Updated: Dec 20, 2021
If money truly is the most important consideration, then Licence to Kill (1989) - Timothy Dalton’s second and last outing as James Bond - is arguably the worst film in the history of EON Productions’ distinguished Bond canon. It was by no means a complete financial failure, but it certainly wanted for the brighter shades of green that had come to typify its various predecessors (including Dalton’s first turn as Bond, in The Living Daylights (1987)). In fact, adjusted for inflation, Licence to Kill remains to this day the poorest grossing Bond film at the US box office. So, something of a disappointment then, but is that the beginning and the end of the story? Of course not. Licence to Kill was one of the boldest, grittiest and most uncompromising celluloid Bond stories ever told. In terms of violence and self-awareness, it weaved closer to the fabric of Ian Fleming’s blunt instrument than any film that had come before it. The folly of Licence to Kill, and the man chosen to breathe life into his own ill-fitting tuxedo, lies in the premature nature of its existence.
All uncertainties concerning Licence to Kill find their origins in the incomparable interpretation of the Bond character, as proffered by Timothy Dalton’s predecessor: the late, great Sir Roger Moore. It is indeed fitting that ‘roger’ is a euphemism for the act of having sex, as puns, quipping and coitus-by-the-hour was the Roger Moore method. His Bond was oftentimes lethal, but always more comfortable in the realms of comic timing and assorted wackiness. It was a hugely profitable approach, which had seen the Bond series navigate the choppy waters of the post-Sean Connery era, and settle into the rhythm of Moore’s inimitable charm. Moore doubtless remained in the role for too long, but that was paradoxically to his credit; his hit-rate at the global box office was such that the Bond series’ legendary producer, Albert R. ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, was reluctant to let him leave, but by the release of A View to a Kill (1985) even his more ardent fans felt the time had arrived for Moore to quaff that last vodka martini.
Coming so soon after Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton could be politely described as a shock to the system. He sought to restore Bond to the hardened mode of Connery, whilst moving even closer to the purest Fleming doctrine of guns, sex and violence. Dalton saw James Bond as a proficient killer doing his job, and he infused his Bond with a nihilistic edge, rendering him cynical and careworn. This was a bold and frankly risky approach, which was somewhat blunted by the writing and traditional structure of The Living Daylights. It is well known that Dalton was not the first choice to succeed Roger Moore; Pierce Brosnan was wanted for Bond as far back as 1986, but owing to a lack of contractual freedom, Dalton was parachuted into the breach. Writing had commenced on The Living Daylights with Brosnan in mind, and it is easy to envisage him in the role. His charisma, easy charm and penchant for convincing physicality would’ve suited the film well, and such talk only serves to showcase the great failing in Dalton’s own repertoire: his lack of charisma in the romance department.
Licence to Kill, which was built for Dalton from the ground up, was designed to be the antidote to such concerns. The story is a basic premise, even by the uncomplicated standards of a Bond film: Bond’s one true friend is maimed by a mutual enemy, and Bond seeks bloody revenge. Licence to Kill seeks to dispense with the expected whimsy and distraction of a typical Bond film, maintaining a clearer-than-usual focus on the central concern. Such single-mindedness is rendered fundamental to the plot, as Bond resigns his 00 status, and loyalty to Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in the name of personal vengeance. This decision sees him hunted by friend and foe alike, and serves to lessen the threat of any classical sunshine breaking through the mirthless clouds of Dalton’s vendetta. That is not a criticism. On the contrary: Licence to Kill is gripping, taut and compelling, but the film subsequently lapses into tonal confusion, and this in turn undermines Dalton, and reemphasises his deficiencies. As dramatically capable and incandescently thunderous as his Bond may be, he is always intense yet seldom charismatic.
In Robert Davi’s Franz Sanchez, you have a polished, menacing and altogether sockless Bond villain, who manages to be both loathsome and (almost) likeable, which is a rare feat. Also of note is an alarmingly young Benicio Del Toro as Dario, Sanchez’s suitably unhinged body man. Of course, a Bond film must also have Bond girls. Alas, in Licence to Kill, there is nary a chemical reaction to be found. Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier is independent-minded and strong-willed, whereas Talisa Soto’s Lupe Lamora is a glamorous victim, in need of liberation. These two characters are designed to represent opposite ends of the romantic spectrum, and despite the efforts of Lowell and Soto, both of whom inhabit their respective roles effectively, there is no real hint of credible chemistry between Dalton’s Bond and his leading ladies. In this way, Dalton successfully embodies two thirds of Fleming’s mantra, but falls down on the third. Licence to Kill is nonetheless a credible revenge story, and is mechanically sound from start to finish. Director John Glen, who directed all five Bond films released in the 1980s, is the dictionary definition of a safe pair of hands, and with him at the helm, the film is predictably slick and ultra efficient, and edited to the tightness of a snare drum, yet such commitment to continuity arguably places the film at odds with itself.
