Bond Reloaded – A look back at Licence to Kill (1989)

Ahead of the release of SPECTRE this autumn, the Bond Reloaded series takes a weekly look back at each film in the iconic James Bond franchise. This week, Timothy Dalton continues his tenure as Bond takes on the war on drugs in the shockingly violent Licence to Kill.

Timothy Dalton and Carey Lowell co-star in Licence to Kill

In his first film as James Bond, Timothy Dalton took the character that had become campy under Roger Moore and gave him the darker edge that creator Ian Fleming initially wrote. For his second outing, Licence to Kill, Dalton and director John Glen went one step forward and had Bond go rogue in the dark, murky world of the drug trade, fuelled by fiery personal issues.

Cost issues led the Bond crew to move away from London and Pinewood in order to shoot Licence to Kill on location in Mexico. Capitalising on Dalton’s gritty turn as the British super spy, writing duo Richard Maibaum and Michael G Wilson, began working on a darker entry in the series. The finished film would become the first in the franchise to earn a 15 certificate from the BBFC, having been cut from a version that would have scored a restrictive 18 rating.

Originally titled Licence Revoked in line with the central storyline before undergoing a change with the US market in mind, Licence to Kill marked a major shift towards darkness in Bond’s tone almost two decades before Daniel Craig made it cool with Casino Royale.


Say hello to Bond’s little friend

In the first unusual Bond move, the opening sequence of Licence to Kill does bear relevance to the rest of the film. Felix Leiter (David Hedison, returning for the first time since Live and Let Die) interrupts his wedding for a chance at capturing ruthless drug lord Sanchez (Robert Davi). They make it in the nick of time, as the credits begin. Soon after the film proper kicks into gear, Leiter is maimed and his wife murdered by Sanchez, sending Bond on a revenge mission with ex-CIA agent Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) at his side. M (Robert Brown) is not happy with Bond’s emotionally-charged mission and revokes his 00 status.

Licence to Kill immediately sets itself apart from other Bond films as a result of its highly personal edge. The driving force of the narrative is not a mission from M or a criminal investigation – it’s a personal vendetta as Bond attempts to avenge the brutal shark attack on Felix Leiter and the murder of his wife, which echoed Bond’s own marital tragedy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This gives the story a fresh and potent impetus, powered by Dalton’s intense, passionate performance, delivered with few words.


Robert Davi stars as the central villain in Licence to Kill

"Nobody saw you come in, so nobody has to see you go out."


Equally strong is Robert Davi as Scarface-esque villain Sanchez, who thinks nothing of requesting a man’s heart be torn from him or brutally gunning down his own henchman in a fit of frustration. Davi is tremendous, wandering through the film looking like a psychotic Derek Zoolander. He exudes menace and has the air of a man completely in control of his situation. Benicio del Toro, in one of his earliest screen roles, provides ample support as Sanchez’s brutal young buck of a henchman.

Considering its villain’s remarkable bloodlust, it’s only natural that Licence to Kill features rather more bloodletting than its franchise predecessors. Whether it’s exploding heads inside a diving chamber or bodies being minced by industrial shredders, there’s very little held back on the violence. Crucially, though, none of it ever feels gratuitous – merely an organic part of an unusually dark Bond story.

The harder incarnation of Bond fits Dalton like a glove, particularly in the sense that it utilises his snarling intensity rather than forcing him to deliver ill-fitting quips. Dalton’s Bond chooses his words very carefully indeed and prefers to let others do all of the talking, which is just how the character should be in a darker story with personal stakes like this one. Dalton is convincing as a man fighting to avenge his friend and it’s baffling that he never seems to get the credit he deserves – even from Bond devotees.


Senorita in the shade

For all of its positives, Licence to Kill is a film that focuses on macho posturing over its female characters. Talisa Soto, as Sanchez’s girlfriend, is merely a cipher to let Bond into places he shouldn’t be whilst occasionally being mentally and physically abused by her partner. She’s a depressingly underused character who exists almost solely to fall into Bond’s arms whenever there’s a lull in the narrative momentum.

Thankfully, there’s Carey Lowell faring slightly better. She arrives on the scene as a badass, besting Bond in a thrilling bar fight against Sanchez’s henchmen with the help of an impressive shotgun. It’s not all plain sailing, as the character does have a brief fumble with Bond before resuming her duties as an actual representation of a human being. Lowell’s performance is solid throughout, spunky and defiant rather than a glorified scream queen.


Timothy Dalton returns as James Bond in Licence to Kill

"I’ll do anything for a woman with a knife."


In fact, Lowell’s character really gets her moment in the sun as part of Licence to Kill’s all-action climax, set on a treacherous mountain road. The entire sequence is a marvel of stunt work, taking in terrific vehicular mayhem, a variety of different weapons and a hugely satisfying emotional pay-off for Bond’s revenge arc. The carnage on show in the sequence is genuinely jaw-dropping and remains among the best action in Bond history even given the technological advances that would occur after 1989. Given that the mountain road on which the crew filmed these scenes was also supposedly haunted, it’s easy to see where the palpable sense of tension comes from – everyone involved was terrified.

The freedom of the 15 rating in terms of violence allows all of the action sequences in Licence to Kill to push the boundaries far more than usual. There’s never a sense that the film is holding back in order to snare a family audience, with violent scenes that would be commonplace in a mainstream blockbuster nowadays, but then were a big stretch on the format.

More than just about any of the 80s Bond films, Licence to Kill is a tremendous action movie and one that sees Bond survive on the strength of his wits and ability as a top secret agent. Aspects of this strategy would continue into the Brosnan films six years later, but Dalton was a singular lead actor and Licence to Kill was a taste of what a longer reign with him at the top of the franchise could have yielded for Bond.


Rejuvenating the franchise?

Licence to Kill debuted in June 1989 to decent box office takings on this side of the Atlantic, particularly given the limitations imposed on cinemagoers by the 15 certificate. However, the film died on its arse with the crucial American audience and, adjusted for inflation, it’s still the least successful Bond film of all time in that market. Admittedly, the box office competition from the likes of Batman, Indiana Jones and Lethal Weapon 2 was stiff, but the yield was still a disappointing one for Eon.

Reviews were broadly rather positive, although there was a noticeable sense of skepticism around the darker tone. For every review that, like Derek Malcolm’s in The Guardian, praised the “harder edge” of the film, there was one like Hilary Mantel’s in The Spectator that dismissed Licence to Kill as “weary and repetitive”. If anything, reviews have become more negative over time, with the film regularly landing near the bottom spot on ranked Bond lists online. In 2006, Entertainment Weekly even listed it as the second worst of all of the released Bond films.


Timothy Dalton and Carey Lowell star in Licence to Kill

"You took the words right out of my mouth."


Despite its lack of critical esteem, Licence to Kill certainly stands out amongst the campy Bond films that made up most of the 1980s releases. The action is stellar, the performances strong and the villain genuinely memorable as a slimy piece of work. The female characters aren’t up to much and there are moments of narrative sag, but the film is mostly a tight action thriller with a refreshing and devastating mean streak.

Next time, Bond returns after a six year hiatus in the form of new lead Pierce Brosnan for GoldenEye.


What do you think of Licence to Kill? Does the harder edge suit Bond? Let me know in the comments section.

You can read my look back at The Living Daylights here and find other Bond Reloaded articles here.

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