My view is that either 007 is a wisecracking,
cuff-shooting Casanova of the Secret Service
or he is any old spy. In Licence To Kill
the dandyism has gone out of the series.
Rather than raising the movie's temperature,
the much-publicised (though hardly shocking) violence
demotes the film to the dominion of the ordinary.
- Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times (June 1989)
Licence To Kill
Film: 1989 (#16)
Book: 1960 (#8)
Bond is in Florida to attend Felix Leiter's wedding when they stop to bust drug kingpin and general most-wanted type Franz Sanchez. Sanchez breaks out while being convoyed with the aid of DEA man Killifer, who he buys off, and Sanchez and his men commit fairly horrible revenge on Leiter and his new bride. Bond goes on vendetta, causing a great deal of damage not just to the people he wants revenge upon but also on other operations (he wrecks a CIA scheme involving a missile purchase and a Hong Kong narcotics bust). In the process he is confronted by M and resigns from MI6 (by force), making him a vigilante killer for most of the film. The most improbable moment in the film is at the end when M offers him his job back ....
Book vs. Film
The plot of this film is not based on any work of Fleming's, but some elements are taken from the story "The Hildebrand Rarity," which appears in the collection For Your Eyes Only.
In this story, Bond is in the Seychelles and encounters (via his local contact, Barbey) an American millionaire named Milton Krest and his wife. He and Barbey are invited aboard Krest's yacht, the Wavekrest, to help look for the rare fish of the title. While on board, Bond quickly learns that Krest is a truly nasty piece of work, who abuses everyone around him verbally and sometimes physically, especially his wife, whom he keeps in line by beating with a stingray tail.
When Krest finds the fish, rather than try to hook or net it, he poisons the entire lagoon to get it, infuriating Barbey. That night Krest gets very drunk. In the wee hours, Bond hears him choking and goes to investigate, and finds him dead with the rare fish stuffed in his mouth. Bond cleans up the scene of the crime, making it look like Krest fell overboard. He doesn't know whether Barbey or Mrs. Krest killed him, but he accepts Mrs. Krest's offer to continue on the yacht with her to Mombasa.
I will discuss the evolution of Timothy Dalton in this film (if you can call it that) below. But I need to quote something, just so I can say how completely, utterly wrong it is. I first read it years ago, and I have consulted this book many times since then, and every time I hit it it stops me dead. The book is Bond Films by Smith and Lavington, and the quote begins:
[Bond in this film is] frankly self-absorbed. Reckless, brutal, prone to nervous laughter and sentimental outbursts ...
All true, plus their observations earlier in the same section that he is "psychotically obsessed" and "prone to violent rages." But then they go on!
... a rather interesting figure to watch, and Dalton is brilliant. Again.
To me, this is like watching someone work a complicated math problem perfectly, nodding in agreement at every step - and then, at the end, they write down a dramatically wrong answer which in no way follows from the previous equations.
They follow this by saying
The screenplay tacitly acknowledges, as do those for Goldeneye and The World Is Not Enough, that Bond is probably insane, or at least seriously disturbed.
I disagree with that contention - Bond may be a jerk and a stone killer, but the last thing he is is insane - and I disagree that either of the latter two films (where Bond is, if anything, the sanest person outside MI6 in both scripts) displays this aspect.
Of course all taste is subjective, and my subjective opinion is that some people have really peculiar ideas about what Bond is and should be.
Some of the more inexcusable Bond conduct in this film is toward the women. I may find Lupe (Talisa Soto) wholly uninteresting, but she nonetheless gets rougher treatment than she deserves, especially as someone who has also suffered at Sanchez' hands. Pam (Carey Lowell) has a different problem; she gives as good as she gets and doesn't suffer physically at Bond's hands, but Bond is a complete jerk to her through most of the film. While Bond's conduct toward Q and Pam is understandable if you assume he doesn't want to involve them in his vendetta any more than necessary, it's still a lot more mean-spirited than it needs to be.
