James Bond Retrospective: Licence to Kill

Dalton’s Bond goes renegade! In this review we:
• See Bond go to his emotional limits.
• Look at what makes a good Bond girl and a bad Bond girl.
• Start to see the limitations of the era and formula, and predict the coming franchise evolution.
It’s time for…

Licence to Kill (1989)

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How my grandparents drive.

People separate Bond films in curious ways. Some divide them by camp or depth, some by actor. I myself think of these films as before GoldenEye (1995) and after. Not because GoldenEye is great, which it is, but because this is the last movie of the old guard. It is the end of an era marked not by an actor, but by the people behind the camera. Richard Maibaum, screenwriter of countless Bond films starting from the original Dr. No (1962), ends his Bond screenwriting credits here. This is Maurice Binder’s last title sequence. Not to mention producer Albert Broccoli’s final hands-on role (he would pass away in 1996) and director John Glen’s final outing after four previous films!

This might be what plagues the Dalton films; how do you reinvent something when everybody behind the wheel has been doing it for so long? Fresh minds aren’t tackling the material, and the result is starting to show. I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s get into this.

The Plot

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The best disguise for a spy hiding in a bar: look miserable.

In Key West, Bond and best friend and CIA agent Felix Leiter bust a drug kingpin by the name of Franz Sanchez and make it back in time to Leiter’s wedding, where Bond is the best man. This is heartwarming and rad.

What’s this? Sanchez has bribed a different CIA agent to help him escape and kidnap Leiter and his new wife. They murder the wife and feed Leiter to a shark, who only eats his leg. Nooooooooo!

Bond finds out and abandons his new mission to help his friend. He discovers the shark location is owned by Sanchez’s associate Milton Krest and after killing the bribed agent is confronted by CIA and M. M scolds Bond and urges him to forget Leiter. Bond goes renegade and his license to kill is revoked. Bond narrowly escapes.

Bond tracks Krest onto his boat named “Wavekrest” (terrible name) and after some sabotage escapes to rendezvous with an associate of Leiter named Pam Bouvier. His plan is to get her to drop him off in the Republic of Isthmus (where Sanchez runs everything) where he can pretend to want to work for him and sabotage his operation before murdering him.

Pam and Bond team up in Isthmus, and with some recovered drug money Bond wins big in the casino and attracts Sanchez’s attention. Sanchez declines Bond’s job request, Q shows up to “unofficially” help. Bond tries to kill Sanchez with a sniper but is kidnapped by an MI6 agent and two Hong Kong agents that are worried Bond is going to screw their operation up. Sanchez discovers the agents and murders them but Bond’s captivity intrigues him.

Bond tells a lie about the agents but the truth about himself. Sanchez accepts this and starts to like him. Bond puts doubt onto Krest, sowing seeds of insecurity.

Bond frames Krest. Then Bond is taken to the big drug operation, when a henchman (Benicio Del Toro!) recognizes him the jig is up. Bond blows up the factory, is saved by Q and Pam, and they go through a chase as Bond systematically blows up all of Sanchez’s cocaine trucks before Bond murders the man himself with Felix’s own present to Bond (a cigarette lighter).

Bond gets a job offer from M, gets a call from Felix (he is okay, just missing a leg), and finally chooses Pam over Sanchez’s woman. The end.

A Closer Look

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Yeah, I’ve had the same problem at an Applebee’s.

This movie commercially and critically (at the time, people quite like it now) was controversial and not a smash hit.

This film wants to grow beyond its shell. Dalton is at odds with the material. This film begs to be serious and character based, and yet? It feels like a Bond movie trying to do a drug cartel movie, aping many other contemporaries and predecessors. The material also still revolves entirely on what the Bo conventions demand. It’s not a Bond movie, except when they force it. Bond does questionable things here someone like Roger Moore’s Bond would never do, and that’s awesome and what the series needed, but also John Glen made the last three Moore films and this film retains that inappropriate balance of humor and drama.

This isn’t to critically condemn Glen or Maibaum or Broccoli or anyone involved. It’s just the inevitable passage of time showing how the previous methods for reinvention don’t work when you’ve had the same cooks in the kitchen too long. It looks and feels at best like a Bond film and at worst like a bad eighties film.

