With Licence to Kill, we reach the end of the Timothy Dalton era. To be honest, I’m a bit torn on the era. On the one hand, we see Bond films exploring new themes and new types of plots. On the other hand, Licence to Kill represents the most violent and bloodthirsty the series has ever been. It’s a different kind of film, more brutal, less refined, and perhaps a touch barbaric.
Licence to Kill finds Bond (Timothy Dalton) seeking revenge against a Central American drug lord named Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) after Sanchez kills Felix Leiter’s (David Hedison) new bride, Della (Priscilla Barnes) and maims Leiter. He throws away his connections to MI6, punching M (Robert Brown) and scurrying off to be a rogue agent, hell-bent on revenge, no matter the cost.
Even from a basic explanation of the plot, it’s clear that this is an entirely different film from any that has come before. This is a film where the villain and crime are deeply personal, and where Bond is heavily emotionally invested to the point of throwing away his job. It’s a Bond that no longer fights for Queen and country, but for himself and his own skewed idea of justice.
I think this represents the most basic flaw of the film. While it is a Bond film and feels like a Bond film, it’s not terribly fun to watch. Bond isn’t a hero in this film. While there have been other films where he’s done morally reprehensible things, it’s always been in the cause of the greater good. His actions have been done to preserve world peace, to save Britain, or – in the rare case presented by The Man With the Golden Gun and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – to save himself.
Licence to Kill has none of that reassurance that all actions are committed in the name of a greater good. It’s Bond gone mad and become the thing that he’s been faced with throughout the entire series. In Licence to Kill, Bond is the closest to the villain that he’s ever been. The only reason, perhaps, that we don’t think he’s a villain is because he has the good fortune to be placed alongside a man who likes to cut out hearts and drop people into shark tanks. It’s difficult for anyone to outdo a person that morally reprehensible, but considering Bond’s final act is to burn a person to death, it’s admittedly difficult to see the distinction.
I suppose how one feels about Bond in this film depends on what one sees the point of the series being. Sure, there’s no grand over-arching narrative, but there is more or less the story of what is done in the name of Queen and country, and in the preservation of world peace. Along the way, Bond has his own personal adventures and mishaps, but they are always part of this greater character who does his duty and moves on.
Licence to Kill is so radically different that it takes the audience completely by surprise. Gone is that connection to Queen and country. Gone is the reassurance that all of the morally reprehensible actions are for a greater cause. Gone is a stake the audience can actually care about (because, let’s be honest, who really cares about Felix and his wife?). What we’re left with is a homicidal maniac Bond who seems to revel in his own ability to cause violence.
That’s the thing with Licence to Kill as well. There has been violence throughout the Bond series, but this is the first film that seems to revel in it and go over the top with its need to be as brutal as possible to the mooks it encounters. This is a Bond who wants to kill not because he has to, but because he legitimately enjoys doing it. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this – certainly there are more than a few successful films focusing on a killer – but coming from more benign films like The Living Daylights, it’s an unwelcome shock.
The key to why this doesn’t work lies in why it happens at all. Certainly there are times when Bond has been emotional or when he has been overly involved in a particular case. However, this involvement has never stood in the way of his duty. Here, he is willing to throw away everything he has held dear for the last twenty years for a woman that even the audience doesn’t know. It’s sudden, hackneyed, and thoroughly unbelievable as a motivation.
The fact that the film also tries very hard to create a love triangle also works against it. Bond’s relationships with Lupe (Talisa Soto) and Pam (Carey Lowell) are stilted and some of the most forced of the entire series. The fact that there is a love triangle at all is laughable – neither woman can convince me that they actually love him, let alone that they’re miffed about the other sleeping with him. Much of the love story seems shoehorned in at best, shoved in when someone reminded the writers that they were, in fact, writing a Bond film.
On the other hand, the fact that it’s finally mentioned that Bond’s actions have consequences, and that there is more in this world than just James Bond is refreshing. Pam’s willingness to tell Bond that what he was doing was heartless and wrong was necessary, and one of the best moments of the film. It wasn’t enough to save it, but certainly enough to feel that the filmmakers at least knew what it was they were doing.
On the whole, I thoroughly disliked Licence to Kill. The plot aspects that felt like they were meant to be there were too busy revelling in violence to actually be enjoyable. This represents the first Bond film where Bond is nearly unambiguously not a hero, and that just makes the entire film incredibly awkward and difficult to watch. The love story only heightens this awkwardness, and makes the audience painfully aware that what they are watching is scripted, and scripted badly.Return to Bonding with Bond: Janneke Parrish Investigates an American Icon
August 4, 1989
2 hr. 13 min.
Action, Adventure, Thriller
Timothy Dalton, Robert Davi, Carey Lowell