Licence to Kill Review
“Effective immediately, your licence to kill is revoked, and I require you to hand over your weapon. Now. I need hardly remind you that you're still bound by the Official Secrets Act.”
“I guess it's, uh... a farewell to arms.”
When Timothy Dalton’s second outing with a Licence To Kill came along in 1989, it was hailed as being the most brutal and the most ruthless 007 mission produced thus far. In the UK, it earned itself a “15” certificate and there was some considerable hype surrounding the level of violence it contained and its altogether darker theme of personal revenge.
Count me in, I thought. I’d loved Dalton’s first portrayal of the character in The Living Daylights and thought very highly of his graver, more dramatic style, his far more serious interpretation of a character who had totally lapsed into self-parody before he took over. He had that cold gleam in his eye and, to me, he was the sort of Bond that I had visualised when reading the books. He was as far removed from Roger Moore as you could get in terms of attitude and demeanour, which also meant that he couldn’t deliver the one-liners with any spontaneity and that his roguish way with the ladies was considerably undercooked. But for this 80’s AIDs-terrified era, this was surely the better way to go. Yet, there was a bizarre new trait that brought something a little bit odd to his characterisation in Daylights – his protective nature towards Maryam d’Abo’s cello-player made him appear much too compassionate and caring, certainly more so than any other Bond before him. And although unusual, this made for a strangely effective hint of psychological duality when juxtaposed alongside his colder, less forgiving side. He was almost like one of those serial killers whose shocked neighbours would be quoted as claiming “but he was such a nice man,” once they found out the truth.
Yet, when I first saw his second film upon its theatrical release I was hugely disappointed.
Yes, there was more violence in the mix, the villainy was more credibly nasty and Bond was a locomotive of retribution. Yes, Dalton’s darker personification was harder and unflinchingly single-minded. Yes, the story was resolutely personal and grounded in a narrative based around a far more realistic scenario than usual. But, it just didn’t feel like a Bond film to me, and despite becoming eternally smitten with actress Carey Lowell and still enjoying Dalton’s harsh glare, I just wasn’t enamoured with what seemed to me, at the time, to be a very low-key affair. The plot could have come from any number of moody thrillers that were around during the period, and the concept of the good guy forced to break his code and split from his allegiances to even a score was pretty much ten-a-penny. It felt to me then, like Bond was just trying to mimic the likes of Joel Silver classics Lethal Weapon and Road House. All Timothy Dalton was missing was the mullet. And I’m sure that Q could have fixed him up with one … albeit one that concealed a flamethrower, or something.
Well … that was then. I was 18 and taking my future-wife – who couldn’t stand Bond films or Lethal Weapon films or any bloody action films for that matter – to see it. She was only my girlfriend at the time (oh, for those romantic days) and she was just being nice and coming along for the ride. So, perhaps my reaction to John Glen’s movie was tainted by outside influences. However, this attitude towards Licence To Kill persisted with me for a great many years. When Brosnan took over, I embraced all things Bondian again and returned to the franchise with fresh eyes and, once again, reached an impasse with Dalton’s second. When Daniel Craig thankfully took the baton from the tedious Irishman, I plunged back into this luxuriously repetitive 007 overkill for many months and even then, with the game having been changed and the style of rugged brutality and more deadly serious mission parameters giving the character and the franchise a dynamic new edge, I still couldn’t quite warm to it. Pretty much every time I have gone back to this outing, I have viewed it with a certain level of disinterest and even hostility.
Well, it may have taken over a good couple of decades, and many viewings, but I have finally seen the light and kicked that erroneous and ill-conceived opinion into touch.
Originally to have been called Licence Revoked, John Glen’s Licence To Kill is not only considerably better than I had previously given it credit for, but it is also one of the top Bond films in its own right, and certainly far better than anything that Brosnan delivered. I had this sort of change of heart over Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds as well. Didn’t think much of it at first, but slowly discovered that I couldn’t help returning to it, and have subsequently come to the conclusion that I actually quite love the film for the very reasons that I initially lambasted it for. So, your perceptions and, consequently, your opinions certainly can change over time – and quite radically too, in some cases.
