Licence to Kill (1989)

Country: United Kingdom
Director: John Glen
Starring: Timothy Dalton, Robert Davi, Talisa Soto, Carey Lowell, Anthony Zerbe, Wayne Newton, Benicio Del Toro, Robert Brown as M, Desmond Llewellyn as Q, Caroline Bliss as Moneypenny
Music: Michael Kamen
Main title song: ‘Licence To Kill’ performed by Gladys Knight
End title song: ‘If I Ask You To’ performed by Patti LaBelle

Licence To Kill is the sixteenth official Bond movie and was the first not to use a title from one of Ian Fleming’s novels or short stories. Originally the movie was going to be called Licence Revoked but the producers, fearing that audiences would not understand what ‘revoked’ meant, changed it to the more familiar Bondian phrase ‘Licence To Kill’.

When this film came out in 1989, Dalton was heralded as a new tougher Bond. The press releases stated that The Living Daylights was written as a fairly generic Bond adventure as they were unsure who would play Bond. But this being the second film for Dalton, the writers could write to Dalton’s acting strengths. Dalton was never good at light throwaway lines. He was at his best when he was snarling and glaring at his opponents. Often the media spin for a Bond film doesn’t quite match up to the finished product – the previous film was promoted as ‘safe sex Bond’, despite the fact that Bond beds more women in the film than Sean Connery did in Diamonds Are Forever. However, generally this film was very good at delivering what it promised — a harder edged Bond. Admittedly there were still some silly sequences –- particularly with some Kenworth trucks towards the end of the film. But Dalton was good. He was hard and looked angry, and acted like a ‘blunt instrument’ for Her Majesty’s Government –- although in this case he was not –- and to understand that, you have to go back to the film’s original title ‘Licence Revoked’. Yes, this is the film in which 007’s licence to kill is rescinded. But I am getting ahead of myself – let’s have a quick look at how the story plays out.

Concept artwork for 'License Revoked' (click for larger image)

The film opens in Key West in the United States. James Bond’s old friend Felix Leiter – once again played by David Hedison (from Live and Let Die — great to see a bit of consistency) – is about to get married. Bond is his best man and they are rushing to the wedding. At that moment international drug baron, Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), who the American’s have been trying to catch for years, has flown into US airspace. Sanchez’s mistress, Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto) has fled to the Florida Keys with a disgruntled minion of Sanchez. Naturally Sanchez wants her back – hey Talisa is pretty hot! – and follows her. As Leiter and Bond make their way to the church a D.E.A. (Drug Enforcement Agency) chopper flies overhead and lands in front of them. Leiter is told about Sanchez’s incursion into the US and he boards the chopper, ready to pursue the Drug Lord. As you expect, Bond refuses to be left out of the action and tags along as an observer.

Bond ends up being more than an observer and ultimately helps Leiter bring Sanchez to justice. Then both Bond and Leiter return to the festivities as planned — that being Leiter’s wedding.

A man as powerful (and as rich) as Sanchez is hard to keep locked away, and after a proposing a huge financial incentive, to anyone willing to help him escape, Sanchez does just that. Before leaving the United States, he first wants to extract a small amount of vengeance upon Leiter. He does this in two parts. First he kills Leiter’s newly-wed wife, Della (Priscilla Barnes). Then he feeds Leiter to the sharks, dangling his legs in a shark pool. Now this is not intended to kill Leiter — just leave him maimed and grieving. Although the film is not particularly graphic in depicting the violence, plotwise it is quite brutal — and may I hasten to add, it is not a sequence dreamed up solely for the film. It is lifted directly from (my favourite Bond novel — which is due a re-read very soon) Live and Let Die. Most Bond fans are well aware that the Bond films and the original novels are quite different, and even though Live And Let Die had been filmed in the early seventies with Roger Moore, the story did not utilise many of the plot points from Ian Fleming’s novel. Which was a shame for the film Live And Let Die, but a plus for Licence To Kill in which screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson could marry some of these plot points with a character from Fleming’s short story The Hildebrand Rarity and then come up with a new film.

John Gardner's novelisation of the film 'Licence to Kill'

As an adjunct here, having veered off onto a minor literary tangent, I will tell you that John Gardner’s novelisation of Licence to Kill was available in Australia several weeks before the film was released. I immediately tracked down a copy and had read it before the preview screenings had even commenced. The thing that struck me though, about the novelisation, was how difficult it must have been for Gardner to be faithful to the film, and also slot into the already established Bondian chronology. So in Garder’s novelisation, following on from Fleming’s novels, he is faced with the problem that Felix Leiter has previously lost his legs to a shark in Live and Let Die. It is certainly a strange co-incidence that different villains should meet out the same punishment to Leiter – and furthermore, why would a villain dangle a man with prosthetic legs over a pool with a shark in it? Yeah, it’s kind of dumb. This is just one of the many plot convolutions that Gardner had to deal with — but all things considered, he muddled through okay.

