My James Bond Retrospective: Licence to Kill

Immediately following the release of The Living Daylights, EON Productions began development on the next feature. The plan was to continue in the vein of Timothy Dalton’s first film, exploring Bond’s darker side. The original title for the film was Licence Revoked, but due to some confusion among some American test audiences, the title was changed at the last minute to Licence to Kill.

As a result of this change, the marketing campaign had to be altered significantly to accommodate the new title. The original marketing campaign reflected the darker tone of the film and was an evolution from previous James Bond marketing. The new marketing ended up more “traditional Bond” than the initial campaign, causing some audiences to feel bothered by the darker tone of the movie as they had seen a lighter tone in the advertising.

The film opened at the Odeon Leicester Square in London on June 13, 1989. The film did not do well in the box office; some cite the last-minute marketing change, while others cite the heavily saturated summer of movies. Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters II, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids all came out that summer.

The film opens with Bond and DEA agent friend, Felix Leiter (played once again by David Hedison), on their way to Leiter’s wedding. They’re interrupted when a group of DEA agents inform Leiter that a drug lord he has been hunting down named Sanchez had just been spotted nearby. He and Bond immediately take off and make the arrest. After they complete the mission, they make it just in time for the ceremony.

A $2 million bribe convinces the arresting agent to spring Sanchez free. Sanchez goes after Leiter, kills his wife and feeds Leiter to sharks. Leiter survives, but he loses his arm and his leg to the sharks. Because of his closeness to Leiter and his wife, Bond goes on a personal vendetta, hunting Sanchez and attempting to bring down his operation.

Bond’s actions anger M, who attempts to pull him in. Bond refuses and resigns his commission as 007, going rogue and attempting to accomplish the mission without MI6 support.

Licence to Kill is the darkest and most violent Bond film to date, with a deceptively simple plot and a well executed screenplay. Unfortunately, audiences weren’t prepared for such a dark movie at the time, and the film suffered at the box office. Critics remarked the the film was too dark, and much of the charm that they were used to (likely from the Roger Moore films) had vanished, replaced by an angrier, deadlier sentiment.

Dalton appears more comfortable this time around. The film is built around his darker sensibility and works well for him. I was on the edge of my seat for practically the entire movie. The gritty action, smart dialogue, harsh characters, and simultaneously simple and complex plot all give this film an edge that is much needed in the franchise.

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The primary Bond girl, Pam Bouvier (played by Carey Lowell), is a tough woman who gives 007 a run for his money. She’s an edgy, gritty character who has an intoxicating elegance about her that is tantalizing and frightening at the same time. She’s easily one of my favorite Bond girls, but she’s incomparable to any Bond girl who came before her.

Franz Sanchez, played by Robert Davi, is a vile character. He’s a well portrayed villain, deviant, powerful, and maniacal. The last time I was this awed by a Bond villain was Blofeld from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Every character was well written, but not every character was well portrayed. The secondary Bond girl, for example, was not a good performance. She was stiff and didn’t have a good grasp of her character. It was clear she was doing little more than reciting her lines.

Desmond Llewelyn plays Q yet again, but this time he gets far more opportunities to shine than he ever has. His appearances give much needed comedy relief to an otherwise gloomy film. Despite this, he is able to show off a more sensitive side to his character, a welcome exploration of a mainstay of the franchise.

Licence to Kill is a great film. It was way ahead of its time; the film was about as dark and violent as a mid- to late-2000s film. It’s unfortunate that Bond fans in the 80s weren’t ready for the stark change in the franchise.

This would be the last Bond film anyone would see for a long time. Due to legal difficulties, the film franchise would be held up for several years. Fortunately for us, the next Bond film is just a Blu-Ray disc away.

Next up, GoldenEye.

(Click to go back to the list.)

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