On leave to serve as best man at the wedding of CIA chum, Felix Leiter (David Hedison), secret agent James Bond (Timothy Dalton) assists in capturing notorious, South American drug baron Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). Sanchez is freed by his compatriot Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe) and takes revenge by maiming Leiter in a shark attack and killing his wife (Priscilla Barnes). An enraged Bond tries to settle the score, but has his license to kill suspended by cautious superiors. Going rogue, Bond trails Sanchez to his casino and goes undercover as a gambler, with help from gutsy pilot Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) and good, old “Q” (Desmond Llewelyn). He romances Sanchez’s sultry mistress Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto) and infiltrates the drugs factory, before the final, breakneck truck chase across the Mexican mountains.
Probably the most controversial James Bond movie, Licence to Kill was also sadly the lowest grossing and concluded Timothy Dalton’s brief tenure as 007. Although nowhere near as bad as its detractors claim, the film suffers from John Glen’s usual sluggish pacing, some awkward detours (subplots about contras and guided missiles go nowhere), and a tendency to want to have its cake and eat it. This was supposedly a harder-edged, grittier Bond, more in tune with the action movies of the eighties/nineties. The violence certainly bears this out: a procession of shark maiming, exploding heads, human fireballs, and a young Benicio Del Toro minced up in a grinder, that until recently were severely cut from most home video releases. Yet sitting beside these grisly details (which thrilled many a schoolboy in ’89) are some lapses into silliness: a pointless barroom brawl (which at least features that “mine’s bigger than yours gag” between Pam Bouvier and Bond) and a surreal interlude with Wayne Newton as the televangelist-style head of Olimpatec.
Bond himself was so bloodied and battered at the climax he drew the ire of British tabloids who realised - gasp! - Princess Diana would be at the world premiere. Can’t let the royals see that sort of thing. Some of this “realism” undercuts the allure of Bond. Post-détente, the makers felt Russian spies and hi-tech masterminds no longer cut it as Bond villains; but once you’ve faced an evil genius plotting to wipe out all mankind, a two-bit drug lord seems rather underwhelming. Nonetheless, Robert Davi (despite being described by one critic as “an evil Ted Danson”) is a menacing presence, Anthony Zerbe is suitably slimy, and there are further, worthy villainous turns from Don Stroud, Everett McGill and the aforementioned Del Toro.
In the long, hot summer of 1989, jostled between Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Licence to Kill struggled to make an impact, but is arguably the best Bond film of the eighties. It gets a lot things right. Timothy Dalton is exemplary, perfecting his intense interpretation of Bond; a hero who is moved when bad things happen to good people. There is a nice moment between him and Priscilla Barnes as Leiter’s intended, and long term fans will appreciate it’s the death of a bride on her wedding day that spurs Bond into action. His mission is most definitely personal. The pre-credits sequence with Bond and Leiter bungee-jumping from a helicopter in wedding tuxedos kicks things off in high style and the titanic truck duel that closes the film is thrilling. Moreover, we have two very alluring, contrasted Bond girls with Cary Lowell as the feisty, yet vulnerable action gal (a far better stab at a proactive Bond girl than Jinx in Die Another Day (2002)) and Talisa Soto as the glamorous, fickle, yet abused gangster’s moll. Plus any Bond movie that features the wonderful Desmond Llewelyn doing far more than just doling out gadgets can’t be all that bad. Let’s put one rumour to rest though. The original title - Licence Revoked - was not changed because American preview audiences didn’t know what “revoked” meant, but because they associated those words with having your driver’s license annulled. Besides, what kind of theme song would that make?