So in the film, Leiter is maimed, and his new bride has been killed. Bond — who is extremely upset — believes that he owes Leiter a debt, and rather than moving onto his next mission as instructed, he chooses to stay in the Florida keys and investigate.

First he searches the aquariums, fisheries and marine research facilities for a great white shark. His logic being that if Leiter was mauled by a shark, then whoever was responsible must have one. His enquiries are not particularly fruitful until he arrives at Ocean Exotica Warehouse run by Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe). Krest suggests that he is out of the shark hunting business, but a submersible vehicle named ‘Shark Hunter’ would suggest otherwise. Bond, on the surface, accepts Krest’s subterfuge, but decides to pay the warehouse another visit at night.

That evening Bond returns, but he doesn’t find Krest. Instead he finds Killifer collecting his multi-million dollar payoff, for arranging the release of Sanchez. Bond does what any guy whose friend has been fed to a shark would do — and that is feed the man responsible to the shark. He does this, by tossing Killifer’s own money laden suitcase at him, knocking Killifer (and his ill-gotten gain) into the shark pool.

Later Bond is reprimanded for working on his own, and interfering with an American C.I.A. investigation. Furthermore, he had been assigned to a mission in Istanbul, which he had ignored. M, who has flown in personally rescinds Bond’s ‘Licence to Kill’ – or harking back to the film’s original title, has his ‘Licence Revoked’.

Later, Bond breaks into Leiter’s home and retrieves some digital files pertaining to the Sanchez investigation. Bond learns that all Felix’s inside people are dead, except for one operative, Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), who Leiter is scheduled to meet at the Barrel Head Bar. Bond makes the appointment in Leiter’s stead, and find that a cadre of Sanchez’s goons are there to not only kill her, but whoever she makes contact with. But Pam Bouvier is a sprightly and resourceful agent in her own right, and with Bond’s help, they escape from the establishment.

After acquiring a large sum of money, courtesy of Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), with the assistance of Pam Bouvier, Bond heads to Isthmus City, posing as a wealthy business man. And once he has attracted Sanchez’s attention, then from within, he intends to bring Sanchez’s whole organisation down – in the usual explosive Bond manner.

One contrivance that slightly irks me with Licence to Kill is that when Bond arrives in Isthmus City to bring down Sanchez, is that Sanchez doesn’t recognise him. Sure it may have been hard to see Bond’s face in the pre-title sequence, where he actively assisted Leiter in the capturing of Sanchez. But Sanchez knew to go after Leiter (where and when too) – no doubt due to Killifer. But yet he appears not to be aware of Bond. Adding to the contrivance, Leiter is taken directly after Bond leaves Leiter’s home. Sanchez is waiting inside, so they would have been watching and waiting. But still nobody fingers Bond – well not until Dario at the end, but that is due to the incident at the Barrelhead Bar. I know this is all vague and nitpicking – but it is a tad sloppy.

Licence to Kill has a whole army of villains and minions for Bond to tangle with over the mission. First and foremost, as already discussed is Franz Sanchez, played by Robert Davi. Sanchez is a different kind of villain for two reasons. Firstly he isn’t a cartoonish megalomaniac. And secondly, although he is in supreme command, he runs his evil empire like a large corporation. He is constantly surround by a financial advisor, Truman-Lodge (Anthony Stark), and his military advisor Heller (Don Stoud).

Then there’s Milton Krest played by Anthony Zerbe.  In Licence to Kill, Zerbe doesn’t get as much screen time as his position in the credits would indicate, but he certainly makes his presence felt, and his demise is truly memorable. I once read an interview (can’t remember where) with Zerbe, where he was asked why he played so many villains. His response was that it had to do with his christian name ‘Anthony’. He said that if his name had been ‘Herb’ or ‘Herby’ (as is Herby Zerbe) then his career most likely would have gone down a different path with comedic roles. I can see it! Over the years Zerbe appeared in The Equalizer, The Return of the Man From UNCLE, at least five episodes of Mission: Impossible, The Wild Wild West and numerous other productions.

Sanchez’s sergeant at arms is Heller, played by the ever reliable Don Stroud. Frankly Heller is a nothing character (or what is left of him in the script). In is most memorable scene, he has a prong of a forklift truck through his chest.

Sanchez’s number one henchman is Dario is played by Benicio Del Toro (in one of his earliest roles). Del Toro has become such a solid character actor these days, (I love his performance as Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) it is almost strange watching him as a young punk, spouting cliched Henchman dialogue. He’s not bad, but he doesn’t have many lines, and those he does have are rather awkward – “nice honeymooooonnnn!!!!”

Professor Joe Butcher is played by Wayne Newton, with an almost self-mocking grace – which he would take to extremes a year later with his performance as the villain in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (don’t groan!).

