Licence To Kill at 30
1989. Hello, 1989? Anybody remember 1989 – no???
That was the year a woman resided at No 10, thinking it would go on forever. But it didn’t…
That year, Vladimir Putin allegedly used to have a merry good time at one of Moscow Centre’s prestigious fleshpot postings – second-in-command of a department of KGB’s Dresden residency. Aspiring to replace his boss in five or six years. Or maybe not…
That year, some spoilt brat named Boris (‘Boris Becker’ they used to wind him up, cruelly) sat behind a desk in Bruxelles, on the seat of his pants still the footprint from being kicked out of his last job. His little mind darkly devoted to making an even deeper impression with his next…
It is fair to say only Putin’s perspective has changed a lot over 30 years.
Oh yes – and 1989 was also the year Timothy Dalton was Ian Fleming’s James Bond in Licence to Kill.
You wouldn’t have guessed it at the time, but in retrospect Dalton seems to turn out as divisive a figure – with some fans at least – as the other three mentioned above. Opinion about him ranges from ‘the best Bond Eon ever dared showing, the closest to Fleming’ to ‘the worst thing that ever happened to the series’, with fans often defending their perception as ultimate truth, reaching for rigorous blanket statements whenever nothing less would do their rightful indignation justice, for or against Dalton.
Amusingly, both sides often name Licence To Kill – the 16th Bond film and Dalton’s second and last – the crown witness to support their verdict.
Now Licence To Kill celebrates its 30th anniversary on 13. June. A film that marked a definite watershed moment in the history of the franchise since it would result in the longest break between productions*. A film that tried to outdo its predecessor with significantly less budget (20 per cent); actually with a budget on par with that of 1979’s Moonraker. A film that set out to give a perfectly fine definition of the phrase ‘punching above its weight’ when it competed that summer, without much promotional help but with predictable results, against Batman and Indiana Jones. At least nobody could accuse Licence To Kill to lack aspiration or optimism.
What it did lack though was the necessary studio commitment, resulting in a meagre budget and promotion campaign, the decision to use Mexico’s Churubusco studios, cutting the globetrotting and the villain’s plan to crash an airplane into Buckingham Palace**. Instead, the film would turn into an early example of making Bond relevant – before the iron curtain had even been torn – by acknowledging current problems and topics, showing Bond fighting a ruthless drug dealer.
With hindsight it’s obvious that it was at least a risk to go where Miami Vice went before – a full five years before – and without the visual content that helps audiences to ignore many minor shortcomings. The colourful, vibrant sights and views which so often elevate the Bond films above the competition and give audiences breathless moments – they are only sparsely peppered over this entry. Licence To Kill is largely dominated – especially in its second half – by shades of brown, a colour scheme the tv show wisely avoided.
Also sticking out – though they didn’t trouble me at the time – are the vast stretches of studio footage that are simply not up to what one has come to expect from Bond. Some fans used ‘made for tv’ as a monicker here, but I don’t think that covers the core of it. Film, wether for the big screen or the small, is always make-believe, always playing tricks on us with the shiny, glitzy surface of things.
Here, the interiors are either bland and unimpressive or overly vulgar as befits the lord over a drug empire. The magic refuses to play with Bond this time because the setting is a fictional but entirely faceless ‘Isthmus City’ where the actual Mexico could have given a sense of travelogue and exoticism. A missed opportunity, shrinking the film visually where the ‘realistic’ villain already comes across smaller-than-usual.
John Barry’s absence weighs heavily on the score, even though the title song tries to evoke a bit of Goldfinger vibe. But for some reason it never became a ‘classic’ Bond song and may be an overlooked and underappreciated entry today. Anyway, the film’s true signature song should better be If You Asked Me To – also because it plays over the winking fish, that ironic symbol so utterly at odds with the overall seriousness of this brutal revenge tale.
Ironic distance might have helped Licence To Kill getting over its uncharacteristically sombre tone. At least in part it is a remake of Live And Let Die, complete with industrial size drug production, subway/submarine smuggling plot, a girlfriend trying to break her shackles and an exploding villain. Sadly, without any of the predecessor’s spectacle and bizarre fascination.
Instead, most of Live And Let Die’s silliness is cut out and replaced with a grim determination the cinematic Bond has never before shown. And what’s left of the absurd circus act ideas – parachuting directly to church after a shootout and a daring stunt in morning coats – doesn’t sit flush with the remainder of the tale.
It’s not so much the graphic violence itself setting Licence To Kill apart, than the refusal to acknowledge 007’s basically fantastical nature in this entry. Until the very end, when the fish winks at us and we’re supposed to understand it was all just a bit of fun. Unfortunately, not all audiences were willing to follow this advice.
But Licence To Kill, for all its shortcomings, also has a couple of strong sleeves. The action during Bond’s escape from the Wavekrest and the tanker chase sequence belongs to the better examples of what a Bond production, even on a budget, can deliver. Timothy Dalton is absolutely intense and Benicio Del Toro a delightfully evil henchman, sadly given too few scenes. Robert Davi’s Franz Sanchez is a charming and horribly believable drug lord who would probably have intrigued and fascinated Fleming and might have inspired him to write a literary counterpart.
The underlying theme of loyalty to one’s ‘family’ – Sanchez’ people, Bond’s friends and service – is relatable and the motif of revenge convincing even if Bond’s actions seem largely without proper plan or any purpose other than playing it by ear. Which is what Bond does most often, so the whole venture seems largely in character for 007. Even offering his resignation has been there before.
Somewhere on the net – where else? – I’ve read the view that Licence To Kill is a good film, just not a good Bond film. I’d say it depends what expectations you have on a Bond film. Licence To Kill is probably the first Bond film that tendered the idea, however briefly, that Bond could be a real person, with real emotions (though not ’emotional’ as such). It was that idea that in the end marked Licence To Kill’s impact on the series for me. Maybe it wasn’t pursued consequently enough. Or maybe it was 15 to 20 years too early for it.
Watch it today and decide for yourself.
*Although this record might or might not fall sooner or later…
**According to Charles Helfenstein’s The Making of The Living Daylights, p. 268.