License To Kill:
The James Bond franchise has now flirted with Kung-fu, Blaxsploitation and Sci-Fi, and each flirtation ended in a proverbial slap in the face. But now we find a genre that Bond compliments, and its arrival couldn’t have been more timely. Unlike Moonraker, the concept behind this film sounds appealing when said out loud.
James Bond meets Scarface.
Dalton doesn’t face off against a coke-snorting Al Pacino, but basically tussles with his second cousin. The Mastermind isn’t an evil genius, but a Latin American drug lord, one so sadistic and frightening he could give Pablo Escobar a run for his money. The appeal of Franz Sanchez as an antagonist (other than Robert Davi’s performance) is the plausibility of him. He doesn’t want to steal submarines or blackmail the U.N. – why the fuck would he? A monopoly on the drug trade already makes him one of the most powerful men alive. He practically runs his own Central American country, chillingly telling the puppet dictator he keeps in his pocket that: “You’re only president for life.”
He’s also a villain that’s refreshingly devoid of gimmicks. He doesn’t have an eyepatch, or an ugly scar, or robot hands, or something marking him as visibly ‘other.’ There are hints that he might be closeted, but his viciousness isn’t pathologized as a symptom of his sexuality. Other Bond films would be content to lazily portray him as a ‘depraved homosexual’ stereotype. Here, there are me suggestions that Sanchez is gay, but the story doesn’t dwell on them.
This goes double for The Henchman, Dario, played by a startlingly young and shockingly handsome Benicio del Toro. Dario is outwardly gorgeous, but the sick and gruesome relish he takes in torture, rape and violence is what marks him as monstrous, not his appearance.
The movie begins with Bond and Felix Leiter capturing Sanchez in a bit of derring-do, before changing into tops and tails and parachuting down to Felix’s wedding. No surprise that Bond has never heard the old adage about not upstaging a bride at her own nuptials huh? Also, this scene appears to have been, ahem, borrowed by Christopher Nolan for Bane’s introduction in The Dark Knight Rises. Whatever happened to hiding your influences Chris?
The weirdest thing about the whole sequence isn’t the fact that Bond switches from action-hero to Hugh Grant rom-com protagonist in seconds; that kind of silliness is par the course by now. No, what startled me about this opening is that it’s the first time we’ve ever had any hint that James Bond actually has friends.
Think about it: when in any of the other movies have we ever seen Bond enjoying a platonic relationship that wasn’t directly related to his work? Felix is a recurring Local Contact, but even he started off as a colleague. I recall watching Bond’s wedding in OHMSS, looking at all the guests at the reception and asking myself: “Who the fuck are all these people? They must all be Tracy’s pals.”
The sight of Timothy Dalton mingling with normal people makes you realise that the character of Bond only ever operates in one context. He can’t function in any domestic setting. I mean, who would he hang out with? What’s he like to have as a mate? He’d probably be the kind of person who seems really interesting when you first meet him, but after a year you realise that he’s never once asked you how you are, and always tells the same boring anecdotes like “this one time in Cairo I chucked a bloke off a building.” The movie mines this for pathos, with a reference to Bond being a widower himself, and Bond seems acutely uncomfortable at the wedding. We get the sense that this is painful for him, and see him regret missing the boat for settling down.
The happy couple doesn’t stay that way for long. Sanchez manages to escape custody, and he, Dario, and some thugs ambush Mr and Mrs Leiter on their honeymoon. In a genuinely disturbing scene, Felix has one of his legs fed to sharks, and his poor wife is brutally raped and murdered. Even after the realism of Living Daylights, this shocking content, and a far cry from the days of Solex Agitators and giant men with metal teeth.
Bond learns soon thereafter that Sanchez has escaped, and rushes desperately to Felix’s house to find his friend maimed and his wife dead. Dalton plays this scene perfectly, and it’s gripping to see the usually-unflappable Bond in a state of sheer panic. He fumbles at the phone, hyperventilating, and stutters when calling for an ambulance. It really emphasises how much he cares about the Leiters. After all, this is the guy who sees more corpses in his line of work than your average undertaker, and he’s not usually affected.