Licence to Kill wants very much to be bold, and it certainly puts the Roger Moore archetype to the sword. There are instances of profanity, and surprisingly graphic violence; the deaths within the film being both varied and imaginative, encompassing such claret-soaked novelties as shredding by machinery; immolation; impalement by forklift; a deadly spike in air pressure and cyanide-induced suicide, to say nothing of poor Felix Leiter (portrayed by the likeable David Hedison, who previously played Leiter in Live and Let Die (1973)) and his disagreement with a shark. Such wanton mayhem earned the film a ’15’ rating from the BBFC in the UK (and the equivalent from the MPAA in the United States), and in the era before the ’12’ rating, this instantly limited the film’s demographics (and by extension, box office potential). Perhaps this is why the film suddenly seeks to return itself to the status of a typical Bond film, and though this might’ve made commercial sense, it feels creatively contrived. Gladys Knight’s cheesy, uber-80s opening theme speaks to this, as does the shoehorned presence of Desmond Llewelyn’s iconic Q, who uses his holiday time to come to Bond’s aid, and though his presence is patently ridiculous, the eternal twinkle in Llewelyn’s eye is always welcome. He shines in an expanded role, offering warmth and dare I say it, just a smidgen of levity. The gradual reversion to type betrays the film’s initial conceit of a man alone and apart, and after the trauma of the opening blows, this is disappointing and even mildly craven.
Licence to Kill is a fine film, and I point out its flaws in the hopes of highlighting a wider truth: it was before its time. The world of Bond was only four years removed from Roger Moore (and still in mourning), and the rough but mostly unruffled diamond of Sean Connery’s tyrannosaurus sex still held sway everywhere else. The world at large wasn’t yet ready for a Bond without limits; a Bond who took things personally, despised the futility of his own existence and bled when hurt. Timothy Dalton was correct to surmise that the future of the character lay in the past, but the imperfect timing of this revelation, coupled with his own failings, has left Licence to Kill dwelling in the shadows and too often overlooked. It is ironic then, to note the similarities between Dalton and the endlessly celebrated Daniel Craig. Both have sought after and despaired of James Bond 007, but Craig has found the alliance between guns, sex and violence to be a more natural fit. Make no bones about it though: since Casino Royale (2006), the Bond series has trodden a path first laid down in 1989. So, what is past is prologue, and Licence to Kill remains a wholly drinkable pleasure, that prognosticated the future direction of the greatest franchise in cinematic history, seventeen years ahead of its own time.
As Dan has observed, a huge Roger Moore-shaped hole was left in the Bond franchise when he finally said goodbye to the role of 007 in 1985's A View to a Kill. With a mere four years between them, it is hard to believe that Licence to Kill is part of the same series. It is gritty and uncompromising from the off, with Timothy Dalton playing the role as he always believed Bond author Ian Fleming intended the character to be - an assassin. No apologies. Effortless suave and charm are not part of this Bond's vocabulary. Daniel Craig has clearly been taking notes. In hindsight, it is not too difficult to see how audiences of 1989 were not fully on board with a portrayal of the character that was tonally the polar opposite of their beloved Roger. Regardless, Dalton is superb in the role and it is one of those agonising 'what ifs' that he was never given the opportunity to return for a third appearance.
They say a Bond film is only as good as its villain and its leading lady and, in the former, Licence to Kill contains a superlative example, and in the latter, the film is found slightly wanting. There is a dark humour and a very real menace to Robert Davi's excellent portrayal of drug lord Franz Sanchez, a man for whom loyalty is more important than money. This is an individual who could - and probably does - exist, which makes him wholly unsettling. I agree with Dan that Carey Lowell acquits herself effectively as the strong-willed Pam Bouvier, but the general strength of the supporting cast means that the inadequacies of Talisa Soto's performance as Lupe Lamora are brought into sharp focus. Wooden isn't the word. I can't think of a word.
The passage of time has been kind to the Dalton Bond films, and I would suggest that were it released today in the grittier Craig-era climate, 'Iguanas are Forever'… er, sorry… Licence to Kill would be a smash hit. It is an important film in the evolution of the Bond series, even though it would take another 15 years for the audience to accept a Bond who bleeds. Dan suggests the film was ahead of its time. Absolutely. Now its time has come for a well-deserved reappraisal.