Licence to Kill (1989)

Here now is the Licence to Kill review that I initially planned to write before Sir Roger Moore’s passing.

If any entry in the James Bond series can be described as “polarizing”, it’s this one. Some love it for its intensity and for the way it does something different with the Bond formula, while others dislike it for precisely the same reason.

Adding fuel to this fire is the fact that this was Timothy Dalton’s second and final appearance as 007. After Sir Roger officially hung up his Walther PPK with A View to a Kill, Pierce Brosnan was originally chosen to take over the role in the 15th Bond picture The Living Daylights. However, this led to renewed interested in Pierce Brosnan’s TV series Remington Steele and his contract for that show prevented him from taking the role. This eventually led to Dalton taking on the 007 mantle instead.


However, some fans (unfairly or not) were miffed that Brosnan was denied the role that seemed destined to be his, and so they almost made it a point to pick on Dalton’s Bond from the get-go. Daylights itself is entertaining enough, but just as there were fans who criticized Sir Roger for his lighter take on Bond, so too were some quick to point out that Dalton was trying too hard to be serious. And that fire was definitely fueled when Daylights proved successful enough for Dalton to reprise his role as Bond in Licence to Kill.

The film begins with Bond and his buddy Felix Leiter (David Hedison, who previously played the role in Live and Let Die) en route to the latter’s wedding. Their trip is deferred when DEA agents arrive, telling Felix they have a chance to capture a ruthless drug lord named Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi).

After his henchman Dario (Benicio Del Toro, long before his Oscar win) cuts out the heart of the sap who was shagging Sanchez’s lady friend Lupe (Talisa Soto), Sanchez attempts to escape to Cuba by plane. But Bond manages to hook a cord onto it from the chopper that he and Felix are on. After that, the two pals parachute down to Felix’s wedding below, and cue title sequence.

During his interrogation, Sanchez informs DEA agent Ed Killifer (Everett McGill) that there’s a $2 million reward available for anyone who busts him out of prison. At the same time, Bond is enjoying Felix’s wedding reception. Actually, a bit too much I’d say, as he’s blatantly kissing the new Mrs. Leiter, Della (Priscilla Barnes). The newlyweds also give Bond a lighter with a flame that can go super high.

After Killifer stops by to wish the newlyweds well, he begins to transfer Sanchez to Quantico. But this trip doesn’t last long as Killifer KOs the driver of the truck, which eventually enables the drug lord to escape.

That night, Bond is bidding Felix and Della farewell after 007 politely refuses Della’s offer of her garter. This leads to a nice bit of continuity as Felix tells his wife that Bond was married once. But as is the case with all action films, the bad guys leap out of thin air just as the main hero disappears. Felix is knocked out and taken to what looks like an aquarium. Sanchez appears, and Felix is shocked that Killifer is involved in this, before Sanchez lowers Felix into a tank with a shark.

Felix curses Sanchez as the shark begins to munch on him.

The next morning, Bond pulls into an airport and learns that Sanchez has escaped (I guess it didn’t make the news sooner). He quickly bolts to Felix’s place, only to find Della dead and Felix mangled with a note saying, “He disagreed with something that ate him.” (The same thing happens to Felix in the novel of Live and Let Die).

Dalton gives us his Oscar Scene of Anger before Felix painfully stirs. Bond quickly sends for an ambulance, and a doctor says they’ll have to wait to see if Felix recovers.

With his pal Sharkey (Frank McRae), Bond finds the aquarium, which is owned by Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe). Investigating further, Bond finds cocaine hidden beneath maggots. 007 soon gives these maggots a nice feast when he disables a security guard before tossing him into the box with the maggots. Bond then disposes of another guard by throwing him into a tank with an electric eel.

Killifer then holds Bond at gunpoint, telling him to go to the shark tank where Felix was mangled. But Sharkey’s unexpected presence allows Bond to toss Killifer into the tank instead, along with the $2 million he got for changing sides.

This investigation leads to Bond’s boss M (Robert Brown, in his final appearance in the role) personally making an appearance to order Bond to drop this matter and go on to his next assignment. But Bond feels obliged to continue, given his history with Felix, and tenders his resignation. When M orders the surrender of his weapon, he quickly escapes and becomes a rogue agent.

