Licence To Kill (1989) has suffered from a bad reputation for years. Many have wrongly asserted that it bombed at the box office and that the film was critically panned. While the film did not perform as strongly in the US as past entries, the film still earned $156 million dollars at the box office, despite competing against Lethal Weapon, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Batman.
And despite it being the first Bond film to receive a 15 certificate from the BBFC, it was the seventh most successful film in Britain of 1989.
What may account for the film’s initial criticisms was its violent, gritty tone. While The Living Daylights had shown a much darker, more brutal Bond than during the Moore era, there were hang overs from Roger’s time in the role. But Licence To Kill was completely Dalton’s film, and as he would say later, his portrayal was not meant for children. His was Fleming’s Bond: an assassin, single and bloody minded in his pursuit of the enemy. As the film’s titled showed, Bond had a licence to kill, and he would use it.
For me, this is what makes this film, alongside You Only Live Twice, my favourite Bond film. Although Roger Moore is what I call my chicken soup Bond, Dalton’s portrayal of the famous spy in this film is pitch perfect. Gone are the excessive quips, the camp stunts and increasingly unbelievable villains. In this film the villain is shockingly, and discomfortingly, real and also very similar to Bond in some ways. Something which Sanchez remarks on in the film, and something Bond seems loath to admit but unable to fully deny.
Another criticism which has been aimed at the film is its similarity to other 80s action films such as Die Hard, but I don’t feel that this is much of a criticism. While Bond films always feel essentially suspended in time, they cannot, and do not, attempt to entirely escape the era in which they are made. Dr No is distinctly a film of 1962 in some ways, but if compared to other films in the same genre made at the same time, it has a distinct sophistication and style. The same is true of Licence To Kill. It recognises the value of elements that can be found in a film like Die Hard, but it doesn’t try to ape it. Bond is not for a moment comparable to John McClane in background or motivation. What they have in common is their mission to bring down a bad guy with a capital B, and their isolation in that situation. And some have said that the bar scene in which Bond, and the main Bond girl, Pam Bouvier, confront Sanchez’s cronies is too much like something that could be found in a b grade action film. And while, once again, there may be similarities, Bond’s lack of self assurance in the scene plays against stereotypes in that genre. He brings a small, clean handgun to a shotgun and knife fight.
The film was written during the Writers Guild of America strike, something which would happen again almost thirty years later with Quantum of Solace. This necessitated that Richard Maibaum, who had cowritten almost all of the Bond scripts since Dr No, step back from the project and leave it in the hands of Michael G. Wilson. Wilson said that he took inspiration not only from multiple Fleming novels, but also from Rōnin films as well as real events and figures. This blend of influences means that Licence To Kill is one of the grittiest and most brutal films in the canon, and also one of the most interesting in terms of theme and, if I may use a word that has double meaning in this instance, execution.
Loyalty, duty and honour are important aspects of Bond’s character. Loyalty is vital for him to complete his missions alive, and he in turn has to be loyal to Her Majesty’s Government. But these loyalties can have an impersonal air to them, and not always be returned. Although Bond has to be loyal to his government, his government is not entirely loyal to him, as it will deny his existence if his cover is compromised. But in Licence To Kill, Bond’s sense of personal loyalty drives the plot. Although fans of the franchise may have fatigue with this now due to it being a major arc in Daniel Craig’s Bond films, it was a relatively novel approach for a Bond film at this time.
This is also one of the earliest Bond films in which its hero goes completely rogue, if not the first. While he attempts to resign from service in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, this attempt is not the concentrated, dramatic resolution that Bond makes in Licence To Kill. While Bond questions his superiors in previous films and pushes protocol boundaries, in this one he completely fractures the system and makes things completely personal. While his attachment to Felix in previous films is always welcome and shows the Bond universe’s recognition of the global espionage network, in this film it is used to humanise Bond in a way that had not been attempted since OHMSS, and also connects those two films whilst dispelling another theory that makes most Bond fans grind their teeth: that James Bond is only a codename.
Bond’s wife, Tracy, had not been referred to since For Your Eyes Only, but in Licence To Kill, Bond’s doomed marriage takes on a new significance. Bond’s vendetta against Sanchez is caused by two dramatic and gruesome events: the maiming and attempted murder of Felix, the closest person Bond has to a best friend in his uncertain world, and the death of Felix’s wife, Della. Like Tracy, Della is murdered on her wedding day in retaliation by the film’s villain. Wilson clearly stated that Bond’s vengeance
is fuelled [by] his own brutally cut-short marriage.”
This adds to Dalton’s Bond who is a man suffering from a fractured psyche that is owed almost entirely to the amount of deaths that can be directly traced to him, many of them indirect, but caused by what is necessitated by his profession.
Licence To Kill confronts the question that has existed from almost the first: how can Bond have any personal connections that are not doomed? Fleming’s Bond is an alcoholic womaniser because of his isolation which is both self imposed and imposed by the nature of his work. We, as the audience, want Bond to be triumphant despite the fact that as Stephen Jay Rubin writes,
Dalton’s Bond sometimes looks like a candidate for the psychiatrist’s couch – a burned-out killer who may have just enough energy left for one final mission. That was Fleming’s Bond – a man who drank to diminish the poison in his system, the poison of a violent world with impossible demands…. his is the suffering Bond.
