Licence to Kill at 25

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It’s a bit of a shock to realise that Licence to Kill is now 25 years old. Back in the summer of 1989 it was the 16th official Bond movie and the second to feature Timothy Dalton after his debut in 1987’s The Living Daylights. His arrival in the role marked a change of direction for the series towards a more gritty and realistic version of Bond, especially in comparison to some of the excesses of the Roger Moore movies. At the time I recall some resistance to Dalton in the role but it’s interesting to look back from the vantage point of the Daniel Craig era to see the change of direction that the Dalton movies provided.

In any case I enjoyed Licence to Kill very much when I first saw it in the cinema in 1989. That was a memorable summer for me because I was prompted to start hunting out the Ian Fleming novels. (My first purchase was Dr No. I found a 1964 Pan paperback edition that informed the reader that Sean Connery was now making the third Bond movie based on Goldfinger. That 25 year old paperback seemed like an impossibly ancient document to me at the time so it is even more of a shock to realise that exactly another 25 years have passed since then!)

Licence to Kill is actually a departure from the usual Bond story template. Bond is on holiday in Florida and acting as best man at the wedding of his old pal Felix Leiter who now works for the DEA. He helps Felix capture Central American drug lord Sanchez. After Sanchez escapes he kills Felix’s wife and feeds Felix to a shark. Bond discovers the badly injured Felix and vows revenge.

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So for the first time Bond goes rogue. It’s been done a few times since. Pierce Brosnan went rogue to investigate his capture by the North Koreans in Die Another Day. And Daniel Craig seems to have gone rogue in all of his movies to date. However in all the above cases M seemed to be giving tacit approval to the whole “going rogue thing” to see what information Bond could uncover.

But in LTK Dalton’s Bond is willing to throw away his career to go after the people who maimed Felix. We had seen a hint of this Bond in the previous movie when he refused to shoot a supposed KGB sniper. Bond’s bureaucratic companion threatened to tell M that Bond disobeyed his orders. “Stuff my orders! I only kill professionals. That girl didn’t know one end of a rifle from the other. Tell M what you want, if he fires me I’ll thank him for it.” This was a glimpse at the Ian Fleming Bond character that movie audiences saw little off prior to Dalton’s arrival.

Another satisfying feature of LTK is the inclusion of a good chunk of the novel Live and Let Die. That book had been very loosely adapted as the move of the same name. One sequence they didn’t include in that movie was later adapted for another Roger Moore movie, For Your Eyes Only. Another scene that was omitted was eventually used for Licence to Kill. In the novel Bond discovers Felix badly injured after he has been fed to the shark. He reads a chilling message written on a slip of paper: “He disagreed with something that ate him”. Bond then goes to the location where he believes this happened and confronts the man responsible. Tables are turned and the villain suffers the same fate as Felix. This sequence of events became a big chunk of the early part of LTK.

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Notably Felix in Licence to Kill is played by David Hedison who had played the same part in Live and Let Die 16 years earlier. I believe this is the first time that an actor returned to play Felix prior to Jeffrey Wright taking on the role in the Daniel Craig movies.

On first release much was made of LTK being a more violent Bond movie. While it was a little tougher in nature than previous Bonds it was probably less violent than many other movies out that summer such as Lethal Weapon 2, which I believe also had a 15 rating. I wonder what critics of the perceived violence then would have made of the torture scene in the 12A rated Casino Royale 17 years later.

As well as being a rogue agent Dalton’s Bond is portrayed as being perhaps a little bit too obsessed with revenge to the point that his judgement is impaired. Bond’s attempted assassination of Sanchez ends up spoiling an operation by Hong Kong narcotics agents and in turn it gets them killed. He also spots main Bond girl Pam Bouvier apparently in cahoots with Sanchez henchman Killifer, although again Bond gets the wrong end of the stick; she’s actually working for the CIA in an attempt to get back Sanchez’s stinger missiles. Still, it leads to a dramatic scene where Bond pushes Pam down on a bed and points a gun in her face.

