The 1980s were a weird time. Children’s cartoons became both commercial and dark. A group of singing raisins released an album. MTV actually showed music videos. Jazzercise was a thing. And they made a Bond film that sucked all the joy out of the franchise.
What I dislike about License to Kill
Let me start by saying I’m not hating on Timothy Dalton. I enjoyed him in The Living Daylights. He’s sexy. He makes a decent Bond. But he was given dreadful material to work with here and it brought out the worst in the character.
To Dalton’s credit, he does commit to the material. It’s probably a good thing the franchise got tied up in red tape for years after this. I honestly don’t know if I could have watched another outing with Dalton as Bond without thinking about what cruelty he was capable of. License to Kill was one of the least successful Bond films. Its poor box office performance caused Albert R. Broccoli to doubt himself and step down from producing any more Bond entries.
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License to Kill is a revenge film. When Bond’s friend Felix is tortured and another one of his friends is killed, he sets out to settle the score. It’s not easy or fun to watch. This is easily the worst Bond film in the entire franchise. It’s the darkest and ugliest film in the canon. The deaths are disturbingly violent, resembling the kills in a horror film rather than an action flick. And some of them are violent in an emotional way. Felix’s torture scene is drawn out and hard to watch. It is hinted that Felix’s bride was gang-raped before being killed, in the most chilling line of dialogue in the film.
Vengeance is not a good look on Bond.
The attempts at levity and the usual Bond one-liners feel wrong. (“Watch the birdie, you bastard.”) Similarly, the romantic scenes feel out of place in this bleak film. While it has the usual hallmarks (beautiful women, gambling, a despicable villain with disposable henchmen), this simply isn’t a Bond film. It is not entertaining nor cathartic. There’s no sense of satisfaction or relief in any of the villains’ deaths. It’s all just awfulness for awfulness’s sake.
There’s a laughable 80s bar fight. Bond orders a Bud with lime?! A young Benicio del Toro literally brings a knife to a gunfight. The women get in on the action too, punching the men.
Even lovable Wayne Newton manages to be creepy in this film. Bless his heart.
What I actually like about License to Kill
This is one of the best Q stories. Q meets Bond in the field to help him with his mission. This says a lot about Q’s character and about his affection for Bond despite their playful bickering. Desmond Llewelyn provides one of the few bits of comedy that works. He tests the firmness of the beds, trying to choose which one he wants, before sharing a room with Bond for the night. I love that Llewelyn is still in character in the background after he’s no longer the focus of the scene.
Carey Lowell plays Pam Bouvier. She’s one of the better Bond girls, which makes it a shame she ended up in the worst Bond film. Bouvier is a pilot and a DEA informant who ends up aiding Bond (and, of course, falling for him). She has more agency than most Bond girls. And she actually gets full-on jealous when Bond pursues another woman to get the information he needs. The one satisfying element at the end is that Bond ditches Lupe to be with Bouvier, the one who truly loves him.
Robert Davi plays Franz Sanchez. He’s a wicked drug lord but he also has some charm. When Bond is lying to him and posing as an ally, I actually felt bad for Sanchez, who takes Bond into his good graces and treats him like a brother.
Fun fact: The movie was originally titled License Revoked. It was changed because American audiences saw the title and assumed it was Bond’s driver’s license that had been revoked. (Which, honestly, it probably should be.)
Opening stunt: Felix misses his wedding to take down a drug kingpin with Bond’s help. Mission accomplished, Bond and Felix parachute into the wedding.
Gadgets: Explosive alarm clock, Dentonite toothpaste (plastic explosive), camera gun, Polaroid camera with laser flash that also takes x-ray photos.
Title theme: Gladys Knight sings “License to Kill,” one of the cheesier Bond theme songs.
Bond girls: Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto), Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell)
Connection to previous films: Felix is a CIA agent and Bond’s old friend, featured in several films starting with Dr. No. He is played by a different actor in every film. Felix tells his bride that Bond was married once, long ago. This is a reference to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. One scene teases that Bond is being delivered to nemesis Blofeld, but it turns out to be M instead.
Connection to a future film: In Goldeneye, Bond has to take a psychological evaluation before he’s allowed back into service. Presumably because of the events of this film.
Villain: Franz Sanchez, a drug kingpin played by Robert Davi.
Henchmen: Most of the henchmen in this film are disposable red shirts. One exception is Sanchez’s accomplice Milton Krest.
Final thoughts on License to Kill
This is the one Bond film I probably will never watch again. If I hadn’t been reviewing it, I probably wouldn’t have finished it. Even though Bond’s license to kill is revoked at the beginning of the movie, he faces no punishment after taking his revenge. No remorse and no consequences equal no catharsis. While this film does set the stage somewhat for Goldeneye, it’s ultimately skippable.
Remembering James Bond — Seeing Goldfinger live in the theater
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Golden Man loves comedies, romantic films, superhero movies, and awards bait. He blogs about the Oscar race all year long at www.etchedingold.ninja