Licence to Kill (1989)

Director: John Glen

Starring: Timothy Dalton, Carey Lowell, Robert Davi, Talisa Soto, Anthony Zerbe

I mentioned in my review for “The Living Daylights” that with Timothy Dalton we finally had a 007 that resembled the character as he should have been following the events of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (for which Dalton himself had been a candidate before declaring himself too young at the time). But we didn’t get that Bond in 1971, one of the many reasons why “Diamonds Are Forever” was such a crushing disappointment. With 1989’s “Licence to Kill,” we not only have THAT Bond, we also have the story to match. What better way to put on display this Bond’s characteristics, which include responding to personal attacks with cold and deadly force, than with a simple revenge story?

In the Bahamas, James Bond (Timothy Dalton) assists his CIA pal Felix Leiter (David Hedison) in the pursuit and capture of notorious drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). Afterwards, Bond performs one more assist as best man at Felix’s wedding. Della (Priscilla Barnes), Felix’s bride, tosses Bond her garter which he accepts but only half-heartedly. Felix explains that Bond had been married once before, ‘but that was a long time ago.’ That the memory of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is invoked once again speaks to two very sobering realities: Firstly, it’s a subject which Bond will never get over as long as he lives. Secondly, weddings in James Bond movies lead to nothing but pain and sorrow. With help from a Judas-in-training DEA agent, Sanchez escapes and his men ambush the newlyweds. Felix is taken to an aquarium owned by Sanchez henchman Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe). There, Felix is lowered into a shark tank, losing a leg and nearly losing an arm.

Unaware that anything’s amiss, Bond is at the airport picking up his ticket for a flight back to London when he gets word of Sanchez’s jailbreak. Bond races back to Felix’s house where he finds the place ransacked. To his horror, Bond finds Della dead. In his eyes, you can almost see Bond reliving the moment that he lost his beloved Tracy. Bond finds Felix, maimed but still breathing on a nearby couch, his blood everywhere. Bond calls for an ambulance, and then sets out to find those responsible. Finding the place where Felix was mutilated, Bond eliminates several men including the traitorous DEA agent, whom Bond pushes into the shark tank and coldly watches as the man is devoured. A roadblock in Bond’s path appears in Key West in the form of M (Robert Brown), Bond’s superior at MI6. M discourages Bond’s personal vendetta and reminds him of his duty to Her Majesty’s Secret Service. When Bond refuses an assignment in Istanbul, M revokes his licence to kill.

Undeterred, Bond presses on as a rogue agent, albeit one receiving aid in an unofficial capacity from Q (Desmond Llewelyn). On board a ship owned by Krest, Bond sabotages a shipment of cocaine and steals $5 million. Running afoul of a group of Sanchez’s thugs led by Dario (Benicio del Toro) inside a bar, Bond eludes them with the assistance of former CIA agent Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell). Bond and Pam travel to Isthmus together, where Bond resumes his pursuit of Sanchez. Thwarted by Hong Kong narcotics agents who accuse Bond of messing up their long-planned drug bust, Bond avoids being sent back to England when Sanchez’s men kill all the agents and pull an injured Bond out of the rubble.

Bond is able to persuade Sanchez that it was the Hong Kong agents and not he who had just tried to kill Sanchez with a plastique explosive device. Recognizing that Sanchez must be a special kind of stupid, Bond also preys upon Sanchez’s paranoid nature, convincing him that there must be a traitor inside his organization. With help, Bond frames Krest as the person who stole the $5 million in cash.Bond then eavesdrops as Sanchez locks Krest into a hyperbaric chamber and messes with the pressure, killing Krest. Saves Bond the trouble of doing it himself! For his perceived good deed, Sanchez accepts Bond into the fold and stands ready to show off his inner sanctum, where all the secrets behind his drug smuggling business will be revealed. Bond’s cover will work great so long as he does’t run across anyone who can finger him.

Part of Sanchez’s cover includes a televangelist named Joe Butcher (Wayne Newton). The donations this guy is able to collect help to fund Sanchez’s drug racket. Butcher’s favorite catchphrase, no matter the situation, is ‘Bless your heart!’ Seriously, they couldn’t have him say ‘danke schoen’ just once? Pam subdues and interrogates Butcher, and just in the nick of time, too, as Bond is about to be identified by Dario. Meanwhile, back at the laboratory, Bond tries to create a diversion to buy some escape time, but he’s captured and placed on a conveyor belt leading to a particularly unforgiving-looking device that helps break up the cocaine. Only Dario sticks around to watch, foolishly stepping over the rail to ensure that Bond makes it all the way down. Instead, Dario is shot by Pam and it is he who falls into the machine and meets a gory fate.

Sanchez takes four tankers with his cocaine loaded on board and hits the road, with Bond and Pam in aerial pursuit. Assuming control of one of the tankers, Bond destroys the other three. An angry Sanchez attacks with a machete, causing the final tanker to crash. Both men are alive but injured, with Sanchez covered in gasoline. Recognizing this, Bond quickly pulls from his pocket the cigarette lighter given to him by Felix and Della, and he sets Sanchez on fire. Afterwards, Bond’s license to kill is restored, and Sanchez’s girlfriend/prisoner Lupe (Talisa Soto) thanks Bond for freeing her. Bond finds himself in a unique position, having two women to choose from at the end of a mission. Bond chooses Pam.

“Licence to Kill” was the subject of many firsts and lasts in the 007 series. It was the first time a Bond film almost got saddled with an R-rating for violence. It was the first Bond film not named after an Ian Fleming story, although it does share certain things in common with Fleming’s “Live and Let Die” novel. David Hedison became the first actor to portray Felix Leiter more than once. Appropriately, his first film in the role was “Live and Let Die.” This would be the last Bond film for Robert Brown as M, Caroline Bliss as Miss Moneypenny and for the film’s director, John Glen. Sadly, it was also the last one for Timothy Dalton as James Bond. In part because the growing popularity of the action film was starting to make Bond look a bit old hat in comparison, but also because of the then-unprecedented blockbuster summer of 1989, “Licence to Kill” got a bit lost in the fray.

“Licence to Kill” happens to be one of my all-time favorite Bond films. The more lighthearted Bond films have their charm, but I love it when 007 goes dark. This was the series’ darkest tone in twenty years, and it wouldn’t go this dark again for almost another two decades. As Bond, Dalton really stepped up his game from what was already a fine performance in “The Living Daylights.” Though Robert Davi’s Sanchez is a gullible fool, he’s still a fine addition to the lineup of nasty Bond villains. I didn’t always love the song “Licence to Kill” by Gladys Knight, but it’s grown on me over the years and has become one of my favorite Bond themes. Fans of the “Mortal Kombat” series of video games will recognize both Talisa Soto (Princess Kitana) and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (evil sorcerer Shang Tsung) from the 1995 film adaptation. Fans of the Daniel Craig era of Bond who’ve somehow missed “Licence to Kill” should look this one up. Hopefully afterwards you’ll agree with me that the Timothy Dalton era should have been at least three films long.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Great review which does convince me to see this timothy Dalton film. Danke shoen!!!

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