Bond later sneaks into Felix’s home and uncovers a CD full of classified info that only he and Felix knew about. This CD reveals that only one of the informants on Sanchez is still alive: ex-CIA pilot Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell). The next day, Bond discovers Krest’s ship, the Wavekrest (which comes from the Bond short story “The Hildebrand Rarity” published in the For Your Eyes Only collection). Bond sneaks onboard and confronts Lupe, whom he recognizes from earlier in the film when he and Felix captured Sanchez. But all she offers him are her wooden line readings. Bond then discovers that Krest’s men have killed Sharkey, which leads 007 to kill those men before escaping with $5 million.

Bond traces Pam to a bar where he brings her up to speed. But Dario (who must be bad, since Pam says that the Contras kicked him out) and his thugs arrive to cause trouble. A shootout occurs before Bond and Pam escape in a speedboat. After some mandatory arguing, they agree to go to the fictional Republic of Isthmus to get Sanchez. And yes, this scene ends with the two of them making out in the boat (it’s a good thing Dario and his gang didn’t chase after them in one).

We next cut to London, where M chews out Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss, making her final appearance in the role) for making so many typing errors. I realize she misses James, but this makes me wonder how her job performance would have held up if his marriage had lasted longer. M also discovers that she’s been tracking Bond’s movements, and just flat out tells her that there are men on their way to Isthmus to intercept Bond. This plot exposition gives her plenty of info to pass along to Q (Desmond Llewelyn) over the phone.

James and Pam arrive in Isthmus, and Bond’s sexist nature proves as strong as ever when he informs a hotel maître-d that Pam is his secretary. The two later go to Sanchez’s estate, where the drug lord meets him after Bond chats with Lupe (making Pam jealous), and impresses everyone with his gambling skills. As he clandestinely views Sanchez’s office, Bond basically sweet-talks the drug lord into employing his services.

When he and Pam return to their hotel to discuss the matter, they’re informed that Bond’s uncle is awaiting them in their suite. Assuming the worst, Bond and Pam get ready, only to discover that the uncle is Q. Despite Bond’s protests, Q convinces him to use his gadgets.

One of these is toothpaste that’s a plastic explosive. This is just the thing Bond needs to get through the armored glass that lines Sanchez’s office. He’s also given a “signature gun”, which is a sniper’s rifle that only Bond can use.

After a “comedic” moment where Pam takes the master bed, forcing Bond and Q to sleep in the same room (with different beds, thankfully), Bond prepares for his hit on Sanchez the next evening. He stealthily places the toothpaste while Sanchez is hosting drug dealers from other parts of the world. Just as Bond prepares to set off the toothpaste, he sees Pam chatting with Sanchez’s head of security Heller (Don Stroud). The toothpaste blows away the glass, but Bond’s shot is disrupted by agents who turn out to be from the Hong Kong Narcotics Bureau. They take him to a warehouse where one of them, who was posing as one of Sanchez’s guests, angrily tells Bond that he may have fucked up an attempt to get Sanchez which the Hong Kong guys had been planning for years. To add to 007’s bad luck, an MI6 agent named Fallon (Christopher Neame) appears with orders from M to bring Bond back. Before either he or the Hong Kong guys can do anything else, Sanchez’s men ambush them, killing everyone except an unconscious Bond (what a surprise!), who’s next seen waking up in a fancy bedroom.

As with many of the other Bond films, this leads to a moment where Bond dines with his opponent. He informs Sanchez that he was once a British agent, and that the previous night’s attack must have been by people on the hunt for him. Sanchez encourages Bond to relax at his place for the night. This, of course, leads to him sleeping with Lupe after she silently tells him she loves him.

When Bond returns to his hotel, he violently asks Pam WTF is going on. She tells him that Heller was about to make a deal with her that would have resulted in Sanchez’s capture. That is, until Bond took his shot. So that makes this two attempts to capture Sanchez that Bond fucked up! The only thing overshadowing the irony here is where this will lead in the end.

