Monday, February 26, 2018

LICENCE TO KILL: The Daltonator Goes Rogue

by Rob DiCristino
Thoughts on the much-maligned film that helped define my Bond fandom.

I was eleven years old when Goldeneye 007 hit the Nintendo 64. For many kids my age, the seminal first-person shooter was not only the must-have game for the platform (Star Wars: Rogue Squadron was my other stalwart), but our introduction to the world of James Bond. Though it would be a few months before I actually saw Goldeneye (1995), I was already captivated by the iconic super spy’s gadgets, rogues gallery, and exotic locales. Some of the first VHS tapes I would own (store-bought, with the real cardboard sleeves and everything!) would be Bond films. Trouble was, I had no reference for chronology or year of release – this stuff was harder before the internet – so I ended up with whatever I could find. Next to Goldeneye, I owned Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), and Licence to Kill (1989), the film that would be unjustly blamed for killing the most enduring and profitable cinematic franchise in history. The great thing about being a kid, though, is that none of that mattered. It all flowed together as one experience. Licence to Kill may be sloppier, grittier, and more violent than other films in the series, but it’s worthy of reconsideration as a significant departure from Roger Moore-era (era) camp and an important precursor to the hard-edged realism that would define Daniel Craig’s groundbreaking reboot.
Licence to Kill opens with James Bond (Timothy Dalton) en route to Felix Leiter’s (David Hedison, one of the few actors to play the CIA agent more than once) wedding in Key West. On the way, the pair is recruited by the DEA to help hunt down drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) before he escapes US jurisdiction. Sanchez bribes his way out of custody, however, and gets back at Leiter by murdering his new bride (Priscilla Barnes as Della) and feeding his legs to a killer shark. Warned by M (Robert Brown) that a roaring rampage of revenge could compromise his cover and create liability for Her Majesty’s Government, Bond lays down his titular license to kill and sets out on an unsanctioned mission to disrupt Sanchez’s operation once and for all. With the help of covert operative Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), 007 travels to the Republic of Isthmus and poses as an assassin in Sanchez’s service, maneuvering past rivals Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe) and Dario (Benicio del Toro) and into the kingpin’s confidence. Though he recognizes a kindred spirit in Sanchez (and a bourgeoning romance with Sanchez’s paramour, Talisa Soto as Lupe Lamora), Bond moves to expose his international cocaine smuggling ring, bed the tough and enigmatic Bouvier (because Bond), and avenge his friends.
Fans of Roger Moore’s lighter and more ironic take on the character were understandably put off by Timothy Dalton’s darker portrayal: “I think the films with Roger emphasized his talents. For Timothy, a gritty, more reality-based piece is the way to go. Giving him one-liners won’t play to his strong suit. He plays it fairly straight,” says series producer Michael G. Wilson in Some Kind of Hero: The Remarkable Story of the James Bond Films by Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdhury. In this respect, “Licence to Kill was tailor-made for Timothy Dalton’s style.” That style is pain, apparently, because Licence to Kill is easily the ugliest and most brutal Bond film to that point in history. The cold open features Sanchez cruelly whipping Lamora after he catches her with a lover. Leiter is later mauled by a shark (a gag performed by a one-legged stunt man), and his wife is found raped and murdered. Benicio del Toro is fed into a giant shredder, his blood misting in the air. Bond tosses one guy into a shark tank and sets another on fire. Finally, in a scene echoing the exploding Kananga balloon in Live and Let Die*, Milton Krest is trapped in a decompression chamber and, well, decompressed. Even with cuts, the UK censors stuck Licence to Kill with a 15 certificate (equivalent to the US’s PG-13), which drastically impacted potential box office receipts.**
Though certainly a departure, Licence to Kill actually embraces and expands on classic Bondian tropes: The interplay between Bond Girl A (Lamora) and Bond Girl B (Bouvier) — though icky and problematic as ever —is more pronounced than in many other films. They actually share a few scenes! Sure, they’re total bullshit scenes in which the capable and gorgeous Bouvier laments Bond’s attraction to Lamora, whose sole characterization is “yet another girl who loves James Bond and throws herself at him for no reason,” but, you know. Relativity. Q (Desmond Llewelyn) is given more screen time than ever when he acts as 007’s “uncle” and valet in Isthmus City. Q will forever be my favorite Bond character, and it’s great to see Llewelyn (who, despite appearing in 17 of 19 Bond films made during his lifetime, was only ever paid per diem rates for his appearances) get a bit more to do than read technical mumbo-jumbo off of cue cards. According to Some Kind of Hero, Robert Davi and Timothy Dalton both read Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale and based their Bond/Sanchez relationship on that of Bond and Le Chiffre from that novel. That doesn’t really translate in the final product, but points for effort. Davi is a genuinely good character actor and, as an old friend of producer Cubby Broccoli, was destined to be a Bond villain: “I used to have lunches with Cubby…and Frank Sinatra. Franz Sanchez. Frank Sinatra. F.S. That was a cute nod. There was always talk about him being a Bond villain,” the actor said.
Six years would pass between the release of Licence to Kill and Goldeneye, still the longest gap in the franchise’s history. Though Licence’s lukewarm box office reception would be blamed for the stalemate, it was actually a legal debate over television broadcast rights that would derail the series. After such a frustrating delay, the aging Timothy Dalton was given the opportunity to resign from the role (though suits at United Artists would claim that they fired him to start the ‘90s with a fresh face), which he did gracefully in 1994. It’s fair to say that the actor never got a chance to develop his Bond, that — like Connery before him and Craig after — his third film might have synthesized story and character well enough for him to create a real legacy. Unfortunately, we’ll never know. We do know that EON would reuse elements from Licence to Kill (the palm print gun would show up in Skyfall, and Q would join a rogue Bond in the field in Spectre) and that Daniel Craig would appropriate a number of brooding Daltonisms in his own performance. We may conclude that Dalton was just the right man at the wrong time, and that the risks taken on Licence to Kill would eventually pay off after the post-9/11 tonal shift that would popularize heavier action dramas like The Dark Knight and Casino Royale. Licence to Kill might be messy and awkward, but breaking ground always is.

*Shoutout to Matt Gourley and Matt Mira’s James Bonding podcast. Fans of that show will note that Desmond Llewelyn’s hands are at about a Goldeneye -1 in Licence to Kill.

**In a Spielbergian twist, the censors would create the new 12 certificate for Batman, which was released just three months later.


  1. Daniel Craig would fit in License to Kill so well. Honestly, I'd put this movie over Quantum of Solace and Spectre.

  2. It's such a ridiculous movie. It tries to have it both ways, but I prefer the dive bar-speed boat-chopping up hands in a grinder aspect of it as what sets it out among all the Bond films. That's what makes it memorable all these years later. Also, love the James Bonding callout. "Honeymooooon!"

  3. This is one of the few pre-1995 Bond movies that doesn't feel dated today. Some of the later Moore entries seem so tame now; I guess the makers of Licence To Kill felt they had to up their game to compete with Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Indiana Jones.