Page to Screen: Licence to Kill (1989)

Licence to Kill
based on characters by Ian Fleming


As an American Anglophile raised by a French Anglophile, I feel I have a pretty good handle on the differences between UK and US spellings. Whenever my mother is writing a letter, she invariably glances up at me and asks me if she spelled something the American way or the English way. “No,” I said last time, “but leave it. It looks classier.” But for some reason, the difference between License to Kill and Licence to Kill kept tripping me up, and not just because MacJournal tells me the latter is wrong. Vowel variations look more or less natural to me, presumably due to aforementioned Frenchness, but consonant replacements creep me out a little for whatever reason. Anyway, the last Dalton Bond, right?

Licence to Kill opens with Bond and his close friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter, on the way to Leiter’s wedding. Along they way, they take a pit stop to apprehend drug lord Franz Sanchez. After the wedding, Leiter is betrayed by one of his own agents: Sanchez has his new wife raped and murdered, and mutilates Leiter. After Sanchez escapes to the Republic of Isthmus, the CIA’s hands are tied—but James Bond’s aren’t. When M reprimands him for focusing on a personal vendetta rather than his actual job, Bond quits and joins forces with Pam Bouvier, an ex-Army pilot Leiter was working with. Together, they’re determined to take down Sanchez’s empire to avenge the death of Mrs. Leiter and Felix’s attack.

By the late eighties, the excess that defined the decade had finally curdled into something harder, more cynical—more nineties. Well, early nineties. I have this theory that the late eighties and early nineties function as this weird gremlin of a half-decade, the dark pit from whence violent, indulgent grimdark crawled out of. (I’m looking at you, McFarlane.) Licence to Kill is definitely a creature of those dark times: with Bond gone rogue from MI6, he can use all his skills to exact painful vengeance from those he wronged. But perhaps the best example is how the film uses a gorgeously young Benecio del Toro as one of Sanchez’s henchmen. He’s vicious, mean, a rapist, and given to grinning psychotically in low lighting; he is dispatched by being shredded into pieces. There are definitely shades of how A View to a Kill luxuriated in violence—this is a film where you’re meant to cheer for Bond when he sets a man on fire. True, the Craig years boast some ultraviolence—that fight scene in Skyfall still manages to turn my stomach in its swift brutality—but the film clearly wants you to feel conflict between the “pure” ideals Bond is protecting and the hideous things Bond does to protect it. Licence to Kill assumes that everything the hero does is a-okay, and that sits poorly with me.

Between that unsettling tone and the plot, Licence to Kill is perhaps the most un-Bond Bond film I’ve encountered so far. MI6 is dispensed with quickly and, while Q does, delightfully, show up and make himself sweetly useful, there are no outlandish gadgets. Bond even finds himself in a love triangle more reminiscent of a romantic comedy: it’s hard to reconcile the adorably romantic last five minutes with Bond setting a dude on fire. (It’s like when your friend does something and they can never live it down. No matter what happens in the future, Bond can never unset that dude on fire.) While Dalton’s Bond proved to be almost the quintessential Bond in Living Daylights, we simply haven’t covered enough ground with him for him to go rogue. But never fear: he’s just as devastatingly brooding and conflicted as ever. His setting is simply not to his advantage. (All of this reminds me, I need to put his Wuthering Heights on my movie spreadsheet…)

But this departure from the Bond formula, surprisingly, lets the female characters shine a bit more than usual. Neither of them are comparable to Holly Goodhead (perhaps my favorite Bond girl so far, if only because she can out-dry and out-eyebrow Roger Moore’s Bond), but they get to have whole scenes about them doing stuff. Talisa Soto’s Lupe teams up with Bond not because she fell in love, but because she’s sick of her abusive boyfriend and he’s a way out that’s easy on the eyes, and Carey Lowell’s boyish ex-Army pilot Pam Bouvier is stubborn and capable. She can be a hard character to like (especially when the narrative decides that she, otherwise a fairly adaptable woman, will burst into tears when Bond is seemingly unfaithful to her), but Pam can be puckishly charming at times, like when she breaks in and out of a meditation retreat without losing a dollar. (…long story.) But the most engaging woman in the story is Della. She’s an almost textbook example of a Woman in a Refridgator, sadly, but Priscilla Barnes, in her scant time, makes her breezy and lovable. It’s easy to see why Felix fell for her and why Bond loves her. Bond’s revenge isn’t just for Felix’s mutilation: it’s also for killing his friend Della. It doesn’t make up for what does happen to her, but it’s a nice touch that most situations like this lack.

I wish I could bid good-bye to Dalton’s wonderful Bond with a better film; he deserves the third film that was put off for five years due to MGM and United Artists’ legal battles. But this is what we got. Alas, Dalton! You were wonderful.

Bottom line: Dalton’s last Bond film feels more like a traditional late eighties action flick than a Bond film—this means that the tone is alarming at best (the hero can do anything awful and we will love him!), but it also means that the female characters are a little more rounded. Definitely worth it to see Dalton’s Bond, but The Living Daylights is the Dalton Bond film to see, not this.

I rented this film on iTunes.

3 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Licence to Kill (1989)

  1. Loved this post, as usual. But I wanted to mention something about this particular Bond film that is fairly unique, and that you didn’t cover: how often Bond is *wrong.*

    In one example, he blows Hong Kong Narcotics’ long sting operation because he has on his revenge blinders and doesn’t look up from his task. If he had, he might have been able to comprehend what the Hong Kong team (which was still a British colony at the time, so it was essentially *his own* team) was doing, and also why Pam approached Sanchez’ American henchman with a deal.

    But the other, more insidious thing is his constant insistence that he must work alone, and yet at *every crucial turn* he needs someone’s help: Lupe, Pam, and Q all come through for him despite his attempts to run them off. You’re right that this is the most un-Bond Bond, and for me that’s one of the big reasons.

  2. Pingback: At the Movies: The Beautician and the Beast (1997) | The Literary Omnivore

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