The Summer of 1989
It was altogether fitting that the fabulous summer of 1989 for movies would also include a James Bond film. It had been since 1974's The Man With a Golden Gun that a Bond film did not premiere in the summer. Coming two years after 1987's The Living Daylights, License to Kill was Timothy Dalton's second outing as 007. I would have liked to have seen more (yet I truly enjoyed Pierce Brosnan's turn as well).
License to Kill (LTK) was the first Bond film not based on a single Ian Fleming novel. With A View to a Kill and The Living Daylights the titles for a pair of short stories, even LTK's title was unique. It's story of drug cartels in Central America was straight out of dozens of films in the 1980s. Some might think this was pandering to a current trend, but I have always seen it as fitting. Although it hadn't happened yet, 1989 would see the unification of Germany and the felling of the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union was crumbling. The United States and United Kingdom was down one major adversary. Why not turn to a smaller, more intimate James Bond film?
And Timothy Dalton was the perfect actor for the role.
The Darker Bond
Before Daniel Craig signed on and made the James Bond franchise noticeably darker in tone and subject matter, Timothy Dalton was the one who did it. Sean Connery had moments. Later, Brosnan had one of my favorites. Even Roger Moore had a few moments here and there of the literary Bond. But Moore had turned Bond into a middle aged super-hero by 1985's A View to a Kill, something from which Dalton turned away. Heck, he even had Bond smoking again.
For a story in which Bond goes rogue, seeking vengeance and revenge for the mauling of his friend, Felix Leiter, and Leiter's new bride, I can't image any actor up until then playing the role quite the way Dalton did. Sure, Craig could do it now, but up until 2006, we hadn't seen a brutal Bond for an entire movie. Watching the movie again this past weekend for the first time in I can't remember how long, I was struck by how hollow the humorous moments felt. When Bond takes his first revenge again the traitorous US agent Kilifer, the dialogue you can imagine any of the actors saying. "You earned it. You keep. Old buddy." Then he throws the suitcase at the agent hanging over the shark tank. The traitor falls and the shark feasts. But it's Dalton's dead stare that is so chilling. Craig delivers looks like this. But up until 1989, no Bond had done so.
A Worthy and Scary Adversary
It was the brutal actions of Franz Sanchez, drug lord from a fictional Central American country, that brought out Dalton's dead stare. Sanchez, played wonderfully by Robert Davi, fed Leiter to the sharks after having his wife killed (and presumably raped). All throughout the film, Sanchez is unlike most of the villains Bond had faced up until 1989. He was ruthless and vicious, happily willing to mete out punishment in violent ways. Despite Sanchez saying thing were purely business, Davi pretty much plays Sanchez and a man who enjoys the pain he dishes out.
For the longest time, I would always associate Davi with the role of Sanchez. Didn't matter what he was in, whenever I saw him, I'd say "That's Sanchez."
In a movie with one of the better villains in the Bond franchise, it also had one of the better Bond girls.
A Tough and Capable Partner
Carey Lowell has been one of my favorite Bond girls for thirty years. Even at the time, I could tell she was different. She wasn't some shrinking violent who only needed saving. The then most recent one--Maryam d'Abo from The Living Daylights--fell into the prior category. I honestly can't even remember Tanya Roberts's turn in A View to a Kill. (I can barely remember anything from that film save the great theme song.) You had to go back to Carole Bouquet as Melina Havelock in For Your Eyes Only for a Bond girl who could hold her own with 007 in the action department. Honestly, I think my favorite of all is Michelle Yoeh from Tomorrow Never Dies.
But Lowell was right there. We first see her with Leiter as he's working with her to capture Sanchez. Next she's welding a shotgun in a bar and enables hers and Bond's escape. We learn she's a pilot, a skill that comes in handy more than once. You can see the turn in her character after Q mentions a field agent must use all the whiles at his (or her) disposal. At that point, she's there to save Bond's butt more than once.
For me, she's top tier of the Bond girls.
The Theme Song
Sorry, Gladys Knight. You sing well, but I've never enjoyed this theme song. But considering the theme for Die Another Day is sitting there as the all-time worst Bond theme song, License to Kill will never reach the bottom. Actually, as I'm writing this piece, I have a YouTube playlist going with all the theme songs. Even when compared to others, LTK just doesn't hold up for the absolutely worst reasons: it's boring. Who writes a boring Bond song?
And this is one of the few Bond films I can remember that had a different closing song. Sorry Patti LaBelle. "If You Ask Me To" is a better song that the main theme, but the record for best-ever closing song is k.d. lang's "Surrender" wins in a blowout. That's so good, it could have--should have been--a main theme. Love that song.
It's a common trope to have the hero infiltrate the villain's lair and destroy from within, but I can't remember one for Bond in quite this fashion. Goldfinger brings 007 to Fort Knox thinking Bond knows something. In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bond's investigation leads him to Blofeld's base in the Alps. Most of the time, Bond finds himself in the hideout, but he soon starts blowing things up.
In LTK, Bond uses his brain much more than in other films. He's cold, calculating, thinking of ways to get to Sanchez rather that just shoot him. His actions remind me of the character in Dashiell Hammet's 1929 novel, Red Harvest, and the move Yojimbo (1961). I suspect the writers had this trope in mind. I'm just surprised it took Bond so long.
In the history of all the Bond films and Bond stunts, I have always enjoyed the water skiing sequence in LTK. Of course he would do that. It was all the funnier later in the movie when Anthony Zerbe, as Milton Krest, explain it to Sanchez. The drug leader didn't believe it. Most of us wouldn't either.
As to the 18 wheeler on its side? Well, this was 1989. All practical effects. Some stuntman on set actually did that, so be quiet about "it couldn't happen." It did happen.
Q in the Field
I've always loved LTK for the extensive use of Desmond Llewelyn as Q not only giving Bond the gadgets, but actively helping 007 with his mission. I'm a fan of the franchise, but this is the only one when this happens, right?
License of Kill remains one of my favorite Bond films. Dalton remains one of my favorite Bonds. I like that he and the producers sought to bring Bond back to his darker, literary roots with The Living Daylights and License to Kill. I'm glad it was Dalton who portrayed Bond in a story like this. This wasn't some megalomaniac trying to take over the world. This was personal. This was revenge. This was Bond's career be damned. He was going to have his revenge.
LTK is a film firmly ensconced in the 1980s, and I'm fine with that. So, too, was From Russia With Love, Live and Let Die, Tomorrow Never Dies, and Quantum of Solace. Bond evolves with the times. Bond reflects the times. It makes perfect sense for Bond to confront the drug cartels of the 1980s.
As a result of the subject matter, License to Kill is a darker film. In fact, as I mentioned to my wife, watching the movie from the vantage point of 2019, License to Kill is a Daniel Craig-type Bond film...just years ahead of its time.