BOND RETROSPECTIVE 16: LICENCE TO KILL

Bond 25, NO TIME TO DIE debuts in September 2021. Until then, I’ve been rewatching all of the Bond films in chronological order. Today I reach Timothy Dalton’s final performance as 007. Spoilers ahead

In 1988, Robert Davi and Grand L Bush played Agent Johnson and Agent Johnson in Die Hard. Remember when the FBI arrive on the scene and we meet Agents Johnson and Johnson and they seem to like each other but then we realise that Agent Johnson hates Agent Johnson?

Well, come 1989 and in Licence to Kill, Robert Davi plays the villain Sanchez and Grand L Bush plays DEA Agent Hawkins who is out to catch him.

Isn’t that fascinating trivia? No? What about the fact that the excellent score for Die Hard was written by Michael Kamen – who also scored Licence to Kill?


Kamen’s influence is noticeable from the gunbarrel alone. I love this change, which then seques into the Bond theme we all know and love.

Kamen’s score felt very contemporary at the time – and so it should, for the composer was also recently responsible for the score for Lethal Weapon and Highlander (with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Three Musketeers and X-Men coming later. He also had many hugely successful collaborations with pop and rock legends). There are moments in the score which are reminiscent of those gritty 80s action films and that seems fair, for this is one tough Bond.


THE PRE-TITLES

The pre-titles is a great adventure on it’s own. Bond’s CIA partner Felix Leiter (David Hedison, returning as the agent he played in Live and Let Die) is getting married. But before both men can get to the church on time, they have to try and apprehend drug crime lord Sanchez (Robert Davi) who has made a trip to Key West. Sanchez makes a striking appearance when him and his men burst into a room where Talisa Soto (Lupe) is in bed with a man.

What did he promise you, his heart?
Give her his heart.

As the man is taken off camera and his heart removed by Dario (Benicio del Toro) who flourishes his shiny knife, Sanchez punishes her by whipping her.

Already one of the toughest villains. Already, alarm bells ringing for those accustomed to having their Bond’s quipping in family friendly adventures.

The pursuit of Sanchez leads to an airport, a shoot out, and then an air pursuit where Bond is lowered down on a cable which he attaches to Sanchez’s plane. (You can see where Christopher Nolan found inspiration for Bane’s plane attack at the start of The Dark Knight Rises). Bond catches his fish, then both men parachute down to the church, just in time. Brilliant.

THE STORY

Felix and the DEA have taken the opportunity to catch Sanchez, who never usually leaves “Isthmus City”, so the opening scene is a great victory for Leiter.

But with the help of his minions and an inside man, Sanchez is sprung in a fantastic scene in the Florida Keys (the predates a similar scene in True Lies, 1994).

Sanchez’s men attack and kill Della, Leiter’s bride, then suspend Felix over a shark pool where he loses a leg and is hospitalised.

Bond is now on his own personal vendetta, and once having his licence to kill revoked, becomes a free agent, infiltrating Sanchez’s organisation to find ways to bring him down.

DELLA AND FELIX LEITER’S GENUINE LIGHTER

The scenes around the wedding are well played, and you feel the affection between Bond, Leiter and Della. The newly-weds even give Bond an inscribed lighter which really needs its flame adjusted!

It’s great to see the films making reference to Bond continuity, when Della gives Bond her garter for luck, implying he will be next to marry.

Della: Next one who catches this, is the next one who –

Bond: No. Thanks Della. It’s time I left.

Della to Felix: Did I say something wrong?

Felix: He was married once. It was a long time ago.

Dalton plays the moment very well, and it is a moment of poignancy in a film which doesn’t really stop for breath after this.

BOND FINDS THE LEITERS

Another scene which really works is Bond’s silent discovery of the Leiter’s after Sanchez’s attack. Bond hears about the drug lord’s escape and returns to the Leiter’s home. Creeping in, he draws his gun and moves into the house – discovering Della’s body on the bed, still in her wedding dress. He then spots a bundle on the couch, finds the taunting note, and realises that Felix is barely alive. It may not be spectacular, or particularly “spy time” but you do get the feeling that he is a trained agent as he enters the house.

KILLIFER

Bond and buddy Sharkey (Frank McRae) infiltrate a marine research facility owned by Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), which is a cover for Sanchez’s operation. There’s a yucky moment when a henchman is consigned to a drawer full of maggots, an exploding aquarium, and then the apprehension of the agent who double crossed them all to help Sanchez escape. Killifer (Everett McGill) tries to bribe Bond, but 007 is having none of it, throwing the case of money at the agent who ends up in the same pool Leiter lost his leg in. The agent isn’t as lucky. I like this tougher Bond.

LICENCE REVOKED

Bond makes it clear to Leiter’s DEA partner that he wants to get revenge, and that partner escorts him to Hemingway House – a very picturesque location which plays like he’s about to meet a villain. Instead we see M (Robert Brown), who has travelled here to tell Bond to get back to his job. Bond refuses and M says

Effective immediately. Your licence to kill is revoked.

