Well, omigollygosh! Here we are yet again to be human sponges, absorbing as much of James Bond as we possibly can! 17 movies into this hackneyed and unoriginal project already? At this point, we should be getting to the creamier of the crop as we mosey along. And after a world in which we’ve experienced invisible cars, slide whistles, and redneck sheriffs, it is about to get a little rougher and tougher today.
Way back a million years ago in 1989, one quickly realized that you would have to practically insane to release a movie that highly competitive year. Unless you were prepping a blockbuster, you were absolutely shoe-shedding bonkers, like a rat in an outhouse level of nuts to even try. Let’s review how jam packed that year was. There was Ghostbusters 2, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Lethal Weapon 2, Back to the Future Part II, Police Academy 6: City Under Siege (just seeing if you were paying attention…), and the topper of all topmost tippity-top: the legendary UHF.
Oh, that’s not enough cinema for you? Here’s a little Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade with Sean Connery’s “no damn toupee” action thrown your way. Still not enough? How about Tim Burton’s Batman? Yeah, the towering colossus known as Batman was out conquering the planet that year.
As you can see, you would have to be completely out of your mind to release a movie that year unless it was some sort of popular sequel or had Batman or “Weird Al” in it at the very least. So of course, the most historically popular franchise in the world decided to press on, putting the next 007 movie in the pipeline: Licence Revoked. What, you never heard of this film? It turns out that the producers thought that American audiences were too stupid to know what the word “revoked” even meant, so they changed it to Licence To Kill. (As an American, I should be insulted but the sad thing is, the producers were probably right with that call.)
Thankfully they already had their Bond in Timothy Dalton after he established himself in the role in 1987’s The Living Daylights. As a quick note on our Bond for today: Dalton is an actor that took Ian Fleming’s creation very seriously. He went back to the Fleming books, bringing much of the literary character to life in his two Bond movies. Here’s as good a place as any for me to state in an unbiased fashion that Dalton was the best James Bond actor ever in the history of ever. (Upon reading that, I think I did come off a tad biased, but I could be wrong.)
A large part of my unabashedly predisposed reasoning is that Dalton was the very first Bond that I ever saw in the theater back in the horseless carriage days of the late 1980s. My parents either thought that I was mentally ready to handle James Bond on the big screen or they just didn’t care. And because I was a mere 8 year-old stripling at the time, this Bond was amazing, leaving quite the impression!
It is a shame that Dalton only played 007 twice. He was contractually obligated to play Bond a third time, but since GoldenEye took forever in development, when it finally came about, Dalton bowed out. He felt that too much time had passed since 1989 and asked to be released from his contract. While this opened the door for Pierce Brosnan finally being able to be cast as 007, for me it was sad that Dalton never did another Bond movie or two or eight. Hell, I’d still watch him do it now!
One thing is certain about Dalton: he was a splash of cold water in the face of a generation that grew up with Roger Moore’s Bond over his seven movies. The jokes and the overt tongue-in-cheekiness were all but gone. This Bond wasn’t about to fart around in a fake crocodile while engaging in laser battles in space with Grace Jones. Yes, there were still some one-liners, but this Bond was a more cynical and serious battle hardened agent in comparison. This take on the character comes in handy, given the darker story for Licence To Kill.
The premise of the entire film involves 007 going rogue, seeking revenge on the drug lord who not only mutilated Bond’s CIA pal Felix Leiter but also killed Leiter’s brand new bride. Bond goes off the radar, basically reenacting the plot of Yojimbo by infiltrating the drug kingpin’s organization, taking it apart bit by bit from within. After over 25 years had passed, the Bond producers finally did something different with the character besides recasting him. It was quite refreshing and quite a risk.
Obviously, ever since this movie, Bond has gone rogue a couple of times. Judi Dench’s M tells Pierce not to indulge in a personal vendetta in GoldenEye, to which he replies, “Never.” (Even though 007 did just that in the previous movie: Licence To Kill!) Brosnan goes on his own in Die Another Day, which was one of the few promising ideas in that movie. Daniel Craig makes it a habit in every one of his Bond movies to dash off on his own at some point. But back in 1989, this was a novel idea. One would never see Roger going off against orders to exact his bloody revenge on a drug lord. After all, Rog didn’t want to get his safari suit dirty. Besides all the slide whistles and Beach Boys tunes would give his game away.
As far as villains go for this one, we have the simply wonderful Robert Davi making the most out of what could have been just a cookie cutter drug lord cliché in Sanchez. Davi has ruthless qualities, but also a certain charm about him. He also has great acting chops so seeing him face off with Dalton is rather electrifying. I also like that he uses the line “Señor Bond, you have big cajones.” He does indeed! They both do!
There’s also a cadre of second rank villains that Bond has to deal with. A rather young Benicio del Toro plays Sanchez’s main henchman, the rather vicious Dario. It is weird seeing him here because about six years later he’d be mumbling his way through The Usual Suspects and three years after that, he’d run ragged through Las Vegas with Johnny Depp.