Now, pay attention, 007!
Although they have more important things to be attending to, like Felix Leiter’s own wedding, to which loyal buddy James Bond is the best man, both MI6’s finest and the CIA man can’t resist the thrill of the chase when it appears that Columbian drug-baron Franz Sanchez in on the loose and within tantalisingly close collar-pinching distance. So, leaving the beautiful Mrs. Leiter-to-be to drive around the block a few more times, the two crusaders take off after him – literally, as it happens, in a Coast Guard helicopter – and indulge in a sunny fire-fight in the Florida Keys with the villain and his cronies. Bond may be used to battling bad guys whilst bedecked in a tuxedo, but a top hat, a morning suit and carnation is definitely a new one when it comes to in-the-field attire. After a spot of aerial snatch-and-grab, and with Sanchez now in the bag, the two heroes then sky-dive to the church in time for the ceremony, perfectly bringing all the style, the excitement and the over-the-top adrenal-panache to the occasion that only a pre-titles Bond sequence can supply.
It’s preposterous and loud and fun. But, we’ve also had a little glimpse of the nasty Sanchez and, as played by the awesome, pockmarked 80’s supporting heavy of choice, Robert Davi, there is something of an edge – just a little hint, but it is there – that this might not be quite the freewheeling adventure that we can normally expect. Davi is a more brutish sort of guy than the usually eccentric and often camp villains that Bond goes up against. This kind of guy exists, and he can be just as horribly hands-on as his goons. Let’s face it, we’ve just witnessed him whipping his adulterous and terrified girlfriend, Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto) with a squid’s tail, and having her lover’s heart carved out.
So when the obvious happens and Sanchez is freed from a prison wagon after it plunges over the side of that ginormous road-bridge that links up the Florida Keys – the scene of another bad guy’s violent liberation in MI:3 – and goes after Felix and his new bride in a pique of barbaric revenge, you begin to understand just how different this take is going to be from the previous spy-capers. The film’s notoriety hinges upon the murder of Mrs. Leiter (Pricilla Barnes) and the sadistic mutilation of Felix (David Hedison, the most personable incarnation the character, reprising the role after 1975’s Live and Let Die), who is literally fed to the sharks. Many characters in the Bond series have met with gruesome ends. They’ve even been eaten by sharks before; metal-fanged Jaws has put the bite on a few; they’ve been fed to piranhas or to dogs; had their spine crushed between the thighs of an orgasmic lady assassin; had a scorpion shoved down the back of their neck; and popped in a shower of nasty-nuggets like a gigantic balloon. But this was different again. The graphic shearing-off of a leg is one thing, but it is the impact that this deed has upon us, watched as it is by a heartless Sanchez and his leering henchmen is far greater. It is not like Dicko Henderson getting a quiet dagger slipped into his back in You Only Live Twice, or the warped elegance of Shirley Eaton being coated in gold paint as seen in Goldfinger. Nor is it the playful nastiness of someone getting stabbed with a poisoned shoe-blade by a hatchet-faced SMERSHian hag in From Russia With Love. This is underworld viciousness of the most cruel and painful kind …especially since Felix is deliberately left crippled and maimed and not allowed to die. He is parcelled-up and left with a grim note of gallows humour stating that He disagreed with something that ate him.
Well, James Bond isn’t the type to take this sort of thing on the chin, and just move on, is he?
