi); for the first time in years, Sanchez has set foot on American soil, retrieving his erstwhile lover, Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto), from the arms of one of his rivals. This is done via a pleasingly big and overwrought stunt in which Sanchez's plane is hooked from a DEA helicopter, and dragged to earth. Following their success, Bond and Leiter parachute right in front of the church where Leiter's bride, Della (Priscilla Barnes), waits impatiently.
We have here an exceptionally plot-oriented opening sequence; the movie proper begins almost without a pause once we return from the credits. And perhaps as a result, the tone of it is remarkably unlike anything in any other Bond picture: pretty much since the very start, the pre-title sequence serves as a rousing amuse bouche, getting us riled up for adventure with a sprawling action-packed mini-movie, frequently incorporating some grandly overconceived stunt. The stunt, at least, is intact; the rest of it is bogged down in a little bit too much exposition for my taste, and in particular, the attempt to prove how much Bond and Leiter are the bestest buddies ever is rather plainly meant to set up the whole 2+ hours of movie to follow, which requires us to have a much greater investment in the Bond/Leiter relationship than any of the American spy's six previous appearances would naturally lead us to; frankly, I never got the impression until this movie that he and 007 were anything but mutually respectful colleagues. And this mostly unpersuasive pitched character-building makes me altogether suspicious of an opener that is otherwise exactly to order: boisterous, adventuresome, suave. It serves a narrative purpose, and serves it well, but there's just something about it that feels "off".
Rating: 3.5 Union Jack Parachutes
The flirtation with '80s rock acts comes to a crashing stop with Gladys Knight's rendition of "Licence to Kill", written by Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen, and Walter Afanasieff (one doubts that the film's planned title, Licence Revoked, would have supported a theme song nearly so readily), and it is overproduced like a motherfucker. There's no beating the late-'80s/early-'90s corridor for R&B-tinged pop ballads with a ginormous orchestral flourish after the bridge, and that is exactly what we get here, married to lyrics that err rather far on the wrong side of "epically stupid". As in, "Got a licence to kill / And you know I'm going straight for your heart", which is quite possibly the most obvious way to incorporate the phrase "licence to kill" into a pop song, and this does not make it any more freaking cheesy. And, much in the tradition of the inimitable Rita Coolidge, Knight fails to do good and proper post-Shirley Bassey thing, and put a spin on the lyrics that communicates, subtly but unmistakably, "once I've shot you with my love-gun, we are going to have the most amazing, dirty sex". But let's be fair, 1980s solo Gladys Knight was much more about soothing mall music than belting out soul.
Bonus! The end credits boast a second single, Patti LaBelle's "If You Asked Me To", which as always, we do not count towards the official score, though it wouldn't help much if it did. Really, it's just more of the same patently inoffensive background humming that's just exactly slow enough for a junior high dance, with the considerable benefit that the lyrics are not half so imbecilic and grating.
Rating: 1.5 Shirley Basseys
We must now bid farewell to series mainstay Maurice Binder, who designed the credits for all but two of the first 16 Bond pictures; he died in 1991, while the franchise was circling the drain, mired in a legal grey area and series of sociological quakes that made the very survival of the franchise look doubtful. But that is a tale for another movie.
In the meantime, let us consider Binder's unintended finale to his iconic string of naked women slowly dancing in silhouette; after a pretty rough decade of mistakes and stalled efforts (his freakshow effort for A View to a Kill being both the most amazing and most awful of all Bond credits sequences), he ended on an upswing, if not precisely a high note. The credits open with imagery based on cameras - the first thing we see, in fact, is a still photograph of a woman pointing a camera at us, and it is alarming and creepy - and it seems like it's going to be a pretty awful thing to suffer through, but at a certain point, Binder just gives up and shows women dancing, spinning around mostly. And there are two reasons that this is at least somewhat above average: the use of bold colors is really quite striking and innovative and not like anything else he'd done; and it's the porniest of all his sequences, with a particular moment where you absolutely, for certain, see pubic hair and nipples. And, let's be honest, pubic hair and nipples are the two things that one secretly spends every single Binder sequence watching for.
Rating: 3.5 Silhouetted Women
DEA Agent Ed Killifer (Everett McGill), seduced by Sanchez's offer of two million dollars to the man who busts him out, decides to do the honors himself; the druglord's very first act as a free man is to sick his goons on the Leiters; Della is killed after, presumably, being raped, while Felix is lowered slowly into a shark tank and loses his leg; this detail was taken from Live and Let Die, and is, I believe, the only touch of Ian Fleming in this entirely original story that was the first Bond film that didn't share its title with any Bond novel or short story; though of course the phrase "licence to kill" is a significant part of the entire Bond mythos, and can thus not be considered entirely original.