Leiter is a great example, Leiter is an essential Bond supporting character that the films never properly captured. He is almost always played by a different actor (this is the one time it is an exception until the Craig films, Hedison also appeared in Live and Let Die, 1973). He is a bit part in these films and it is the first real time we are told Bond is friends with him. Close friends at that! Are we to believe this? Does this develop over time? The film doesn’t even commit to Bond’s vengeance or disavowal of MI6. Felix is fine by the end of the film and Q and Moneypenny are supporting him the entire time!

The rest we will save for later.

What’s Good?

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Whatever the fuck this is.

Dalton may perhaps be the best actor to play Bond. These two films give a comprehensive look at Bond’s emotional spectrum and Dalton goes through them naturally and yet still very much in character. This film features a more consistent emotion of anger, but he also has the same charm as before and also a quiet stoicism that feels appropriate in regards to his late wife and his best friend. Again, he feels a little less iconic and his delivery during the traditional moments feels shaky, but I measure acting by how difficult the job is and he had a mountain of a task.

This is the start of a welcome trend in these films where a shade of doubt is actually cast on the national powers. CIA and MI6 seem a little lazy and greedy and eager to let men die. This is further explored in depth with other sequels, but it is worth noting here.

I very much enjoy the extended Q time. Q’s role here is the largest he ever has, actually being a character. If you ever want to enjoy Desmond Llewellyn, this is the film in my opinion. His character still gives Bond stupid gadgets, but the gadgets don’t feel lazy and his personality adds to the camaraderie of Bond’s supporting cast. Also, he really wants to be a field agent, and that is cute. He is a cute old man.

Did I mention the stars? Benicio Del Toro is the main henchman, he plays a crazy thug. Very unique for him, I’m glad he was never typecasted. Wayne Newton also appears as a televangelist stealing peoples money for Sanchez. Wow! Wait, why is Wayne Newton a cartoon character in the serious Bond?

The action in this feels great. There is a lot of pure stealth to this one and a great sense of actual espionage in a series that actually lacks that. Then the truck chase at the end is perfectly bonkers and the kind of vehicular stunts that still feel modern today.

The title sequence feels more creative than normal, incorporating engaging transitions and color. The song isn’t particularly great, but Gladys Knight is a fantastic pick for a singer so this was welcome for the ears.

What’s Bad?

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Nevermind, THIS is how my grandparents drive.

Robert Davi’s Sanchez is lacking, as is the general plot. The film portrays Bond as picking apart Sanchez’s faith in his men, and the continuous manipulation makes Sanchez look really dumb.

The environments feel uninspired. After many Glen films that hopped to completely distinct and mostly unexplored (by Bond) locations like India or Afghanistan, we go back to the standard tropical environments. This is to pair with a very uninspired photography and set design, particularly in the final laboratory and the villain’s home. We have seen all of this before. Bond is playing Blackjack here? Gasp!

The Bond girls share a nice contrast here. The best Bond girls are always the capable ones, and Bouvier is a great Bond girl. She has an emotional attachment to James, but also has clear motivations beyond him. In contrast, Sanchez’s flame Lupe is abused on film and given very little to work with in personality. She is portrayed as a social climber, accepting of what abuse comes her way in hopes of security or mobility. It’s gross, I’m sad there is an emphasis on relationship drama here but I’m glad the ending reflects the proper choice Bond needed to make and what Lupe deserved (she ends up with the puppet general).

Looking Forward

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This is prime Benicio, because back then he didn’t come up with a gimmick every time he had a character.

The Bond franchise goes on a six year hiatus now. The longest it ever goes. This allows everything to reset, new creative wheels to spin, and we get the greatest videogame to ever grace the Nintendo 64. Oh and Pierce Brosnan becomes James Bond.

What I Drank

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Can you believe Newton is less sleazy here?

Bond actually has a beer! In the bar when he meets Bouvier he has a beer with a lime garnish. You can do any beer here as long as it’s a South American import. Cheers, and anything is better than Heineken. God, if I ever have to drink that here, shoot me.

One thought on “James Bond Retrospective: Licence to Kill

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