There’s even a great subversion of the usual pre-mortem one-liner, but this time the naff joke is given to the Sanchez. When Bond finds Felix, there’s a note left beside him which reads: “He disagreed with something that ate him” – which is so nasty and cruel that it actually works, making our antagonist seem sociopathic for a change, instead of our hero.
Enraged, Bond goes to the aquarium where Felix was chomped on and murders the DEA agent who betrayed them. Bond discovers a big pile of gak hidden in a sub, and then is summoned to the former house of Ernest Hemmingway to be bollocked by a sinister man stroking a cat. What’s this? Has Blofeld managed to crawl out of that chimney? Nope. In another cool subversion, the feline-lover turns out to be the new M, who is a far cry from stern stepdad Bernard Lee.
This scene is probably the best in the film, if not one of the best in the series. A callous M tells Bond that he’s to forget about all this drug dealing malarky in Cuba, and go on an unrelated mission in Turkey. M argues that Bond’s personal feelings are distracting him from his job, while Bond is righteously indignant that the rape and murder of Delia Lieter is going to go unpunished.
In other Bond films, JB would have a wee strop and go to Turkey, the unrelated mission would turn out to be part of the main plot all along, Bond would save the day and Q would build Felix a bionic leg/wife, no-harm-done. But this time Bond takes a stand. We finally learn what his professional limits are, and see his loyalty to the state tested by his personal principles. The dialogue between Bond and M, which is typically as dry as burnt toast, now gets extra-spicy. Take a look at the exchange:
M: Look, you're in over your head. This is where it ends, Commander. You were supposed to be in Istanbul last night. I'm afraid this unfortunate Leiter business has... clouded your judgment. You have a job to do. I expect you on a plane this afternoon. BOND: I haven't finished here, sir. M: Leave it to the Americans. It's their mess. Let them clean it up. BOND: Sir, they're not going to do anything. I owe it to Leiter. He's put his life on the line for me many times. M: Oh, spare me this sentimental rubbish! He knew the risks. BOND: (Coldly) And his wife? M: This private vendetta of yours... ..could easily compromise Her Majesty's Government. You have an assignment. I expect you to carry it out objectively and professionally. BOND: Then you have my resignation, sir. M: We're not a country club 007! Effective immediately, your licence to kill is revoked.
Suddenly, we get a sharp reminder that MI6 isn’t a bastion of justice and democracy. The parade of fusty old men sitting behind oak desks in Whitehall are every bit as cold, conniving and ruthless as the baldies in Nehru suits. Bond just hasn’t realised because they’ve always been on his side … until now.
As if that wasn’t great enough, the movie then one-ups itself by having Bond make a genuinely funny quip! I was shocked to the core! M demands that Bond hand over his gun, and Bond says quietly: “Well, I guess it’s a farewell to arms,” before escaping and going on the run. In any other movie it would be ridiculously contrived, but I was so happy to encounter actual wit for once that I cheered. What have I become?
Bond is now forced to fend for himself, relying on his own skills and investigative abilities to bring down a narcotics empire. He manages to recruit two allies. The first is Q, because Desmond Lewellyn has been playing in this franchise for longer than anyone, and having him suddenly morph into a dickhead would erode his curmudgeonly appeal. Plus, it’s quite cute to see Q actually caring about Bond for once, instead of acting like a frustrated schoolteacher interacting with an underachieving student.
The second ally is cool-as-fuck ex-CIA Final Girl Pam Bouvier. Considering that the only other women in this movie are a fridged wife and a battered gooma, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this movie was going to stay in the misogynistic lane for the duration of its runtime. However, the inclusion of Pam makes this (and I can’t believe I’m typing this with a straight face) a surprisingly feminist movie.
Seriously, hear me out here.
Pam works for the same reasons that Anya in TSWLM did. She has a personal stake of her own in taking down Sanchez, isn’t impressed by Bond’s pompous posturing, and is consistently snarky. Not only that, but she’s also totally immune to The Bimbos, staying competent and ass-kicking right to the end. She never needs to be rescued by Bond, and actually saves his tail on a number of occasions.