Lifting the shark-biting incident from the original novel of Live and Let Die and bringing in a character, Anthony Zerbe’s nefarious middleman Milton Krest, from one of Fleming’s shorter Bond stories, are all the source nods that screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson and director John Glen make to the bestselling literary missions. The plot is tight and controlled, just like the inner rage that 007 feels about what has been done to his friend. When M and MI6 refuse to allow him to go after Sanchez, Bond goes rogue, turning his back on the Secret Service to avenge the friend and ally that they’ve neglected. Bond would do this again in Quantum of Solace when his fury over the death of Vesper Lynd took him on the warpath. A nod is made towards global espionage with the fun inclusion of a trio of deep cover narcotics agents from Hong Kong, led by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s glowering Kwang, who are attempting to take down Sanchez, themselves, and become awkward and rather unfortunate pawns in the game that Bond is playing. Wilson has said that Kurosawa’s classic Ronin tale, Yojimbo – the story of a masterless samurai who pits two rival warlords against one another (later brilliantly remade as A Fistful of Dollars and then rather more poorly done as Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing) – was always the impetus for Licence to Kill, and the element of the oriental spy machine that Bond’s actions ultimately, and unwittingly, derail is spiritually akin to the mistakes that Toshiru Mifune and Clint Eastwood both make in their earlier versions, with collateral damage taking place in their respective crusades too.
Thus, Bond’s personal vendetta has a cost that he, himself, is responsible for. Although the point isn’t hammered home enough to make him out to be a dangerous klutz, I like the fact that his bullet-headed revenge is blinkered and blinded by his own ruthlessness. Dalton has that weird caring/sharing side I spoke of, and it is fascinating to watch him elbow it out of the way when the time comes. And good guys die as a result. Like Craig’s interpretation, Dalton’s is like a force of nature. Both Connery and Moore were predictable – cool, but predictable – but you never knew what Dalton’s Bond was going to do next, or who might get caught in the crossfire. When he planted the nut on the assassin at the start of The Living Daylights you realised that this guy, even as Shakespearean as he could be, had a mean-streak that MI6 didn’t put there. He never winks at the camera, and always takes the threat seriously. When his cover is about to blown in Licence there is a palpable sense of growing anxiety and desperation. You can literally feel Dalton’s muscles tightening as he is about to make his move. Lazenby, as much as I loved his take (as my review for OHMSS makes abundantly clear), was impetuous right from the off. You knew that whatever came his way, he would produce a mighty windmillling upper-cut to intercept it. Brosnan was too smug and calculating, the only moment of seemingly improvised action in his four-movie tenure coming with the sword-fight in the otherwise risible Die Another Day. Only early Connery and now Daniel Craig possess the same sort of hair-trigger impulses as the dramatic and deadly Dalton.
Some accused this Bond as having few redeeming qualities. But I see him as being far more human – angry, fallible and struggling with inner emotions that he can normally simply switch-off.
“Watch the birdy, you bastard!”
Aiding Bond is a beautiful CIA pilot called Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), one of Felix’s contacts in his quest to destroy Sanchez’s empire. Proving her worth in a tight-spot with ballistic foresight and a quickly adaptive penchant for bar-brawling – far removed from the usual women he has in-tow – she tags along with him from the Bahamas to South America, acting as a dependable sidekick when 007 inveigles himself into Sanchez’s organisation and helping him to unravel the swine’s set-up from the inside, turning the drug-lord upon his own people in a pique of paranoia. Along the way, Soto’s desperate Lupe seeks escape from her veritable keeper, providing Bond with information, cover and a little, ahem, light relief. Lowell does well as the girl we all know Bond deserves – she is, after all, a good match for his own skills – and whenever he goes off with Lupe, for the sake of the mission, of course, we genuinely feel for her left sighing on the sidelines. After the likes of Tanya Roberts, Maud Adams and Maryam d’Abo, Lowell is a huge breath of fresh air.
The young Benecio Del Toro makes a vigorous impact as Sanchez’s trusted lieutenant Dario. Now this guy is seriously psychotic. Already revealing a tremendous degree of what would become a customary intensity, Del Toro is the breakout star of the movie. His vicious Dario doesn’t know that he’s dealing with James Bond, master secret agent from MI6, and he wouldn’t care anyway. Dario is a land-shark, voracious, predatory and eminently deadly. His fancy Mexican mariachi jacket is so damn cool, as well. There was a time when Del Toro looked like Brad Pitt, and his grinning sadist, here, definitely mixes those swooning good looks, with added Latino smoulder, with the convincing ferocity of a morality-forsaken savage. “We gave her a nice honeymoooooon!” he gloats to poor Felix when the captured CIA man demands to know what has happened to his new bride. Although hardly a physical match for Bond, his unmistakably conscienceless capacity for evil stare makes him a formidable foe indeed.
