Licence to Kill Review

For more Licence to Kill thoughts, check out this week’s That Bond Show.

Dark, bloody, brooding, and with a mostly silent and furious protagonist at its heart, Licence to Kill sounds more like the set up to a good many 80’s action movies than it does a classic James Bond movie. Yet with 1989’s Licence to Kill, the series dove deep into the teases of a darker, moodier Bond introduced in The Living Daylights while mixing the highly popular over the top action movies of the day as well. 

The Living Daylights took inspiration from the classic 1950’s Ian Fleming novels and stories like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in its depiction of spies and covert operations and in its quieter, more understated James Bond. 

Licence to Kill went a…different direction. It is all bombast, explosions, action set pieces, and gory deaths. This is the angriest James has ever been and Timothy Dalton just imbues this character with a simmering rage that feels ready to go off at the slightest instance. This is likely the film where the lasting public image of Dalton as one note took hold, which is a shame because he is fantastic in his more layered portrayal in The Living Daylights and equally good here dealing with a man at the edge of it all, throwing away his career to get his justice. 

Dalton is served by an excellent surrounding cast, particularly in the form of Robert Davi and Benicio Del Toro. Just as with so much of this movie, these are characters out of 1980’s cinema. Davi’s villain is seemingly ripped right out of the headlines with his Pablo Escobar proxy Franz Sanchez. Yet, Davi seems to be having a ball playing this character and this is only heightened by the magnetic chemistry between him and Dalton which propels so much of this movie. 

Few Bond/villain pairings have as much screen time together as Dalton and Davi do here and they take the two characters on a wonderfully bloody arc together as the movie goes. Sanchez stands as one of the strongest and most memorable villains the series has ever seen, the first truly excellent villain, perhaps, since Telly Savalas’ Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It is refreshing and joyful after the rather languid and lackluster Moore era baddies. 

Particularly great is the way that Sanchez’s character ties into Bond’s longtime ally Felix Leiter and brings to a close that character’s time with the series until the Craig era reboot. This extra personal source of bloody friction between Bond and Sanchez just makes everything that much better. 

As for Del Toro’s Dario, I mean it’s just fantastic to get this baby-faced Benicio playing an utterly unhinged and maniacal villain who’s lust for blood is among the series’ highest. Dario gets off to an explosive start in the first act and comes back for a final great bit in the film’s finale, being a character that you get just enough of and who always leaves you wanting to see more of them. 

Elsewhere Pam is a good foil to Bond who, keeping with the 80’s template, is a badass gun-toting woman in her own right; a very different female lead compared to Kara in the last movie. While I enjoy Kara and James’ relationship and bond more, Pam is a fun character who fits what this kind of movie is perfectly. 

In addition to this, Licence to Kill features easily the most screen time we’ve had of Desmond Llewlyn as Q up to this point in the series, with the quartermaster being a full-fledged sidekick of James who takes part in missions alongside 007. I think with the departure of Moore and the arrival of the far younger Dalton the filmmakers really nailed what the new dynamic between James and Q should be, with the two now having a far more familial father and son relationship than ever before seen in the series. This is in essence the bond the two characters would have through the end of Llewlyn’s run as the character. 

Here it is a delight and affords the two characters to have so many fun and wonderful little moments and jokes together, indeed almost all of the film’s few moments of levity and humor come when Bond is able to let his guard down with Q and just forget the intensity of the mission for a little bit. Excellent stuff. 

Licence to Kill has always had this odd place in the Bond series’ canon; the film bombed by Bond standards in the US when it came out and thus the series has never released another movie during the summer since. It was easily the darkest, angriest, and moodiest Bond film that had been released up to that point and critically it had a far more mixed reception at the time. 

Yet, this is an instrumental Bond movie for the hard break it would inspire in the series. This would be the last Bond movie for a number of old guard series regulars both in front of and behind the camera. A clean break would occur in the ensuing six and a half year gap between films that would usher in the modern era of the character. Even outside of that, Licence to Kill’s decision to provide real consequences for one of Bond’s most famous friends was an important marker for the series. 

Finally, Timothy’s Dalton’s performance as James Bond over his two movies would provide a huge source of inspiration for Daniel Craig’s eventual turn as 007. While Dalton may have been years too early at the time, Craig would receive critical acclaim with his more understated and emotional Bond. 

Innovative, bloodly, furious, a source of inspiration, and a changing of the guard, Licence to Kill is a Bond movie with a unique and special place in the series. Which is a long way of saying it’s a great 80’s action movie. 

Best Moments: 

The Dalton movies really started a great run of fantastic pre-title sequences and Licence to Kill is one of my personal favorites in the whole series. Delivering a fun action-packed opening, while setting up so many different pieces of the rest of the movie’s plot, characters, and themes, it is a brilliant example of what the very best openings should be. 

The final bonkers fire-packed finale of the movie is just simply one of the best set pieces in the entire series and is such a far far departure from any action scenes we got in the Roger Moore era. Bond and Sanchez have been just beat to hell by the time the climax comes to an end and it is so refreshing to see a Bond who bleeds.

Felix Watch: 

David Hedison’s performance as Felix was, until the Craig era and the wonderful performance of Jeffery Wright, the definitive performance of Felix whenever I thought of the character. I love that they brought him back from Live and Let Die, a nice treat for long-time Bond fans that doesn’t distract for any new fans. Hedison does a great job conveying the level of friendship and intimacy between him and Bond and though he is almost exclusively in the first act, his character’s shadow hangs over the entire rest of the movie. A great fun and anguished performance. 9/10

The Villains: 

Franz Sanchez is an iconic Bond villain as far as I’m concerned. Easily one of the most sinister, charming, and impossible to look away from the series has seen, with Robert Davi just giving such life to him. Again, he’s right up there with some of the greats from the Connery era. Del Toro’s Dario is also wonderful as just this unhinged crazed killer who looks up to Sanchez. Taken together they represent so much of what’s good in Licence to Kill. 9/10

Q Lab: 

Q literally brings a straight up suitcase full of shit with him and while most are just quick throw away gags there is so much to love and it’s such a great idea to take the Q lab scenes and place them somewhere else. For Q wearing multiple disguises alone I’d love it. Only held back from the lack of an iconic car. Otherwise a solid 8/10 

Final Review: 
Licence to Kill is a fun action movie. Possibly the most pure action film in the entire series. Bloody, over the top, and balancing its absurdity on its sleeve, it leaves the Timothy Dalton era of the series out on a great note, becoming possibly the best final movie of any Bond actor. 8.5/10 

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