Licence to Kill (1989)

If The Living Daylights was a step forward in grounding the Bond series, Licence to Kill is running in place. It’s a film with the illusion of progress, but every scene that brings something original, grounded or exciting to the franchise is counteracted by something goofy or over the top. One is not necessarily less entertaining than the other, but it does end up making two tones that never quite mesh.

When James Bond (Timothy Dalton) plays best man at Felix Leiter’s (David Hedison), he’s the backup for a sting operation for drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). At first all is well, Franz is behind bars, Felix is married and Bond is given a reprieve from spy life. But then Franz gets out of jail and exacts revenge on Felix. After witnessing the crime scene, Bond is out for blood.

This taps into Dalton’s Bond as emotional, yet cruel. Fueled by a personal vendetta, he becomes brash and brutal. When the agency tries to rein in him, he goes rogue. The emotional strand works because the film takes the time to set up Bond as human, someone who has strong ties to friends that he loves. And once it is robbed from him, the film shows a side of Bond that it has only revealed glimpses of in past Bond films.

Blinded by anger, this Bond also has the propensity to make mistakes or even do the wrong thing. The film suggests more than once that Bond loses sight of the greater good he’s been called to serve, pettily putting at risk the lives of others and the best interest of the people for a personal vendetta.

This seething story of revenge is only one half of the film. The other is an over the top, story of drug cartels getting it. Some of the action sequences are decent enough, but a lot are built around some absolutely incredible and ridiculous moments that are so insane, they can only be a joke. Other moments feel like a riff off the past 9 years of ‘80s action cinema.

The film also has the dimensions of gadgets, which still feel a bit out of place in this version of Bond. Some of them seem a bit unnecessary, like the camera gun. Why can’t he just use a real gun? And the microphone broom is one of Q’s (Deasmond Llewelyn) most forced moments in a Bond film, although still nowhere near as bad as his many scenes in A View to a Kill.

The story also smacks a bit of DePalma’s Scarface. The film has a decent story surrounding the villain as he’s crafted a rather elaborate drug syndicate that Bond gradually discovers and then unravels. It’s fun to see the screws slowly bear down on Franz and more than once it makes him feel a bit like Pacino’s Scarface, although without the terrible accent.

This does bring up another element that makes Dalton’s Bond fascinating to watch. He’s just as interested in using deceit and deception to meet his ends as opposed to violence. It’s the kind of work one would expect a real spy would do and a nice break from all the scenes of romancing woman and killing lots of thugs.

Speaking of romancing women, this film does do a better job at developing the romantic ties than almost any other Bond film. The relationships feel a bit more playful and human and this time around the Bond girls has a streak of jealousy in her. And that’s because this film has a love triangle! Albeit, it’s not a particularly strong triangle, but I’ll take it.

From scene to scene, there’s not much Licence to Kill does wrong. There are two really good films here, but in conjunction, they diminish each other in quality. One film is of the times and able to insert Bond in a fun ‘80s flick. The other is a dark, bold Bond film that isn’t afraid the make the character simultaneously more human and crueler. Together, they play to safe, challenging the audience enough to give them something fresh but also leaning back on enough tried and true material to bet on making a profit.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing