The Weekly Bond Countdown: #6 – Licence to Kill (1989)

I remember the first time I watched Licence to Kill.  I remember not liking it at all.  I thought Dalton was a terrible Bond and for someone who had watched/grew up on Roger Moore’s Bond, Licence to Kill was a massive departure from the familiar.

You know, hindsight is a beautiful thing.

Shame on me.

Shame on me for thinking those thoughts.  Shame on me for thinking Dalton was a terrible Bond.  Because watching Licence to Kill on blu-ray, I realized that I made a grave mistake.  Licence to Kill was risky, but it’s certainly the most ambitious and bold Bond film made to date.  Quite frankly…the film is good.

Michael G. Wilson became the solo writer on this film after a writers’ strike prevented long time writing partner, Richard Maibaum from completing the script.  What Michael G. Wilson delivered was better than expected.  This was Bond at his most badass and most hardcore yet.  Bond played dirty.  Bond wanted revenge.  Dalton took on board all those qualities and played that superbly and if I had to be honest (and I’m repeating this again), Dalton’s interpretation of Bond is probably the closest you’ll get to Fleming’s vision in his books.

So how come, despite my change of heart did this film do so poorly in the cinemas?  My opinion…the audience wasn’t ready for this type of Bond.

Dalton’s interpretation always felt ahead of its time.  The press would often criticize Dalton for his “lack of humour” as Bond.  While it’s not Roger Moore’s fault, but if you were in that generation that grew up on Bond with the tongue in cheek persona and fantasy qualities, watching Licence to Kill was probably a step too far.  That is a shame.

Timothy Dalton somehow never really got a fair crack at being Bond.  Trying to establish once again Bond’s tougher roots was always going to be a tough task when majority of the populous loved Connery and Moore.  He only did two Bond films and had he been given another go, the idea of a tougher Bond would probably been accepted, but alas, we will never know.  But it is comforting to know Bond fans nowadays recognized Licence to Kill for what it was and regard it as one of the best.

The positives?  Gladys Knight – take a bow girlfriend!  It’s rare these days where you hear an artist genuinely sing their heart out on a song.  But Gladys does that with a quintessential power ballad.  I haven’t heard such power since Shirley Bassey sang the theme to Goldfinger – that is how good the song is.  But it is also Michael Kamen’s music that gives the film its edge.

Robert Davi as Sanchez gives a frightening and memorable performance and is probably up there with the best Bond villains along with ballbreaker Le Chiffe.  He is ruthless and far removed from the caricature villains Bond has dealt with in the past (and certainly in the future if you count Jonathan Pryce or Toby Stephen’s efforts).

But again, the heart of the story is revenge.  Bond seeks it for what Sanchez did to his best friend, Felix Lieter.

Felix has always been an ally to Bond.  He always helps him get out of trouble, or providing extra help so Bond could complete his mission.  Honestly, it’s safe to say that Bond doesn’t have many friends, but certainly Felix is one of them and happily attends his wedding.  The wedding of Felix and Della symbolizes hope of what could be possible for Bond, and certainly for Felix at the time – a life beyond the spy game.  Does Bond yearn for it? Possibly.  Della does tease him as she playfully tosses her bridal garter to Bond, suggesting marriage is on the cards.  Bond as a character never really looks back to the past.  He’s always driving forward.  However in this rare moment of reflection you can definitely see Bond’s hurt at the mere suggestion of marriage and true love.

Eerily enough, when Felix loses his wife at the hands of Sanchez and his criminal gang it’s no wonder Bond takes it so personally and goes out on a limb (no pun intended).  As friends, it’s now something they share in common.  Not exactly something you want to bring up over drinks – “hey remember the time we both lost our wives on our wedding day?  Yeah…good times 😦 ”

The experience brings On Her Majesty’s Secret Service back to full circle (thank you Michael G. Wilson!). This feels like a sequel to Lazenby’s underrated classic and just like OHMSS, the quips are kept to a minimum (or hardly none at all), and the gadgets are more or less practical rather than over the top.  This film is all about Bond, and it showcases his survival instincts and his cold-bloodedness.

It’s no surprise that the climatic showdown is the best thing about the whole film.  Every stunt performed (and trust me there are loads) feels dangerous and pushed to the max like a visual representation of Bond’s anger and fury.  Multiple crashes, oil tankers exploding, a car driving off a cliff and almost hitting a plane – they really did push the boat!  When Bond finally got his revenge on Sanchez, it felt fitting that we are reminded why Bond took all the risks, had his 007 licence revoked and infiltrated Sanchez’s gang.  Sanchez (covered in petrol) is lit up like a Guy Fawkes effigy on Bonfire Night by Felix’s wedding day gift to Bond – a personal engraved cigarette lighter.  It’s a simple and effective poetic justice and it’s no wonder this is director John Glen’s favourite Bond film.

No matter what, there will be people out there who are not convinced by Licence to Kill. Some people won’t rate Dalton as Bond and I’m sure others will feel it’s too much of a departure.  That’s fair enough.  But I think you cannot deny that OHMSS and Licence to Kill, laid the foundations for what Daniel Craig is doing for Bond right now and the type of films the audience is now seeing on screen.  Daniel Craig shows the grit, the determination and vulnerability that Bond has…Dalton did that years before!

That’s why Licence to Kill deserves respect…whether it is your cup of tea or not.

The Countdown So Far:

Check back next week Wednesday to find out which Bond film comes in at #5 – getting a little exciting 🙂

Author: Kelechi Ehenulo

Creator and writer of Confessions From A Geek Mind. Loves sci-fi and LEGO - couldn't ask for a better combo!

11 thoughts

      1. I watched it again today and am still impressed with the risks it took. The formula was really turned on its head but this worked wonderfully with the dark and gritty story.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah and it’s a shame that Dalton wasn’t given a chance. Unfortunately he followed someone as popular as Roger Moore who had his own style and compared Dalton’s Bond to Roger. I love that Bond went dark and gritter because that is Bond in his truest essence, just like Fleming intended. I highly recommend reading Casino Royale. When Fleming describes Bond, I don’t picture Connery nor Craig. Dalton is the perfect match.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. It certainly is. I think people are so use to the film universe of Bond that they forget what he really is – a cold blooded spy. It’s not the fault of the audience, it’s just one of those things, but every actor who has played Bond provides something different. Connery, Craig and Dalton come close due to the grittiness. Lazenby (underrated) wins on the emotional side of Bond. Moore and Brosnan sadly are the furthest departures because more of their personality was incorporated in their Bonds. I’m not saying that alone doesn’t make them a good Bond but it’s always interesting to see how each actor takes on the iconic role and based on what they do defines their legacy. I guess that’s why Connery’s Bond holds up no matter what and Brosnan’s Bond over time hasn’t.

        Liked by 1 person

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