“Bless your heart!”
The screenplay is able to inject some fun with Wayne Newton’s smarmy televangelist, Professor Joe Butcher, garnering donations for Sanchez with his bogus belief systems and spiritual therapy. Newton had long wanted to be in a Bond film, and his two-faced letch here is a terrifically memorable buffoon. His catchphrase of “Bless your heart!” is brilliantly left-field when Pam eventually lifts a case of cash from him, leaving him broke and on the run. Sanchez’s yuppie accountant, Truman Lodge (Anthony Starke), is one of those petulant, briefcase-clutching know-it-alls who finally gets what he deserves with a high-velocity deposit delivered straight into his account. This was still the 80’s, and we all despised penny-pinching automatons like him.
There’s Don Stroud standing proud as Sanchez’s head of security, especially when he gets to don military fatigues, wear a beret and command a tank. The great Everett McGill, fresh off getting egg-on-his-face in Clint Eastwood’s nonstop cavalcade of one-liners, Heartbreak Ridge, as the CIA turncoat, Killifer supplies some sour-tasting treachery. Well, I say sour-tasting … but the shark that had Felix for a starter doesn’t seem to complain when this drawling sleaze-ball becomes his poetical main course. But the real coup was in getting Anthony Zerbe for the thankless, put-upon role of Milton Krest, the man that Bond ensures gets the blame for everything going wrong with Sanchez’s evil schemes. Although hardly a nice guy, you really feel for the poor dope when Sanchez correctly puts two and two together but picks him out as the wrong target, and kicks him into a pressure chamber.
It the heart-carving and the shark-nibbling weren’t gruesome enough, Milton’s bodily explosion behind the plate-glass of the chamber was almost as eye-popping for us as it was for him. This would probably be quite darkly funny if it wasn’t for Zerbe’s brilliant look of sheer panic and his harrowing depiction of the intense pain his own inner-tubes are experiencing.
“Señor Bond, you got big cojones. You come here, to my place, without references, carrying a piece, throwing around a lot of money... but you should know something - nobody saw you come in, so nobody has to see you go out.”
Davi, though, is always excellent. Apparently capable of pulling-off a stunning Bond portrayal, himself, and quite a prankster on the set, he is, nevertheless, better known for playing villains and ruffians. This was his shot at the title, finally the big boss and not just a horrible henchman. He does extremely well with all sides of Sanchez, enabling him to become a fully rounded bad guy, as opposed to the merely one-dimensional over-reachers that Bond frequently has to slap down. We understand his suspicions regarding Bond's arrival, but we also appreciate why he still takes the stranger under his wing ... albeit with a few reservations. And his rage when the masquerade is over is authentically ferocious. He even comes up with one of the best quips of the enture franchise. When asked what they should do with the gore-drenched millions they have just obtained, Sanchez brilliantly advises that they, "Launder it." Davi is a fabulous presence on-screen.
License had to go up against the likes of Lethal Weapon 2 – which it both looks and sounds quite like – Tim Burton’s Batman, the game-changing Die Hard and the ebullient and episodic Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. All very big and very commercial blockbusters. To have taken the step to go darker and more personal with a franchise that had been traditionally a family affair with flamboyant, over-the-top villains, even with its comic-book slew of nonstop sex and violence, was a very brave thing. But Glen and producer Michael G. Wilson knew that if Bond was to compete in a time when ever-more excessive action and adventure were pulling in the punters, and all from a franchise point of view, just as 007 was, then they would have to break the mould and attempt something a little bit different. Which meant making James Bond harder, so as to appeal to a market that wanted blood and sweat to validate the heroism it saw onscreen.
“He was married once … but it was a long time ago.”
