James Bond – Licence To Kill (1989) REVIEW
Director: John Glen
Producer: Albert R. Broccoli & Michael G. Wilson
Writer: Michael G. Wilson & Richard Maibaum
Based on: James Bond by Ian Fleming
Cast: Timothy Dalton, Carey Lowell, Robert Davi, Talisa Soto, Benicio Del Toro
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After the successful release of The Living Daylights in 1987, producers immediately began working on the next James Bond adventure. John Glen and Timothy Dalton wanted to continue on the track of taking 007 back to his original Ian Fleming roots and co-writer/producer, Michael G. Wilson saw it as a trend, having Bond rely on his wits and skills rather than his gadgets.
Wanting a new and fresh location was made easier for Licence Revoked, when the Chinese government invited the producers for a visit. A chase scene across the Great Wall and a battle amongst the Terracotta Army were some of the possibilities considered in the new film. Michael G. Wilson already had two possible scripts planned out, both ditching the grandiose villain plan from previous films, instead sticking with a down to earth idea. One script involved Bond dealing with a Chinese drug lord and would contain elements from the novel, Live And Live Die, however eventual budget issues prevented filming in China and a new location was needed.
MGM’s desire to keep the budget in check also meant that production was taken out of the United Kingdom, making Licence Revoked the only 007 movie to film sorely in America and Mexico City. This provided a few tax breaks and allowed Michael G. Wilson to adapt his script to include a drug lord from the fictional, Isthmus City.
Of course, filming in Mexico City proved hazardous toward Albert R. Broccoli’s health, who was forced to retreat back to England to seek medical care. Others in the crew were also struck ill, but thankfully a doctor was flown in to provide medical attention where needed. Still, Mexico proved to have some amazing workers on offer allowing the production to build sets and stages quicker than ever before.
Filming began in Florida and eventually settled in Mexico City where the bulk of Licence Revoked took place. As the film neared its June 1989 release date, MGM, fearing American audiences wouldn’t understand the meaning ‘Revoked’, changed the title of the movie. Posters, pre-release material and even marketing was forced to except this new title, and hence, Licence To Kill was born.
Before getting onto the plot, it is worth noting that Licence To Kill was released in the American summer period of 1989 and sadly landed amongst other such blockbusters as Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and finally Batman. The box office wasn’t so kind to James Bond that year and sadly its disappointing return may have helped put a hold on the franchise for a few years, but more on that next month.
While heading to his wedding, Felix and Bond help capture the deadly drug lord, Franz Sanchez. While escaping back to Isthmus City, Bond manages to cable the plane and parachutes away with Felix so that he can get married. During the wedding of Felix and Della, the film intelligently intercuts back and forth to Sanchez’s arrest and interrogation. At which point, the drug lord offers the sum of $2 million to anyone that helps him escape.
That same day while being moved via military transport, Sanchez manages to escape underwater thanks to corrupt DEA Agent Killifer and marine researcher, Milton Krest. His revenge is executed that night after the wedding where Della is raped and murdered while Felix is fed to a shark.
Hearing about the Sanchez escape the following day, Bond discovers that Felix is barely alive and plans his own revenge on the drug lord. Fearing his revenge may cause complications for the British Government, M orders 007 to forgot the vendetta and continue on to Istanbul with a mission. Bond quits MI6, and M revokes his Licence to Kill, but Bond escapes and meets up with CIA informant, Pam Bouvier. She was working with Felix and now that her life is in danger, they head to Isthmus City where they plan to bring down Sanchez and his criminal empire.
After an assassination attempt, Bond manages to infiltrate Sanchez’s empire and in the process plants mistrust and doubt in his mind. With help from Q, Pam and Lupe, trapped girlfriend of Franz, and using his high sense of loyalty against him, Sanchez is tricked into killing his most trusted allies all the while Bond avoids a run in with Dario, Sanchez’s second in command. Dario, however recognises Bond from an earlier incident and before bringing down the drug lord’s empire, 007 kills Dario and goes after Sanchez.
During an intense truck chase, Sanchez’ paranoia gets the better of him killing another few of his men and ordering the death of Bond. After a one on one battle resulting in Sanchez being covered in gasoline, Bond uses a gift given by Felix and Della to set the drug lord alight.