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A word on Carey Lowell as Bond girl Pam. Her character is a former CIA agent and pilot who now works with Felix infiltrating Sanchez’s operation. Pam is the prime example of the most capable of Bond girls, perfectly able to take care of herself and is as likely to rescue Bond as the other way around. A humorous moment comes when they meet in a bar. Bond tells her to expect trouble from some goons. She asks if he is armed and he shows her his Walter PPK. She tuts and reveals her pump action shotgun hidden under the table.

In the 1980s there had largely been a move away from the megalomaniac Bond villans towards some slightly more realistic characters. This culminated with drug lord Sanchez who I feel is a totally plausible character. I can certainly believe that there are or were influential men like him who had the resources to essentially control a country, here the fictional Isthmus City.

Bond’s revenge is quite clever. After killing the narcotics agents Sanchez finds an injured Bond, clearly their prisoner. Bond is able to use this to his advantage and claim to be on Sanchez’s side. This allows him to infiltrate Sanchez’s organisation and plant doubts in Sanchez’s mind about the loyalty of his henchmen.

On re-watching the movie in more recent years I did start to wonder at how quickly Sanchez believes Bond’s insinuations that his own people can’t be trusted. Sanchez is quick to turn on Krest, Killifer and Truman-Lodge. Then I realised that Fleming always gave his villains a physical flaw. Here the movie-makers have given Sanchez a character flaw. We learn early on that loyalty is more important to Sanchez than money. This works both ways and the slightest sliver of doubt is enough for Sanchez to exact retribution. Also Bond plants the stolen drug money on the Wavekrest for Sanchez to find. This leads to Sanchez dispatching Krest in a nasty manner in the decompression chamber. And this results in one of the movie’s darkly funniest lines. When asked what they should do with the blood-splattered money Sanchez turns and says simply “launder it”.

While darker than normal the movie is not without it’s moments of humour, many of which come via the welcome inclusion of Desmond Llewellyn’s Q. It was wonderful to see Llewellyn’s Q finally get such a large role in a Bond movie after being in the series since 1963. Normally he just turns up to provide the gadget and do little else. But here Q is thrilled to be on a mission helping Bond and ironically we see him giving his own gadgets some rough treatment in defiance of his own rules.

Sanchez is played by Robert Davi who has played a number of bad guys in movies over the years, perhaps most notably in the 1986 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Raw Deal. He has a number of henchmen, one of which is Milton Krest, played sleazily by Anthony Zerbe. (The Krest character actually comes from an Ian Fleming short story.) Also of note is the young Benicio del Toro who plays Dario. He gets a memorable line when he tells the soon to be shark food Felix “don’t worry, we gave her a nice honeymoon!”

Towards the end of the movie Sanchez and Dario finally unmask Bond as the person responsible for their recent troubles. There is a gripping scene where they put Bond on a conveyer belt that is part of a mechanism that is used to pulverise cocaine. Sanchez seems content to leave Bond to his fate but Bond is desperate to buy time and continues to verbally probe for another weak point, hoping to plant one more seed of doubt in Sanchez’s mind.

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The movie climaxes with an impressive tanker truck chase. Sanchez has millions of dollars of drugs hidden in the gasoline of four trucks and Bond sees an opportunity to cause some mayhem. One by one Bond elimates each truck until there is only one left. It’s great to see what can be achieved with old-school movie making and special effects. The Bond movies always did things for real in the old days and nowadays I wonder what CGI would be end up being thrown at the sequence.

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Satisfyingly it comes down to a gasoline-soaked confrontation between a bloodied Bond and a machete-wielding Sanchez. “I could have given you everything!” yells Sanchez. “Don’t you want to know why?” asks Bond who produces the cigarette lighter that Felix and Della give him at their wedding. Cue crispy Sanchez.

After the conclusion of the movie I was already looking forward to the third Dalton entry in the series. All being well Bond 17 would have been due out in the summer of 1991.

Alas it was not to be. Legal wrangles interfered and the next Bond was delayed until 1995. The six year gap remains the longest in the history of the series. And when Bond returned he looked a lot like Pierce Brosnan and Timothy Dalton was all but forgotten. As it turned out Goldeneye was a favourite of mine but I can’t help wondering… What if?