Bond had been on a strong personal vendetta before. His dogged hunt for Blofeld in retaliation for the murder of Tracy was, naturally, the catalyst for the suavity being slightly eclipsed by a blood-red haze of controlled anger. But the quest was still consigned to the bookends of Diamonds Are Forever and the pre-credits of For Your Eyes Only. With Rambo III’s motivation being primarily for John J. to get his friend and mentor, Col. Trautman, out of Russian captivity in Afghanistan, you can also see that the writers of Licence were just as influenced by Stallone’s blood-feud political statement as they were by the changing ideals of real-world villainy. Audiences weren’t so flustered by the satirical bogeymen of Russian agents and sniggering megalomaniacs anymore, they needed bad guys and evildoings that they could associate with. The rise of the drug-lords and the cartels that emanated from Columbia , especially, was something that was always in the news. Al Pacino’s iconic performance in Brian De Palma’s Scarface had glamorised the way of life and made us sympathise with the devil, but the increasingly disturbing tactics employed by the gangs and the shocking political ramifications of cocaine trafficking were hitting hard on American attitudes, and the drug barons were becomingly more and more despised. TV’s Miami Vice alongside Hollywood ’s more explosively right-wing agenda foisted an almost evangelically-led attention upon the trade, and it seemed only right that Cubby Broccoli’s main man suddenly joined in the fight.
Although American Special Forces and even the SAS have long been tasked with combating such figures, it was nevertheless an unusual strategy to have Bond wage war on the cartels. People expecting spies and plots to take over the world were in for a big surprise with the insular feel of Licence’s plot. Even Bond’s superiors were taken aback at this impromptu mission.
I’ve never liked Robert Brown as M – he’s horribly starched and clichéd and without even an ounce of personality - so it’s great to see him upstaged so impulsively by Dalton’s furious Bond when his licence to kill is revoked and 007 bludgeons out a couple of MI6 stooges before going on the lam. Bond has a pretty extensive remit at the best of the times, so once he’s turned renegade there is a real sense of danger. “God help you, Commander,” prattles M, and we can’t help but feel that he is referring to Bond’s psychological well-being. It is one thing acting on behalf of your country and under direct orders …and something else entirely when you are exposed and lacking backup. With dyed-in-the-wool renegades like Martin Riggs and John Rambo, you actually know where you stand. When Bond goes ballistic, such certainties cannot be taken for granted … and before Daniel Craig came along only Dalton could provide this darker, sharper edge.
His fight scenes carry impact. Dalton is not above kicking a foe in the face – and he even gets to do this underwater during a bubbly scuffle with Krest’s enforcers.
I love the scene when Del Toro’s pit-bull, Dario, recognises Bond even under the face-mask he has kept on during Sanchez’s guided tour of the cocaine-processing plant. He spots the guy who got away from him back in that bar in Key West, and he moves ever closer to make sure that his suspicions are correct, completely ignoring the delicacy of the big deal that Sanchez is trying to make with the Japanese, and the need for decorum. And, once convinced, he makes his move straightaway. No ifs or buts, no seeking of permission from his boss, no indecision. He just moves in for the kill. But he’s forgetting that this 007 isn’t as polite as Roger Moore … and Dalton delivers an utterly devastating head-butt that looks immaculately brutal on-camera. Dario’s not down for long, though, and then when he has Bond at his mercy on that conveyer-belt churning its way towards the cocaine-grinder, his evil pleasure at such empowerment is not that of the run-of-mill cackling uber-villain, it is that of the face-stomping street-thug and, thus, all the more potent.
“This is the property of Her Majesty’s Government. How did you get it?”
Aye, Bond finds a potty-mouth in his arsenal, this time out. And Dalton sounds great dishing out the obscenities. Who didn’t love it when his Prince Barin immaculately delivered the line, “Freeze, you bloody bastards!” in 1980’s Flash Gordon? His few choice expletives – the rest of the cast spit out a few, as well – have a poisonous ring to them that would drop jaws at the Stratford!