A rage-blind Bond goes on a hunt for the men who maimed his extravagantly good friend that we've seen him with once in the last 15 years, dumping Killifer in that same shark tank; for his troubles, he is nabbed by M (Robert Brown) in Key West and told in no uncertain terms that MI6 agents do not go on personal vendettas. Bond quits with a snarl, and M, while refusing to accept his resignation, icily informs him that his licence to kill is revoked (the original Licence Revoked title, in addition to being worse, was dropped out of fears that the target audience wouldn't know what "revoked" meant).
So Bond, now a rogue agent, has to track down Sanchez's army without the benefit of a government apparatus backing him up; it still doesn't take very long to find the druglord's lieutenant, Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), and rob him blind of millions of dollars in drug money, which Bond cheekily invests in Sanchez's own bank in Isthmus City, a really unimaginative attempt at coming up with an analogue for Panama City. He travels there with Leiter's Isthmus City contact, Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), who for reasons of her own, also wants Sanchez stopped; meanwhile, MI6 tech guru Q (Desmond Llewelyn) pops up to give the un-spy some helpful tools, strictly against the rules and without M's knowledge. Posing as a suave international hitman, Bond is able to insinuate himself into Sanchez's confidence, and drop hints that Krest is trying to betray him; having also planted "proof" of Krest's infamy, Bond thus makes it all the way to Sanchez's cocaine-processing facilty, where he's recognised by another henchman, Dario (Benicio Del Toro), and forced to explode all the cocaine, before he and Sanchez engage in a deadly tanker-truck chase that results in even more exploded cocaine, one dead druglord, and one redeemed British spy, none of which hopefully comes as so much of a surprise that I've just spoiled everything.
The good: this is beautifully complicated stuff, with Bond actually reduced to - get this - spying, trying to sneakily acquire knowledge and perform his self-appointed mission by subterfuge and cunning. Parts of it are more like a heist movie than a spy thriller, particularly the inch-by-inch attempt to assassinate Sanchez in his casino, and later the desperate chase to plant the stolen money on Krest so he can be found out by his boss.
The bad: simply, that it's not a Bond film. It's a pretty good film for the thing it is; but the thing it is, is the furthest outlier of the entire James Bond franchise - there's a point where turning towards a harder edge and less fantastic scenarios takes us right out of the formula that makes Bond who and what he is, and this film does that. But let's not get too far into that, and instead allow that it's a solid, stripped down plot that works very nicely on its own terms, though they are not the terms for which I signed up.
Rating: 4 Stolen Nukes
We have a saying around here: "You can't go wrong with Robert Davi". Not much of a saying; point in fact, I have never once said it before. But the point remains, you can't go wrong with Robert Davi, and if his Bond villain is by no conceivable stretch of the imagination one of the most colorful, threatening, or gloriously melodramatic, that ends up being very much to the actor's benefit: faced with what was, in the 1980s, a stock action baddie, whose plans have nothing to do with global or even regional domination, but merely with finding a better way to ship cocaine, Davi is able to inject all the color and melodrama back in via his performance, richly charismatic and ice cold. So we have a really swell combination of grounded real-world villainy with all the bubbly menace of a good B-list Bond antagonist. Certainly improvable - it would have helped if his schemes were even slightly more removed from the mainstream of '80s action films - but zesty in all the right ways.
Rating: 4 Evil Cats
Among the most annoyingly inconsistent of Bond Girls, Pam Bouvier, like the actress playing her, swings madly from intense, focused competence, to unmitigated badassery, to helpless, squealing idiocy, to a blank expression like Glen sneaked some reaction shots without bothering to tell Lowell that the camera was rolling. She's certainly handy with a gun, and frequently out-heroes Bond himself, and then sometimes she's used for nothing but a bit of misplaced comedy, and the more the film delves into her schoolgirlish sexual jealousy of The Secondary Girl, the less able I am to take her seriously as the unblinking tough guy that the movie insists, no really, she totally is. But she never ends up the flailing, idiot damsel in distress, which is a delightful change of pace. There's probably a much stronger version of this character than the one Lowell plays; but that has been true of Bond Girls before, and will be true of them in the future.
Rating: 3 White Bikinis
With Davi's Sanchez sucking up all the oxygen every time he shows up onscreen, there's simply not much left over for his featured henchmen, of whom the two most prominent are Krest and Dario. The former, shockingly, is much better, perhaps the only context in which one can say without giggling, "Anthony Zerbe is better than Benicio Del Toro". Blame youth for Del Toro's emptiness; blame an underwritten character with absolutely nothing to do until very nearly the end of the movie. Either way, he mostly just takes up space. At least Krest is active for most of the movie, and while both characters get outré deaths that are the biggest reasons that Licence to Kill received elevated ratings in both the UK and USA (15 and PG-13, respectively), Krest's is way more splashy; probably the single moment of the whole movie that I remember most.