Longtime character actor Don Stroud plays Sanchez’s head of security. Longertime character actor Anthony Zerbe plays Milton Krest, who uses his ship to smuggle drugs for Sanchez. Krest is a character from the Fleming short story The Hildebrand Rarity. (Oh, don’t pretend to not be impressed that I know that.) Onetime Seinfeld actor, as Jimmy in “The Jimmy”, Anthony Starke is Truman-Lodge, who handles Sanchez’s financial holdings. With the cast this packed, one could only hope that some kind of famous Las Vegas entertainer would somehow join the proceedings as well…
But lo and behold! Here comes Wayne Newton as the smarmy televangelist Professor Joe Butcher, whose prayer and meditation institute is a cover for Sanchez’s operations. The best thing one can say about Newton is that he is quite entertaining and believable in the movie. Then again the duet he has with Dalton where they sing “Danke Schoen” together is rather off-putting, but well worth it. That last part might be something I made up. Watch the film to see!
Cast as Bond girls in this installment is the rather lovely Talisa Soto, playing Sanchez’s girlfriend and the rather lovely Carey Lowell, playing CIA informant Pam Bouvier. Neither are villains, which is good because the villain dance card is rather full. Both do their jobs just fine, but neither of them is in the Bond girl hall of fame or the hall of infamy either. This isn’t either Soto’s or Lowell’s fault; the focus on Bond’s revenge overshadowed everything else.
Coming back to the franchise is David Hedison as Felix Leiter. Hedison previously played Leiter as a kind of long suffering sidekick to Roger’s Bond in Live and Let Die. In this movie he gets attacked and mauled by a shark that was set on him by Sanchez. This story point was actually in the book version of Live and Let Die, even to the point of having the bad guy leave a note on Leiter’s person afterwards that says “He disagreed with something that ate him.”
One of the best things about Licence To Kill is that they gave Desmond Llewelyn’s Q a lot more to do. Usually his scenes would consist of Bond showing up in whatever makeshift headquarters they set up for Q and getting some nifty gadgets and that’s it. But this time Q is part of the action, showing up in the field to help, assisting Bond in his vendetta throughout. I’m glad that the script allowed for him to have an expanded role, but sad that it took over 25 years before it happened. I like to think that Q is only too glad to help Dalton after all the nonsense he had to endure with Roger!
The stunts in Licence To Kill are top notch. The pre-credits teaser has a great aerial moment where Bond comes down from a helicopter to lasso a plane. Some more aerial work was done with a pontoon plane as it towed Bond while he waterskied behind it without skis. The final battle has some incredible work with semi-trucks, even at one point having an entire tanker truck balancing on one side of wheels while driving. And as this is a Dalton Bond, no Tarzan yells happen and not a Beach Boy can be found anywhere.
This is not a perfect Bond movie however. Michael Kamen did the score and while it definitely has a Latin flavor sprinkled throughout, it also sounds like a Michael Kamen score from a number of other action movies he did around this time. Choose any of the Lethal Weapons, Die Hards 1,2, & 3, and Last Action Hero, and aside from using the Bond theme, Kamen’s score for Licence To Kill doesn’t sound much different than those other films. The title theme song performed by Gladys Knight is okay, not great. The end credit song, “If You Asked Me To” sung by Patti LaBelle, is definitely more well known. The song later became an even larger hit when Celine Dion covered it but then no one remembered where it originally came from, which is sad.
I understand the character of Bond being such a focused hard case that he rejects help from all comers, including Pam Bouvier and Q, but he gets rather annoying with his constant rebuffing of their offers to assist. All they can do is help him in his quest but he keeps on trying to send them away, but then he relents on the idea and then the cycle of “go away!”/”okay, you can help” repeats itself. This happens enough times to be noticed by the viewer as being bothersome and by “the viewer” I mean me.
Now this Bond movie isn’t for everyone, but time has definitely been kinder for this adventure when compared to some other 007 entries. I simply think it was a horrible time to release a Bond film during the distracting cacophony at the box office that came from Batman, Indiana Jones, and other sequels and dazzling effects fare that year. Subsequently, it was smothered at the 1989 box office. Licence To Kill did make money, don’t get me wrong, but Jack Nicholson and Mel Gibson and a tricked-out DeLorean collectively managed to do what Blofeld never did: they took James Bond out. (Now that being said, would you watch a Back to the Future starring the Joker and Martin Riggs? I would!)
Again, Timothy Dalton is my favorite James Bond actor and I think historically, he gets an unfair short shrift because he only did two of them. He also had uphill battles with his Bonds. The Living Daylights was developed as a possible Roger vehicle that had to be rewritten to suit Dalton’s characterization when he was finally cast. Licence To Kill was released in an overcrowded theater year and alienated some audiences because of the Bond going rogue storyline and the violence. (PG-13? Oh, how horrific!) But despite this, Dalton definitely held his own throughout.
I can only imagine what Dalton could have done with GoldenEye. We never found out and that’s a missed opportunity to be sure.