The finale sees a Road Warrior style chase and battle that has Bond scrambling all over a petrol tanker as it careers down a sun-kissed mountain road. Notable for the excellent stuntwork – putting the bloated leviathan on its side to glide over a rocket, and then pulling a wheelie through an raging inferno, as well as a slew of crashes and some fine aerial manoeuvres – this is also one of the few climaxes in the series that doesn’t hinge upon a full-blooded assault of a single structure. Much like OHMSS, the villain’s base of operations indeed ends up in rubble, and the villain finds himself on the run with a dogged Bond in hot pursuit. At the end of this strenuous set-piece of vehicular annihilation, it is quite refreshing to see that 007 is believably shaken and stirred by the events. Dalton brilliantly conveys the shock and fatigue of his battered victory with a trembling instance of reverie. For the first time, Bond looks both knackered and hurt. Adrenaline has kept him going to this point, but we know that he would surely just collapse … if somebody as downright sexy as Pat Bouvier hadn’t come trundling up in a big rig to offer him a lift. Suddenly, and equally as believably, Bond’s resolve returns and burns away the cuts and the bruises. People always go on about Bond’s cold-blooded killing of the hit-man Locque (Michael Gothard) in For Your Eyes Only, but 007 has been offing people like this since day one in Dr. No. They seem to forget that he shot the already wounded Professor Dent in the back in that one. His spectacular despatching of Sanchez, although certainly necessary because it is a case of kill or be killed, is justifiably renowned for the notorious full-body burn-stunt that is employed. Having seen many characters immolated in the movies – the lift-full of melting people in The Towering Inferno still ranks as one of the most horrific – this remains quite disturbing because we want to see Sanchez burn and howl in prolonged agony. And the demise we feel complicit in lingers with us.
Therefore, we really feel as dirty and as shell-shocked as Bond does.
As brutal as it can be, it is worth remembering that despite so many of the cosier hallmarks, the Bondian slippers that fans love to slip into, being jettisoned, the film does revel in quite an assortment of gadgets, courtesy of Q Branch. We have Dentonite Toothpase for that explosive smile, a laser-beam camera, an exploding alarm clock “guaranteed never to wake up anybody who uses it”, a palm-signature gun – which we would witness the rebirth of in Skyfall - a handy rappelling cummerbund for when those hotel lifts aren’t working, a rather daft but highly effective manta-ray undersea disguise, and a little hidden radio in the handle of a garden rake, which its creator, Q, then adroitly tosses away, despite his strict – and usually ignored – instructions to 007 to look after everything that his branch develops. With Bond breaking the rules and upsetting the horribly over-starched hierarchy of the British Secret Service, it is a nostalgic nod to the foundation stones of the series to have Desmond Llewellyn going out on a limb to help the very agent who tends to destroy all his painstakingly designed gadgets. Q’s arrival in the least likely of circumstances – he had some leave and thought Bond could do with a hand – is a great device that serves to remind us that the movie isn’t totally absconding with the principle formula of the franchise. He does smack of the daft Englishman Abroad ethic but his inclusion is incredibly welcome. “I hope you don’t snore, Q,” says an exasperated Bond when Pam cheekily snubs him and leaves him to room-up with MI6’s granddad. Despite all the things that separate Dalton from Moore, Lazenby and Connery, this playful comeuppance actually seems like a perfect fit. You can certainly imagine the previous three, and even Brosnan for that matter, contriving to wind-up in a similar happy-campers situation and dealing with it with an identical groan.
Hmmm … she’s a bit of alright, isn’t she, Mr. Bond?