Some people really dislike the Pam character. Perhaps she is an acquired taste, but you have to love a woman who: tsks at Bond's pistol in the Barrelhead and shows him that she's carrying a shotgun; tastes Bond's Martini and finds it nasty; gives him the gun she has under her tearaway skirt, then casually pulls another from her purse; wears a bulletproof vest to a bar fight; and, let us never forget, seduces Wayne Newton.
My thoughts about the script decisions in this film are in my general remarks below.
The set work for the film was not done at Pinewood. Changes in the British tax laws specifically aimed at abolishing certain writeoffs for the film industry had come into effect, and the dollar was weak at the time, so EON decided to take the filming elsewhere. Churubusco Studios in Mexico City got the job; Pinewood was used only for post-production work. This may have been a bad decision on EON's part; the location shots in Mexico were grueling, particularly the Remy Julienne-supervised tanker truck chase sequence in the Mexicali desert, and the heat caused equipment failures. (Broccoli, 81, had to retreat to Los Angeles because he was so overwhelmed by the temperatures.)
Richard Maibaum could not actively work on this script due to a Writer's Guild of America strike; he developed an outline and consulted informally, but the sole writer credit here goes to Michael G. Wilson. At this point we bid a fond but overdue farewell to Maibaum, a key element in the Bond history; he died during the Great Hiatus which follows this film, in 1991.
Speaking of overdue farewells, with this film (his fifth Bond) John Glen beat Guy Hamilton's record; we will also not see him again.
This film is scored by Michael Kamen. It's neither a very good score nor a very bad one, but it's the only one to wreak significant havoc on the Bond theme at the beginning, which I rather like.
This film was called Licence Revoked until a fairly late stage in the process; posters and other promotional materials were printed with this title. Officially, the explanation is that the title was too hard to translate for international release, but there is a persistent story that the real problem is that a majority of American test audiences didn't know what the word "revoked" meant. (One of my books calls this a myth originating in British newspapers, but does note that American viewers associated the phrase mostly with the suspension of a driver's license.)
The Living Daylights was seen by fewer people in the US than any other Bond since Golden Gun. Since we are now well into the "pandering to the American box office" portion of the Bond history, it should not surprise anyone that for this film they attempted to go even further in that direction.
On the introductory page, when I give my rough list in order of quality, I don't classify this one. I like this film, although I think it has dated badly (I feel this way about most 1980's films - it really was a horrific era for culture). I enjoy watching this film, when I'm in the mood for it. I am not prepared to call it a bad film. I am also not prepared to call it a Bond film.
This is an American action movie, and a decent one. If you took Bond out of this film and substituted a brash Bruce Willis type - a rogue FBI man or DEA agent - and had him conduct the vendetta instead, the film as a whole would make a better impression. The whole thing works out much better if you can manage to watch it through that lens - if you can somehow forget that this balding, uncouth loose cannon is supposed to be James fucking Bond.
Let's try it out.
Here we have a film starring some random hero who happens to be named James Bond. A completely humorless movie, with a cipher at its center - but that's okay, because it's a movie about a faceless sort of man who gets swept away by the power of vendetta, to the extent that he will sacrifice anyone and anything else in his way to get what he wants. Check. This is the part Timothy Dalton was born to play.
In order to keep this character's actions at all sympathetic, he'll need to be against villains who are even more repugnant than he is. Check. This movie has the nastiest cast of bad guys of any Bond film - petty, brutal, violent, whimsically sadistic, and thoroughly evil. Also well-done.
In order to redeem the character so that we don't wish him dead in the same flaming pit as the villains, we'll need some genuinely likable character who is also tough enough to keep up with him, one who will eventually make him aware of what he's throwing away. Check. We have one of the better female characters in a Bond film for that, and Q in his finest hour.
