License to Kill: The Darkest James Bond Movie

Before Casino Royale took James Bond down a darker path, there was Timothy Dalton's final 007 outing, Licence To Kill...

So this is the anti-Bond. Stripped of the requisite wit and mischief. Short of temper, heavy of touch. The SPECTREs of yore replaced by a drugs cartel. World domination downgraded to a heroin monopoly. Glamour smothered by grit. Joy drowned in the bloodshed. The icon of British cinema reduced to an American cop show – MI6 Vice, Hawaii 007 – timeless style swamped by the vulgarity and cash of the late-1980s, a case of ‘Sayonara, Mr Bond’ and everything you stand for. Derivative, needlessly violent, no identity, no soul – it’s just NOT BOND, dammit!

All nonsense, of course. The open-minded know this brutal, brilliant outing is about as good as the series can get.

The Villain: Franz Sanchez is unquestionably the great forgotten villain of the franchise. He possesses all the vital characteristics: charm, intelligence, ruthlessness. Yes, he lacks a dumb name, weird deformity and ludicrous plan; such shedding of cliché should be celebrated, not held against him. A psychologically credible Bond villain is a rare and welcome beast. And Sanchez is a fascinating specimen. Just a drug dealer? No more than Scaramanga is ‘just a hitman’ or Goldfinger ‘just a bank robber.’ And unlike those gentlemen’s slightly limp exits, the exquisite Robert Davi dies hard.

The Girl: All hail Pam Bouvier, the roughest, toughest pilot in the skies. Shotgun under the table, Berretta up the dress, Germaine Greer on the bedside table. Okay, Germaine is a guess – but an educated one. Pam may be the first feminist Bond girl. After Bond introduces her as “Miss Kennedy, my personal secretary”, she angrily retorts, “It’s Ms Kennedy – and why can’t you be my personal secretary?” Say it, sister! American actresses had fared badly in Bonds: shrieking Tanya Roberts, bland Lois Chiles, dim-witted Jill St John. Steely, sassy Carey Lowell strikes a blow for Aunty Samantha.

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License To Kill is a series highpoint. Possibly even the highest point, once you accept the sacred cows of From Russia With Love and Goldfinger weigh too heavy with legend to be properly measured. As psychologically-driven as any Craig – but without the Craig-era jump-and-waving, ‘look! I’m psychologically driven! RESPECT ME!’ – License To Kill ditches the map and strikes deep into uncharted terrain.

It is a film of contradictions: the most violent Bond, providing the largest role for the cuddly Q. Steeped in testosterone, set in the ultra-macho world of South American drug cartels, yet featuring two strong female leads concurrently, both of whom survive. Largely shorn of MI6 but powered by the mauling of Felix Leiter, present in Dr. No.

Like the resulting film, the pre-credits is woefully underrated – perhaps ‘ignored’ is a more accurate term. (At least people take the time to slag the film off.) License To Kill doesn’t have a true beginning. We burst into the middle of several stories: Felix’s wedding, Lupe’s lover and the DEA pursuit of Sanchez, all separate yet fatally intertwined. This is rather brilliant narrative economy, setting up the whole film in barely ten minutes. We know Sanchez is a Big Deal because Felix ditches his own wedding; we realise this might be the climax of a long and arduous chase.

Most Bonds feel entirely self-contained; their characters sprung from nothing fully formed. Hence the frequent sense of artifice, the near audible grinding of well-worn gears. (Here’s the villain, here’s the lair…) Getting started can be a battle. Smoke rises from the bonnet, the engine judders into life. The first hour of a Bond film is often a road to nowhere, scattered with random objects that impact at best tangentially on whatever diabolical scheme is eventually wheeled onstage.

The wedding is lovely. Then Della is murdered and Felix fed screaming to sharks. Was Octopussy only three films ago? Dario (a young and beautiful Benico Del Toro) mocks Leiter by crooning, “Don’t worry. We gave her a nice honeymooooon.” The drawn out vowel is nastily inspired; the line sticks, as does Leiter’s furious cry. People are fed to sharks, etc. every other Bond film, but they tend to be nameless minions – not one of the few stock characters of the series. And the camera generally cuts before the nasty stuff – the shark bait can’t snarl, “I’ll see you in hell!” as he’s dragged underwater.

Recasting David Hedison as Felix is important. Ostensibly Bond’s bezzie, all too often the role becomes a plot-convenient CIA agent who happens to be named Felix Leiter. We need familiarity with Felix; otherwise the whole vendetta loses impact. Although Hedison is hardly a series regular (he last appeared in 1973’s Live And Let Die) at least he’s not a totally new face. And he’s one of the finest Felixes, which helps. 

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Felix’s mutilation and the taunting note “He disagreed with something that ate him” is lifted from the novel Live And Let Die: important because it adds canon validity to cinematic boldness (the keelhauling scene of For Your Eyes Only comes from the same book: one of Fleming’s best. But beware the easily offended). Naturally Bond takes the warning as provocation and off we go.

