Licence To Kill

On to the second and the more vexing of the Dalton 007 flicks, he’s got a License To Kill oh wait no it’s been revoked how could that have happened they’ve usually been pretty lenient before,

The Opening

It’s literal hi-jinks as James Bond and his good CIA buddy Felix Leiter are on their way to Felix’s wedding on the Florida Keys. On the way, though, they’re waylaid by the DEA who have found out that big bad drug lord Sanchez is in the area and want Leiter to help out, while Bond comes along for the ride.

After the obligatory shootout, they nab Sanchez trying to escape the area in a light aircraft by tying it up to the Coast Guard’s chopper. Yeah, that’s three different agencies involved. Anyway, job done, they manage to get the church in time by parachute. Cue opening credits.

The Titles

You know what? I’m tired of describing these – I think I even stopped trying in earnest about half a dozen films back. I love the style as it puts you in the headspace for the film to come, like the Star Wars crawl, but it’s basically gone along the same ideas – even the same typeface – for ages.

The Soundtrack

The title song is performed by the Empress of Soul, Gladys Knight, bringing back the torch song after the new wave phase, and Patti LaBelle doing “If I Asked You Too” over the end credits. Michael Kamen was brought in to do the main score as Barry was otherwise detained, and being a very experienced soundtrack composer by this time, does a pretty good fist of it.

The Locations

Besides revisiting the tip of Florida and the Bahamas for what seems like the umpteenth time, the crux of the action takes off to what’s referred to as “Isthmus City”, somewhat of a proxy for Panama in General Noriega’s time, although the actual filming takes place in Mexico.

Notably, the only part set in the Old Dart is Moneypenny surreptitiously arranging to send some support to Bond, who is effectively on the lam.

The Genre

Firstly, I should point out that this is one of those Bond films that foregoes just being “Bond” and runs with a popular prevailing trend in the wider world of popcorn cinema; to wit – drug trafficking thrillers. Things like Tango & Cash starring Kurt Russell, Lethal Weapon starring Mel Gibson, and Tequila Sunrise starring Kurt Russell and Mel Gibson.

Not that Bond tackling a kingpin is entirely new territory for the series, of course, recalling Live And Let Die. What puts the distinctly late 80s tone on proceedings is the revenge part.

That Got Dark Quickly

You see, we pick things back up after the wedding at the reception, everyone having a lovely time, Felix Leiter (David Hedison, the first actor to reprise the role in the series, with his last time being 16 years prior) and Della give James an engraved lighter as a gift to the best man, eventually Bond leaves the party to go to his next assignment.

Meanwhile, not far away, Sanchez, being used to throwing stacks of cash to bend cops if bullets aren’t practicable – “silver or lead” as it goes – promises to throws a stack more at CIA guy Killifer who is supposed to be bringing him in, but rather succumbs to the bribe and allows Sanchez to escape.

Sanchez promptly has his goons go to Leiter’s place to carry out the reprisal – one of the goons being Dario, played by Benicio Del Toro in an early role. They do brutal things to Leiter with a shark and arguably worse to his bride. Bond is just about to leave at the airport when he gets wind that a drug lord has escaped – he assumes the worst, and finds the assumption to be correct upon returning to the Leiters’ residence, with Felix missing a few extremities and his wife… yeah, it’s brutal.

The Vendetta

Having experienced something similar himself (see OHMSS) and then seeing it done to his best mate, Bond goes bugfuck insane, albeit in as coolly professional a manner as one can do when embarking on a vendetta. M gets wind of this, arrives in the Keys and orders Bond back to work, Bond is having none of it and offers his resignation, as is usual in such circumstances, M gives him two weeks leave but – this time – revokes his licence to kill, Bond is having none of that either, and escapes. He’s gone rogue. *extremely deep and gravelly voice* He’s a loose cannon! He’s a maverick! He’s on a mission of payback!

First thing Bond does on his private investigation is check out the marine research centre, owned by one Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), who uses it as a front for his boat to traffick drugs and money back and forth for Sanchez. Bond checks out the boat and the operation and Sanchez’s girlfriend Lupe Fiasco – I mean Lamora – (Talisa Soto) and then pinches a stack of cash just for the hell of it.

He also hooks up with Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) in the Bahamas, the last survivor on Leiter’s list of contacts. Dario also turns up to the meeting, a bar fight ensues, yada yada yada, let’s just cut to the chase and go to Isthmus City.

The Squeeze

While Bond was probably as monogamous as he’d ever been in the previous film, this time around he’s bouncing between Lamora – who more or less tells Bond as much as she knows about what Sanchez is up to, since Sanchez whips her – and Bouvier – who is a very capable pilot and fortunately isn’t the kind to shut up because that’s what expected of her.

