Licence To Kill (1989) review – BlogalongaBond #16
Bond goes rogue and so does the series, preferring to make a brutally efficient 80s action movie than another Octopussy. Fair enough, really.
Licence To Kill
(John Glen, 1989)
By 1989, at the age of 14, I was a fully paid-up member of the James Bond fan club, and eagerly awaiting Timothy Dalton’s second appearance as 007 when the news broke that Bond had gone bad. Licence To Kill caused a minor furore at the time for its dark edge and copious violence. I can remember the Sunday Mirror publishing a scandalised list, detailing all of the film’s amateur heart surgery, decompression chamber head pops and forklift impalings. The film was trimmed by 36 seconds, and still got an unprecedented 15 certificate. Damn.
And so, just as 007 flouted his superiors to make his own law, so too did this 14-year-old sneak into the multiplex to see his first underage big-screen movie.
What’s startling is that, more than 20 years on, when Daniel Craig has seen his gonads whipped and got only a 12-certificate in return, Licence To Kill still feels like nothing else in the Bond canon. In theory, nothing’s changed; Bond movies have always reflected their era, so it’s no surprise that the 007 producers react to a new generation of action heroes encroaching on Bond’s turf. The difference is that, here, it feels less like the usual magpie thieving of pop-culture trends than a wholesale capitulation to their rivals. Moonraker might have gone into space but it was never Star Wars, but Licence To Kill pretty much is Die Hard Through A Gun Barrel.
Comparisons are obvious the second Michael Kamen’s distinctively menacing score strikes up, and by the time Robert Davi’s villain shares the screen with fellow ‘Agent Johnson’ Grand L. Bush, you begin to wonder if somebody’s taking the piss. In subject matter – drug cartels and banana republics – and the near-total absence of UK scenery (caused by off-screen tax issues, but quickly defining the film’s aesthetic), it’s obvious that Bond has gone on holiday and left the camp theatrics in London.
Which, of course, he has. By accident or design, the plot has the ultimate answer to why Licence To Kill is so different, the film and hero both gone rogue and doing their own thing. It’s not “Bond”… but in many ways it’s better, with a genuine character motivation ensuring that 007 isn’t subject to the whims of globe-trotting villains or arbitrary assignments from M. The film dishes out its most extravagant coincidence at the beginning (isn’t it really lucky that Bond is with Leiter when this all kicks off?) but then proceeds to present the series’ most logical, coherent plotting to date. There’s very little fat, with even the subplot involving Milton Krest proving integral to Bond’s pursuit of Sanchez.
And consider the timing. By the end of 1989, the Berlin Wall had fallen and Bond would have looked incredibly old-hat if he’d still been fighting the Commies. Instead, Licence To Kill sees no grand masterplan for world domination, just a petty squabble over plata o plomo. Where Goldeneye would later get all deep and philosophical asking what a Cold War relic does without an enemy, this film simply gets on with showing us. Sanchez is vile, and maybe Bond needs that kind of opponent once in a while to remind himself why he does this for a living.
It’s a brisk, balanced film, achieving excitement through Bond’s unstoppable momentum rather than the traditional lurch from set-piece to set-piece (although, admittedly, the climactic tanker chase makes for brilliant spectacle). Five films in, John Glen’s functional direction actually becomes a virtue, because Licence To Kill is the kind of film that needs efficient joining-of-dots to work. Yes, there are echoes of old Bond (a cut from a sadistic whipping to ‘where’s the groom’ wedding comedy is awfully misjudged) but mostly it gets things right: even the stunt casting of Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton works in context, because his irreverence is the perfect front for Sanchez’s operation.
But the film is driven by Timothy Dalton’s cold, baleful determination. He’s not “Bond” but he is Bond, showing real ingenuity in his psychological needling of Sanchez and reclaiming the ruthless streak that Moore had frittered away on eyebrow gymnastics. Check the scene after Bond has been rescued from the Hong Kong spies by Sanchez and wakes up in his enemy’s lair; where earlier Bonds, even Connery, would have taken it in their stride as something that happens to Bond, Dalton’s Bond lacks any self-knowledge that he’s a character in a movie, and so reacts with genuine WTF bewilderment.
It’s easy to see why many critics felt Dalton too remote to connect with the audience but it’s obvious he was still rebuilding the character, and that takes time. One more film – ideally one not quite as off-message as this one – and he might have become ‘the one.’ Sadly, behind-the-scenes trouble delayed things by years and left Licence To Kill with the unfair, untrue reputation of being the series’ epitaph, with Dalton pulling the trigger. Now, it looks like nothing less than an early, faltering step into the modern age of movie action.
Along with many other blogs, Kinnemaniac is tackling one 007 movie a month. Here’s The Incredible Suit for the rules, and here’s my BlogalongaBond archive.