Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bond Is Forever: “Licence to Kill”

When a rare opportunity to ensnare drug lord Sanchez (Robert Davi) is presented, CIA agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison) is called away on his wedding day, with his best man, MI6 operative James Bond (Timothy Dalton), in tow as an “observer.” Sanchez is captured, and the two men make it to the chapel in time by parachuting. Good cheer, however, is short lived, as the criminal circumvents his route to prison and retaliates by murdering Leiter’s bride and leaving the agent critically injured. An enraged 007 initiates a personal investigation, and when MI6 head M recognizes some of Bond’s handiwork, he demands that Bond handle his officially sanctioned assignment in Istanbul. When Bond threatens to resign, M revokes his licence to kill, but rather than surrendering his Walther PPK, 007 goes rogue. Bond’s legwork leads him to a CIA agent and former Army pilot, Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), who had been working with Leiter. Targeting Sanchez, Bond and Bouvier receive help from unlikely allies, including Sanchez’ captive but defiant girlfriend, Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto), and weapons expert Q (Desmond Llewelyn), whose recruitment into 007’s unauthorized mission allows him to work in the field.

Licence to Kill (1989) was director John Glen’s final Bond film. He had directed five consecutive films and also worked in the capacity of editor in the 007 series. Likewise, Licence to Kill was the second and last film for Timothy Dalton as the cinematic spy. Dalton was contracted for a third movie but relinquished the role after a lengthy delay in the series (see GoldenEye for additional information). Others not returning to the 007 series were Robert Brown as M, Caroline Bliss as Miss Moneypenny, title designer Maurice Binder, director of photography Alec Mills, and screenwriter Richard Maibaum, all of whom had worked on previous movies. Binder had died before the subsequent Bond film went into production. Though credited in Licence to Kill, Maibaum left the writing process early due to a WGA (Writers Guild of America) strike.

Licence to Kill was well received critically but performed poorly at the U.S. box office. As of 2011, it remains the weakest of the Bond series in terms of theatrical revenue in the States, though it was successful in other countries. The lackluster audience response is attributed to the break in the discernible Bond format, as 007 becomes a rogue agent and is engaged in what M rightly calls a “personal vendetta.” Without MI6 regulations, Bond will occasionally act on impulse, such as singling out a specific villain directly responsible for a friend’s death and flagrantly shooting a harpoon into his chest.

A closer examination, however, will bring to light familiar Bond terrain, as well as tying together elements of Licence to Kill with the remainder of the series. Though Dalton’s Bond is slightly more unrefined than other interpretations, he retains an elegant quality. In this film, he still wears a tuxedo, masters a casino blackjack table, and orders his martini shaken, not stirred. Comparatively, his female equivalent, Pam Bouvier, deftly infuses style and violence, sitting in a bar with a shotgun under the table and adorned in a shimmering gown with a Beretta strapped to her thigh. Q’s involvement may be off the books (stating he was enlisted to help by a worried Moneypenny), but he arrives with a case of gadgets with which to outfit the agent. Bond additionally focuses on the investigatory aspects of the case, more in tune with Fleming’s novels and films such as Dr. No (1962) and For Your Eyes Only (1981). He studies Sanchez and his men, cautiously impregnates Sanchez’ organization, and tactfully sows the seeds of distrust among the villains.

In the same manner, Bond working on his own does not stray far from the previous Bond movies. At no point in the series is Bond ever made to look like a scrupulous agent. The agent’s persona is based on his penchant for a playboy lifestyle, enjoying the wealth and women associated with his career. This is sometimes at the expense of his assignment, such as his baseless seduction of Solitaire in Live and Let Die (1973). In other movies, 007 is working without MI6’s consent, like in Thunderball (1965), when a simple retreat to a health clinic melds into Bond nosing around the building -- he has to make a request before he is part of the mission. Despite his rank as a Commander of the Royal Navy and his double-0 status, Bond has always given the impression of being a sole agent. When he has found a stable partner, Tracy, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), he leaves MI6, an act which he had also contemplated -- for the same reason -- in his novel debut, Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (which likewise carried over to the 2006 adaptation). This reaffirms a carefree existence, that he will remain an agent insofar as it does not affect his personal life.

