It’s hard to believe that there was a time when there wasn’t a big blockbuster release almost every week from March onwards (or earlier, with Black Panther launching around Valentine’s Day in 2018). In the 1980s, however, such packed years were harder to come by. So, when 1989 brought forth Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters 2, Lethal Weapon 2, Gremlins 2, The Abyss, Parenthood, Star Trek V, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and that’s not to mention the year’s undisputed champion – Tim Burton’s Batman – it was clear there were going to be losers amongst the films jostling for attention from audiences not used to such a schedule. With Bond’s US release set for June 13th, Licence to Kill would open three days before Ghostbusters 2, and ten days before Batman and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids – three films that, between them, would appeal to wide demographics. Increasing the difficulty factor still further, in the absence of the yet-to-be-created 12-rating (which would roll-out across the country in August with the British release of Batman), Licence to Kill was slapped with a 15-certificate in the United Kingdom. For the first time, British children under-15 would be unable to see Bond in cinemas. As attachment to the series is usually formed in childhood, this was very bad news.
Licence to Kill begins with James Bond in the Florida Keys to attend – as best man – the wedding of his old friend Felix Leiter (Live and Let Die‘s David Hedison being the first man to play the character for a second time. John Terry from the last film being dropped; as this story really needed an incarnation that audiences knew – plus Terry was rather forgettable). On the way to the church, Leiter and Bond get word from the Drug Enforcement Agency that wanted drug baron Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) is on the move, and ripe to be captured. After a thrilling capture of Sanchez’s plane, James and Felix skydive to the church, and Felix is married.
On the way to prison, Sanchez is sprung free by crooked agent DEA agent Ed Killifer (Everett McGill), while his associates have Felix’s new wife Della (Priscilla Barnes) killed, and Felix maimed by a shark (taking inspiration from the book Live and Let Die, and utilising the classic line “He disagreed with something that ate him”). About to leave Florida for his next mission, Bond gets word at the airport of the escape, and races back to Leiter’s house to find his colleague barely alive. When M arrives to demand Bond head, as planned, to Istanbul, Bond resign, arguing he owes a debt to his old friend. For the first time in the series – but far from the last – Bond is out on his own, without the support of MI6. Learning what he can from CIA informant Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), a woman he had seen with Felix, and knows to be on Sanchez’s hit-list, they head to Isthmus City, where Bond will attempt to infiltrate Franz’s organisation in the guise of an ex-secret service agent-gone-rogue. Getting close to the drug lord’s mistress Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto), James works to sow seeds of destruction within the criminal empire; bringing it down from within, and avenging his friend.
Licence to Kill may be the most reappraised film in the series since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Whilst yet to receive the level of acclaim enjoyed by the Lazenby effort, it is, however, a film that has gone from being seen as the flop that nearly killed the series, to a highly-respected effort that arrived, perhaps, a few years before its time. For all the sun-kissed, humidity-drenched beauty of the Florida Keys location, this is a film that suffers from a made-for-TV look in a few places (possibly due to the drop in budget from last time out from $40-32 million), despite being, overall, very attractive. Moving out of Europe entirely, with only a short scene with Moneypenny (a second appearance from the largely forgotten Caroline Bliss) even set in the UK (and not a single frame filmed here). Bond had perhaps stepped further outside of his natural environment than audiences were ready to see. Add to this the increase in violence, and this became a tougher sell than usual.
Although seen as simply too different at the time, and lacking in the feel of a typical Bond film, time has been very kind to Licence to Kill. This feels more tailored to Dalton than the previous entry – for all of The Living Daylights‘ Fleming-esque trappings. No Bond – not even Daniel Craig – is better suited to the man avenging his friend, with or without the help of his paymasters. As a veteran agent, his Bond is also well-suited to the experienced man-turned-dark who will infiltrate the Sanchez organisation. He displays terrific chemistry with Robert Davi, and a warmth that is rarely noted when his take on the character is considered. His chemistry with the Pam Bouvier character is superb, and her character a quantum leap forward from the rather limp Kara character of the previous film. From the very earliest days of the series, Bond is at his best when he has to live off his wits and react to what is happening around him. Licence to Kill delivers this in spades.
As villains in the James Bond series go, it’s probably fair to say we haven’t had as many greats as we may think. Auric Goldfinger is a stand-out, but most others aren’t. Blofeld may have the name recognition, but we have had takes on that character that generally disappoint. Donald Pleasance is little more than a cameo; Telly Savalas is menacing, but incongruous with any other version; and Charles Gray may be, scientifically, the campest single element ever committed to any film. Even the Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz couldn’t nail an interpretation. Scaramanga is barely in his film; nor is Kananga in his; and Christopher Walken is wasted on bad material in his entry. Robert Davi’s Franz Sanchez is one of the greats: personable, valuing loyalty, sadistic and charming in equal measure; yet utterly ruthless when crossed – and Davi has screen presence to burn.
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Taking $156 million at the worldwide box office, the film managed only $34 million in the United States. This was the lowest return for the series, in this market, since From Russia With Love a full 26 years earlier, and only two-thirds of the take enjoyed by its immediate predecessor. For all this, it was not the performance at the box office that sent James Bond into hibernation for the next six years. Plans were hatched for a third Dalton entry, to be released in 1991 – the details of which can be read about in Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdhury’s outstanding book Some Kind of Hero: The Remarkable Story of the James Bond films. As late as 1994, Timothy Dalton was the James Bond of record, with early drafts of GoldenEye being written with him in mind. Put simply, between 1990 and 1992 MGM/United Artists become MGM-Pathé, under the ownership of Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti. Under this regime, his plans for Bond, with regard to television, were seen by EON as devaluing the home market for the series, leading to legal dispute between the two parties. Eventually, questions were raised about Parretti’s financial propriety, with money owed to a number of stars (including Sean Connery) going unpaid, and he was ousted, with the studio on the verge of bankruptcy. By 1993 a new regime was in place, and work could commence on the next Bond movie.
It would be 1995, however, before James Bond would return. With the Cold War over, sexual politics changing, and the series now 33 years old, was there any appetite left for the character? EON would change everything behind the camera: after five films, director John Glen was out; Richard Maibaum had passed away – necessitating new writers; even the title sequence would be modernised, as Maurice Binder had died in 1991. These changes would extend to in front of the camera (with the exception of Desmond Llewellyn). Timothy Dalton would have returned for a third, but there were strong voices for change; for a new Bond with no baggage, no attachment to the previous films. As he was about to get a new Moneypenny, and his first female boss, James Bond was about to get a new face – one with whom he had previously flirted. Welcome, Pierce Brosnan.
The Road to Bond 25 will return with GoldenEye (1995).