Although I was never as smitten with kitten-faced Talisa Soto as many of my mates, I fell totally head-over-heels in love with Carey Lowell. In the history of sexy Bond girls, Lowell ’s CIA pilot-babe, Pam Bouvier, is right up there as a goddess, and I am amazed that she doesn’t get more recognition. Maybe it is the shorter hair and the “plucky” nature, I don’t know, but Mrs. Richard Gere never seems to get a mention when people discuss the babes of the franchise. It is always the obvious line-up and, to be fair, the 80’s didn’t really supply the best of the honourable hotties – mainly because you tended to feel a little bit sorry for them getting Rogered by the Moore-monster. But, man, Lowell is drop-dead gorgeous! Just look at those eyes … and those legs! John Glen certainly noticed the legs. Every chance he gets, he has them on show for the camera. Her sexy little slip may not be all that conducive to covert operations in the middle of the Pacific, but it sure does make scampering around the hold of Milton’s luxury yacht, the Wavekrest, a whole lot more fun. The shots of her leaning out of the cockpit of the little plane have been wonderfully staged so as to give us the benefit of those delectable pins. But, away from the glamorous and sensual side, Lowell also makes a commendable stab as providing Pam with some personal motivation for the mission, as well as convincing as a woman who can hold her own in this seedier, more volatile environment, as her resourcefulness in the harbour tavern so adeptly displays. She is far more than the screaming eye-candy that Sir Rog had been pottering around with, and a huge step-up from the abysmal Maryam d’Abo.
“When it gets up to your ankles, you're going to beg to tell me everything. When it gets up to your knees, you'll kiss my ass to kill you.”
The film looks very slick, very colourful and vibrant. Alec Mills was responsible for the cinematography. He had lensed The Spy Who Loved Me for Lewis Gilbert and The Living Daylights for John Glen. Licence is different in style, again, from both of these prior Bond outings. Although not as globe-trotting or as iconic as Spy, nor as richly varied as Daylights, which juxtaposed the austere grey of Czechoslovakia with the arid textures of Afghanistan, the more linear and streamlined Licence remains exotically coloured and full of visually arresting and bright, flaming compositions. We are not in a land of villainous bases, so extensive miniature model-work is not required. Sanchez’s opulent casino is beautifully rendered, as his palatial estate, replete with cable-car. Peter Lamont’s magnificently spacious rooms actually look as though they have been designed by Ken Adams, they are that huge. The Aztec-like Isthmus City, Butcher’s picturesque spiritual retreat out in the wilderness is actually a front for Sanchez’s cocaine processing plant, but the real location is a fantastic province that provides a nostalgic reference to the bad boy strongholds of Bond’s past. Extended sequences set at sea add a vibrant taste of exposed skulduggery – Bond’s underwater tussle and plane-jacking escape from the Wavekrest quite a stunning set-piece – and the climax beneath a hot sun, the temperature-raised still further by the addition of copious explosions and raging conflagrations, makes for a completely different backdrop than we normally get from a Bondian villain-vanquishing.
I mentioned Joel Silver earlier, and there is no denying that Licence To Kill has the look and feel of one of his “silver-coated” 80’s actioners. Robert Davi was in Die Hard as Agent Johnson (“No, the other one.”) and even the other Agent Johnson, Grand L. Bush, gets a look in here as one of Felix’s CIA operatives. Davi would appear in Stephen Hopkins’ enjoyable Predator 2, which was also commissioned under the budget-enlarging auspices of Silver, and Action Jackson, Silver’s enjoyable romp for ex-Apollo Creed, Carl Weathers. Lumbering Frank McCrae, who appears here as good buddy to Bond and Felix, deep-sea fisherman, Sharkey, could also be seen in Silver’s 48 Hrs and the prison-set Stallone vehicle, Lock-up, as the hulking, cigar-puffing mechanic inmate with a heart-of-gold.
Bond’s determined assimilation into Sanchez’s trusted inner-circle by making him realise just how necessary a man of his skills would be to the drug-baron is similar to Arnie’s undercover infiltration of the Mob in John Irvin’s Raw Deal – something that Robert Davi, who was suspicious of the huge, bizarrely accented covert FBI man from the start, should have sussed from the get-go - and also seems reminiscent of Swayze’s hyper agile bar-bouncer in Road House, called Dalton ironically enough, getting head-hunted for clean-up duty in another rough establishment playing by Big Boys’ Rules.
“It’s south of the border. It’s a man’s world.”
And furthering this umbilical cord to the uber-producer, there was also the composer Michael Kamen, who had worked on several of Silver’s productions.