Licence to Kill is bolstered by a strong cast. Lowell is a phenomenal Bond Girl as Pam Bouvier. She’s vigorous, intelligent and capable, and undeniably beguiling, expertly reciting the provocative line, “Sweet dreams, Mr. Bond,” denying him a second night with her by shutting her bedroom doors. Lowell displays solid chemistry with Dalton, and Pam’s scenes with 007 almost play like romantic interludes. The actress would garner further attention with her role as the Assistant DA for two seasons of the long-running TV series, Law & Order. Davi excels at playing villains and/or tough guy roles. His characters often come across as seasoned and hardhearted, so that the villains are defined by story and not by a shallow performance, and such is the case with his compelling portrayal of Sanchez. Desmond Llewelyn gets more screen time in Licence to Kill than other movies, and it’s a welcome extension. Benicio del Toro has an early role as Dario, a Sanchez henchman, and del Toro makes his mark with an impeccable presence. He had debuted just the year before in Big Top Pee-wee, and he would follow Licence to Kill with award-winning performances in films such as The Usual Suspects (1995), Traffic (2000) and 21 Grams (2003). The only drawback to the otherwise notable performances is Talisa Soto, who is unfortunately squandered in the static role of Lupe.

Licence to Kill was plagued with production problems. It was originally set in China, but having to film in Mexico to save money forced the narrative to shift to South America. While filming in Mexico, the crew endured what they described as a “haunted” stretch of road, burdened by numerous accidents (though one of them, in which a semi-truck slammed into another, looked good enough to work into the storyline). There was also the aforementioned WGA strike that took place while scripting the film, and producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli became ill while visiting the set in Mexico and had to return to the U.S.

David Hedison was the first actor in the Bond series to reprise his role of Felix Leiter. He had initially portrayed the character in Live and Let Die with Roger Moore. Interestingly, the manner in which Leiter is injured in Licence to Kill was taken from Fleming’s novel, Live and Let Die, a scene that was dropped from the 1973 adaptation. Though Licence to Kill was the first Bond film to not use an Ian Fleming title, it continued using the author’s work as a source. In addition to the Live and Let Die plot device, the 1989 movie features the villain, Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), who, along with his yacht, Wavekrest, appeared in Fleming’s short story, “The Hildebrand Rarity”, from the collection, For Your Eyes Only. In the same story, Krest punishes his wife by whipping her, similar to Sanchez’ punishment of Lupe in Licence to Kill.

The original title of Licence to Kill was Licence Revoked. According to the director, MGM requested the change, fearing that U.S. audiences would not comprehend the meaning of “revoked.” On the other hand, some have suggested that viewers in the U.S. would associate a revoked license with loss of driving privileges.

The title song was reportedly based in part on “Goldfinger” and consequently sounds derivative and a little bland. Gladys Knight’s vocals, on the contrary, are superb and enhance the opening credits sequence. The song was a Top Ten hit single in the UK and Germany.

In the film, Bond meets M at the Hemingway House in Key West, leading to a joke from 007 when he is told to hand over his weapon (“A farewell to arms,” he says with a smirk). In the same scene, M is introduced without his face shown and surrounded by cats, a knowing allusion to Bond’s multi-movie nemesis, Blofeld.

Davi and Grand L. Bush, who plays a DEA agent in Licence to Kill, had appeared together the previous year in John McTiernan’s popular Die Hard, as Special Agent Johnson and Agent Johnson (“No relation”). Composer Michael Kamen, who worked on Licence to Kill, also wrote the score for Die Hard.

Director Glen has stated that he wanted to implement a “harder edge” in Licence to Kill. He more than accomplished his goal, with a somewhat bloodthirsty 007 more inclined to destroying evidence out of spite than collecting it to warrant a conviction. Some have questioned the MI6 agents motivation in Licence to Kill with a lack of an established relationship between Bond and the man on whose behalf he is seeking vengeance. Such a criticism not only neglects the two characters’ close ties originated in Fleming’s novels, but also overlooks what the film is addressing: Bond’s apathy in dealing with deaths in previous films. It’s refreshing to see 007 take something personally, to react violently and only consider the consequences afterward. Most importantly is the correlation between Leiter’s marriage and Bond’s own to Tracy, directly (and subtly) acknowledged in Licence to Kill. All of it instills within the spy a human quality with which to garner viewers sympathy.

After repeated viewings, Licence to Kill has become one of my favorite Bond films. I urge others to watch it even if they have already done so, as it is an exceptional entry in the 007 series.

Bond Is Forever will return next month with Octopussy (1983).