She’s also willing to criticise Bond on grounds other than “You shot my boyfriend.” When she meets up with Bond at a shady bar, Bond patronisingly tells him to stick close to him, only for her to reveal that she’s packing a shotgun and kevlar armour. When she has to pretend to be Bond’s “executive secretary” in Isthmus City, she (not unreasonably) asks why he can’t be her secretary, and tells Bond to share a bed with Q in their hotel while she takes one for herself. She even gets her own Bondesque one-liner when dispatching Dario.
Pam goes a long way towards furthering my theory that, the less impressed women initially are with Bond, the harder he has to work to convince them that he’s not a total melt, which leads to them developing grudging respect and him earning the seduction. Personally, I enjoyed the way this movie handled it more than in TSWLM. There, Bond got off with Anya because he convinced her that he really was that good, and it comes across as though she fell for him over his proficiency. In License to Kill, Pam isn’t remotely turned on by Bond’s fancy suits, posh cars and machismo. She’s falls for him because Dalton’s Bond seems like a chivalrous knight compared with the ensemble cast of cutthroats. Bond’s undying loyalty to Felix and unshakeable moral code is what makes him attractive, not his suits or skills.
The critique of Bond continues when he attempts to snipe Dario and inadvertently botches a Hong-Kong sting, and gets captured and chewed out by Pam and fellow MI6 agent named Fallon. The implication is that M, to an extent, is right about Bond. His personal feelings are clouding his judgement, and this only makes the story more tense.
Surprisingly, Bond escapes by getting rescued by Sanchez, after Bond frames one of his associates as a double-crosser. There’s a gruesome scene where this underling is burst like a party balloon in a decompression chamber, and Bond attempts to manipulate Sanchez into letting him work for him. Since Bond has done a bloody fine job of burning all of his bridges bar Q and the Downing Street Chief Mouser, Sanchez accepts, and Bond learns all about his Evil Plan to smuggle coke by dissolving it in petrol and sell it as fuel.
However, Twink Del Toro rats him out, and Bond is tied to a conveyor belt and fed into a giant paper shredder. Pam shows up in the nick of time and distracts Dario long enough for Bond to boot him into the mincer so he ends up like Steve Buscemi in Fargo. Rather than play it cucumber cool all the time, Dalton isn’t afraid to let Bond have his feathers ruffled, and thus yells: “SWITCH THE BLOODY MACHINE OFF!” rather than quipping when Dario is turned bolognese sauce.
From then, the movie briefly morphs into Road Warrior, with Bond using all manner of vehicles to chase down Sanchez’s oil tankers in a desert highway pursuit. A lot of it is taken wholesale from Max Max, but I suppose that if you’re going to plagiarise then you might as well plagiarise something awesome. Bond destroys each of the tankers, getting more and more bloody and battered each time, until he and Sanchez are the last men standing.
He’s outnumbered, outgunned, and running on empty, and by the time he finally faces Sanchez mano-et-mano, he’s uncharacteristically injured and tattered. A petrol-soaked and psychotic Sanchez prepares to carve Bond up with a machete, and Bond is so wounded and exhausted that he can barely stand upright, which forces him to rely on his wits.
Instead of getting into a boring fistfight, Bond distracts Sanchez with the cigarette lighter Felix gave him earlier, and manages to set him on fire, leaping away from the last tanker just before it explodes. Instead of delivering a naff joke, Bond reverts to the dispassionate hitman we glimpsed back in Dr No. The movie has an epilogue with Bond and Pam hooking up, but really it ends here: with Bond in the desert, bloody but unbowed, staggering away from that burning wreckage. You really feel like he’s reclaimed something. Perhaps this has brought back repressed memories? A cliffside road, a passing car, a shot ringing out.
License to Kill feels like the sequel to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that we never got. It’s too little too late, but it feels like an ending, of sorts. Which is kinda a shame, because it’s here that Dalton’s Bond really comes into his own. Set against this revenge backdrop, we see Bond as a jaded gentleman out of step with the inhumanity of modern espionage. He’s a rebel, not an establishment figure, and his many vices are symptomatic of the toll his lifestyle takes on him.
His take was divisive at the time, but since the Craig era has taken all of his cues and run with them, Dalton’s been vindicated. To be honest, I feel like they said everything that needed to be said here. Bond movies could have continued in this vein indefinitely. But the very same year that License to Kill came out, a certain wall was torn down, and everything changed again…