One could count as a third henchman, Professor Joe Butcher, the comic relief fake televangelist who acts as the legal front of Sanchez's operation, played by the illustrious Wayne Newton; but I imagine that the writers are as eager to forget that he exists as I am, so I will simply move on by.
Rating: 2.5 Metal-Plated Teeth
THE SECONDARY GIRL
For such a routine character - the bad guy's girlfriend who wants to be saved from his clutches, ideally by a virile British spy, and I think she's like, the sixth one of those, or something - Lupe Lamora is pretty awesome. Partially it's because she clearly hasn't just gone turncoat because of the holy masculine power of the Bondpenis; the opening scene makes it awfully clear that she's well and truly done with Sanchez, and even the nasty whipping he gives her doesn't cow her into submission; it just makes her a whole lot more cautious about how she screw her abusive boyfriend over in the future. Unlike most of the random women Bond sleeps with, she's not just a nice figure to pass the time, either; she is active and important and without her, the plot would not happen at all. Besides which, Talisa Soto is hotter than Carey Lowell, or at least she has way, way better hair.
The problem is, as ever, the acting. Soto's not bad per se, and in fact she gets some fine moments in: one out-and-out great moment at the end, when she ends up losing Bond and turns towards an even better second choice with an exquisite air of "oh well, this one will do just fine". But she also stumbles a lot during any moment that requires actual emotional commitment, most dreadfully in a recitation of the line "I love James so much" expressed in a monotone so halting that the other characters in the scene even make fun of it. The good outweighs the bad, but the bad is vile.
Rating: 3.5 Golden Corpses
There's surprisingly little, in fact: but my God, what's there is excellent. The sequence in which Sanchez escapes the DEA is a terrific little setpiece on the bridges of the Florida Keys, beating the end of True Lies by five years and being considerably better in the process; at one point, Bond water-skis behind a plane using just his feet, and it is nowhere near as wacky as it would have been in a Moore picture; and the final truck chase scene has almost too many explosions, as well as two truck stunts that, to be fair, really don't work all that well (they'd have fit better in the playful tone of the Moore vehicles than the grim, violent Dalton films). Best of all is the frenzy that follows Bond setting the cocaine plant on fire, especially the part where he desperately scrambles not to fall into into a huge grinding mechanism. On the other hand: Bond briefly fights hand-to-hand with a ninja, because this was the 1980s. Perfection, alas, is too much to ask for.
Rating: 4.5 Walther PPKs
Holy shit! Q is out in the field! And he brought quite a large cache of toys with him: an exploding alarm clock that never gets used, a gun with a palm scanning lock, hidden inside a camera that gets used in a place where a normal rifle would have been just as good, and a tube of toothpaste hiding plastic explosive, ignited by a fake pack of cigarettes. Considering that the Dalton films were supposed to be all about a return to basics, that's quite a lot of silly things, even if they are not necessarily employed that way (and it is this latter that costs it a score).
As for Q, Man of Action: strangely, given that this is by far the most expansive role ever given the the quartermaster, he doesn't do much: just quip (like always) and sigh at Bond (like always), and occasionally titter with glee at being out in the world. If the filmmakers felt that Llewelyn's whimsy was a wobbly fit for the Dalton universe, and thus needed to be downplayed... well, it was, and did need to be, so why give him so much more screentime? And barring that, at least don't make him say, a propos of nothing, "Remember, if it hadn't been for Q Branch, you'd have been dead long ago", a peculiar line that Llewelyn fights with manfully, though he loses.
Rating: 3 Easily-Riled Welshmen
THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
The realism train rolls on, and while Peter Lamont's tenure as the franchise's chief production designer has never to this point been exceptional, this is particularly small-scale, with nothing that even contains echoes of the great vast sets that were Ken Adam's great contribution not just to this series, but to all cinema..
That said, there are flickers of life here: Sanchez's estate is a nice study in tacky wealth, all white statuary including an anthropomorphic fish that causes Bond some severe dismay when he wakes up to see it watching him; and also the conveyor-belt dominated cocaine-processing plant, hidden in a pleasantly ersatz meditation center. They are the sets the film needs, and no more than that.
Rating: 2 Volcano Fortresses
ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
The series' absolute nadir, for reasons that are pretty obvious. Mucking about in South America with murder on his mind and no government bankroll? No, this is not a Bond worth envying, not even when he goes to a casino, customarily the place where Bondian elegance is at its ripest; first he takes blackjack unseriously, then he orders a vodka martini with a mean, savage bark. And, once again, Dalton has no damn idea how to wear a tuxedo.
