In defence of….Licence to Kill

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In 1985 a 60 year old Roger Moore had starred in ‘A View to a Kill’, it was a solid Bond offering but it was becoming apparent that Bond was aging. 1987’s ‘The Living Daylights’ rebooted Bond, for the first time we saw Bond played by Timothy Dalton – the James Bond character Ian Flemming had in mind.

The ‘Living Daylights’ was an excellent but cautious film, not yet ready to stray too far from conventions – Bond may have been darker but he was still driving cars with rocket launchers and fighting Aryan super men. 1989’s ‘Licence to Kill’ had the confidence to do away with all of that – we weren’t going to get the Bond we’d known for 20 years, we were getting something radical for the 16th Bond film.

James Bond and Felix Leiter secure a major coup with the arrest of drug lord Franz Sanchez. Sanchez’s connections (and money) soon see him make a daring prison break and he sets out for revenge. Sanchez murders Felix’s wife and then feeds Felix to a shark at the marine research facility he uses as a front – Felix, still alive, is then dumped at his home as a message. Those familiar with the Bond series will remember Felix as Bond’s friend since ‘Thunderball’ – and Bond is out for revenge. M16 feel this is a CIA matter and refuse Bond’s request to pursue Sanchez. Bond resigns and heads off to South America where it won’t be a jet pack, invisible car or exploding pen that will save him – he’s going to have to rely on his wits.

In an age of Jason Bourne Licence to Kill seems more like a template than a radical departure – but audiences were left stunned by this offering. Licence to Kill is harrowing in its violence. People have been fed to sharks (and piranha) in plenty of Bond films – but we have never seen it quite so graphically. Licence to Kill features a guys heart being cut out, another guy being exploded and a henchman dragged through a mincer – as blood sprays across the walls. So violent, it was only in the last 2 years it was released unedited. This isn’t ‘Bond’ violence either – it’s intense, graphic and designed to be as unsettling as possible. We’ve seen violence against women before in a Bond film – after all, Bond’s own wife is killed in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ – but here Sanchez brutally whips his own girlfriend after she tries to escape him. The entire film has an air of menace a Bond film wouldn’t see again. At one point Bond ends up rescued by Sanchez, who is yet to realise who Bond is. We know Bond is in a ridiculous degree of danger and with absolutely no back up – and these scenes boil with tension, for god’s sake man – get out of there! In attempting to reboot Bond audiences decided director John Glen had gone too far.

John Glen was certainly no novice when it came to Bond – this would be his 5th consecutive offering (and in this authors opinion, the second best Bond director after Martin Campell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale). Glen is determined to keep Bond’s feet on the ground, while we do get the spectacular we don’t get the Moore era absurdity or campy humour. While Glen had demonstrated his skill with set pieces in 1983’s ‘For Your Eyes Only’, Licence to Kill would feature less grandiose action. That’s not to say this isn’t a film heavy on action or great sequences. At one point Bond is discovered infiltrating Sanchez crime buddy Milton Crest’s yacht and has to escape – pursued by divers he harpoons a plane, skis behind before climbing aboard and hurling the pilots to their deaths. Licence to Kill’s greatest sequences is reserved for the end – Sanchez attempts to escape with close to a 100 tonnes of cocaine hidden inside oil tankers. As these tankers hurtle down dusty roads Bond fights off drivers, gun men and gravity with explosions galore. It’s probably my favourite sequence in the Bond series. Incidentally watch for similarities with a sequence in Jason Statham’s ‘The Transporter’.

The cast is simply excellent. Timothy Dalton is perfect as the ruthless and vengeful Bond and it’s a tragedy he never got to reprise Bond a third time. Timothy Dalton’s Bond doesn’t do the humour or womanising as well as Sean Connery – but then that isn’t the attempt. This is a more introverted Bond, that’s not to say that many young ladies pass him by. Robert Davi is the most evil villain in Bond history; his ruthless and worryingly plausible portrayal was perfect for this film. Anthony Zerbe and Benicio Del Torro play Sanchez henchmen – Del Torro is perhaps even more sinister than Robert Davi’s character.

No Bond film would be complete with Bond girls. Talisa Sota plays Sanchez girlfriend Lupe, who wants Bond to kill her keeper. Lupe is stunningly beautiful but also dangerous – the kind of woman that gets men in trouble. Carey Lowell plays Pam Bouvier, tough and resourceful she has her own reasons for wanting Sanchez dead. One of a new breed of Bond girls she can take care of herself and actually saves Bond at one point. We had seen Bond girls with brains before – Barbara Bach’s Soviet agent in The Spy who Loved Me for instance, but Licence to Kill continued a trend that has continued to this day.  

Licence to Kill is intense and violent and shares little in common with the Roger Moore era. Audiences weren’t ready for a film ahead of its time and its summer release alongside a series of blockbusters meant its one of the least remembered Bond films. Interestingly, the stripped down and violent formula of Licence to Kill was back with Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace where it was meant with almost hysterical praise. Licence to Kill was 15 years too early and I hope modern audiences will be able to see it for what it is – a stunning film and if its not the best Bond film that’s only because of the huge budgets subsequent entries had. Licence to Kill is my third favourite Bond film after GoldenEye and Casino Royale and is easily one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen.

Violent, unconventional and daring, Licence to Kill will shock and amaze for 2 hours. Nobody does it better – 9/10

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