"More of a problem eliminator."
Chronology & Stats
James Bond #16
Star: Timothy Dalton #2 (my favorite of his)
Director: John Glen #5 (my favorite of his)
My Ranking #5
Bond gets personal.
Licence to Kill opens with a brilliantly cross-cut, two-level conflict: James Bond and Felix Leiter are on a mission to stop dangerous drug lord Franz Sanchez—and Bond has to get Leiter back in time for his wedding. They succeed, of course, but Sanchez escapes and captures Leiter. Assuming the worst, Bond embarks on a quest for vengeance.
The motivation in almost every single James Bond film up until this point (with the possible but questionable exception of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) has been to save the world and have as much fun doing so as possible. Some Bad Guy gets his hands on Some Bad Thing and holds it like a sword of Damocles over the rest of the world, so Bond has to stop him and have brief sexual liaisons with as many Human Females as possible along the way. This has been the Bond formula, and while Licence to Kill still incorporates most of these tropes (the Bad Guys, the Human Females), it does so from a skewed perspective.
This personal vendetta angle is the strongest propulsive force of any Bond film up to this point; it gives the story an emotional core which keeps the film moving relentlessly forward. Beyond this formal benefit, however, it also gives the film a unique new perspective: Bond as vigilante, the dark side of a figure who until now has been exclusively heroic. 007 forced to fight against the organization that helped create him, removing his access to resources previously taken for granted and revealing the psychological fragility of a man who kills for a living. Outside of a throwaway line in The Man with the Golden Gun, this is the first Bond to take a hard look at the consequences of the life of a secret agent. The first hints of Bond as a real character instead of a cipher for masculinity.
That’s not to say that the film is overly self-serious, however. It retains all of the familiar silly Bond conventions (with the notable absence of the MI6 briefing scene), and it still has enough of a sense of humor to include a ski-less waterskiing scene. The action here is some of the best in the franchise to date: the stunts are big and well executed, with only a few ugly front projection shots (and generally in places where they have little to ruin). There’s an 18-wheeler chase scene that wouldn’t feel out of place in The Road Warrior, and the cold open includes a helicopter-to-airplane aerial maneuver that puts the skydiving stunt in Moonraker to shame.
And speaking of fun, Licence to Kill has one of the best villain ensembles in the series. Led by Robert Davi as Sanchez, it’s essentially a four-man unit consisting of Anthony Zerbe (I know him from the Matrix sequels, but he’s a classic 80’s character actor), Everett McGill (Big Ed in Twin Peaks) and a disarmingly young Benicio del Toro (only his second film role). These guys do a great job playing evil off of each other and interacting in their own distinct ways with Bond, and they all provide an excellent sense of threat—and, as a consequence, an excellent sense of payoff and they’re nixed one by one.
And yet, if possible, the good guys’ side is even better. I’m a big fan of Timothy Dalton, and I think he plays sly and debonair rather well, but the even greater success in my mind is Carey Lowell as Pam Bouvier. She’s an informant who fights side by side with Bond, even saving him in their first encounter. She’s finally the equal to 007 that the franchise deserves but rarely achieves. And on top of her (not literally, of course), Q gets to do field work instead of being stuck in the (admittedly awesome but disappointingly isolated) Q Branch scenes. Desmond Llewelyn is one of my absolute favorite parts of the Bond universe, and he gets more to do here than almost anywhere else.
Like most Bonds, Licence to Kill suffers from a slightly prolonged run time, and as much as I hate to call out performances as good or bad there’s just no redeeming Talisa Soto’s monotone here, but otherwise this was an incredibly pleasant surprise from one of the few Bond movies I had never seen before. An instant favorite.
James Bond ranked | Favorites from My Favorites Directors | John Glen