Unfairly maligned on release, Licence To Kill was an attempt to make a 007 adventure that would peak the interest of the “modern” action fan. After all, in the decade of Terminators, Predators, Rambos and Lethal Weapons, Bond was in danger of becoming too quaint and the image of a wrinkled Roger Moore snowboarding to the Beach Boys in A View To A Kill hadn’t really done much to change that image. A decision was made to take Timothy Dalton’s sophomore outing as the legendary spy and add more grit than an Alaskan freeway in order to compete with the Schwarzenegger sized competition. So, boasting a more realistic plot (for Bond, anyway) and a significantly upped violence content that bordered on grisly, 007 was set to take on these modern action heroes at their own game but instead the movie only succeeded in retiring the secret agent for nearly 6 years.
After aiding friend and CIA agent Felix Leiter in the capture of a notorious drugs lord (on Leiter’s wedding day no less), James Bond fulfils his duties as best man (can you imagine a stag do organized by James fucking Bond!?) and heads home from the Florida Quays. However, freed by a paid off agent, Sanchez takes a horrible revenge of Felix by shooting his wife and feeding his leg to a shark and therefore instantly saving him 50% on all future shoe sales. Bond however doesn’t see this bright side and demands his MI6 bosses allow him to bring the sadistic baron to justice and resigns in a hail of gunfire when they refuse. Hellbent on a revenge plot and teaming up with military pilot Pam Bouvier (no, not one of Marge Simpson’s sisters) Bond infiltrates Sanchez’s drug empire in order turn the killer against his associates and bring the whole enterprise crashing down. Can Bond realise before it’s too late that this thirst for revenge is relatively small compared to the size and complexity of the task ahead of him and that others will suffer if he succeeds in his very unauthorized mission?
Licence To Kill makes no effort to hide the fact that some of the aspects you take for granted with a Bond film has been deliberately overhauled to appeal to an audience who would rather watch Die Hard than Goldfinger, but absorbing the DNA of other genres into a Bond movie isn’t exactly a new concept, with numerous previous entries pulling the exact same tricks for the exact same reasons with Live And Let Die and Moonraker being the most obvious examples. However, long time fans saw this “americanization” of their hero as a betrayal of the highest order claiming that the raised level of violence, predominantly American cast and a plot that dealt more in drug dealers and less with world conquering megalomaniacs was simply “not their Bond”.
This kind of narrow view of the franchise by it’s own fans (I don’t want to say “toxic fandom” but it was close) doesn’t really hold much water with me; after all Live And Let Die concerns a drug kingpin and no one complained then, and the gritty nature of the story in general pre-empts the very much the kind of Bond that Daniel Craig made insanely lucrative. It seems that Licence To Kill’s greatest sin is merely being slightly ahead of it’s time, something that also befell On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – another Bond that dared to try something a little different.
For all the hysteria surrounding it’s release there’s actually a huge amount of classic Bondage scattered throughout this 16th installment; gadgets, stunts and an enlarged role for Q are all present and correct, the theme song by Gladys Knight is absolutely fucking cracking and what with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the War On Drugs, the use of vastly ambitious drug baron Franz Sanchez seems a perfectly natural choice to be a foil for Bond in 1989.
Plus the action is bloody superlative, with the film opening with Bond, dressed for a wedding, being lowered by helicopter onto the back of an escaping plane in order to lasso it in a scene that was swiped and upgraded by Christopher Nolan to open The Dark Knight Rises. If this wasn’t impressive enough, the film ends with a fabulously impressive extended tanker truck chase featuring explosions the size of a three story house and Bond making these multi-wheeled behemoths as nimble as a sports car by popping wheelies to avoid whistling rockets.
Featuring a supporting cast of cool character actors like Twin Peak’s Everett McGill, Mortal Kombat’s Talisa Soto and a VERY young Benicio Del Toro as leering henchman Dario, it makes Bond seem fresh but it’s the ever-dependable Robert Davi as Sanchez who seems to be having the most fun, making his iguana loving lunatic a legitimate, charismatic threat.
Dalton continues to play to his strengths as a Bond who is belligerent, always threatening to quit MI6 and was quick with the odd headbutt or two (he lays an absolute belter on De Toro in the final act) and this outing – sadly his last – was probably the best example of the kind of character he was trying to portray but unfortunately, poor critical response scuppered a third outing for the actor.
Some of the complaints have merit; for example it’s not exactly subtle (literally everytime Sanchez appears on screen he’s serenaded by twanging guitars on the soundtrack) and maybe some people had a point when jabbing a disapproving finger at the violence (Bond straight up immolates a guy at one point whereas a ruptured pressure chamber make another guy’s head swell and pop like a screaming zit) but Licence To Kill certainly didn’t deserved the hate it got back in ’89.
Thankfully a timely reappraisal occurred over the years and sanity eventually prevailed, but sadly nowhere soon enough to avoid Timothy Dalton’s Licence To Kill being revoked permanently.
There was always something that didn’t ring true about this film, and it wasn’t Dalton’s performance because he looked more like my conception of Bond than anyone since Sean Connery. Perhaps an injection of mystery or intrigue into the plot, rather than the usual action scenes would have changed things somewhat.