Two fantastic action sequences ensue. First, the gunfight within Milton Krest’s marine research centre, a classic hazardous environment so beloved by the series. If the maggots don’t get you, the electric eel will. Here Bond encounters the treacherous Killifer, rendered ingeniously hateful by repeatedly calling everyone, ‘old buddy.’ Cornered at gunpoint, Bond enjoys his standard massive break of luck but every film is allowed one. I’d nit-pick more but I’m too busy cheering when Bond kills Kilifer through a suitcase of blood money and the shark that savaged Felix.

The Wavekrest scrap is even better. Threatened by divers, Bond harpoons a sea plane, water-skis behind it, clambers on-board as it takes off, forcibly ejects the pilots and flies away like a little bird. As ludicrous as anything in Moore and ferociously enjoyable. Dalton adds his own twist by harpooning the killer of his fisherman mate, Sharky.

Aboard the Wavekrest Bond meets Lupe Lamora, the unwilling Mrs Sanchez. Lupe echoes Domino in Thunderball: an unhappy mistress, imprisoned by a domineering boyfriend, for whom Bond represents a possible escape route. I question Lupe a little. She looks at home amidst the inner sanctum in the casino. She can drive a motorboat to the mainland and roam the city unescorted. She helps Bond, sure, but the partnership is hardly of equal risk: were Bond unmasked, you suspect Lupe would keep very quiet. Sleeping with Bond literally under Sanchez’s roof is incredibly foolhardy: a teenage act of rebellion. Her hatred of Sanchez is unquestionable and justified; but she doesn’t hate the lifestyle, just the life.

All this must sound incredibly harsh. I actually love Lupe as a character. She’s a fascinating addition to that Bondian subcategory: the Villain’s Woman. To survive the VW must rapidly morph into a conventional Bond Girl: a transformation made much easier if the VW never had sexual relations with the villain. (Solitaire, Pussy Galore.) The unfortunate VG (Villain’s Girlfriend) finds her outlook bleak. Ask Andrea Anders or Mayday. Lupe, being a VG type of VW, and with Pam Bouvier clearly got the BG sewn up, appears in trouble from the outset. But goddam it, she escapes in one piece! Why? Because she’s a survivor. And that is far more admirable than another sacrificial lamb to the slaughter.

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An independent, ‘modern’ Bond girl isn’t automatically a great Bond girl: otherwise we’d all laud Holly Goodhead above Solitaire.

Pam Bouvier isn’t impeachable. The inevitable Lupe-prompted jealousy is a false step by the writers. Although a staunch ally, she doesn’t actually do very much.

Let me rephrase: in one sense Pam does an awful lot. Brawls in a bar, has a makeover, poses as a harbour pilot, flies above articulated tankers full of heroin: Pam unquestionably keeps busy. But she stays on the periphery of the main action. She’s a helper not a central player like, say, Octopussy or Anya. Like everything License To Kill, Pam is criminally overlooked – but perhaps a fraction more understandably than other elements. She’s still great though.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Franz Sanchez is you understand why people would work for him. As Bond notes, he has a reputation for rewarding loyalty very well. Sanchez won’t electrocute employees on a whim. He won’t feed you to sharks if you ask to visit your sick mother. He’d probably pay her medical bills. Why not? He has the money, you need it. You work for Sanchez, he looks after you. He comes across as a warm and generous man. He probably knows all his guards by name.

Yet no villain matches Sanchez for menace. If he uncovered Bond, he would kill Bond. Simple as that. Not quite ‘why don’t you just shoot him’ because Sanchez wouldn’t just shoot him. He’d exact a far nastier retribution. But exact it he would. No locking Bond in a windowed room, no escorting Bond round the pad and feeding him dinner, no leaving Bond in a perilous situation and then departing for tea. If Sanchez wanted Bond dead, Bond would be killed. Thoroughly. Such ruthlessness is refreshing and admirable on the writers’ behalf.

The cliché of Bond’s eternal survival and, more pertinently, his enemies’ refusal to kill Bond when such opportunity is presented, has become so established the audience rarely quibbles. Simply taking the last three films: why doesn’t Koskov dispose of Bond privately rather than jail him in Afghanistan? Surely Zorin could shoot Bond and then burn down City Hall? (Zorin is a multiple offender). Does Kamal Khan really need Bond’s company at dinner, and does the Monsoon Palace not have any cells? Hey, you roll with it. So ultimate respect for License To Killfor forging a narrative in which failure on Bond’s part wouldn’t mean a twisted ear and a spot of dinner.

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The yacht meeting with a nervous Crest shows Sanchez at his scariest. Very quiet: but still waters run deep, and silent drug lords hide a volcanic temper. One would squirm for Krest were Krest not squirming enough for himself. Trying to make a Bond action sequence sound believable is a truly hopeless task. “…he water-skied behind the plane…threw out the pilots and flew away.” “Like a little bird,” purrs Sanchez and everybody gulps.

Poor Krest’s demise is truly horrific. Partly due to the preceding scene: we know something horrible is bound to happen, so already we’re on edge. And then it happens – “That’s not my money!” “That’s right, amigo: it’s mine!” – and my word. Of the many, many, many unpleasant deaths flaunted throughout the Bond series, literally popping someone’s head in a decompression chamber is surely the worst of the lot. Krest screams, his head swells like a balloon, then explodes. Give me piranhas any day. If anybody can nominate a more hideous demise the floor is yours.

