License to Kill (1989) – The sixteenth film in the James Bond series, License to Kill, Timothy Dalton’s second and final film as 007, hasn’t gone down into Bond history as being one of the classics. In fact, it often gets overlooked entirely. But being being closest in tone to the modern Bond films, License to Kill has become the overlooked gem of the James Bond series, and is in desperate need of being reexamined by fans.
James Bond goes rouge in a very personal and different type of adventure. When long time friend and associate, CIA agent Felix Lieter, is attacked by a South American drug lord Franz Sanchez on his honeymoon, Bond seeks revenge for the murder of Lieter’s bride and Leiter’s vicious maiming by a shark. But upon leaning of Bond’s plan to go after Sanchez, M shows up in Key West and suspends Bond from MI6 and revokes his license to kill. Never to be told what to do, Bond boldly breaks MI6 custody and declares his own personal war on Sanchez and his drug trade. Recruiting CIA agent Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), to his cause, the pair go undercover into the Republic of Isthmus where Bond infiltrates Sanchez’s organization as a hired assassin and begins to uncover a much larger operation involving Sanchez’s attempt to establish a drug trade with Asian crime lords. What results is a series of action packed assaults by Bond on Sanchez’s operations, including a death defying race with flaming oil tankers, as Bond seeks to avenge his best friend and his slain bride.
When License to Kill came out the Bond franchise was in a state of flux. Having used all of the Ian Fleming novels and short stories available to them, the studio was forced to create an original story for the first time. Although they did borrow elements from previous Bond stories, like Felix Lieter getting fed to the sharks, License to Kill proved to be the first all original James Bond film. As a result License to Kill has a far darker tone then previous Bond outings, which not only reflected the feel of the original Flemings novels, but also matched Timothy Dalton’s personal take on James Bond. Shedding the quirky charm of Sean Connery and side stepping the wit and humor of Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton approached Bond with a darker, more serious tone. Timothy Dalton’s Bond was easily the deadliest Bond up to that point, and as a result License to Kill was the first of the Bond films to get a PG-13 rating while all other Bond films previously, surprisingly, were rated PG despite sexual innuendo and violence. Timothy Dalton had finally grown into the role of James Bond with this film, and could often be seen on the set reading and rereading the original Ian Fleming novels as reference to his character, once again, setting the darker and more violent tone to the film. Furthermore, the personal plot motivation seems to add a certain amount of depth to License to Kill that other Bond films often lacked. The result is a far more satisfying action thriller. Furthermore, Dalton’s take on Bond is closer to the approach that has been taken by Daniel Craig. While Craig’s portrayal of Bond has helped breath new life into the franchise, in 1989 fans were not ready for a darker Bond, proving that Dalton was, in retrospect, ahead of his time.
Of course a Bond film wouldn’t be a Bond film without beautiful Bond girls and License to Kill provides Bond with two beautiful and compelling female companions. Carey Lowell, in the role of CIA agent Pam Bouvier, was easily Bond’s most liberated female companion up to that date. As an equal partner in the operation, Bouvier fights Bond on his chauvinism and also doesn’t stand by idly when he makes time with another woman. Although she does break down in tears at one point when she seems him embraced with another woman, she is not the sex starved bed warmer of previous Bond outings. Bond also finds himself entwined with Sanchez’s girlfriend Lupe, played by Talisa Soto, who immediately gains the sympathies of the audience when they are introduced to her being beaten by Sanchez. Living as a virtual prisoner in a loveless relationship, her treatment at the hands of Sanchez only heightens the audience’s hatred for the villain, and she becomes a useful aid to Bond as a contact on the inside. Throughout the film the audience is kept guessing which of the two women will capture Bond’s affections, leading to a satisfying conclusion to what becomes a tense love triangle at times.
While many fans were critical of Dalton’s lack of humor in his portrayal of Bond, fans are treated to Bond regular Desmond Llewellyn as Q in a larger and more prominent role then in previous films. Defying M’s orders, Q joins Bond and Bouvier in South America, and not only provides Bond with his unique brand of special gadgets, but also some well needed humor relief. While Q’s other appearances were always brief, yet beloved, vignettes removed from the plot of previous Bond films, License to Kill takes Q out of the laboratory and gives him much more involvement in the plot. Llewellyn, who was in his seventies by that point, adds the quirky flavor that the film was lacking, but does it subtly enough to not take away from Timothy Dalton’s own unique interpretation of James Bond.
Although he lacks the colorful distinctiveness of previous Bond villains, Robert Davi provides a menacing foe for Dalton as drug lord Franz Sanchez. Sanchez is very much a criminal element of the era. With the cold war being over, Bond no longer was caught up in enemy agents or politics and in 1989 the South American drug trade was a larger, if not more realistic, threat to society. Instead of world domination, Sanchez’s main concerns are money and power, and Bond’s motivations are revenge. It becomes a more realistic struggle for a modern audience. Other notable villains in the film include a very young Benicio Del Toro as Sanchez’s menacing knife welding thug Dario; future Twin Peaks co-star Everett McGill as a DEA official who betrays Felix Lieter, and a surprisingly appropriate role for singer Wayne Newton as a televangelist who plays a large, and clever, role in Sanchez’s drug operation. Rounding out the familiar faces in License to Kill is former Three’s Company co-star Pricilla Barnes as Felix Leiter’s bride Della.
In many ways License to Kill was the end of the classic era of Bond films. Following the completion of the film, legal issues over the control of the James Bond franchise prevented MGM from going into development of another Bond film right away. It would be six more years before a new Bond film would go into production, but many of the regulars from the classic days of Bond would not return. Dalton had decided to leave the franchise after License to Kill wrapped up, but this film would also be the final film to feature David Hedison as Felix Leiter, Robert Brown as M and Carolyn Bliss as Ms. Moneypenny. Furthermore, Bond’s producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who had been with the series since Dr. No and be considered the heart and soul of the Bond franchise, would step down, although he would work as a consultant on Goldeneye in 1999. But Goldeneye, along with the rest of the Pierce Bronson era of Bond films, seem to lack the same charm and sophisticated sense of adventure that made the previous Bond films unique by giving into political correctness, slap stick comedy and sacrificing imagination and intrigue for explosions and car chases. As a result, License to Kill would be the last watchable Bond film until the revival of the Bond series in 2006.
License to Kill is rarely breathed in the same breath as such Bond classics as Goldfinger, Dr. No, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Octopussy or Casino Royale, but it should be. It is better then most of the Roger Moore films, all of the Pierce Bronson ones and even a few of the Sean Connery classics. In many regards it was truly ahead of its time and it is a pity that Timothy Dalton did not go on to make more Bond installments.