And he is triumphant in Licence To Kill, but his triumph comes with him almost dying. This is something that doesn’t always happen, especially in the Moore era. At the end of the film, Bond is bruised, bloodied and half deranged. He confronts Sanchez and makes it clear to him that he came after him for a specific, personal person. Some have claimed that Daniel Craig is the first Bond to really be physically threatened, but this film shows that that simply isn’t true. In Licence To Kill, Bond gets his baddie, but there are several close calls along the way. He is almost put out of commission by his own government, then very nearly ground up in a cocaine refining works, and finally almost meets his end in a truck crash and a fight with Sanchez. He is not the perfectly coifed Bond at all, smiling triumphantly. He collapses in the dirt, the driving force taken out of him with the death of Sanchez.
What is also fascinating about how Bond sets about dismantling Sanchez’s empire, is that he does it from the inside out. This almost reminds one of a John Le Carré novel, and shares similarities with Fleming’s The Man With the Golden Gun. While it had almost become a matter of course in Bond films that he was known by the villain from nearly the very first, in Licence To Kill, Bond presents himself as both himself, and not himself. He is supposed to be an ex secret service agent who has broken with his government, and whilst this is basically true, where it differs is that Bond is not, and never will be, a mercenary. But he ensures that he makes it clear to Sanchez that he can be useful to him, and that it is not only money that interests him, because as Sanchez states,
“loyalty is more important than money”.
This links Bond and Sanchez on a more real level as well. Bond turns down Ed Killifer’s offer of a large amount of money, even physically throwing it back at him, as he lowers Killifer into the water to face the same fate as Felix. “You earned it, you keep it, old buddy”, he spits out.
Towards the end of the film, when Sanchez’s empire is in literal flames, Truman Lodge wails that so much money has been lost, that they are financially ruined. Sanchez does not care, and shoots Lodge as the latter clutches a suitcase of the final financial remnants of a once lucrative drug empire. For Bond and Sanchez, things become personal, and it is a personal score that must be settled in the end. They have both taken something precious from the other. For Sanchez that something precious is not his empire, and not even his trophy mistress, Lupe, but more likely Dario, the one man who was always completely loyal to Sanchez. Bond has dismantled the network of trust that Sanchez has constructed, and that is what drives Sanchez to self destruct.
Bond comes very close to the same fate, but his network of trust is not broken. Pam Bouvier, the no nonsense ex Army pilot with ties to the CIA, becomes fiercely loyal to Bond, and Q, who always criticises, but essentially cares for Bond, also helps him complete his personal mission. While Moneypenny is shown only briefly, one can assume that she also has something to do with Q helping Bond. It is really personal relationships that become vital in the film, more so, perhaps, than in any previous Bond, although even that claim can be disputed with examples from previous films such as You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me. It seems rather that Licence To Kill recognises a trait of the previous Bond outings and expands it more than before.
What this film also explores is the fascination that both genders have with Bond. Diamonds Are Forever had two homosexual characters in Mr Kidd and Mr Wint, and this is a major element of their relationship as assassins. One of them even remarks that “Miss Case seems quite attractive. For a lady.” And most recently in Skyfall, Silva’s obvious come on to Bond and the spy’s reply, “What makes you think this is my first time?” had homosexual text. In Licence To Kill there are elements of this, too. Sanchez seems to have little sexual interest in Lupe, who he keeps around for show, beating her when she gets out of line by wanting to form meaningful attachments to other men. The film opens with one of her lovers being murdered and Sanchez saying, “Did he promise you his heart?…Give her his heart!”
Who Sanchez seems more sexually interested in is Dario, who he caresses throughout the film in a subtle but purposeful way. And Sanchez seems to have the same inclinations for Bond, who it is suggested he undressed before putting him to bed, and who he addresses whilst Bond is still partially naked under bedsheets. He almost seems intent to seduce Bond, whilst Bond seemingly reciprocates in order to ingratiate himself and gain more access to the workings of Sanchez’s organisation.
This is a further departure in terms of both Dalton’s portrayal of the character, and the way in which the character is written. Whilst Fleming’s Bond is never suggested to have overtly used his wiles on anyone except women, Licence To Kill recognises the changing manner in which espionage would be portrayed onscreen. Spies would seduce those who they needed to be close to, or those who had valuable information. Sanchez’s coded homosexuality and attraction to Bond links him with Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun. In the novel, a profile on Scaramanga includes information on his supposed latent sexuality, and he seemingly hires Bond for security because he is attracted to him. This further humanises Sanchez, removing him from the some of the almost sexless, megalomaniacs of previous Bond films.
