Licence to Kill (John Glen, 1989)

Licence to Kill

Nasty, brutal, violent and upsetting – this is something special. If your preferred brand of Bond is more lighthearted or gag-heavy, then look away now: I’m about to GUSH.

This is my favourite James Bond film of them all. The stakes aren’t world domination or stolen nuclear weapons – they’re *emotional*. Bond is out for revenge because his friends have been barbarically attacked, which gives the whole film weight and passion. The story is loosely based on 1961 Japanese movie Yojimba (no, I’ve never seen it either, but A Fistful of Dollars also used the same format) where one man brings down a large criminal organisation through guile and courage and determination. The beauty of the plot is really quite something: who knows what, when and how, is worked out with both clockwork precision and poetic panache. It’s a constantly evolving and moving-forward story where characters learn things and we learn things about them; and where things happen for reasons. “There’s more to this than your personal vendetta,” Bond gets told at one point – quite right: as well as the main thrust, there are a variety of nuanced subplots (Heller and the Stingers, the Hong Kong investigation, Sanchez’s massive drug deal). 10 cigarette lighters out of 10.

Bond: I once saw a review of this movie that claimed Timothy Dalton failed as James Bond because he played him as someone who gets upset when his friends are killed. This is why I think he *succeeded*. His anger and turmoil are palpable, but his plan to bring down drug baron Sanchez is cold and calculated: a fascinating combination. Dalton recognised that Bond is a killer, a murderer at times, not a detached playboy. This film, aptly given its emotional resonance, features the third reference to Bond’s late wife.

Villains: Franz Sanchez is our bad guy, a 1980s drug lord. He cuts out a guy’s heart, whips his girlfriend, offers and makes good on a $2 million bribe, feeds Felix Leiter to a shark, has a pet iguana and wears sandals and a cardigan. He’s played by Robert Davi. The previous year, he’d been one of two FBI agents in Die Hard who were both called Johnson – coincidentally, the other Agent Johnson, actor Grand L Bush, is also in Licence to Kill. Sanchez’s henchmen include sadistic Dario (Benicio Del Toro in an early role), creepy Milton Krest (a character from a Fleming story story played by Anthony Zerbe), slimy Wall Street twat Truman-Lodge and duplicitous heavy Colonel Heller.

Girls: The beautiful Talisa Soto plays Sanchez’s girlfriend, Lupe Lamora, and is very good in a role much better written than the usual ‘secondary Bond girl’ parts. Della Churchill, who marries Felix in the film’s opening, is played by Priscilla Barnes – she later appeared as a three-nippled fortune teller in Mallrats. The bank manager is Isthmus City has a very pretty assistant, while Sanchez hires a roomful of call girls to impress some businessmen. But the highlight is pilot and CIA informant Pam Bouvier, played by Carey Lowell. She is, frankly, the best Bond girl of the entire series. Yes, better even than Diana Rigg’s Tracy. She’s a confident, strong, capable, sassy and sophisticated woman who’s as sexy as fuck. She brings a shotgun to a meeting. She rescues Bond’s arse quite a few times. She swears. She hides a gun in her stockings. Best of all, she’s a protagonist: an active player in the story who has her own agenda and makes her own decisions. Every now and again, the Bond films have tried to make the female lead more of 007’s ‘equal’. Sometimes it works, sometime it doesn’t – Pam Bouvier is knock-it-out-of-the-park, sing-it-from-the-hilltops, jump-up-and-down successful. I’ve been in love with her since I was 11 years old.

Regulars: David Hedison, easily the best Felix Leiter we’ve had, becomes the first actor to play the role twice. The believable friendship he and Dalton create is integral to the story – and what happens to Felix in this movie is vicious. M flies out to Florida to reprimand 007 (at Ernest Hemingway’s house for some reason). It’s an electric scene. “Oh, spare me the sentimental rubbish,” snaps M, which is possibly a deliberate mission statement for the series’s new direction. Bond tries resigning and his licence to kill is revoked. Bond hands over his weapon, but then legs it – he’s on his own now, isolated and a one-man army. Moneypenny gets just one short scene, wimpering at her desk as she worries about James: poor Caroline Bliss, who we won’t be seeing again! But whereas she’s barely featured, Q gets his most substantial role yet. He takes leave from MI6 so he can fly to Central America, pose as Bond’s uncle and help him out. He brings a suitcase of gadgets, which get shown off in the film’s most trad-Bond scene. Q and Pam then strike up a lovely double act, the two people who care about Bond but he won’t ‘let in’.

Action: There’s the opening skirmish as the DEA try to arrest Sanchez; it concludes with Bond dangling from a helicopter and tying a cord around Sanchez’s getaway plane in midair. Sanchez later escapes by engineering it so a police van drives into the sea, where divers are waiting to rescue him. Bond beats up a couple of goons at Krest’s warehouse, then coldly murders the traitor Killifer. Bond sneaks onto Krest’s boat and audaciously steals his payment for a drug deal after a scrap with some heavies and a water-ski stunt. Moments after Bond meets Pam, there’s one of 80s cinema’s classic barroom brawls (the movie becomes Road House for a couple of minutes). Bond’s attempt to assassinate Sanchez is interrupted by ninjas from the Hong Kong police – the capture him and are then overpowered by Sanchez’s men (a lovely example of the plotting: because Bond has been tied up, Sanchez assumes he is an enemy of his enemies). There’s also the chaos at the refinery, including Bond’s fight with Dario, followed by the epic tanker chase (one of the best action runs in all of Bond). By its end, James is cut, battered, bruised and wearing a ruined suit: this film has HURT.

Comedy: Often black. When Bond discovers shark-chewed Felix, the bad guys have left a note that says, ‘He disagreed with something that ate him.’ Wayne Newton – an easy-listening singer whose biggest hit was Danke Schoen, which I only know from Ferris Bueller – appears as fake TV evangelist Professor Joe and gets some smarmy laughs. Dalton is on fine irritable form: “I hope you don’t snore, Q,” he snarls when forced to share a bedroom; “Piss off,” he underplays to a tight-arsed agent who questions him. The look of contentment on a henchman’s face when Lupe talks to him is very funny. “What about the money, patrón?” asks a goon when some cash gets covered with blood. “Launder it,” is Sanchez’s deadpan reply. My favourite laugh in the film comes when a furious Pam learns Bond has slept with Lupe. “Don’t judge him too harshly, my dear,” says an avuncular Q. “Field operatives must use every means at their disposal to achieve their objectives.” Pam, arms crossed and seething, just snaps, “Bullshit!”

Music: John Barry had quit the series (due to either throat surgery or after a tiff with A-ha, depending on which source you read), so Michael Kamen was hired to score this one. He wrote the music for many fine 1980s movies – The Dead Zone, Brazil, Highlander, the Lethal Weapons, the Die Hards – as well as TV classic Edge of Darkness. Here he gives us a dark, brooding, dangerous score with a Latin feel at times. The theme tune is sung by Gladys Knight and is based on the famous horn phrase from Goldfinger.

Personal connection: In 1989, I went to the cinema (I think for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and saw a poster in the lobby promoting the upcoming Licence to Kill. I’d been very excited about the new Bond because of a behind-the-scenes programme I’d seen on ITV. I was therefore *gutted* when I realised it was a 15 certificate. I was 10, so wouldn’t be able to go.

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