License to Review #16: License to Kill (1989)

James Bond will return to cinemas this November with his twenty-fifth adventure, No Time to Die. In preparation, David Alkhed will take a look at all the previous entries in the franchise and see which ones are deserving of praise (shaken) and which ones aren’t (stirred).

One of the toughest things I can imagine for Eon and the makers of Bond is to find a suitable replacement for the role of James Bond after a previous incarnation, someone who can both do a good job playing the part and also come into their own definitions of the character. There’s really no point in repeating what you did before because you had a different actor and a different tone in mind. But the danger with this is that an audience can easily turn on you for making it too different from previous incarnations, and I feel like that might sadly have been the case to an extent with Timothy Dalton’s final Bond film (and the namesake for this series), License to Kill from 1989.

James Bond’s friend from the CIA, Felix Leiter is getting married in Miami. However, on the wedding night, Felix’ wife is killed and he is tortured by a drug lord they just captured named Franz Sanchez who escapes to his hideout in South America. Bond becomes determined to avenge his friend, going so far as to go rogue and get suspended by MI6 and getting his titular license to kill revoked.

It’s a very different and unique setup for a James Bond movie at this point in the franchise’s history, but it’s one that I greatly appreciate and one of the many reasons I admire it so much. The violence isn’t cartoony and has genuine consequences and Bond doesn’t have as many quips and one-liners this time around, which I suspect are some of the reasons why this film isn’t as fondly remembered or wasn’t as popular when it first came out. In fact it was the least financially successful Bond film in the US at the time, and I think the dark tone is what turned a lot of people off.

I very much like the theme song performed by Gladys Knight. It’s albeit a rather classic and perhaps not too adventurous Bond theme but it works for the movie. However, upon doing research, I learned that Eric Clapton himself was appointed to do the theme song for the film, which I think sounds like all kinds of awesome and I kind of wish we would’ve gotten that instead. Still, the one we got is ok so I won’t complain too much. I also like the end credits song If You Ask Me To, a sort of nice eighties pop song to close the movie on a happy and sweet note.

And as with The Living Daylights, Timothy Dalton is a great Bond and one of my favorites. He doesn’t play Bond like a playboy adventurer like Moore or Connery did, he plays him much more like a cynical and ruthless hitman simply armed with a sarcastic sense of humor. It’s really sad that he got sandwiched between two more campy portrayals of Bond in Moore and Brosnan because I think Dalton was really doing good work in this one. I’d go so far as to say that I think had Dalton been making License to Kill in the 2000s or had it starred Daniel Craig it would’ve been far better received.

I also really liked the villain Sanchez. Once again, he’s not the stereotypical Bond villain who is a billionaire who wishes to take over the world for…reasons. He’s simply a drug lord and really that’s all you need. I think Robert Davi portrays him very well as someone who is suave and sophisticated yet not afraid to get his hands dirty when he needs to. In other words, he becomes an antagonist worthy of Bond, or at least this portrayal of Bond. It’s also funny that both Davi and Grand L. Bush appeared in this film as they had previously played FBI agents Johnson and Johnson (no relations) in Die Hard. Also it must be said, Benicio del fucking Toro is also in this movie and proves an electrifying screen presence even at this young age.

One more thing, Everett McGill is in the film briefly as a DEA agent named Ed Killifer. McGill also plays another Ed, namely Big Ed Hurley in Twin Peaks. So in my mind this is Big Ed’s backstory, as he started out as a DEA agent, faked his own death and settled down in a cozy small town in Washington.

So anyways, I think this is a great Bond film that should be discussed more amongst Bond fans and cinephiles in general. Dalton is great, the story is interesting and it’s just a good Bond film. So yes indeed, License to Kill is shaken.

James Bond will return in full 90s mode in Goldeneye, where Mr. Pierce Brosnan will make his cinematic debut in the main role.


Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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