Gladys Knight sings Licence to Kill

When looking at a Bond film, one of the hardest things to analyse is the music, after all we all have different musical tastes. Furthermore, with the longevity of Bond series, popular musical styles have changed quite considerably since 1962. For example, a song like Goldfinger (with Shirley Bassey), as great as it is, wasn’t really going to cut it (commercially at least) in 1989. You’ve got to remember, this film was made when Eurobeat music was all the rage (and oh, how I hated it!). The good news is, Licence to Kill doesn’t have a Eurobeat theme song. Instead, Gladys Knight was chosen to sing the opening title song, and it’s not too bad. It doesn’t grab me like some of the classics, like the aforementioned Goldfinger, Thunderball or Diamonds Are Forever, but it is a good song and certainly not one that I cringe at every time I watch the film. In fact, over time, I am probably enjoying it more and more.

The film also had a song for the end title credits, ‘If I Ask You To’ performed by Patti LaBelle. The song is pleasant enough, without being remarkable – and once again, thankfully without any cringe inducing pop stylings of the era. Later the song would become a early hit for Celine Dion when she released it in 1992.

But Licence to Kill has a little musical mystery. In 2009, when I interviewed Vic Flick, he related a tale about a lost recording session, where composer Michael Kamen had invited him and Eric Clapton to perform on an instrumental title track. The music from that session has never seen the light of day. Here’s what Vic said at the time:

It was a phone call out of the blue. Michael Kamen wanted a dark guitar sound to compliment the melody and extemporization Eric Clapton was going to do on their composition. So, knowing of my penchant for low string guitar playing, he called me for the sessions. It was good to see Eric again after many years and it was wonderful to work with those two gifted musicians. Eric played some amazing guitar on the track and Michael worked out a fine arrangement. I did my thing with a counter theme in the low register. The title turned out very good and the following day we went to a loft in the wharf area of London to shoot the video. What little I saw of the video was great. The video was then submitted to the Bond producers who had commissioned the project. I waited, Michael waited and Eric was off doing his thing somewhere in the world. After two weeks came the news that the Bond producers wanted a song as a theme and commissioned Gladys Knight and the Pips and blew out the track that Michael, Eric and I submitted.

You can read my full interview with Vic Flick here, where I ask him about the missing recording session and his career.

Carey Lowell as Pam Bouvier

Now just for the kind of double-talkin’ Bondian rhetoric that you would expect to hear from me, I am going to suggest that Licence to Kill is one of the best Bond films — but it is not a ‘classic’. Dr. No and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are among the best Bond films too, but they also earn the distinction of being ‘classics’ — and this has nothing to do with age. While being very good, Licence to Kill doesn’t make it to ‘classic’ status for two reasons. The first is the girls (sorry!). Carey Lowell and Talisa Soto are possibly the most low-key of all the Bond girls. They are attractive (oh, yes), and their acting is quite okay too, but hey don’t have that key ‘electric’ moment which makes a Bond girl a cultural icon.

Talisa Soto as Lupé Lamora

Next there is the plot. I am not saying that the film is overly plotted, but it is clear to see that the Truman-Lodge (Anthony Starke) and Heller (Don Stround) characters have been severely truncated, which muddies the waters during the climax. How and when did the story become about stinger missiles, rather than cocaine smuggling? If I may head back to John Gardner’s novelisation — for those that want to know what is going on — the book is worth a read. I have already pointed out the book’s shortcomings in relation to the Bond chronology, but as this story progresses, the characters and finale are substantially more fleshed out in the novel than the film — Gardner didn’t have to worry about run-times.

But I do like Licence to Kill. It’s funny after all these years seeing the success and popularity of Daniel Craig as the new tougher Bond — and hey, I like him too — yet, Timothy Dalton did the same thing seventeen years earlier but the public did not want to buy it at the time. I for one, wanted more Timothy Bond, but due to legal problems between EON Productions and the film studio we never got to see it. I was one of those in the silent dark days between 1989 and 1995, who kept saying that I wanted to see Dalton in a black and white version of Casino Royale — I can assure you, I wasn’t alone in this. Well, obviously that never happened. But maybe those fan whispers slowly built in strength and momentum. And maybe, just maybe that is how we ended up with Daniel Craig as a new tougher Bond. I know Quentin Tarrantino (love ya, Quentin) has recently said in the press that some of the credit for the success of Casino Royale should go to him, because the project only came together after he started to talk about it. Well that’s bulldust! Because, as we Bond fans know, we had been talking and imagining the idea from the day after we saw Licence to Kill in the cinemas. Here was a real Bond, doing a story that had a good, healthy dose of Fleming. It was good and we wanted more – and ultimately we got it seventeen years later.

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  1. Good review. What a pity audiences did not give ‘L.T.K.’ a chance. Opening at the same time as ‘Batman’ and ‘Indy Jones 3’ probably hurt its chances of success too.

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