But Bond’s not one to let his fuck-ups get in the way of getting some action (of all kinds). He infiltrates Sanchez’s warehouse while Pam and Q cover for him. The former does so by distracting Sanchez’s middleman, a TV evangelist played by (wait for it) Wayne Newton!

Bond temporarily gets Sanchez off his trail by framing Krest when he places the stolen $5 million on the Wavekrest. In the film’s grisliest moment, Sanchez kills Krest by sticking him in a decompression chamber until his head explodes (Zerbe would go through something similar years later in Star Trek: Insurrection).

But Dario finds Bond out, and after setting fire to Sanchez’s cocaine lab, Bond is placed on a conveyor belt that leads to a rock shredder. But Pam shoots Dario, allowing Bond a chance to toss him into the shredder instead.

As the fire spreads, Bond and Pam also find Heller’s body while Sanchez escapes, with our heroes following him by plane. Three of Sanchez’s four tankers are destroyed, and the drug lord and Bond fight on top the remaining one before it goes down a hill. Both combatants survive, but as Sanchez is ready to hack Bond with his machete, Bond pulls out his new lighter and torches his opponent.

The film ends at a party, where Bond is chatting on the phone with a recovering Felix (who doesn’t seem too broken up over the fact that he’s now a widower). Here now is the film’s biggest WTF Moment when Felix says that M wants Bond to come back.

Okaaay, Bond went rogue, which resulted in not one but two official operations against Sanchez getting fucked up big time. Plus, Bond’s actions led to the deaths of both British and Hong Kong agents. The only possible explanation for M welcoming Bond back with open arms must be that M is happy that he now has fewer checks to sign.

I can certainly understand why some Bond fans love this film. It has a deadly serious tone that contrasts with what the previous decade’s worth of entries established. One could definitely call this the polar opposite of Moonraker. That film brought out great spectacle with great flamboyance, and it was the latter that turned some fans off. Licence to Kill, on the other hand, has a lot less humor and a more mundane plot. Like Max Zorin in A View to a Kill, Sanchez doesn’t seek to conquer the world, just a certain aspect of it, and any people who die in their attempt to achieve that goal are merely collateral damage.

But just as Moonraker was accused of going overboard with the lightheartedness, many fans (myself included) thought that Licence went overboard in its attempts to be more mundane. By doing so, it comes across as downright boring in some scenes, and “boring” is something Moonraker cannot be accused of.  Both Davi and Del Toro make fine villains, but the movie doesn’t seem to pick up the speed you think it would once Bond resigns and goes out on his own. I appreciate that the story is set into motion because of Bond’s friendship with Felix, which makes the viewers believe that it will lead to a nerve-jolting climatic confrontation between Bond and Sanchez (a la the fight between Bond and Grant in From Russia with Love). But no, said fight scene just consists of Bond whipping out a gadget that wasn’t supplied by Q and the villain quickly becomes charcoal.

What staggers me, however, is that those fans who love this film insist that it’s the closest to Fleming’s Bond. But as someone who’s read each book in that series more than once, I find it hard to agree with that sentiment. Not once did I imagine Bond to be as intense as Dalton plays him in either of his Bond outings. Now, before anyone says, “He’s closer to the books than Moore’s Bond,” as I once noted, both Connery and Moore gave the character a carefree aspect that I didn’t see in the books, which helped the film series become the great success it did. I can also say with 100% certainty that Bond never once frenched his BFF’s bride on her wedding day in any of the books.

This is not meant to knock Dalton, however. The success of the Bond films with Daniel Craig, who plays Bond in a similar manner, suggests that Dalton may have been ahead of his time with this interpretation. Both Connery and Moore’s Bonds thrived in a pre-9/11 world, whereas that tragic event made people crave more intense action heroes such as Jason Bourne. Craig’s Bond satisfied that desire perfectly (hence why some have called his Bond a Bourne knockoff).

In any case, Licence to Kill’s (relatively) lackluster reception coincided with legal issues that led to a drought of Bond movies for the next six years. During this time, Dalton resigned from playing Bond, which led to (for many) positive karma as Pierce Brosnan was finally able to play Bond when the series got back into production with Goldeneye.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is The Thoughts of a Proud Nerd: A Story of Hope, available now from Amazon.

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