  1. Sark, this is a banner review of the only Bond film in which I've done a complete 180-degree reassessment. When I first saw LICENCE TO KILL, I left the theatre mumbling: "That wasn't a Bond picture." I held it in low esteem for a couple of years. But as I've revisited LICENCE TO KILL over the years, I've come to admire its virtues (so expertly highlighted by you). It has--to my surprise--become one of my favorite 007 movies, too. Dalton was OK in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, but I think he made great strides in "becoming" Bond in his second appearance. Just as it took Roger Moore three films to hone his Bond interpretation, I think Dalton might have become a bankable Bond if given one more film. That didn't happen, of course, and I have no qualms with Pierce Brosnan's run. Still, I think Dalton is very good in LICENCE TO KILL. And though Q's appearance is hard to buy, Desmond Llewelyn brings some subtle humor to a film that has a harder edge any of the Moore outings. I like how you point out where LICENCE TO KILL reflects the Bond formula, but I also admire how the film strays from it at times. I admit that I really like the title song. The closing song by Patti LaBelle, "If You Asked Me To", was later recorded by Celine Dion and became a big hit. It's a nice song, which doesn't seem to fit with a James Bond film. Thanks for another outstanding review in your super Bond series.

  2. This is Becky. Blogger is acting up, so I have to comment as Anonymous.

    I may have said this before about another of your Bond series, Sark, but to date, this is the best article you've ever done. I, the Sean Connery hold-out, really liked Timothy Dalton as Bond. I always wished he had taken over and continued as Bond.

    First, I have to laugh about the Hemingway comment, which I had forgotten. You know from my comments on all your Bond posts that I am rabidly pro-Fleming novels, and never liked the way they changed them so much, both in story and particularly in Bond's persona, making him a sexual spoof. Although I love Connery, there was always too much of the sexual one-liners, and Fleming's Bond is not like that at all. You are absolutely right that Licence to Kill, although not taken from a Fleming story, is more faithful to the books in Bond's investigatory role, as well as his character. It really doesn't matter that it WASN'T a Fleming story, considering how the preceding movies always mangled them anyway. this was actually better in that way.

    I haven't seen this in a while, and now want a re-viewing! It's funny, but I've lately been thinking about re-reading the whole book series, which I'm lucky enough to have. Really excellent article, Sark. Kudos!

  3. Great review. I liked this film when I first saw it in the theatre, in a large part because it distanced Bond farther from the slapstick Moore days and allowed Bond to drift back to the mix of action drama with humor.

    Carey Lowell was one of my favorite Bond girls, but I felt at times Lowell overshadowed Dalton, something that should not happen to Bond.

    I was amused about your comment about Bond destroying evidence. I have a hard time seeing any Bond villain on trail. "Law & Order" vs Blofeld.

  4. Sarkoffagus, we of Team Bartilucci have always thought Timothy Dalton was one of the most underrated Bonds, so it was great to find you giving Dalton a little love in your LICENSE TO KILL review. Although my favorite of Dalton's two Bond films is THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, we nevertheless loved Dalton's brooding badass self, using his Heathcliffian wiles to best bad guys!

  5. Can't really add anything except great job on writing about one of my favorite 007 films. I saw it opening night and walked out exhilarated.

    Timothy Dalton is my favorite Bond after Connery. Heresy among many, but to me Dalton is doing everything the critics are praising Daniel Craig for. Only Dalton looks more like Bond than Craig does. Like Rick I think the third time would have been the charm for him and I'm very sorry he was not able to continue with the series.

    What I like about the two Dalton movies, and based on interviews it's what Dalton wanted to get across when he joined the series, is that Bond lives in a very dangerous world. There's danger and violence around every corner, and Bond rarely has a chance to relax.

    "License to Kill" also contains what is, for me, the single best action sequence in the series, and that is that incredible truck chase sequence at the end where Bond takes out several tanker trucks using his wits and sans any weapons provided by Q branch.

    And Carey Lowell is one of the best Bond Girls ever. And Anthony Zerbe I'll watch in anything. Just love this film.

  6. Sark,"Licence to Kill" has a decidely darker edge to it, for the reasons you list expertly. It certainly brings home strongly that agents should avoid serious relationships because the non agent is often killed, as happened to both Bond and Leiter. It is ironic that the same factor that necessitates "getting" the bad guys also provides evidence of one's humanity. Dalton's Bond is quite believable and well paired with Lowell's Bouvier. Another thought-provoking and remarkable entry in your most excellent Bond series!