Timothy Dalton had only a two-film run as James Bond, and it’s a shame. Licence to Kill began changing up the Bond formula in a way we would not see again until 2006’s Casino Royale.
The film opens with a sequence that foreshadows the Brosnan and Craig movies nicely, tying into the plot rather than providing an amusing standalone scene Connery or Moore might end with a clever quip. Bond is on his way with Felix Leiter to the latter’s wedding when the DEA swoops in. Drug cartel leader Franz Sanchez is near Florida. Do they want to grab him before heading to the chapel? Boy, howdy! They do so in typical Bond fashion and arrive in time for the nuptuals via parachute.
Only after the wedding, Leiter is betrayed by a duplicitous DEA agent. His new bride is killed, and Leiter is fed to a shark, who promptly eats his leg. Bond finds his friend barely alive and Mrs. Leiter with her neck snapped. He’s on a mission of vengeance now, tells M to fuck off, and heads to Isthmus (because calling it “Panama” would have set off a diplomatic incident.) With the help of Leiter ally Pam Bouvier, Bond infliltrates Sanchez’s organization, sows paranoia, and frames several of his inner circle as traitors to the big man himself. (Naturally, he beds Sanchez’s mistress in the process. He is James Bond, after all.) He gets help from Moneypenny and Q, though M attempts to reign his rogue agent in. It ends with one of the most satisfying Bond villain deaths in the entire series. No secret weapons. No death by smokestack or exploding headquarters. Just a cigarette lighter and some gasoline. Sanchez’s death screams are delicious to the ears.
This one always ends up in my top 5 for being a real-world Bond movie. This could have been Octopussy or A View to a Kill, but the former resulted from panic over Never Say Never Again, the latter from letting two of its stars age out of their roles during filming. Licence is a quintessentially eighties Bond, with more in common with the Jack Ryan franchise than the overblown offerings of the late 60s/early 70s. Bascially, it’s a reboot of Live and Let Die pulling more from the book than the original film did. Most notable in this is the note left on Leiter for Bond to find: He disagreed with something that ate him.
Much of the film’s success stems from Robert Davi’s performance as Sanchez. Charming in a Hannibal Lecter sort of way, Davi modeled his character after Bond, a sort of mirror to Dalton’s stressed out, exhausted blunt instrument. He even added to the character, suggesting the line “Money is more important than loyalty.”
Carey Lowell is a tough-as-nails DEA informant who, unfortunately, has to do some “Oh, James!” scenes as Leiter ally Pam Bouvier. When she’s in action or seducing a hilarious Wayne Newton to get into Sanchez’s compound, she’s spot on, someone Alien‘s Ellen Ripley could relate to.
The main sour note in this movie is Carolyn Bliss’s Moneypenny. Once again, we don’t get Lois Maxwell’s flirty-but-smart Moneypenny or Samantha Bond’s sharp-tongued foil. We get Bliss’s mousy, love-struck version, and I cringe in her one scene in the movie. Fortunately, she’s gone in Goldeneye, and we get the smart, hyper-organized Moneypenny played by Samantha Bond.