As Bond hands over his gun, there is a brief skirmish and he escapes. He is now truly on his own.

THE ESCAPE FROM THE WAVEKREST

A tremendous sequence. Bond sneaks aboard The Wavekrest to find Sanchez, and instead learns that Krest’s goons have captured and killed Sharkey. Bond instantly responds by harpooning the goon, before jumping into the ocean. As this happens a seaplane arrives delivering drugs. A small remote sub delivers cash to the plane and the pilots return it with the drugs they have just offloaded. Bond destroys the drugs on the sub and as divers approach the tension racks up – you wonder how Bond will escape.

Of course he does, beautifully. As the seaplane leaves, he harpoons the plane and he is pulled away from his diver captors. Bond now water skis behind the plane before climbing up, discarding the pilots, and escaping with all of Krest’s cash. Priceless.

THE BAR AFTER MIDNIGHT

Following a lead from Leiter’s notes, Bond meets Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) in a bar after midnight. We saw her speaking to Leiter earlier, and we learn she is an agent pursuing Sanchez too. Soon Dario and goons arrive and he gives the knife THAT flourish again.

There’s a slightly cheesy bar room brawl, Lowell blows a hole in the wall with a shotgun, and she and Bond escape by boat. Where they argue. Then smooch. (Well, it was still the 1980’s I suppose).

ISTHMUS CITY

The fictional “Isthmus City” is run by Sanchez and Bond deposits the stolen drug money in the bank, knowing it will get attention.

At Sanchez’s casino we get Lowell in THAT dress. Bond is brought in to meet Sanchez by Heller (Don Stroud) and the scene is packed with tight dialogue and unspoken threat.

It is here that Q (Desmond Llewelyn) appears to help Bond with a case full of tricks. Moneypenny, the again underused Caroline Bliss) secretly sent him to help. Bond, knowing that Sanchez’s room is behind armoured glass uses plastic explosive from Q’s toothpaste tube to blow the window so he can kill the drug lord with his rifle.

But some ninja’s attack.

Yeah. Ninjas.

We learn that Hong Kong Narcotics have been pursuing Sanchez too, and Bond has stumbled into their plan. They are about to hand Bond over to the British when Sanchez attacks them using a tank (!) killing them all, but leaving Bond unconscious and tied to a table. Thus, it looks like Bond is legit, a new partner that the Hong Kong agents were trying to torture.

SANCHEZ’S HOUSE

Bond walks in Sanchez’ luxury house (a gorgeous real life location, not a set) and realises that he is now trusted. Bond, encouraged by this, begins to plant the seeds that there may be others in Sanchez’s operation trying to work against him. Bond, like Iago whispering doubts into Othello’s ear, sows the seeds of suspicion. In a way, the job is done. From this point on, Sanchez’s suspicions bring him down.

SPLAT!

We return briefly to the Wavekrest, where Bond plants Krest’s own money in the pressurisation chamber so it looks like he double crossed Sanchez.

Sanchez’s retribution is swift and severe. And the violence of this scene is what contributed to the certification for the film. Krest is put in the chamber with the money and the pressure increased beyond safety levels. Swinging an axe to burst a cable, the pressure is released and Krest’s head explodes. Splat.

What about the money? says a goon.

And you guess the punchline just before Sanchez says it, but that makes the joke even more satisfying.

Launder it.

THE INSTITUTE

We have learned that Sanchez runs a religious institute where televangelist Professor Joe Butcher (Wayne Newton) plies his trade. Through his TV pleas, districts across the USA bid for drugs. Sanchez and the team head there to welcome foreign buyers, and Bond is brought along, now a trusted member of the gang.

THE FACTORY

Yet when Dario reappears, Bond realises his cover will be blown (remember the bar room brawl?) Bond chucks some chemicals which start a fire that rapidly gets out of control far too easily. Sadly, this wont be that last stupidly easy destruction of the villain’s place in Bond movies.

The goons throw Bond onto a conveyor belt that is used to pulverise the drug bricks and he is suspended over the edge when Dario does that flourish with his knife again. Luckily, Pam is there to help, and Dario falls into the mincer. More gore. Look away kids.

As the complex is exploding, Sanchez and his men escape with tankers full of a gasoline mix that they use to Trojan Horse the drugs across the borders.

THE TRUCK CHASE

There is nothing to dislike in this chase. Brutal fights, truck stunts, missiles, a plane, the scene has the lot. Sure, it pays homage to Stagecoach, and consequently Raiders of the Lost Ark and yes, it gets excessive when Bond does a wheelie with one truck and manages to ride another on its side to avoid a missile – but isn’t that the Bond Silliness audiences wanted?

By the end, the goons have all been killed by Sanchez or gone up in smoke, and we are left with 007 and the drug lord on a truck which skids off the road tumbling into a ditch. Both men are battered and bruised, and Sanchez raises his machete.

