License to Kill
United Kingdom, 1989
PG-13 (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Timothy Dalton, Robert Davi, Carey Lowell, Talisa Soto, Anthony Zerbe, Benicio Del Toro, Wayne Newton, David Hedison, Desmond Llewelyn, Caroline Bliss, Robert Brown
Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson
By 1989 and the release of Licence to Kill, James Bond had a lot of competition in the action genre. With so many higher-profile contenders (like Batman) in the arena, 007's popularity hit an all-time low. Audiences seemed less inclined to see the latest adventures of a twenty-five year old cinematic legend than those of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. The result was a staggeringly poor box office showing that (along with certain legal problems) led to a six-year layoff and lead actor change.
Licence to Kill, Timothy Dalton's second and final outing as the superspy (and the sixteenth overall in the series), is a most atypical Bond adventure. Not since Dr. No has 007 been so cool and ruthless, and never has a plot been this close to realistic plausibility. The villain is not a megalomaniac, but a drug lord, and Bond's mission has nothing to do with Her Majesty's Secret Service. In fact, he's acting on a vendetta and the British government is trying to capture him and bring him back to London.
Paradoxically, while there are almost no gadgets in this film, the "gadget man" himself, Q (Desmond Llewelyn), has his biggest role to date. While taking a vacation, he seeks out Bond in South America and offers his help. Another returning character is Felix Leiter (David Hedison, the only man to play the part twice), who loses his leg to a shark. It's this brutal attack on Leiter and his wife (Priscilla Barnes) by drug kingpin Sanchez (Robert Davi) that leads to Bond's abrupt resignation from MI6 so he can carry out a personal plan of revenge.
The dark, almost-ominous tone of Licence to Kill is unprecedented. This is an edgy movie, almost completely lacking in humor or flippancy. Dalton's 007 is angry and focused, and this portrayal is, at times, very like that of Connery at the beginning of Diamonds are Forever (where Bond was hunting down Blofeld to avenge his wife's death). Dalton is much improved here from The Living Daylights, although there are still occasions when he reminds the viewer of George Lazenby. Dalton brings ability, but not much charisma, to the role.
Robert Davi's Sanchez is an oddly-sane bad guy. His goals are rather modest -- he wants to amass as much money as possible, but Leiter gets in his way. Unlike two-thirds of Bond's adversaries, Sanchez isn't interested in world domination, and might not take it even if it was offered.
There are two Bond girls in Licence to Kill. The first is Lupe (Talisa Soto), Sanchez's mistress, who falls for the British agent after he offers her a way out from under her boyfriend's thumb. The other is Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), an American operative who's posing as Bond's executive secretary. Robert Brown (as M) and Caroline Bliss (as Moneypenny) make their final appearances; the series won't miss either. Other supporting roles are filled by Anthony Zerbe (as one of Sanchez's sidekicks), Frank McRae (as Sharkey, an old friend of Bond's and Leiter's), and Wayne Newton (as a fake TV evangelist).
For the most part, action is toned down in favor of plot development. This overemphasis on story may be a mistake, because there are times when Licence to Kill's narrative bogs down. There are still two impressive action sequences, however. One involves an underwater struggle that develops into a mid-air fight. The other is a spectacular downhill chase featuring four loaded tanker trucks roaring along winding mountain roads.
True to the promise of the end credits, James Bond did return after Licence to Kill, albeit not until 1995. In the interim, Pierce Brosnan replaced Dalton, and the series returned to the enjoyable, somewhat-absurd mixture of action, comedy, and style that had established its enduring reputation. Goldeneye tried to look both backwards and forwards, but it did not follow the unexpectedly grim path paved by its immediate predecessor. Licence to Kill may be taut and gripping, but it's not traditional Bond, and that, as much as any other reason, may explain the public's rejection of this reasonably well-constructed picture.