John Barry has been nursing desires to leave Bond for a while, and although he delivered outstanding work and a fan-favourite score for The Living Daylights, the lousy experience of working with the group a-ha had drained what meagre enthusiasm he still had for the franchise. So, unlike James Bond, he would not return. With the dawn of the so-called “musical arranger” having already made an impact upon film soundtracks (the hired composer would have less and less freedom to create and would have to follow a stricter studio guideline), a more populist and contemporary approach was believed necessary to keep audiences on-side. Michael Kamen was a very popular film-composer around this time. His abstract lazy rock melancholia and guitar-led score for Lethal Weapon and his jangling, percussive verve for Die Hard had definitely produced some very successful work, and provided that modern vibrancy that audiences could readily identify with. Although Juilliard trained for classical composing, Kamen had worked for Pink Floyd, Queen and Eric Clapton (who he had collaborated with on Lethal Weapon and had intended to re-employ for Licence), and he didn’t tend to bring in big orchestras and wasn’t exactly known for providing the sweeping melodies and romance that people associated with the Bond sound of John Barry. But if Cubby was going to deviate from the path of tradition with the story, then it only made sense that the musical score should reflect this swingshift in tone also. To this end, Kamen delivers a South American-flavoured but workmanlike score that could also very easily fit into either the Die Hards or any of the Lethal Weapons. Cute references to the James Bond Theme arise, but this is not a particularly memorable score as it meanders through moody understatement far more than balls-out adrenaline. Given his background with contemporary pop, Kamen’s involvement opened doors to other chart balladeers, and Licence became one of the most song-based Bond soundtracks in the series. The title track, sung by Gladys Knight, who still doesn’t approve of the violence inherent in the lyrics, has a soulful R&B club vibe to it, but it also retains enough lingering swells to remind us of Barry. Her somewhat bizarre phrasing of the Kill always troubles me, though. For some reason she caps it off with a fiercely enunciated “Tuhh!” making the title line song sound like Bond has a Licence to Kilt someone! Other tracks, such as Patti Labelle’s lilting If You Asked Me To and Tim Feehan’s raunchy roadhouse thigh-slapper Dirty Love provide some punch and romantic variety.
Kamen’s own Bond song never actually surfaced, and this was something that really bothered him. But he would score massively with his music for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves a couple of years later, and I’m afraid you can also put a lot of the blame for that infernal song (Everything I do) I do it for you, from Bryan Adams, on him … because he co-wrote the bloody thing.
Without the luxury of having its tongue wedged in its cheek, Licence To Kill is forced to play Bond for real, and this is a dazzling conceit that audiences wouldn’t see reappear until Daniel Craig’s blunt instrument went charging about in the name of England in 2006’s outstanding Casino Royale. Dalton was deadly serious in the role, and his mission this time around was profoundly deeper, psychologically speaking. A great script that still found time for the odd humorous aside, and was less prone to the silliness of the latter Connery and Moore outings, provides a personal edge and a murky momentum that deliberately clouded right and wrong in a deep, dark world of treachery, greed and betrayal. The film may have been a success, but it didn’t fare very well in comparison with its predecessors. Critics harped on about its violence, its use of foul language and its lack of trademark series elements, claiming that this was the kiss of death for James Bond because it proved that he was just too outdated, and out of touch. The irony was that Licence To Kill had provided 007 with his most relevant adventure yet. After his lighter human side was exposed in OHMSS, this provided him with a conduit to reveal his darker tendencies. Sadly, the mixed reaction to Glen's film put the franchise on-hold for another six years. Dalton, who was excellent in the role, had his licence to thrill revoked and the smirking Irishman from Remington Steele finally won those covetted 007 cufflinks and won the crowd with Martin Campbell's Goldeneye.
It took me a ridiculously long time to finally appreciate the movie as the brave expansion-cum-introspection of 007’s character that it is … but Licence To Kill has earned its place in my top ten Bond outings.
Fabulously refreshing, smartly directed and boasting some awesome set-pieces, John Glen's last helmed entry in the franchise is an excellent movie.