Timothy Dalton is perhaps the most underrated of all the Bonds, and Licence to Kill is perhaps one of the most under-rated of all the films. It got a reputation for being too violent (and to this day is still the only 15 rated Bond movie) and it was probably too brave to stray from the formula. Bond loses his titular licence after taking on a vendetta against a drug lord and goes rogue to bring said villain down and his empire around him.
What the film must be lauded for though, is that it was an original script not taken from any of the books. It took the premise of Yojimbo (hero infiltrates a gang and brings them down from within by turning them against each other) to a modern setting. With this plan of action much of the light-hearted nature of the Bond films gets thrown out the window. Dalton is altogether more serious and it shows on his face as he travels from one objective to the next. This is Bond, pissed!
The story set up is simple enough: Bond’s good buddy Felix Leiter becomes a victim of a vindictive drug baron, Sanchez (a brilliant Robert Davi), who has escaped police custody. Bond has to do a runner from his own establishment in order to take revenge. Initially the title of the film was ‘Licence Revoked’ which is of course what happens here. Instead the easier to understand ‘Licence to Kill’ was used (despite Bond not having one throughout the film). Robert Brown’s ‘M’ shows up for a quick scene or two – and only reminds us of how much better Bernard Lee was in the role back in the day. But then it isn’t the same character, it is simply a different boss. This boss sadly is very uptight and has little to no relationship with his staff.
There are still plenty of ladies (an agent contact of Leiter’s, Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell on good form) and the bad guy’s lady, Lupe (Talisa Soto on very poor form)) and plenty of heavies: Robert Davi proving quite vicious in the role of Sanchez. Just watch as he goes from cocky and confident at the beginning of the film to enraged and out of control by the end. In state custody after the opening credits, Sanchez is happy and confident he will be on his way home soon (with the help of a two million bribe). Back home he is cracking jokes to potential customers and remains cool about his business. But the moment Bond starts to plant seeds of doubt about his associates he becomes only too quickly paranoid and angry. Bond takes him apart a piece at a time until he is nothing but a violently tempered man with no empire and only a machete to fight back with.
Anthony Zerbe (sleazy), Everett McGill (cool and sleazy) and even a young Benicio Del Torro (psychotic and sleazy) make impressive turns as part of Sanchez’s organised crime syndicate. Hell even Wayne Newton turns up in a shady role!
This may be worth checking, but I’m also pretty sure that Dalton is the only Bond to laugh out loud on screen (Lazenby might have???). Not hard to miss as Dalton has a very distinctive “ HA HA HA” laugh.
Bond slowly works his money, his magic and his art of persuasion into making the villain make all the wrong moves and blame all the wrong people until, by chance, Bond is found out in the third act thanks to Del Toro’s character recognising him from earlier in the film.
Bond’s Vendetta never gets boring as his initial enquiries lead to a couple of cold blooded kills on his part followed by some heavy duty work that leads him to a fight underwater, which then leads to an impressive escape by seaplane. Having acquired money he heads down to the Lion’s den where he sets about putting his finances to good use. Despite Bond not attacking his foes by physical force it is great to see his ideas of retribution working out so well – and he is never far away from the action itself – just never to be discovered.
Keeping action in mind Dalton also impresses on the stunts. Getting stuck right in there you can see Dalton is quite the capable action man. Leaping onto movingvehicles, Dalton earns bonus points for this, making the action all the more intimate and real. And he has been doing it since The Living Daylights as he is clearly visible riding atop of the jeep in the opening sequence of that film. Details like this help the films date well and the enjoyment factor goes way up.
Yes there is also gadgets courtesy of a rather “helpful” Q this time round as he shows up later on posing as Bond’s Uncle – and nearly getting taken out by 007 in the process of doing so.
Getting back to the story – with all Bond’s plans going fairly smoothly, Sanchez takes him as a friend and welcomes him right into the heart of his operation. Right up until his discovery by Del Toro’s henchman, that is.
From here there is no route to go but the one of full-out action as the film mounts an impressive tanker chase which sees henchmen picked off one at a time until we are left with our hero and main villain standing. And they barely manage to do that amidst all the carnage and destruction. Even Bond is in a battered state at this point. And it is here, smothered and surrounded by leaking fuel from a tanker, that the Villain assumes the upper-hand. But even in a battered state Bond is not beaten and he quickly flips Sanchez’s position thanks to the aid of something highly symbolic from his old friend Felix Leiter!
Licence to Kill stands up easily today with a strong plot and some very engaging action. The finale is hard to beat, and few Bond films have managed to do so. There is a tendency to go way over the top with spectacle, but this instalment keeps it all relevant and lets the bad guys plans literally go up in smoke!
All of the plot elements come together and lead naturally into a climax as opposed to setting up something highly contrived. It therefore adds to the adrenaline levels as the fight takes to the road instead of taking place in some elaborately built lair where good guys and bad guys can spit dialogue at each other. Instead all the cards are on the table and it is simply a death match. And watch as Dalton’s Bond, even with his identity out in the open and his life on the line, is still intent on bringing down the empire by destroying trucks and going to lengths to let the product leak out of the final truck. He won’t be finished until it is all gone, every last drop.
There are some disappointments and even oddities here. Talisa Soto isn’t much of a Bond girl, or an actress for that matter. Thank God then for Carey Lowell who is far spunkier, and even gets to use the word “bullshit” which is a first for a bond film. It is also a bit odd to have Q come all the way across the globe top help out someone he isn’t all that fond of. But then it is nice to see him in an extended role.
Dalton, though, really stepped his game up. He may not have Moore’s cheesy comedy, or the suave sophistication of Connery – but he has a harder edge that is finally being exploited further in more recent pictures. It is a real shame that he only did two pictures. If the company hadn’t have been so troubled in the first half of the 90s we could have been given at least one or two more outings that might have been something special. Still, we should be thankful that he at least got to do this as his last Bond film, even if it is undervalued.
Sadly John Barry did not return for the music. Michael Kamen took over music duties and while his music works well enough, it is far too similar to his Lethal Weapon/Die Hard efforts and a little bit less Bond sounding. We do get a decent enough Gladys Knight song that is one of the classier efforts, but like Tina Turner’s “Goldeneye” it fails to have much of a tune to it for it to recur throughout the film like Barry’s songs did. It also sounds like she is putting a “T” on at the end of the title lyric, which would make for a very odd name of a song.
It’s a shame that the company took so long to do another after this film (six years!). And in so doing it proved to be Dalton’s and Director John Glen’s final outing. It has thankfully dated very well and is an easy contender for all time top 5.