The second of just two 007 adventures starring Timothy Dalton as James Bond, Licence to Kill (1989) is a better film than its reputation suggests - a 2006 Entertainment Weekly article ranked it a lowly 21st out of the 22 Bonds at the time, just ahead of The World is Not Enough*. Indeed, both Dalton films actually scored lower than A View to a Kill (1985) which, though quite unjust, exemplifies the general apathy-to-active dislike by the general public toward Dalton's Bond.
Physically though, he was closer to Ian Fleming's image of Bond than any actor in the role before or since, and Dalton's Bond was really the first to begin steering the character permanently back toward the literary Bond and away from the slapsticky hijinks of the Roger Moore era. Arguably, Licence to Kill veers too far afield from the continuity audiences demanded from a James Bond movie, and yet ironically overall it's the most realistic Bond since From Russia with Love (1963) while at the same time it incorporates big chunks from two of Fleming's stories. This generally pleased Fleming fans (this reviewer included), but the ingenuity of Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum's script was lost on general audiences, which expected but didn't get the usual James Bond movie.
The Fox/MGM Blu-ray is another fine Lowry restoration, not that this title needed much work compared to some of the others. Video-wise it looks great, but the big boost here is the audio, which is very impressive indeed.
In Key West, Florida, James Bond is Best Man at the wedding of his longtime friend and associate, CIA agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison, reprising his role from 1973's Live and Let Die) to Della Churchill (Priscilla Barnes). Just before the ceremony, however, Leiter is informed by DEA agents that infamous drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) has been spotted in the area, and during the film's extended pre-titles sequence, the pair capture him by using a Coast Guard helicopter to hook the tail of Sanchez's plane and literally pluck it out of the sky like a hooked fish out of the water.
However, within a matter of hours after his capture Sanchez escapes with the help of a corrupt DEA agent (Everett McGill), and in revenge Sanchez's thugs (including, in an early role, Benicio del Toro) rape and murder Della. Further, in a scene lifted from the novel Live and Let Die, they feed Leiter to a Great White shark, though Leiter survives his critical wounds. (In the movie Felix loses his leg but keeps his maimed arm. In the novel he loses his arm as well, wearing a hook in later novels.)
Bond wants to avenge his old friend, but "M" (Robert Brown) sternly warns Bond to leave the case with the Americans, demanding that the British agent report to Istanbul instead. Bond refuses, resigns in protest, and "M" revokes his license to kill. (Originally, the film's title was going to be Licence Revoked.) Bond gradually infiltrates Sanchez's organization, uncovering his method of distributing drugs around the world with the help of bogus marine researcher Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe, playing a character adapted from the short story The Hildebrand Rarity) while ex- pilot/CIA informant Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) also becomes involved, eventually posing as Bond's executive secretary.
Licence to Kill (not License to Kill) cost about $32 million to make, which was nearly the same amount of money as Moonraker a decade earlier, and close also to the final figures of all the films in-between. However, during those ten years the cost of making movies had skyrocketed; $32 million was worth about one-third of what it had just a decade earlier. Subsequently, Licence to Kill is the only Bond film in the entire series that comes close to looking cheap, relatively speaking. The lack of exotic far-off locations - the entire film is set in or around Key West and the fictitious Latin American "Republic of Isthmus," with those scenes filmed in Mexico, as were most interiors - all of which plays like an expensive episode of Miami Vice rather than the usual high-concept Bond movie. There are no huge Pinewood sets (indeed, nothing at all was shot in England), no larger-than-life villains, no outrageous gadgets. There's very little humor and the briefest of briefing scenes with "M," and what amounts to a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by Miss Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss) nearly an hour into the film. Between the pre-credits sequence and the climax, the film is also short on spectacular action set pieces.
Instead, what unfolds onscreen is violent and realistic; virtually everything that happens is believable - no invisible cars, no larger-than-life super-villain out to destroy the world or break into Fort Knox. Sanchez may be the most ruthless Bond villain ever: a jealous boyfriend, in his introductory scene he finds his girlfriend, Lupe (Talisa Soto), cheating on him. He beats her and has her lover's heart cut out (offscreen). All-told a very authentic feeling portrait of a Latin American drug lord. So violent was the film it had to be cut to get a PG-13 rating; all previously-rated Bonds had earned a simple PG.
