“Effective immediately, your licence to kill is revoked…” – M
Welcome back to 00 Saturdays here at Film Seizure. This is our weekly walk through the Bond saga. This week we already close out the Timothy Dalton era of Bond films. This extremely dark, hard edged sixteenth chapter in the series is Licence to Kill.
Remember several weeks ago, when I talking about From Russia with Love, I mentioned that film was my dad’s favorite in the series. In fact, his exact words, when you ask him if that was his favorite Bond film, are “by far.” It was the first in the series that he saw. I mentioned that a later film would kind of prove that old adage of “like father, like son” – and here we are.
While Licence to Kill is not “by far” my favorite film in the series, nor is it really even close to being my favorite, I have a considerable amount of nostalgia for the film. The movie came out in July 1989. I was 12 years old and I spent a lot of that summer in movie theaters. Between the Ghostbusters II, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, UHF, and… What was that other movie that came out that summer…? I feel like maybe Pat Hingle and Michael Gough were in it… Oh yeah – BATMAN. That was a spectacular time for movies. It also set a milestone. Licence to Kill was the first James Bond movie I ever saw in the theaters.
While I had seen many, many Bond movies prior to 1989, never had I seen one in the theater. I didn’t just see Licence to Kill once, but I caught it a second time in the second run theater that fall. I even went alone to see them. There I was, this middle school kid, at a theater all by himself, watching the most violent, hard edged Bond film ever made. I felt like such a grown up.
For the past 31 years I have been a staunch defender of Licence to Kill. That defense of the movie only intensified after I had read some of the Bond novels a little later in life. This movie felt like an Ian Fleming story and Timothy Dalton’s portrayal of 007 fit right in with the colder, harder version from the source material.
However, it’s more than just that. It’s a little more timely with the primary story revolving around a Central American drug lord, Franz Sanchez (played by Robert Davi in a pretty menacing turn). He’s an internationally wanted man with lots of fronts and enough money to buy off a turncoat DEA official, Killfer (played by Everett McGill). He also gets revenge for being caught in the opening of the film by Felix Leiter (with the help of Bond) by killing Leiter’s new wife and dropping Felix into a shark enclosure to get maimed. That scene is taken directly from the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die, in which Leiter is partially eaten by a shark with a note left with him saying “He disagreed with something that ate him.”
The film crosses over into something that hadn’t really ever been done in the series up to this point. This is the first time that you actually ever see Bond go for cold blooded revenge. Aside from having to deal with his wife’s death, which is briefly alluded to during Felix and Della’s wedding reception, Bond has never really had anyone close to him attacked and/or killed – especially anyone innocent like Della. This effects him so deeply that he goes on a revenge mission without the backing of any government and without his actual license to kill – which gets revoked early in the film once M learns what Bond is getting up to.
Bond’s revenge plan is actually heavily inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s film Yojimbo, as well as Sergio Leone’s remake of that film, A Fistful of Dollars. That basically means that because he is working alone and without the usual resources at his disposal, Bond must figure out a way for the villain and his organization to be brought down from the inside out. He has to sow distrust between Sanchez and those who are his underlings. If Sanchez believes people are stealing from him or plotting around him, he will begin knocking off people around him making it easier for Bond to get his revenge on Sanchez directly.
For example, Bond is steals a whole bunch of money from Sanchez. He then uses that money to get a flight chartered to Sanchez’s home country (the fictitious Republic of Isthmus which was based heavily on Panama with Sanchez himself based on Manuel Noriega). He shows up in Isthmus with a bunch of money to deposit into Sanchez’s bank, and gambles it at Sanchez’s casino. He then stashes a bunch of money on the boat of long time partner in crime, Milton Krest (played by the slimy Anthony Zerbe), who is already telling a suspicious story of how a man sneaked onto his boat, cut up a bunch of cocaine packages, and then made off with the money for the shipment. This gets Krest killed. All the while, Bond is using his wits to make inroads with Sanchez as being a personal fixer of sorts. By the time Sanchez figures out what is going on and exactly who Bond is and how he is out after him for what he did to Felix, Bond has already put large dents into the operation and has Sanchez off his game.
All of that makes for a relatively brilliant movie and a very different style James Bond adventure. It is much more in line with a lot of the contemporary action flicks of the time. That was somewhat off putting for many fans and critics feeling like Bond was trespassing onto turf that he didn’t exactly normally belong. While the film was very close to the feel of one of Fleming’s novels, seemingly encroaching on that more R-rated material was deemed taboo. I’d argue that since 2006, suddenly this movie falls more in line with what the runaway smash hits that Daniel Craig has led in the series and I think people are coming around to that idea too.
