John Glen, 1989
Starring: Timothy Dalton, Carey Lowell, Robert Davi, Talisa Soto, Benicio del Toro
Timothy Dalton’s second and final film as Bond is his best and makes me wish he had continued with the series. Though he signed on for three films, six years of legal battles over the control of the series delayed filming and caused Dalton to leave. Licence to Kill marks more than just his departure and signifies a major change in the series. This is director John Glen’s fifth and final Bond film, along with actor Robert Brown who appeared as M in five films after Bernard Lee’s death, writer Richard Maibaum who helped write every Bond film up to this point and title designer Maurice Binder who made the Bond opening sequence so famous. This is also producer Albert Broccoli’s last full contribution.
Bond and Felix Leiter are heading to Felix’s wedding when they are interrupted to help capture drug lord Franz Sanchez. They make it back to Felix’s wedding just in time, but Sanchez escapes by bribing a DEA agent and returns to torture Leiter by half-feeding him to a shark and arranges to have his wife raped and killed. Bond swears revenge and when M tries to assign him elsewhere, he resignes from MI6 and goes rogue. Bond enlists the help of Pam Bouvier, an ex-CIA pilot who worked with Leiter and is next on Sanchez’s list. A very worried Moneypenny secretly gets Q to fly to the Republic of Isthmus (a stand-in for Panama) to help Bond. Ultimately, Bond wins Sanchez’s trust and infiltrates his organization, determined to ruin Sanchez’s life and business before killing him.
Though seriously flawed, this violent revenge film is much better than The Living Daylights and deserves to be remembered as an uncharacteristic, yet strong entry in the series. Dalton plays a much more brutal Bond and is excited to kill as many henchmen as possible and the even crueler prospect of manipulating Sanchez into killing those loyal to him. This humorless, nearly sexless film is very bleak and we get the sense that a psychotic Bond is moving inexorably toward the end, where he seems determined to get himself killed once his job is done. Dalton harkens back to the literary Bond, a dark, troubled character who is haunted by the fact that he psychologically resembles his enemies. The references to Bond exorcizing his own demons over the death of his wife have been hinted at throughout the series, but never fully realized until now.
This is the first film not to use the title of a Fleming story, though it combines elements from a novel and other stories. The plot is mostly influenced by ‘80s action movies and Japanese Ronin films. Revenge is not a new theme for a Bond film and Licence to Kill essentially succeeds where For Your Eyes Only failed, but the attempts to commercialize the series with references to Lethal Weapon, Miami Vice and other ‘80s action films from the period is too cliched. With a decent score from Lethal Weapon’s Michael Kamen and solely American and Mexican locations, it seems like the producers were trying to take this as far from the Bond series as possible. Fortunately the appearance of the beloved Desmond Llewelyn as Q helps to humanize the film and brings some much needed warmth and humor.
Though the film has a rapid pace, the action scenes feel like someone was checking off a list in order to make sure they met the Bond standard. The murky plot and bad dialogue are not helped by a series of weak supporting performances. Carey Lowell has some great scenes as the tough, resourceful Pam Bouvier, but she is unfortunately reduced to jealous squabbling over who Bond is and is not sleeping with. This draws attention to the larger issue of sex and monogamy that plagues the two Dalton films. He is nearly celibate in The Living Daylights, but here he is fortunately rescued by the lovely Talisa Soto, who plays Sanchez’s unfaithful girlfriend Lupe.
Drug lord Franz Sanchez, played by Robert Davi, is one of the elements that really dates this film. Davi does as good of a job as he is able with the role, but the fact remains that he is stuck playing one of many ‘80s drug lords. His henchmen are mostly given awful dialogue and terrible personalities, with the exception of the quiet, sinister Dario, played by a young Benicio del Toro. Also keep your eyes peeled for Ed Killifer (Big Ed from Twin Peaks), a double-crossing DEA agent and for Wayne Newton, a TV evangelist who works for Sanchez. Newton provides some brief, but much needed comic relief and is a welcome inclusion. There's also a nice performance from the sinister looking Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Mortal Kombat) and Christopher Neame as an undercover team also attempting to bring down Sanchez.
Though Licence to Kill did not fare well critically or in the box office, it should be judged on its own merits and not alongside From Russia With Love or Goldfinger and certainly not the Roger Moore films. This comes highly recommended to fans of ‘80s action flicks or revenge films. It is available in a wide range of DVD releases, though I’m reviewing the MGM two-disc Ultimate Edition, which is also included in the Ultimate Edition box set volume two. Special features include two commentary tracks - one from director Glen and various actors, the other from producer Michael G. Wilson and various crew members - a nice documentary, Inside Licence to Kill, narrated by the wonderful Patrick Macnee and a slew of other featurettes. License is also availabe on Bu-ray.