Timothy Dalton’s second and final outing as Commander Bond was 1989’s action packed Licence to Kill. Originally titled Licence Revoked (in keeping with the plot of the film), the title was tweaked as it became evident in post-production that a great number of Americans were struggling with the word “revoked”. Struggling in the sense that A) they didn’t know what it meant or B) thought it was referring to his drivers licence. Regardless, Licence to Kill is obviously a more memorable and pithy title.
The film opens with the groom’s party en route, via helicopter, to Felix Leiter’s marriage ceremony. As most grooms inevitably do on the morning of their big day, the chaps had to swing by a drug lord’s hideout to apprehend him. That’s certainly why I was delayed at my own wedding. After a daring aerial take down of the criminal Franz Sanchez, the groomsmen hand him over to the relevant authorities and parachute down extravagantly to the wedding chapel, thus startling the guests and completely taking the focus off of the bride. Nevertheless, the wedding kicks off, as does the title sequence.
I’m pretty indifferent on both the opening credits and the theme song. Not the best, nor the worst title segment of a Bond movie. Gladys Knight’s Licence to Kill does return the series to a more classic, diva lead ballad as the title track. The previous 2 installments, The Living Daylights and A View to a Kill used much more pop-oriented songs. However when compared with Shirley Bassey, Nancy Sinatra and Carly Simon, for me, Gladys Knight isn’t quite in the same league.
After the credits, the wedding is in full swing, Sanchez is locked away for life and everyone lives happily ever after, making Licence to Kill the shortest 007 film of all time. Well, not quite. Naturally, Sanchez escapes custody as his goons kidnap Felix and his new bride Della. From there the film takes a rather sinister turn involving murder, implied rape, body mutilation and cocaine smuggling.
In short, the film is an action packed Bond adventure that sees 007 going rogue in an effort to take down Sanchez and avenge Della’s death.
Currently, Licence to Kill is the only installment of the franchise (in the UK) to hold a 15 rating, making it the highest rated Bond film to date. According to the British Board of Film Classification, the rating is justified for “moderate bloody violence and injury detail”. It certainly does feel light-years from A View to a Kill, released only 4 years earlier and indeed light-years away from any previous film in the Bond franchise.
Admittedly, I’ve only really been a Bond fan for the last decade or so. Born in 1987, I grew up during the Pierce Brosnan era, and had a marginal interest in the films. I absorbed a couple of the classics on TV during various British bank holidays, Goldfinger, Moonraker etc, but it wasn’t until the Daniel Craig films that I really got interested in the Bond back catalogue. Since then I’ve seen every entry numerous times, and it wasn’t really until the third viewing of Licence to Kill that I got why so many fans hold it in such high regard.
The first time I saw LTK, it stood out from the pack, and didn’t feel like your traditional Bond adventure. It was more in-keeping with the gritty action craze of the late 1980’s, and felt more comparable with films such as Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, or any of the Stallone / Schwarzenegger movies that were being churned out at the time. This is part of the reason I didn’t get on board with the film right away, as, when compared to various other action movies of the time, it just wasn’t as good of an action movie. It wasn’t until recently that I actually watched the film and read it as a Bond film.
Although, packaged and presented much differently than any of the others, Licence to Kill has all the recognisable traits of a classic 007 adventure. There’s girls, gadgets, casinos, tuxedos, martinis, cars, huge action set pieces, exotic locations, extravagant deaths, a super villain, a henchman, Q, M, Felix, a great score and a fifth consecutive directing credit for John Glen.
You can’t hold it against a Bond film for cinematically following the current trends. Roger Moore’s Bond flirted with various flavours of the week, including blacksploitation, kung-fu and science fiction cinema and Daniel Craig’s Bond hopped on the Bourne-bandwagon. So you can’t really criticise the producers for trying something a little different. After all, Timothy Dalton wouldn’t have fit in a Roger Moore Bond film. They had to stray from the formula at some point.
Evidently, audiences weren’t unanimously convinced that this was the right course of action and LTK was Dalton’s final outing as Bond.The film didn’t perform well at the box office at all when compared to it’s predecessors and it would be another 17 years before the producers would attempt such a massive tonal shift with 2006’s Casino Royale. In retrospect however, many fans consider it to be Dalton’s finest work and one of the best films in the series. I think of hardcore James Bond fans as a cult following, and fans who champion Licence to Kill as being a cult following within a cult following.
Admittedly it’s not my favourite James Bond film, Timothy Dalton isn’t one of my favourite Bond actors and it’s not a film I re-visit regularly. However, there is much to enjoy in Licence to Kill. I think it’s Dalton’s best Bond film and I do admire the intention of the filmmakers to ground Bond in reality and give him a grittier and tougher edge. Because, after all, it was Casino Royale that really launched my enthusiasm for Bond. I love the fact the plot is very stripped down when compared to earlier Bond films. There’s not a massive amount of jet-setting or MI6 plot exposition scenes or too many characters running around on various story strands. It’s because of this that that Sanchez gets so much screen time, which is actually a phenomenal amount when compared to Christoph Waltz in Spectre for example.
My initial reservations were that, as an action film, LTK wasn’t as good as some of the other action films of the time, and as a Bond film, wasn’t as good as some of it’s predecessors. But on the 007 timeline, it’s a very short but sweet example of bold experimentation with such an established character. I watch a lot of the older Bond films as historical documents, giving an insight into the trends, fashions and film-making techniques of the time, and Licence to Kill gave a glimpse of what the character of James Bond could be.