This movie doesn’t chuck all the Bond tropes out the window with this film’s fresh approach. Like many of the films in the series, it takes as much advantage of its location filming as possible. In this entry, most of it was filmed in Mexico so it is showing off beautiful sunsets and coastal cities. Bond still gets a lot of action in at the casino where he plans on making an impression for Sanchez to take notice of him. The pre-titles sequence is classic Bond through and through with him capturing Sanchez by way of a magnificent aerial stunt in which he hooks Sanchez’s plane with a cable that was used to lower Bond down from a helicopter. The final climax between Bond and Sanchez features lots of explosions, a bazooka, and trick semi-trucks. Q even joins Bond in Isthmus to give him some help with a few minor gadgets.
Of course, there are also the Bond Girls. This movie features two very different characters that fit the Bond Girl profile. While there are two girls who vie for Bond’s affection, this is still the time of Bond being a little more responsible. He only romances the lead girl, informant and expert in Isthmus and Sanchez’s operations, Pam Bouvier. She’s played by Carey Lowell who is the first lead Bond girl in the entire series to feature a short hairstyle. She also represents something different, a liberated woman. Sure, Triple X and Holly Goodhead were agents in their own standing, and Octopussy had a whole criminal empire. Pam, on the other hand, is a bit of a tough broad. She mostly meets Felix Leiter to pass along info at a seedy and dangerous bar. She also usually packs a giant shotgun. She doesn’t like the idea of being second fiddle to Bond on their operation but has to be reminded that in Latin America, it is still a man’s world.
While Bond’s overt rage and desire for revenge often forces her to stay out of his way, she is pretty resourceful and capable in her own right. Lowell is very pretty as well. One thing I notice a lot in the movie is how she often acts through facial expressions above dialog. I’m always fascinated with actors when they rely heavily on expressions. It can add subtle character traits to a performance. However, It probably should be no surprised based on the above publicity photo that director John Glen focuses heavy on her Lowell’s figure, and in particular, her legs. There are several shots and moments in the movie in which her dress detaches to show off legs and reveal a hidden thigh holster, or she has a slit in her dress that parts just the right way, or she wears a loose enough skirt that causes it to blow up a little bit. Her legs are all over this movie. I like it.
The other girl, and the opposite of Lowell’s Bouvier is Talisa Soto’s seductively charming Lupe Lamora. Where Bouvier is tough and resourceful, Lupe uses her sexiness to get what she wants. Lupe is also a kept and battered lover of Sanchez. The reason why Sanchez is caught at the beginning of the film is because he is retrieving Lupe from a tryst she had with another man – who Sanchez has his craziest goon, Dario (we’ll be getting to him momentarily), cut out his heart for her betrayal and then whips her. Lupe isn’t exactly weak where Pam is strong, but she often operates like the little satellite fish that latch onto sharks and whales. She tends to find symbiotic relationships with men she perceives to be strong even at the risk of her own safety. She latches onto Sanchez, tries to be with Bond after he rids her of Sanchez, only for Bond to introduce her to el Presidente of Isthmus. Soto herself is stunningly pretty too. Which is a bonus.
Wait a minute. I saw this movie when I was 12. That is a pretty “special” time in a young boy’s life. I am a fan of legs. I do like Hispanic ladies. Yup… This all lines up. Licence to Kill is a wonderful movie.
As fairly terrifying as Robert Davi is playing Sanchez (and I guess he did stay in character even when the cameras weren’t rolling), he has a particularly insane henchman in Dario. Dario is played by a very young Benicio del Toro who loves talking about being in a Bond film. He’s the guy who cut out Lupe’s boyfriend’s heart at the beginning of the movie. He killed Della. He was there when Felix got maimed. He was there when shit hit the fan for Bond in the climax. Bond deals with him by sending him down a grinder that was used to cut up cocaine.
This film is so much fun because it uses some of those more mature action ideas. It features some of the best Bond kills because it shakes off the playfulness fully from those older Roger Moore titles. First, he gets rid of Killifer by throwing his own money at him to make him fall into the shark enclosure that Felix was put in. Next, he sets up Krest so that Sanchez believes he stole from him which leads to Krest’s head exploding. Then, as Bond and Sanchez are in final combat, he uses a lighter given to him by Della and Felix to light a gasoline-soaked Sanchez on fire. These are things that I liked when I was 12. These are things I still like when I’m 43.
My only disappointment with Licence to Kill is that this would be the end to an all too short run for Timothy Dalton as the world would have to wait for almost six and a half years before the next 007 film.
Join me next week for a look at the music of Licence to Kill. In two weeks, it’s a new Bond and an exciting entry at that – GoldenEye.
As a bit of a post-script and one last connection between this film for me and From Russia with Love for my dad, Pedro Armendáriz, who played Bond’s contact in Turkey and passed away before the end of filming From Russia with Love, had a son, Pedro Armendáriz, Jr. Armendáriz, Jr. had a role especially given to him for this film as el Presidente of Isthmus.