While Licence To Kill is set in the fictional country of Isthmus, it shows the exploration of South American countries as settings that would feature in many films of the era. And it also shows that Licence To Kill has political commentary. This is not unusual in a Bond film. Live and Let Die could be seen to be commenting on the West’s view of Caribbean and African countries, and almost all of the Bond films made during Connery and Moore’s era are firmly set in the happenings of the Cold War, with Bond making sure it doesn’t get hot in a few films, such as You Only Live Twice. But Licence To Kill shows the consequences of the Cold War, and how powerful drug lords and dictators had gained power as America and Europe were involved in conflicts elsewhere.
Licence To Kill is critical of how both Britain and America dealt with criminals who were controlling governments at the time. Sanchez is said to be untouchable in South and Central America, and he also has corrupt DEA allies, and his head of security is an ex US soldier. Major governments and their global legal systems are shown to be flawed and fractured as the Cold War hobbles to its ultimate demise, leaving gaps open for those who wish to fill them. Sanchez is purportedly based on General Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno, dictator of Panama between 1983 and 89, who was one of the CIA’s most valuable informants and an extremely powerful drug lord. Like Sanchez, Noriega was removed from power by foreign powers.
Licence To Kill’s ending is cynical about the political change, as it recognises that Panama, and other South and Central American countries, experienced much political and economic instability after the removal of dictators. President Hector Lopez, played by Pedro Armendáriz Jr, who would fill a similar role in Once Upon A Time In Mexico, remains president of Isthmus, despite having been aware of Sanchez’s corruption and having been controlled by him. And so this Bond film has a happy ending in that Bond is alive and with Pam, and that he has avenged Della and Felix, but not in terms of magically healing the political fractures of Isthmus.
And this shows that Bond is not a superhero, or definitively the good guy, as he has sometimes been portrayed in popular culture. Michael G. Wilson said that another of his influences in writing the script was Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. And in Licence To Kill, Bond does share some traits with The Man With No Name. He does not miraculously heal the wounds of the past. He removes the representation of the evil, but he cannot cure it.
In terms of the Bond girls within the film, they seem to follow the formula which had been laid down by previous Bond films. One is good and one is bad. But even here, Licence To Kill breaks the mould somewhat. Lupe is Sanchez’s mistress, but she is bound to him through fear and physical abuse. Her character shares similarities with Domino in Thunderball. She is the kept woman of a powerful and cruel man, and Licence To Kill does not shy away from the fact that women have to “sell” themselves in order to survive, or that they are misused by men.
An intersting dynamic is also created where Pam is jealous of Lupe because of her relationship with Bond. At times, Bond girls seems unconcerned or unaware that they are not the only woman in the story who Bond is seducing. Here, the fact that Bond spreads himself around somewhat becomes a real bone of contention. His actions have real consequences, as his involvement with Lupe almost gets him killed.
In Thunderball, Fiona speaks of Bond converting women and getting them to repent through sex. But this does not pan out in the usual fashion in Licence To Kill. Lupe claims that she loves James, but she is a smart girl, intent on survival, and in the end she sees that she has lost and switches her allegiances to another powerful man, but this time one she can control.
Licence To Kill is one of the Bond films that recognises female independence and agency. Although there are examples of this before in characters such as Anya Amasova and Pussy Galore, the two Bond films that came before Licence To Kill, do not feature “good” Bond girls that have much agency. But Pam Bouvier, who Bond cleverly renames Miss Kennedy, is not one lacking in skill, independence and bravery. She saves Bond’s life more than once, and her appearance also moves away from the hyper-feminine tradition of previous Bond girls, with her short hair and at times, masculine clothing. She is Bond’s equal in many ways, and her assistance in his mission is quite invaluable.
Through her character, the inequality between men and women in military based professions is exposed. She is initially underestimated by Bond because she is a woman, but he soon comes to realise his error. She even demands to know why Bond cannot be her personal secretary, to which Bond smirkingly replies that it is still a man’s world, especially in Central and South America. And so for much of the film, Pam is trying to assert her powers, and fight against stereotypes. The film is not entirely successful in carrying this through, but the audience still does not feel that Pam is simply an appendage to Bond and his mission, as she is involved in the film’s climatic stunts.
Licence To Kill is a Bond film that bears the foundations of many things that were to come. It is always a pity to me that Dalton was only afforded one film that was entirely his own in terms of the characterisation of Bond, but his mark on the character is quite indelible. Like Daniel Craig, Dalton is the most like Fleming’s Bond. While the film was not fully understood by initial audiences or critics, its reputation has rightly improved over the succeeding years, and Dalton has rightly been praised for his realistic portrayal of a character that has undergone many changes during his existence onscreen.
While many praise Daniel Craig for his harsher, grittier and more human interpretation of the role, I think it would do us all good to go back and watch Licence To Kill and see the genesis of the most recent Bond films. Dalton performed many of his own stunts, with Michael G. Wilson saying that he despaired at finding that the actor would want to do stunts that had been assigned to stuntmen. And so I will leave you with Dalton’s quotes about his interpretation of Bond:
First and foremost I wanted to make him humane, he is not a superman, you can’t identify with a superman.
When I felt that I could do and should do the action that we see in the film, I did it.
I wanted to capture that occasional sense of vulnerability, and I wanted to capture the spirit of Ian Fleming.