Oh, yes, and we'll need some really sterling eye candy, because this film needs to keep moving well, with lots of distractions, or it will become a lugubrious and depressing exercise. Check. Amid all the fuss and bother this film contains an absolutely audacious pre-credits sequence, a fine and improbable ski/boat/plane stunt from Bond (improbable enough that there's a wonderful sequence later where Krest tells Sanchez exactly what happens and Sanchez doesn't believe it), a really nicely staged barroom brawl, and a finale with tank trucks full of gasoline, a crop duster, and a lot of explosions - possibly the best extended sequence of its kind in any Bond film.
Yes, this is a thoroughly nasty film. All the deaths are horrid - the hyperbaric tank, a speargun used at point-blank range, a man coldly pushed from a plane, a man speared by a forklift, a man falling into a grinder, a man dropped into electric eels, a man locked into a drawer full of maggots, and let's not forget the shark tank .... This is not a film for the faint of heart, and it is definitely the most violent Bond film ever made ... but then, it's not really a Bond film, remember? If you remove all the Bond rules, it suddenly enables you to judge this film by an entirely different standard ... and you may not like films of that type, which is your prerogative, but the point is that it instantly goes from being a blot on the record to a fine example of the genre.
Krest, feeling the pressure
I admit that a great deal hinges on whether you sympathize with our hero. Personally, I do. What happens to Felix and Della is truly horrible, and even though Dalton's direct reaction to those events is not convincing (he doesn't do "sad" well - his strengths are shocked, enraged, irritated, and angry), I begin to get into his emotional space very shortly thereafter.
I confess, for example, that every time I watch the film I am rooting for him to get away from M, and even feel perversely pleased when the British and Hong Kong agents get killed by Sanchez. So what if the operation was blown and they were ostensibly good guys? Screw you; get the hell out of Bond's way. To me, the movie works because I feel the force and the damn-the-torpedoes attitude of Bond's vendetta, and when Pam finally gets through to him that there is more here than that, I feel the same quiet shock Bond does.
It stands to reason, given that rage and viciousness are the only emotions Dalton is really any good at conveying, that they should be the only emotions I ever manage to empathize with in his Bond portrayal. This is a film about the consuming nature - and, yes, the vicious joy - of rage. If you can feel that, if you've ever felt that, then perhaps this film will work for you. If you can't, then you will likely just sit by and be horrified by the carnage.
The only places the film doesn't work are when they try to convince us that this is Bond - when Dalton is called upon to be suave. He doesn't have to be suave with Pam; she works on a wholly different level. He does have to try to be suave at one point with the wholly uninteresting Lupe, and it doesn't work. The casino sequence doesn't work (the horrible goombah hairstyle doesn't help). This is not the Bond who can drink a Martini or turn over cards well, so don't even try. Just get back to the thuggery. He's good at that.
In short (he says, after thirteen paragraphs), this is the ultimate evolution of Timothy Dalton's Bond - Bond as assassin, completely without humor or emotion - so perhaps what this film has really been penalized for is showing everyone, reductio ad absurdum, exactly why the Dalton regime could not be allowed to continue. (And it wasn't. By mutual consent, he was not brought back for his third film, thus becoming the only Bond to date to not complete his initial contract.)
The wry punchline is that the pandering didn't work. This film did worse than The Living Daylights, and came dangerously close to Golden Gun's all-time-low attendance record in the US. The British audiences were repelled and alienated (they reportedly cheered when Q appeared - hooray, finally something from the actual Bond universe!), and the American audiences said, "Ho-hum, another action movie" (in a strong summer where the slate included Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
The film was not a flop - no Bond film has ever been a flop, in the sense of not making back its costs - but EON certainly considered it a failure, and its performance was one of the causes of the Great Hiatus. We would not see Bond again for six years, and at the time some of us wondered if we would ever see Bond again at all.
David Hedison reprises the role of Felix Leiter. Here Felix loses the limb(s) which he was supposed to have lost way back in Live and Let Die had we followed the book continuity, complete with the note from the book.
Note that Felix is apparently working for the DEA now, which gets around the CIA's domestic-charter issues. (In the books he had gone to work for Pinkerton's.)