The Operation

Where basically Sanchez has bought the whole country, the bank, the casino, the cops and everything with even El Presidente having to answer to him. Bond uses the cash he stole from Sanchez to set up an account in Sanchez’s bank (sneaky!) and uses it as collateral to go to the casino, roll some highs, and get himself a meeting with Sanchez (who presumably didn’t recognise him from the arrest earlier).

Sanchez takes a bit of convincing but buys Bond’s “I’m an ex-British agent” schtick – because technically it’s true. Bond even manages to drop Krest in the poo by claiming Krest has been siphoning money for himself, and then cashing out some of Sanchez’s in the decompression chamber of Krest’s yacht for when Sanchez inspects it. For his apparent disloyalty Krest himself gets locked in the chamber, and, well, the results are pretty gruesome/weird.

Q turns up, not really caring that 007 is “on leave”, and drops some gadgets on him. Bond tries to make use of these to snipe Sanchez as he’s negotiating with some prospective partners from the East, but the operation doesn’t quite work out, and indeed Bond finds himself having to deal with … ninjas? From the HKPD? Yes, he’s stumbled onto their operation to take Sanchez out, but before they can sort of their differences, Sanchez’s guys turn up and kill the Hong Kong cops, Bond awakes in Sanchez’s compound and plays the situation to get further into Sanchez’s confidences, and pretty soon he gets to see the actual operation himself.

Although it’d be fair to say that Sanchez doesn’t ever completely trust him, as he outlines the cunning plan – dissolve the cocaine into petroleum, ship the product out in tankers, and then extract it later. It’s all hidden underneath some kooky charismatic temple run by Prof. Joe Butcher (Wayne Newton) who plays a oily televangelist charlatan for some cult temple.

Anyway, as its Bond’s turn to get executed, all hell breaks looks as the facility begins to explode, all of Sanchez’s flunkies get checked off – Dario ends up dying in what looks like a meat grinder, the head of security is impaled by a forklift, the nerdy accountant gets shot for bugging Sanchez about the externalities. Finally, after what is a pretty cool pursuit sequence involving several petrol tankers and Bouvier buzzing around in a plane, finally Bond sets Sanchez aflame with Leiter’s lighter.

After a quick shot to Leiter recovering from his injuries telling Bond that his bosses have forgiven his trespass, Bond chills out with Q at a party, fobbing Lupe off onto El Presidente – who apparently isn’t too bothered by the demise of his country’s biggest industries, drug trafficking and charlatan worship – and choosing to hang out with Bouvier instead.

The Production

This was a weeeeird one. The last time I watched it I was a bit underwhelmed by it, maybe because I was comparing it to The Living Daylights, but on this reviewing, eh, it’s not so bad. Still pretty brutal though. Also, that recurring thing with shark scenes in the Bond films is still pretty tedious – although this time around at least it had a point.

After LTK, the rights to 007 got into a legal minefield, delaying the next Bond film for six years, after a period they’d been churned out every second year for over a decade. As a result, this would be Timothy Dalton’s last Bond film, and I reckon it was a shame we didn’t see at least one more out of him, just to see what he could do with the character next.

As for the two we’ve have, they’re what I would call solid – credible plots, plenty of action, minimum cheese. If Roger Moore had remained the archetype of the filmic Bond for his successors, there mightn’t have been much point to the Austin Powers films. The Bond of Dalton is considerably more gritty and hardboiled, but also not afraid of vulnerability, which you never really got from Connery, to mark that difference. Once Pierce Brosnan was finally able to take up the role, he could take a bit from both while putting his own stamp on the character.

The hiatus probably wasn’t a bad thing, to give things a breather, though. The real world was changing, with the Cold War was winding up – hence the War on Drugs backdrop instead – so the world of Bond needed to change too. What we end up with next is a pretty good film that deals with that new world, also reclaiming some of the fantasism of the peak of the Moore years. That is for next time, though.


At times an ugly film, but aside from that, fortunately it doesn’t meander off the path too far. 007 plays a dangerous game and it’s quite fascinating to watch him slowly pull apart Sanchez’s network, even when he’s has to improvise. And of course one thing it does is flesh out a little more of the Bond backstory, giving Leiter something to do other than be Bond’s American friend who sorts out the paperwork. In this case, Leiter must suffer.

The continuity of a series that was already well into its third decade is getting particularly wonky. One way of trying to explain it is James Bond is a Time Lord (nb: Skyfall spoilers) which is an absolutely bonkers theory that I love, in the process tying together two of the most enduring characters in British popular genre. The theory’s driven into overdrive by Dalton later appearing as Rassilon in the Doctor Who revival, which is why I’m mentioning it here, but that’s where I’ll leave it.

As we leave Dalton’s Bond to brood moodily, I’m giving it 16 out of 20 electric eels.