License To Kill earns its 15 certificate. The film is basically a greatest hits of horrible deaths. Heart cut out (Lupe’s ex-boyfriend), shark mutilation (Kilifer), fed to leeches / electrocuted by eel (two guards), harpooned (Sharky’s killer), feed into a heroin shredder (Dario), impaled on a fork lift (Heller), immolated and then exploded (Sanchez himself). Pushing the boundaries or crossing a line? You know my opinion. If we can survive Moonraker’s double-taking pigeon, then we can survive the rape (presumed) and murder of Della Leiter.

So – Q’s here. Out of 17 films, this is Desmond Llewellyn’s finest hour. He appears about halfway through the film and never quite leaves – the most welcome of uninvited guests. As he reminds Bond, “if it hadn’t been for Q branch you’d have been dead long ago.” While it would be a stretch to claim similar of Desmond and the franchise, Llewellyn added a little extra joy to every film he appeared in. Here he plays a crucial role: not so much narratively but as a counterbalance to the violence and a link to the Bond heritage. Shorn of Q, the film would be a much darker place.

At the heroin factory Bond is finally unmasked and (almost) fed into a giant shredder. Cue one of the great threats of the series. “When you’re up to your knees,” snarls Sanchez, “you’re gonna beg to tell me everything. When you’re up to your ankles, you’ll kiss my arse to kill you.” The writers gift Robert Davi many zingers, and Davi duly zings. The above line, for me, is the zingiest.

Can the series boast a finer climax than the articulated tanker demolition? Well you’re entitled to think otherwise but you’d be wrong. Bond x four massive tankers of heroin x a narrow and winding road x stinger missiles = utter perfection. Honestly, I wouldn’t change a single shot. Massive explosion begets massive explosion. Tanker after tanker is crashed, collided and blown up. I loved it at an age when I shouldn’t have been watching it. And I love it now, for exactly the same reason.

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The bonfire of the tankers is perfect metaphor. Four set off, plus two stinger missiles, plus a whole load of henchman. And one by one they all go up in flames. The escalating destruction mirrors the erosion of Sanchez’s empire: the plot of the whole film. And both are largely self-inflicted! Sanchez kills Krest and Hiller, Sanchez fires the stingers (one of which blows up a crashed tanker). Beautiful.

The last exchange between Bond and Sanchez couldn’t be improved. Both near spent. Two lines. Two perfect lines that perfectly encapsulate the two men and their relationship – the driving force of the film. “You could have had everything,” hisses Sanchez, preparing to deliver the death blow. “Don’t you want to know why?” And Bond produces Felix’s lighter to set his enemy ablaze. As satisfying as they come. Bond leans exhausted on a boulder, nearly in tears.

As an actor, you need two things to make a great Bond: vision and luck. Lazenby couldn’t establish the former, Brosnan lacked the latter. Dalton had a vision of how he wanted to play the role, and he was lucky the wider elements of script, direction, cast and much else all successfully combined. Such a combination is rare. Everybody tends to start strongly: of six debuts Dalton’s own remains the weakest (cue flak). This is no coincidence: way back in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service we noted the loss of Connery forced the production to bring their A-game, and every regenerated Bond tends to replicate this effect.

However the actor finds himself at disadvantage: still unestablished, his role is tailored to his predecessor: a new Bond speaking the last guy’s lines. The three most confident debuts were Connery, Brosnan and Craig – the latter pair benefited from taking the role after a long break from the screen.

Nobody made a great Bond film after their third. Of the three fourth outings, Thunderball is the best – and its competition is Moonraker and Die Another Day. Fourth film onward, Connery and Moore experienced diminishing returns. Fun excursions at best. You own the role but the freshness is gone.

Between From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, and The Spy Who Loved Me, Connery and Moore shared three films both great and personally definitive. Each perfectly showcase their actor’s vision of Bond. (Connery being Connery, he made two: the gritty and the flashy.) A signature film is rare. Brosnan never quite managed it, Craig hasn’t yet – both wonderful Bonds but neither produced a masterpiece that could only be their masterpiece.

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Dalton did. His second and final outing delivered his vision of Bond, perfectly. Perhaps you buy into this vision, perhaps you don’t. But LTK is unflinchingly Dalton: a Bond only he could have made. Many fans bemoan the shortness of Tim’s tenure – yet Dalton doesn’t need to be mourned. He made his Bond. Few have made a better one.

Best Bit: The whole climax. From the convoy leaving the factory to Sanchez’s dying scream. And Bond, shattered, finally at his journey’s end.

Worst Bit: Bond’s hair in the casino. Gel is not your friend, Timothy.

Final Thought: Beautiful mention of Tracy by Felix: “He was married once. But that was a long time ago.” Informs Bond’s determination to avenge the Leiters. Although – was Felix flirting with that nurse at the end? Somebody’s on the rebound.