Eventually M welcomes Bond back into MI6 and Felix makes a recovery while leaving the secret agent to decide which of the two beautiful women we will end up with. So ends Licence To Kill as 007 fans everywhere cringe just a bit as Timothy Dalton’s tenure comes to an end, and a winking fish closes out the film.
In truth, I don’t mind the winking fish.
Series long writer, Richard Maibaum, although given writing co-writing credit on the picture, had to bow out of the main bulk of the script due to the writers strike in 1988. Michael G. Wilson took over the main duties and completed the script in time for filming. I’m not going to say the script is the best Dalton had to work with, but it was easily the easiest to follow. A straight revenge story is always fun to watch on screen, and Licence To Kill is no different. Seeing James Bond out of his element and security of MI6 is a wonderful change, and up to this point in the franchise, hadn’t been done before. Seeing Bond rely on his wits more than gadgets is always a welcome addition, and I feel the film really benefits from the strong characters within.
John Glen returns for his fifth and final time as film director, and it’s his strongest attempt yet. Although the pacing in Licence To Kill never lets up, I had problems with the beginning of the film. The time frame from when Franz is capture, the wedding, his escape and eventually torture of Felix seems to pass entirely too fast. It appears that all events happen within a 12-16 hour period, and I could never buy that time frame as it appears on screen. If it took place over a weekend, then maybe, but as it stands, it’s bothersome. The rest of the film picks itself up and never lets go, and I find the editing is spot on throughout especially shining during the wedding sequence as it cuts between both events. The way John Glen foreshadows something bad coming leaves you with a nervous feeling right up until it happens.
Sadly my major issue with the movie comes down to the music. Michael Kamen replaces John Barry here, who had to bow out due to throat surgery. Kamen, famous for such scores as Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, doesn’t bring much new to the series and often times Licence To Kill felt like a copy and paste job from his previous work. I like how Kamen scores the quieter scenes, but can’t get over the rest. To make matters worse, the James Bond theme doesn’t fair much better. It never really fits the picture it goes with, and sadly, it only manages to pull me out of the action scenes when it fires up.
If the review is sounding negative so far, don’t fret, the cast is now.
Felix Leiter is played by returning actor David Hedison who previously played the character in Roger Moore’s first outing, Live And Let Die. He returns here as an obviously older Felix away from the CIA instead now a DEA Agent. We meet Felix on his wedding day and although he goes to apprehend Sanchez that morning, it somehow works. This version of Felix shares a great relationship with Bond, and I feel it comes down to Hudson’s likeable charm and acting that you never for a second doubt he couldn’t get the job done and still make his wedding. His time in the film is limited to the first 30 minutes, but his torture and death of Della, played by Priscilla Barnes, is heartbreaking. Unfortunately, what sympathy gained is eventually lost by the closing credits. Whether or not producers and John Glen wanted to end on a happy note, Felix just comes across out of character. For everything he’s been through, to suddenly be so cheerful, I don’t buy it.
Much like Felix, another character with not much screen time is Dario. Played by Benicio Del Toro it’s on of his first movie roles, the very young and handsome actor manages to chew up the scenery while looking so disturbingly deadly, at all times. There is absolutely nothing to like about his character, and every action he does makes you hate him even more. But it doesn’t stop you from being mesmerised by Dario. He has a slim and muscular frame and is the rabid yet loyal dog to Sanchez. Benicio nails the part so well, and has an interesting pose he pulls whenever flicking out his pocket knife. Makes him look crazy and imposing at the same time. He isn’t as memorable as some others in the series, but Dario is clearly a match for Dalton’s Bond, and looks like an animal stalking his prey.
Before moving onto Sanchez, I’ll talk about the women in Licence To Kill. Not since Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, have we been blessed with beauty such as that found here. In the previous 007 entry, The Living Daylights, Bond only has one leading woman opposite him. That was a conscious choice and it paid off for that film. In Licence To Kill, James Bond gets two beautiful women. The first is Pam Bouvier played by Carey Lowell, a former Army pilot and now CIA informant working with Felix. Before this film, I always knew Carey Lowell from her work on Law & Order. She was smart and easily put any person in their place. Here, she does the same.