The use of Leiter here is a bit of a problem. The Felix and Della scenes are where we are most reminded of Bond continuity. Dalton's sour reaction to Della in the garter scene, when he is reminded of his marriage, is one of the few non-angry Dalton reactions which is well-played - certainly better played than his reaction to Della's death. The thing is, there hadn't been any significant use of Leiter in the films since 1973 (he shows up briefly in the previous film, but everyone just assumes he's Bruce Jenner), the last time Hedison appeared. Younger audiences didn't have a whole backstory for Felix the way Maibaum did, which he should have realized when he put Leiter into the script. Similarly, the marriage resonances for Bond are meaningless if you're playing to an audience that never saw OHMSS. For these reasons, a viewer might not understand why Bond pursues his vendetta so urgently.
Incidentally, I'm not the only commentator who believes that Della is a little too attracted to Bond ....
Although you can barely identify it, the "whip" Sanchez uses on Lupe in an early scene is a stingray tail. This detail was moved from Krest to Sanchez; otherwise, the character of Milton Krest is taken pretty much verbatim from the story "The Hildebrand Rarity," as already described above.
Some people have a problem with the casting of Wayne Newton. I think he makes the perfect insincere, fraudulent televangelist, frankly, so I have no idea what the griping is about. Besides, he's only in the film for a few minutes.
The other great minor villain is Anthony Starke as Truman Lodge, the money wonk who is way out of his depth. Sanchez' "I guess it's time to start cutting overhead" at Lodge's expense is one of Sanchez' two best grim-humor lines. The other, of course, is "Launder it" - if you haven't seen the film, I can't explain it, it would ruin it. (It's true that these lines work better in, say, a Schwarzenegger film, which just underscores my point that viewing this as a Bond film is a mistake.)
The only villain who stinks is Dario, played laughably badly by a very young Benicio del Toro. Apparently he got better later in his career.
As noted above, this is Q's finest hour, with him not only travelling out to give Bond illicit equipment, but acting as a "damned good field operative." Llewellyn apparently enjoyed himself tremendously. It is his longest role, in screen time, in a Bond film, and possibly in his career. My favorite bit is when he is introduced as Bond's "uncle" and Pam as Bond's "cousin," and Q, not missing a beat, says, "Ah, we must be related!" And kisses her cheek.
The title change caused another headache because Dr. No had already been titled Licence To Kill in Italy.
The Italian title eventually chosen for this film was Private Revenge, which isn't a bad summation, actually.
Bond confronts M at the home of Ernest Hemingway in Key West (you can see the Hemingway House plaque briefly). This is the source of his comment "A farewell to arms?" when he surrenders his gun. Incidentally, a couple of commentators are disturbed by the fact that apparently "there are too many people around" is the only reason M doesn't have his men gun Bond down. Were you expecting something else? M cannot afford compassion there; Bond is dangerous. And, frankly, to put compassion ahead of practicality goes against everything we know about M's character.
The credits show an anti-smoking warning, a late addition spurred not because of Dalton's odious chain-smoking but by EON's lawyers, who noted that the film depicted a genuine brand of cigarettes (the Lark package used as a detonator).
El Presidente Lopez is played by Pedro Armendariz Jr. Armendariz fils, quite properly, removed the "Jr" after his father's death, and thus if you see a cast listing for "Pedro Armendariz" after 1963, including this film, it's the son. You don't really get enough of a look at him here to see that he's definitely his father's son, but if you watch Once Upon a Time In Mexico, where he is also El Presidente, it will give you Kerim Bey flashbacks.
As noted at the top (and I am far from the only person to note this), the hardest thing to swallow about this film is that M would ever give Bond the job back. On the other hand, in the books he gives Bond the job back after Bond tries to assassinate him, so who knows? Perhaps it might be more pleasant to pretend that M does not give Bond his job back and that the next Bond is a different Bond entirely (in addition to a brand new M, a brand new Moneypenny, a brand new director, and a brand new everything else.)
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