With a new Bond successfully installed, usual writers Richard Maibaum and Michael G Wilson set about drawing up Dalton’s sophomore adventure. Keen to capitalise on Dalton’s harder edged interpretation of the role, the two writers plundered original Fleming novel “Live And Let Die” and the short story “The Hildebrand Rarity” for characters, set pieces and snippets of dialogue, patching them into an entirely new story, the first Bond movie to have a non-Fleming title.
When a Drug Dealer escapes from prison and brutally attacks Felix Leiter, killing his new bride, James Bond vows to take him down, even though it means going rogue and leaving the Secret Service.
From the very first moments, it’s clear there’s something not quite right about “Licence To Kill”. Michael Kamen’s score is a radical departure from any of his predecessors and his arrangement of the Bond theme for the gun barrel sequence is the most unorthodox of the series. The pre-credits sequence set in Florida and the Bahamas sees Bond and Felix Leiter (a returning David Hedison) interrupt their journey to Leiter’s wedding to take down a notorious drug dealer. Within the first few minutes of the film, there’s swearing, a brutal murder and some torture: this is a new, dark and gritty Bond, after all. It’s eventually resolved with a technically impressive stunt involving a helicopter winch and a light aircraft and it ends happily enough before the film crashes into the flaccid R&B warbling of Gladys Knight’s theme tune.
Tonally, “Licence To Kill” never feels like a Bond film. The plot is all very small scale stuff. Sanchez’ operation shouldn’t really be on Bond’s radar and the personal quest for vengeance doesn’t fit the Bond mould at all. There’s a generic quality to the plot which makes the central character interchangeable. This could easily have been a vehicle for Schwarzenegger or Stallone – or even Michael Dudikoff or Chuck Norris with little change to the script.
The script is peppered with sequences with feel like they came from the big book of action clichés, including a tedious bar brawl and a ludicrously incongruous ninja fight in Mexico. But possibly the worst aspect is the film’s nasty streak of brutality and violence. There’s an unnecessary grisliness and an unseemly level of violence to the film which feels insincere, like a teenager trying to act tough and grown up by being recklessly aggressive. The stunts are, of course, technically very impressive but they feel tacked on and narratively redundant. The tanker chase during the finale is a prime example of this. Getting an entire tanker onto one set of wheels is a nifty bit of driving but it doesn’t really convince as a means to avoid a Stinger missile.
None of the problems of the movie are Dalton’s fault; he just seems to have had the misfortune to be cast as Bond just at the time when the creative team were pretty much tapped out. The world was changing around them, the Cold War was over and “Licence To Kill” shows they didn’t really have a clue how to adapt. It’s hardly a surprise that this film marks the end for the writers and director John Glen who by this point seems to have reverted to the same emotionally disengaged stupor which blighted “A View To A Kill”.
Robert Davi makes for a great drug baron, and plays the role perfectly, but he’s simply not a Bond villain. His cohort of lackeys and hangers-on are ill-defined with only Anthony Zerbe’s Milton Krest and Benicio Del Toro sticking in the mind, the latter thanks to his ability to infuse his henchman with a genuinely psychotic malevolence). The nonsensically convoluted network of cocaine distribution using TV evangelism as a cover and a marine research vessel to swap bags of coke for bundles of cash bucks wildly against the grim and serious credibility the film seems to crave.
The Bond girls this time out fare little better. Talisa Soto is beguiling as Sanchez’ reluctant lover but the film side-lines her in favour of Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier who shares little chemistry with Dalton’s Bond and far from being a spirited, independent partner spends more time being a whining, petulant nag.
Due to its ‘operating outside the law’ plot, there was little for Robert Brown’s M to do in his last appearance but mercifully it also meant we were spared anything but the bare minimum of Caroline Bliss’ execrable Moneypenny. Desmond Llewellyn, on the other hand, gets involved in the action like never before, a token effort to reassure audiences that, yes – this is still a Bond movie, even if it doesn’t feel like one and nobody’s acting like it is one.
Cynically pandering to the American market, “Licence To Kill” ironically jettisoned nearly everything that made Bond movies so popular, becoming just another generic action thriller in the process. The summer box office of 1989 was one of the toughest ever, and the film suffered accordingly. The subsequent resurfacing of the legal wrangling over the ownerships of various rights would prove to be a blessing in disguise, delaying the Bond franchise and giving a chance for reflection and reinvention under a new creative team. Dalton deserved much better than this.