Review: Licence To Kill

Welcome to my review of Licence To Kill, the sixteenth part of my challenge to review all of the James Bond films. I’m watching each film in turn and trying to figure out which one is my favourite. For more information, see my introduction here. You can read my review of the previous film, The Living Daylights, here. Spoilers follow.

Licence To Kill
(dir. John Glen, 1989)

Licence To Kill trailerAs disappointed as I am that Timothy Dalton only made two Bond films, that’s nothing compared to how disappointed my girlfriend is.

She’s been quietly supportive of my challenge to review all the Bond films, partly because she prefers 007 to the plethora of spandex-clad heroes that I normally follow in film, but mostly because it gets me writing, and anything that gets me writing is A Good Thing. While she hasn’t watched every film with me, she’s made sure to watch at least one complete film from each of the Bond actors (off the top of my head, she’s sat through the entirety of From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me and Licence To Kill, so she’s had a very good selection), and when she first saw Dalton her comment was, “He’s the best looking guy so far”.

Let’s look at that for a moment before I get into my review proper. She didn’t much like Roger Moore (“He’s not a spy; he’s a bit seedy”), and despite recognising the merits of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service she really didn’t rate George Lazenby too highly. She was—possibly unusually—nonchalant towards Sean Connery, and I know from recent cinema trips that Daniel Craig is too thuggish for her tastes. I think she likes Pierce Brosnan, but Dalton definitely caught her eye.

But why? He’s not as immaculately coiffured as Moore; indeed, both The Living Daylights and Licence To Kill are filled to the brim with scenes of Bond getting out of the water or standing on the outside of aeroplanes with their hair doing exactly what you would imagine it would in real life. He does wear tuxes, but he looks more comfortable in a leather jacket or a plain black uniform than he does in a suit. He doesn’t have the male model looks of Lazenby; he’s a bit rough round the edges, but not to the same extreme as Craig’s later Bond would be. I can sort of see my girlfriend’s point.

For my part, Licence To Kill didn’t grab me immediately.

In fact, I really didn’t like the first part of the film very much. Bond is on his way to attend the wedding of his old CIA friend Felix Leiter (David Hedison), but the two of them are distracted by an opportunity to nab notorious drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). They get their man in a reasonably cool sequence involving chaining a plane to a helicopter (I don’t want to think about the actual physics of this, because I suspect it’ll make my head hurt) and make their way to Leiter’s lovely bride. And then we have a wedding scene, set in Florida.

I’m not sure why, but I’ve come to think that—Live And Let Die aside—the Bond franchise is at its weakest when it visits the US, in particular Florida. Any mentions of Miami now make me squirm, because I’ve come to think it must have been a cheap (although slightly) location for the filmmakers (this may not be true). The Floridian scenes in Licence To Kill don’t work for me. I don’t like Leiter much, I don’t think Bond is best man material in a wedding, and frankly I’m not sure I want to see him at a party when he’s not actively working.

Sanchez inevitably escapes and enacts his revenge on Leiter (who loses a leg and a new wife, although judging by how cheerful he is at the end of the film you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d just lost a nice pen), and Bond—intent on revenging his friend—becomes a rogue agent from MI6. As soon as this happens, the film suddenly ramps up, turning from a bit mediocre into bloody brilliant.

Let me count the ways. We’ve got a very young Benicio Del Toro as one of Sanchez’s goons, and he’s great as a young street thug on the rise; there’s an arrogant intimidation around him, and it’s easy to see how he’s become as successful as he has. In fact, most of Sanchez’s gang are entertaining, including Sanchez himself, who is every bit the evil bastard that The Living Daylights lacked.

While I wasn’t the greatest fan of Bond girl Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), her action scenes rival those of Bond himself; at no point does Bond need to rescue her, which is good. It’s also great to see Q (Desmond Llewelyn) in an expanded role; while I can’t see him as a field agent, he’s kept at a good distance from the pyrotechnics, and after all these years we see what a stunning rapport he has with our favourite British agent. He is, simply put, one of the highlights of the entire series.

Finally, the film ends well. Bond (and, to be fair, Bouvier) don’t have a convenient army to help them this time; they take on Sanchez’s organisation alone, making for a much more satisfying ending than Licence To Kill or even A Spy Who Loved Me.

I like this film. I like Timothy Dalton. It’s a shame that the franchise proceeded to die for six years, because a third Dalton film could have been incredible.

Title song: Gladys Knight’s Licence To Kill is the best Bond theme song of the 80s, but it’s still not as good as earlier entries in the series.

Greatest moment: Bond dodging a missile by putting an articulated lorry—and trailer—up on its side sounds like the cheesiest stunt in history… until you see it happen. It’s completely brilliant, and it’s closely followed by the Bond theme tune being replicated by the sounds of ricocheting bullets.

Worst moment: I already mentioned the wedding, but actually the weakest moment for me was Bond’s defection, where I think I saw him kick M (Robert Brown) in the nuts. His reinstatement to MI6 at the end of the film is also thrown in.

Best gadget: Q hands Bond a selection of gadgets which mostly remain unused, but Q’s own radio disguised as a broom gets special mention for the irritated way in which it is treated by its owner.

Best quote:
Q: Oh, don’t be an idiot, 007. I know exactly what you’re up to, and quite frankly you’re going to need my help. Remember, if it hadn’t been for Q Branch, you’d have been dead long ago.

Most obvious product placement: A massive Olympus camera appears in the opening credits, despite the only major camera in the film being the Q branch gun.

Verdict: The opening of the film brings its overall rating down for me, although it’s still a great Bond film in its own right. I’m putting it just—only just—ahead of Dalton’s other film, The Living Daylights.

  1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (dir. Peter Hunt, 1969)
  2. From Russia With Love (dir. Terence Young, 1963)
  3. The Spy Who Loved Me (dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1977)
  4. Goldfinger (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1964)
  5. Licence To Kill (dir. John Glen, 1989)
  6. The Living Daylights (dir. John Glen, 1987)
  7. Live And Let Die (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1973)
  8. For Your Eyes Only (dir. John Glen, 1981)
  9. Dr No (dir. Terence Young, 1962)
  10. You Only Live Twice (dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1967)
  11. The Man With The Golden Gun (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1974)
  12. Octopussy (dir. John Glen, 1983)
  13. Thunderball (dir. Terence Young, 1965)
  14. A View To A Kill (dir. John Glen, 1985)
  15. Diamonds Are Forever (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1971)
  16. Moonraker (dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1979)

The franchise took a break here for six years, but I’m not going to: catch up next time for Pierce Brosnan’s first entry into the series (and the first Bond film I saw at the cinema): Goldeneye.


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