This 1989 action film is the sixteenth entry in the James Bond film series, directed by John Glen. It stars Timothy Dalton, Carey Lowell, Robert Davi, Talisa Soto, Anthony Zerbe and Benicio del Toro.
After British Secret Service agent James Bond (Dalton) and CIA operative Felix Leiter (David Hedison) capture and imprison South American drug baron Franz Sanchez (Davi), the two celebrate at the wedding of Felix and fiancé Della (Priscilla Barnes). However, drug money proves too tempting for some corrupt officials; Sanchez is helped in escaping custody and he takes revenge on Felix.
When 007 learns of the situation, he makes it his personal vendetta to find and take down Sanchez. Starting in the Florida Keys, Bond traces all those involved with Sanchez to come across CIA agent Pam Bouvier (Lowell), an ally of Felix also working to take down Sanchez but for far more dangerous reasons than just blind revenge.
With MI6 officials out to detain him for going rogue, 007 has few allies he can trust as he starts to work his way into the heart of Sanchez’s operation and bring him down from the inside. With nobody to turn to, it’s down to 007 to stop Sanchez and his drug empire before it is too late…
A truly excellent and refreshingly different 007 adventure, sadly seen as a let-down for many by a “too realistic” storyline and competing with the 1989 summer blockbusters. It’s also sad that the fantastic Timothy Dalton bows out after just 2 films. But he does so in explosive fashion as James Bond seeks revenge with him operating outside of Her Majesty’s Service and going rogue. And as this was the first ever James Bond film I saw, it’s already a default 5 stars for opening my eyes to the 007 universe and roping me in with everything I’ve come to love about the franchise.
This is the best of the two Dalton pictures and a real dose of grown up action for the Bond series which never lets down and boasts some of the most exciting and jaw-dropping stuntwork and action sequences in a 007 film, like the water-ski escape from the Florida Keys to the finale set around a breath-taking tanker truck chase down a winding mountain road. There is also a real sense of spy drama to this – lots of infiltration of the criminal underworld, deception and manipulation, and working with allies to get the job done in a very brutal way with little mercy shown.
We are limited to the gadgets, limited to the one-liners and limited to the grand escapism of super-villains and super-weapons. It’s a real-world threat of taking down a powerful drug baron and his cartel, responsible for endangering the lives of millions without the need for destroying the world itself. It almost has is in a “fish out of water” scenario, seeing the darker side to 007 as his world is torn apart with the mutilation of his best friend at the hands of our brilliant Robert Davi’s Franz Sanchez. Davi plays it cool, calm and calculating. There’s no huge monologues, no revelation of global plans or superweapons. There is just a man, motivated by greed and money, who can be as dangerous and deadly with a glint in his eye or an iguana on his shoulder. He smoulders on screen and carries a real sense of charm against Dalton’s Bond. The two together on screen get real time to play out their characters and develop a story for the final set-up.
The cast are grounded and come across perfectly in their roles and not one feels out of place. Our Bond girl, Carey Lowell, is tough and resourceful and kicks as much ass as 007 does rather than scream for his help. Newcomer Benicio del Toro takes the sadistic henchman role as Dario with great glee, and Talisa Soto shines as the Bond girl trapped between good and evil. It’s also nice to see David Hedison return in a crucial role as Felix Leiter, last seen in 1973s ‘Live And Let Die’. We also finally have Desmon Llewelyn as Q in a role that beats the screentime of all his previous ones combined!
It was a strange sight to behold for audiences after the light-hearted fun of the Roger Moore era and so didn’t sit well with casual fans. The 15 / R rating for audiences here allowed more violence and more bad language, so it’s a very big leap compared to the family-friendly Moore films. But times changed, and this was heading in the right direction but, as stated, it can be seen how, for casual Bond fans, this didn’t have any of the escapist adventures that previous films did. This was a touch of dark reality- villains who didn’t have comic-book style wounds or scars, or who wanted to live underwater. No, these were villains who were based on very real and dangerous cartels, gangsters and assassins who blended into society but tore it down with drugs, violence and corruption – who would be the right man to stop them? James Bond of course.
But audiences weren’t so keen at that idea. Not when, in the summer of 1989, James Bond, in his 16th adventure, was going up against the likes of ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’, (third of a beloved trilogy and featuring Sir Sean Connery), ‘Batman’ (the first major blockbuster budgeted adaptaion on film) and ‘Back To The Future: Part II‘. A summer of big hits, fantastical adventures and comedy.
‘Licence To Kill’ is the lowest grossing 007 film when adjusted for inflation. It didn’t hit the target with audiences, even though some did appreciate the efforts, as did critics. It was just too dark and off-tangent in a summer when high-spirited adventure was a winner.
However, leap forward 17 years later and Daniel Craig arrived at the right time to re-invent the darker, Fleming-esque portrayal of Bond that Dalton introduced us to. Dalton set a benchmark the world wasn’t ready for, and only now are people seeing the weight and power he injected into the role. Losing out on a third film due to studio legal issues, one can only dream how he would have continued to give us a really exceptional set of films as 007 in the darker, more gripping and more dangerous world of espionage.
‘Licence To Kill’ is a perfect bridge between one era of Bond into another, but often overlooked. Timothy Dalton gives one of THE best series performances as 007, and it’s still as glamorous, exciting, dangerous and thrilling as ever 30 years on.