Don’t you want to know why? says Bond, pulling out the lighter and showing the inscription.

There is a millisecond of recognition before that huge flame flickers and Sanchez erupts into a fireball. Bond runs and stumbles away as the gasoline ignites the truck in a truly HUGE explosion.

As a brief aside, I love this (deliberate?) tribute to Bond lurching away from the exploding truck, as seen in the finale chase of Edgar Wright‘s hilarious HOT FUZZ.

EPILOGUE

At the end, we see a cheery Felix recovering in hospital (did they forget Leiter’s whole storyline when they shot that 3 second scene?) Lupe has set her sights on some other rich guy, and our fiercely independent but surprisingly huffy Pam is pulled into a clinch by Bond. A very eighties ballad plays over the credits – similar in style to that of the previous film. And like that, although we didn’t know it at the time, Dalton’s Bond was gone.


STUNNED

I love this film. I remember bouncing out of the cinema, thrilled and stunned that Bond was tougher than normal.

And why not? If Bond survived Kung Fu, Blaxploitation and Star Wars elements then it makes sense that it should tap into hot contemporary thrillers that were lighting up the box office, and the late 1980s was birthing a series of classic thrillers such as Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and more.

Of course those films were intended for adult audiences and Bond until now was family fayre. Many loved the changes, and many disliked them. If twitter had existed then, #NotMyBond would have trended.

Robert Davi‘s villain Sanchez is possibly the best. Though not necessarily the most memorable.

A GREAT VILLAIN

Sanchez is a great villain. Cold, chillingly logical, and surprisingly loyal and honourable, he nevertheless gets his goons to dig out a man’s heart, whips his lover, gets Della raped and killed, and feeds Felix to sharks. He even shoots one of his right hand men (Antony Starke) when he gets annoying. Sidekick Heller is impaled by a fork lift. He abandons his drug factory at the institute instead of trying to put out the flames as he knows he has enough money to go on without it. He is, in my opinion one of the best villains. Yet not the most memorable. Perhaps he was too real. A realistic villain ripped from the headlines with no exaggerated ticks, scars or megalomaniac tendencies.

COMPETITION

The film was a financial success, making a good profit, and achieved critical and audience acclaim internationally. The film is still somehow viewed as a rare “failure” for Bond – possibly due to its under-performance at the US box office – though many attribute that to marketing errors by the MGM brass at the time, and releasing the film in direct competition with Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and a little movie known as Batman.

The film was truly ahead of it’s time. I think you could remake the film almost entirely today and it would be accepted by the current Bond fans.

Dalton‘s Bond got hurt. He bled, he suffered, and he still won.

Yet the box office performance in the US was only one setback. For legal complications with MGM meant that EON were unable to mount a new film for years. Despite Dalton wanting to return, the delays were too long and he ultimately had to walk away from the role. A damned shame. Lazenby deserved at least two. Dalton at least three.

And yet… the break ultimately paid off. Broccoli was able to cast a Bond he had wanted for a long time, and could refresh the franchise.

REFRESHING

The franchise did need refreshing. For between the release of Licence to Kill in 1989 and the arrival of Bond 17 in 1995, Russian premier Gorbachev and his policies of reform (Perestroika) and openness (Glasnost) eased Cold War tensions, and the Iron Curtain fell. Former Soviet countries were restructuring, the Berlin Wall was opened, and the evil bad guys for many a spy film were gone.

In 1994, James Cameron released True Lies which took the spy genre and brought it bang up to date with cutting edge effects. Sure, it folded in a family drama and comedy, but it felt like a fresh new spy film. I bounced out of the cinema (I did a lot of bouncing in those days) thinking that Bond was dead.

Where could Bond, the sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War era go next?


RICHARD MAIBAUM
Licence to Kill was screenwriter Maibaum’s final contribution to a Bond script – and there can be no doubt that his contribution to the Bond franchise is unsurpassed.

Maibaum wrote or co-wrote the scripts for 13 Bond films. That must surely be some kind of record? The only film he didn’t write was You Only Live Twice (where writing duties were given to Roald Dahl).

A close associate of film star Alan Ladd, Maibaum met Cubby Broccoli and in the 1950s wrote war films, before being invited to bring Bond to the screen.

Richard Maibaum passed away after a short illness in January 1991, aged 81.   


ProductionCast
Produced by: EON Productions
Presented By:  Albert R Broccoli
Director: John Glen
Screenplay: Richard Maibaum and Michael G Wilson
Composer: Michael Kamen
Licence to Kill” by Gladys Knight
Production Design: Peter Lamont
Cinematography: Alec Mills
London Premiere June 1989
Timothy Dalton
Carey Lowell
Robert Davi
Talisa Soto
David Hedison
Grand L. Bush
Anthony Zerbe
Anthony Starke
Benicio del Toro
Don Stroud
Wayne Newton
Everett McGill
Priscilla Barnes
Robert Brown
Caroline Bliss
Desmond Llewelyn

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