In the making-of featurette, writer/co-producer Michael Wilson likens the film's story to Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), in that Bond infiltrates Sanchez's gang and through his influence manipulates it into destroying itself - a fair assessment. Davi's Sanchez is just a thug and in that sense disappointing, but Davi himself is an intimidating presence, as is del Toro, baby-faced but singularly threatening here. Soto is a standard Bond girl but Lowell, especially after her character's makeover a third of the way through the film, is a knockout, and has more to do toward the end than the usual Bond Girl.
The real fun though, at least for series fans, is watching David Hedison, who amazingly looks better today at 82 than he did 20 years ago when this was made. The Bond filmmakers have yet to cast the ideal Felix - and few are remotely like the character of the novels - though Hedison came closer than most. The ideal of bonding Bond even closer to Felix through a shared tragedy - both their wives are murdered on their respective wedding days - was inspired. (The script, presumably chiefly Wilson's work due to an extended WGA strike, is clever in other ways. Sanchez's escape, for instance, is ingenious yet believably simple.) General audiences unfamiliar with the character probably were annoyed and puzzled by all the screen time accorded to their friendship and all the atypically domestic scenes in the first-third, but it made a lot of Bond fans happy.
Video & Audio
Licence to Kill was, like most of the later Bonds, filmed in Panavision, with processing by Deluxe and theatrical prints by Technicolor. The Blu-ray looks very nice but generally unexceptional, mainly because the photography is gritty and realistic rather than glamorous and colorful, though there are a few picture postcard shots here and there that show the 1080p image to best advantage.
The DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio improves upon the original Dolby SR tracks, with the action scenes really coming alive to a degree that's surprising for a late-1980s release. Also included are 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes in Spanish and French, with optional subtitles in English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Korean.
As stated in my other Bond reviews, a big turn off is the "smart menu technology," which is quite inferior to the menus created way back in 1999 for the DVD releases. The big problem is that they are hopelessly confusing, divided as they are with such cryptic headings as "Ministry of Propaganda," "Mission Dossier," and "Declassified: MI6 Vault." Even if you know what you're looking for, this menu isn't going to help you find it.
The supplements all are carry-overs that originated either in the October 2002 "Special Edition" or the February 2007 "Ultimate Edition" DVDs, though a few of the extras have been remastered to high-def:
Audio Commentary with Director John Glen and Members of the Cast (from the 2002 release)
Audio Commentary with Michael G. Wilson and Members of the Crew (from the 2002 release)
Deleted Scenes with Introductions by John Glen (from the 2007 release)
On the Set with John Glen featurette (from the 2007 release)
On Location with Peter Lamont featurette (from the 2007 release)
Ground Check with Corky Fornoff featurette (from the 2007 release)
Kenworth Trucks featurette (from the 2007 release)
Bond '89 featurette (from the 2002 release)
Inside 'Licence to Kill' documentary (from the 2002 release)
'Licence to Kill' Music Video (from the 2002 release)
'If You Ask Me' Music Video (from the 2002 release)
Trailers, TV & Radio Spots (from the 2002 release)
Still Gallery (from the 2002 release)
In the supplements director John Glen surprisingly names Licence to Kill as his personal favorite among the Bonds he directed. Most would have assumed he'd have picked For Your Eyes Only but the choice isn't all that surprising. If For Your Eyes Only nudged the series a bit back into reality, Licence to Kill jerked it significantly further, more so than many would have preferred. But in retrospect it's a daring, down-and-dirty Bond that for the most part plays quite impressively today. Highly Recommended.
James Bond will Return (in GoldenEye)
* Of the Pierce Brosnan Bonds, I'd rate The World is Not Enough as the best overall, with Goldeneye the worst. Of course, it's hard to take EW's poll seriously when From Russia with Love actually ranked below notably lesser entries like Goldeneye and Live and Let Die. Incredible.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.