In Case You Missed It: License to Kill (1989)
Hard to believe that I would highlight a film from one of the most successful and longest running film franchises of all time but this week I would like to take another look at License to Kill. Released in 1989, this is the film that almost killed the entire franchise. I find this stupefying considering it’s in the top five of my favorite James Bond films. I would also like to evaluate Timothy Dalton who is the most underrated of the actors chosen to portray 007.
License to Kill gives us one of our most personal stories regarding cinema’s most renown secret agent. After an exciting shootout and successful “airplane fishing” expedition, we see James Bond as best man at the wedding of longtime CIA collaborator Felix Leiter (David Hedison, returning to role from Live and Let Die) and Della (Priscilla Barnes). Before the honeymoon can commence, they are kidnapped by ruthless drug dealer Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). Della is murdered and Felix is left for dead, surviving a gruesome shark attack. Bond immediately jumps into action on a personal vendetta and for the first time in the series we see M (Robert Brown) dismiss him.
Bond heads to Central America and begins a step by step dismantling of Sanchez’ billion-dollar operation, which involves gaining the drug dealer’s trust as an asset and preying on his need for loyalty. Along the way he is aided by CIA pilot Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) and earns the trust of Sanchez’s long suffering girlfriend, Lupe (Talissa Soto). We even get to see Q (Desmond Lleweyan) in the field, helping Bond while on “holiday.” This may all sound standard and clichéd but under the watchful eye of five-time Bond film director John Glen there is nary a dull moment. And the tanker truck chase at the end is truly classic.
A Bond film is usually only as good as its villain and Robert Davi is surprisingly effective. Sanchez is the antithesis of the prototypical Bond villain who wants to take over and/or destroy the world. He just wants to run his drug empire and live the good life. He’s probably the most modern and believable villain in the series. He is aided in his quest by a pre-Oscar winning Benecio Del Toro, playing a sadistic henchman, and none other than Wayne Newton who is very funny as a Mega Church preacher whose operation is a front for the Sanchez drug empire.
This was Timothy Dalton’s second go around as 007 and based on this performance and film, the role should have been his for as long as he wanted. Dalton’s Bond, coming off the heels of Roger Moore’s tongue-in-cheek interpretation, was more human and complex. There were still moments of humor but everything seemed more grounded. Additionally, Dalton’s take seemed less interested in the Bond girls. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film:
“The major difference between Dalton and the earlier Bonds is that he seems to prefer action to sex. But then so do movie audiences, these days.”
In a sense you can see Dalton’s take as a precursor to Daniel Craig’s recent successful run with the series. Sadly, Dalton’s legacy was cut short as License to Kill got gobbled up in the blockbuster summer of 1989 by Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, and Ghostbusters II. The film did well enough overseas but American audiences had tired of the British secret agent, and missed out on one of his best adventures.
One more word has to be saved for the aforementioned tanker truck chase at the end. Sanchez is trying to escape his exploding headquarters with the remains of his business: four tanker trucks full of cocaine. Bond essentially makes his way from truck to truck in the one of the most exhilarating and beautifully choreographed action set pieces of the series. It’s completely unbelievable and yet it’s a Bond film so disbelief is suspended. Nowadays, the same sequence would probably be CGI’d but director John Glen puts his final stamp on the series using real vehicles, stunt people and plenty of practical ingenuity.
We can probably have a never ending debate about James Bond and the actors that brought him to cinematic life. I have liked them all, as I believe they all have brought their own uniqueness to role. But the all too brief Bond career of Timothy Dalton is definitely one the biggest “What Ifs” of my cinematic viewing life.