Apart from the very brief introduction scene, Pam is fully introduced at a motorboat bar brandishing a shotgun and taking matters into her own hands when the action starts. Pam doesn’t flinch from any of the action, and even when the story moves to Isthmus City, Carey sports a shorter haircut, ramps up the sex appeal and still manages to be helpful to Bond. Have I mentioned how beautiful this woman is? At times during the film, you can see her character having to resort to the usual ‘stand by the side and watch the action’, but by the next scene, Pam is saving Bond’s life again. She has as much sex appeal as any Bond before and after, and isn’t just a useless third wheel in the final moments.
The second Bond girl is Sanchez’s girlfriend and next love interest for 007. Lupe Lamora is…just a moment while I collect myself…played by Talisa Soto, and the only other film I’ve seen her in is Mortal Kombat and that doesn’t do her justice. Lupe fills the void of helpless Bond girl. She isn’t particularly strong, and seems committed to Sanchez even though he beats up, but Lupe works so well in Licence To Kill. Talisa plays off Dalton’s perfectly, but while Pam is integral to bringing down Sanchez, Lupe just kind of hangs around.
When it comes to Franz Sanchez, there isn’t much to say. Robert Davi will always be known from his excellent work in The Goonies as one of the Fratelli brothers. Then he later appeared in Die Hard as an FBI Agent. But for some reason, however old I was, Robert Davi was forever in my memory as Sanchez. Being a young kid in the early 1990’s, I remember coming home one evening and seeing Licence To Kill playing on TV. My mum was always a big fan of James Bond and obviously that love was passed onto me. The scene I remember was Sanchez in his drug compound and the next was the truck driving through the fire.
Robert Davi was cast in Licence To Kill and instantly read the Ian Fleming novel, Casino Royale. Based on the original description of Le Chiffre as being a mirror image of James Bond, Davi decided to use this as the fuel for his character. Being a method actor also proved amusing for the cast as he was often stay in character off-set, and as the behind-the-scenes material says, would even visit restaurants as his character, Sanchez.
As a Bond villain, Sanchez doesn’t really fit the mould of typical archetype. However I think as a whole, neither does the film. Davi brings so much persona to the drug lord that it’s hard not to understand and appreciate his plan. Not much can be said about Franz Sanchez that probably hasn’t already been said by many others before me, but I find his antiquated sense of loyalty to those in his inner circle fascinating. The fact he is impossibly rich means nothing if he can’t trust someone, and Davi sells it at every moment. When Bond finally manages to get face time with Sanchez, the two characters share awkward laughs and you can almost see him trying to read Bond. I absolutely love his character.
Finally we come to the man himself, Timothy Dalton in his final turn as James Bond 007. George Lazenby is hands down my favourite actor to portray 007 on the big screen. There is no questioning that. I have said it so many times before and make no secret when asked. I love his style on screen and the brute force he oozes during action scenes. George obviously had one of the best scripts to work with and even though his acting is a little fresh at times, he did such a phenomenal job, it is why On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is held in such high regard. But then comes Welsh born, Timothy Dalton.
I banged on about my love for Dalton in last month’s review of The Living Daylights, but I find he only gets better in his second outing. Taken out of the comfort zone of the traditional Bond formula, Dalton could’ve resorted to all manor of crazy revenge style acting, but he instead keeps himself and the character focus on the job at hand. Dalton plays it serious and direct to the point, but also turns on the charm when needed. It was refreshing and even heartwarming to see Q with a larger role in the film, and how Dalton’s Bond shows love for the character. Desmond Llewelyn, having worked with all the Bond’s up to this point, has never had the some relationship as he does in this film. It is one of mutual respect.
Being an ‘actors actor’, Dalton really tried his hardest to be involved in all the stunts and Licence To Kill has plenty of action to keep any fan of the franchise happy. What I really like here is that Dalton brings so much humanity to James Bond and in this film, you can see the hurt in his portrayal. I cannot fault his performance here.
Dalton has and will always be one of my favourite James Bond’s and both his films give him excellent range and allow him to shine on screen. All the actors he plays against are perfectly cast, and for once, it is comforting to see 007 working way outside his usual means. Unfortunately for the Dalton fans, Licence To Kill also marks the end of his run as 007. I truly believed if given another one more turn as 007, in his prime, more people would have realised just what an amazing portrayal he brought to the screen.
Licence To Kill is everything one could hope for in a James Bond adventure, and one of my favourites of all time.
James Bond will return in GoldenEye