Film Review: Licence to Kill (1989)

(source: tmdb.org)

James Bond films represent the oldest and arguably the most successful film series in history. Yet, there was a moment in six decades long history of the franchise when its future was quite uncertain and when many believed that it actually came to an end. That moment appeared after the release of Licence to Kill, 1989 film and sixteenth instalment, directed by John Glen, nowadays known as one of the most underrated of all James Bond films.

The script by Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum, like many James Bond films made in that period, had only superficial basis in Ian Fleming’s original novel, in this case Live and Let Die (which had previously been cannibalised for eponymous 1973 film and For Your Eyes Only). The plot begins when British secret agent James Bond (played by Timothy Dalton) comes to Key West to attend the wedding of his old friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter (played by David Hedison). Before the actual ceremony, he finds time to assist Felix during the capture of Franz Sanchez (played by Robert Davi), powerful Latin American drug lord who made a mistake of coming near US jurisdiction while bring back his escaped girlfriend Lupe Lamora (played by Talisa Soto). Sanchez, however, manages to bribe DEA agent Ed Killifer (played by Everett McGill) and escape from custody and afterwards goes after Felix, has his bride Della (played by Priscilla Barnes) brutally killed and Felix maimed with the help of great white shark. After learning this, James Bond is determined to avenge his friends, but his superiors won’t have none of it and order him to report for mission in Istanbul. Bond instead resigns his post and goes rogue. He first tracks Milton Krest (played by Anthony Zerbe), marine researcher who is actually Sanchez’s main smuggler and later comes in contact with Pam Bouvier (played by Carey Lowell), former military pilot and Felix’s informer. With her help he travels to Ishtmus, (fictional) Latin American country where Sanchez enjoys protection of corrupt President Lopez (played by Pedro Armendariz Jr.). There he presents himself as assassin for hire in order to befriend Sanchez, infiltrate his organisation and destroy it from within.

Six year gap between Licence to Kill and next James Bond film, GoldenEye, was the longest in the history of the franchise. This leads many to conclude that 1989 film was some sort of major catastrophe that led to years of soul-searching and need to properly reboot the series. Actually, Licence to Kill, despite its commercial results being lower than expected by producers and relatively low for James Bond standards, fared very well at the box office, especially considering that it unusually strong competitions in form of enormously hyped and popular blockbusters in Summer of 1989. Some Bond historians tend to point to Timothy Dalton as possible culprit for delay, since his portrayal of iconic character somehow failed to connect to audience. Dalton has actually proven himself two years earlier in The Living Daylights. Like in that film, his version of Bond in Licence to Kill is very different from Sean Connery’s playfulness or Roger Moore’s campiness. Dalton has tried very hard to make his Bond as authentic as possible, basing it exclusively on Fleming’s novel and portraying British secret agent as cold, efficient and merciless killing machine. His Bond was far from superman and was also quite capable of negative emotions. In Licence to Kill he actually succumbs to desire of revenge even at the expense of his professionalism and concern for career. As a result, this film is unusually dark and the most violent in the whole series. Director John Glen was quite enthusiastic about that approach and filled the film with scenes in which characters get tortured, maimed and killed in sometimes very gruesome fashion, which even led to problems with censorship and making Licence to Kill first Bond film to lose family-friendly MPAA rating and get more “adult” PG-13 instead.

Another thing that has set Licence to Kill apart from previous Bond films was the realism. It was partially caused by changing geopolitical setting. While the film was being made, Cold War was entering its last stage and Soviet Bloc under Mikhail Gorbachev was increasingly recognised as paper tiger (which would ultimately begin to self-implode few months after the premiere). James Bond films needed new villains, and they were, just like in many Hollywood films at the time, found somewhere closer at home – in Latin American drug lords which whose increasing power and wealth began to stir popular imagination during War on Drugs. Character of Franz Sanchez was partially inspired by some of those real life personalities, like the infamous Pablo Escobar. Unlike megalomaniacal tycoons wanting to rule or destroy the world, Sanchez is presented as a villain with much more simpler and banal motives – money. Robert Davi, who took his role very seriously and meticulously prepared for it, portrays him with great skill, as someone who can be quite laid back, yet capable of incredible ruthlessness and unimaginably ruthless acts. For Davi this was one of the most recognisable role and with Sanchez he delivered one of the most effective and memorable villains in the history of James Bond franchise.

Realism, to a certain degree, reflects in the way this film treats Bond Girls. Unlike the previous film , in which Bond practised monogamy (caused by producers’ over-reaction to AIDS pandemic), here British secret agent again lives to its reputation of ladies’ man and romances more than one leading lady. They are played by Talisa Soto and Carey Lowell, actresses who are among the most beautiful to appear in James Bond films, at least in 1980s or 1990s. While Soto plays somewhat one-dimensional character defined by her exotic looks, Lowell has better role of an action-oriented woman who at times tries to be Bond’s equal and who even indulges in “mine is bigger than yours” game with Bond in her introductory scene. Unlike most Bond films, here Bond romances both of them at the same time, resulting in displays of jealousy that give small doses of farcical humour in this otherwise very dark and serious film. Other attempts of humour aren’t that effective; while character of Q (played again by dependable Desmond Llewelyn) as field agent briefly serves well as coming relief, Las Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton is completely wasted in the role of Professor Joe, New Age guru/televangelist whose business serves as front for Sanchez’ operation. Anthony Starke also tries too hard as Sanchez’s over-enthusiastic yuppie financial advisor.

This was fifth and the last James Bond film directed by John Glen. By that time, Glen, who had been working on franchise in various capacities for decades, has perfected his skill and could have directed James Bond films in his sleep. He dutifully delivers the good here, putting Florida and Mexican locations to good use and using plenty of pyrotechnics and stunt work to create many impressive action scenes. His work is especially good near the end, during the exciting chase scene on narrow mountain road. Musical soundtrack by Michael Kamen is, on the other hand, less effective and gives arguments for many who had claimed that Licence to Kill was the least James Bond film of all and actually closer to generic 1980s Hollywood films, like those Kamen had scored music earlier. But, at the end of the day, this is still exciting and entertaining James Bond which can still be recommended to the fans of the series. In many ways, with the protagonist being darker and edgier than usual, it could be argued that it was film before its time and that applied approach that be adopted by the franchise in 21st Century with film starring Daniel Craig. In the end, the pause in the series was actually caused by unfortunate sets of circumstances that included illnesses and deaths of some of its major personalities, like producer Albert R. Broccoli, scriptwriter Richard Maibaum and title designer Maurice Binder. The pause was prolonged by long and exhausting copyright dispute. By that time Timothy Dalton lost interest for the role and was ultimately replaced by Pierce Brosnan. We can now only imagine where would franchise be with Dalton being allowed to develop his Bond a little bit further.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

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Movie URL: https://www.themoviedb.org/movie/709-licence-to-kill
Critic: AA

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I will never forget the James bond theme song! It's been a long time since I've seen this movie and now that I read the post and see the trailer I can see noticeable differences from the newest films and how the character has evolved. Without a doubt this is one of my favorite sagas !PIZZA

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This wasn't the best james bond that I saw! Sean Connery was a good James bond!
!1UP

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