Licence To Kill (1989)

Untitled-1It’s taken sixteen movies for the Bond franchise to finally understand who James Bond really is, and how the life he leads affects the people around him. We’ve seen him seduce the ladies, and defeat the bad guy, and do some skiing and diving in the middle, but we’ve never been able to penetrate his exterior. The women he sleeps with are standalone flings; the bad guys he kills are megalomaniacs with preposterous hideouts and henchmen; the car chases he tries to survive are always too long and pointless. Now, finally, he seems more like a man living in a real world than a cardboard cutout propped up in a fantasy land.

He is played by Timothy Dalton again, who is still more serious than he should be, but in Licence To Kill, the world he inhabits is equally serious. Maybe even more so. Everything is brought down to ground level; the villain doesn’t want to steal nuclear submarines and dominate the world. He wants to run his drug empire happily and without interference. The movie still gives us amazing stunts — this one sees Bond hooking a cable to the tail fin of a plane from a helicopter, in mid-air, and performing wheelies with the front portion of an eighteen-wheeler — but they have a reason for being so amazing. Everything Bond does is a result of an action, or an event, and there is hardly a wasted minute, yes, not even when the villain’s frontman (a rather optimistic television preacher) falls victim to seductive treachery.

The entire movie just works. It has all the usual Bond elements, but they’re given weight and depth. The plot is lovely and easy to follow. The villain is superbly crafted in the form of Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), a smooth and ruggedly charming Caribbean drug dealer who owns an entire bank, casino, and a president. His secret hideout is a gorgeous piece of architecture that’s vast, made of stone, and given the fiery touch of an Aztec complex. There is a great gadget from Q Branch that involves the handgrip of a camera, some rods and barrels, and when you put it all together, it becomes a sniper rifle. The handle is also coded to Bond’s palm, which means only he can fire it (no doubt, Skyfall was inspired by this). Q is no longer just a servant; he’s given much more screen time as a field operative, and it’s a joy watching Desmond Llewelyn run around in all sorts of disguises. And what of the Bond Girls. My my. In The Living Daylights, we had to sit through two hours with one underwhelming sidekick, who cared more about her cello than the welfare of Bond. But here, we are treated to two beautiful women who are not only fighting for Bond’s love, but for ours as well (one of them, played by Talisa Soto, has skin as smooth as a baby’s bum).

The way the script — written by Michael Wilson and Richard Maibaum — and director John Glen handle the two Bond Girls is clever enough to make them both seem like intellectual human beings, with feelings, instead of a couple of bedspreads on which Bond can unload his burden. They are smart girls, but deadly, and for once, they meet each other. There’s a rivalry between them that none of the previous Bond Girl pairings ever had. Bond loves them both, but unlike before, he has to choose one, and only one. The choice is his, not theirs. It’s great stuff.

The script is also good at giving 007 a very human side. The franchise has reached a point where Bond is like a printmaking press; he is the same mold, over and over again, pressed onto different fabrics. He is without character. He is the womaniser, the fighting champion, the mastermind, the smooth talker, the Martini drinker, the suit wearer. Only the villains change. But this time, he is given the luxury of operating outside his duty, seeking vengeance for a friend. He almost gets killed by his own people because of this. As one of his fellow Brits tells him, “You’re a rogue.”. Again, this is great stuff. We’ve seen Bond resign before, but never with a valid reason.

So combine everything together, and accept the fact that 1) Dalton makes a good Bond, 2) Sanchez makes an excellent villain, 3) Lupe and Pam Bouvier make the perfect Bond Girls, 4) a Bond plot doesn’t have to be ludicrous to be great, and 5) you can still have the crazy stunts as long as you know why you need them. Not since The Spy Who Loved Me has a Bond movie expressed so much desire to press on into new territory while still maintaining the essence of 007.

Best Moment | That old Matrix guy’s head exploding in the pressure chamber, among others.

Worst Moment | I wasn’t a fan of Bond’s eighteen-wheeler flipping onto its side and riding over a jeep. That’s just cray. And also, that slow-motion bit in the opening scene, as Leiter and his DEA dudes are running, doesn’t really fit.

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