Rating: 1 Vodka Martini
APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
Having successfully wormed his way into Sanchez's office, Bond offers introduces himself and offers his hand, but is snubbed.
Forced or Badass? Very forced. Snubbed by the bad guy? Lame, 007.
BOND: "I help people with problems."
SANCHEZ: "Problem solver?"
BOND: "More of a problem eliminator."
Poor Timothy Dalton, all the bad luck. First The Living Daylights tries to have it both ways, a savage new line of violence and seriousness, but without giving up the frivolousness of the preceding 14 years of Roger Moore pictures; then his second feature, the one tailored to his take on the character, gets released in the famously overstuffed summer of 1989, and while it is a longstanding exaggeration that Licence to Kill lost money (it absolutely did not - no Bond film ever has, in fact) - it certainly got buried, instantly earning the reputation - deserved, I'd say - of being uncomfortably dark for a Bond movie. Then, a legal tangle prevented any further Bond movies for a very long time, by which point Dalton was gone, meaning he never got a shot at the vaunted Third Movie where his take on the character would really gel, the way it did for Sean Connery in Goldfinger and Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me. He will always, to me, be the exciting, promising Bond that never got a chance to pay off, for reasons entirely beyond his control. Certainly, I like Dalton's Bond; at least I think I do. One has to search for it under quite a lot of dross.
But, let us stick with Licence to Kill, the film that is most commonly described as "too dark/violent/whatever for Bond", and second-most commonly described as "the most underrated in the series"; fair to say that it is a divisive film, and probably the single most divisive of them all, unless there is a thriving cluster of Moonraker defenders that I've never heard of.
I already picked my side, of course; and once upon a time, that was the side that was clearly in the majority, though with Daniel Craig having made the idea of a Darker, Edgier Bond more palatable, Dalton's iteration of the character and this film in particular have undergone a significant re-appraisal. There is the argument - director John Glen, Dalton, Llewelyn, and the writers among those making it - that this bloodthirsty, rarely smiling Bond and the stripped-down, violence-speckled adventure he undergoes brings us much closer to the spirit of Ian Fleming's books, which I suppose is probably true. But as I've said elsewhere, hewing closer to Fleming doesn't necessarily impress me: he wrote a good potboiler, but nothing more than that. And the thing about Licence to Kill is, the lowered stakes and increased "realism" (though it takes the flighty fantasy of the Roger Moore Bond to consider anything that happens in this movie "realistic"), don't set it apart so much as they strip it of personality. As a wise, insightful, witty, and altogether sexy writer once said in regards to another Bond picture, "you can put Little Orphan Annie in a rape-revenge thriller, and she's not going to be all pluck and 'Tomorrow', but she's also no longer going to be Little Orphan Annie. In the same way, Bond isn't Bond if you take away his Bondisms". Licence to Kill is, in effect, the story of a rogue crimefighter heading to South America to take on a drug kingpin. You know what other movie tells that story? Almost every other action film produced in the 1980s. The reason Bond matters, the reason he is Bond, is because he is on Her Majesty's secret service; because he is suave and quick with a quip; because he is a gentleman and a bastard. In this film, all of that is removed, and Dalton plays nothing but a wrathful killer in a plot that has been done to death.
He does this excellently; I want to repeat myself, that Licence to Kill is an awfully good version of what it wants to be. It does not want to be a Bond film; even Craig's outings, self-consciously stepping away from the accretions of decades of Bond formula, are Bond films in a way that Licence to Kill isn't. Tellingly, I think, any time a really big, showy piece of action occurs, the sort that only comes in a more fantastic movie, Monty Norman's theme starts roaring out of the soundtrack, replacing the vacuous, generic '80s music provided by composer Michael Kamen (a man with plenty of top-notch scores to his credit, though here he's stuck in the same anonymous groove as Lethal Weapon 2, which scored around the same time); it is as much to say, "See? It really is Bond, doing Bondy action stuff, while Bond music plays". This overuse of Norman's theme becomes an epidemic problem later in the series, and it all traces back to here: a desperate attempt to reclaim some measure of the character's iconic soul aurally, since it is not being done narratively.
An attempt that fails. I do very much like Licence to Kill, but for all the "wrong" reasons, as it were. It's much too good to be slagged as the film which sent the franchise into a six-year deep freeze - if A View to a Kill couldn't kill of Bond, no movie should have been able to - but at the same time, it's not at all hard to see why that might have happened; given the changes the world was going through in the late '80s and early '90s, the severe change in tone and character made by this film seems as much as anything a tacit admission that the "real" Bond didn't fit anymore. And so the Dalton years stalled out just as he was starting to flex and get comfortable, and instead of making an iconic character his own, he ended up going two-for-two on movies that feel like they ought to be much better than they are.