MGM // 1989 // 130 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // October 22nd, 1999
James Bond, on his own, out for revenge.
The second (and last) installment of the Timothy Dalton era, Licence to Kill broke with the past by presenting a darker, harder-edged Bond who fights friend and foe alike in order to carry retribution into the heart of a criminal empire.
If a successful film franchise is to remain a long-term, viable enterprise, then there must be a continual search for new facets of character and new directions to take, lest it degenerate into a tired, threadbare rehash of the original idea. This is precisely the road taken by the makers of Licence to Kill, who wanted to take the world's favorite heroic spy and put a fresh twist into the genre. Perhaps this is part of the reason why this film was a relative disappointment at the box office, as the audience was not as accepting of the need to try something new. Licence to Kill is certainly a dramatic change from the gadget-filled and increasingly campy Bond films of the Roger Moore era, as it sets a more somber and gritty stage for the series.
I appreciate the risks taken with this movie, both to keep the series fresh and to present a Bond that while less known to the audience is truer to the spirit of Fleming's Bond. As any fan of James Bond would, I have my own personal collection of Ian Fleming's original James Bond books and have read them avidly several times. In the books, as in Licence to Kill, Bond is not always a pleasant person, who is in many respects similar to the killers and evil spies that he hunts -- except that he works for us. Furthermore, he has a dark streak a mile wide and emotions to match, who is not infallible and can be tempted to indulge rash impulses and personal passions.
But let us put such musings aside for the moment, as we fade out to...
Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) is an unhappy drug lord because his favorite mistress has run off again. He is so intent on reclaiming Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto) that he ventures out of his home territory. Though he finds her and teaches both her and her luckless lover the price of betraying Sanchez, by doing so he has left himself vulnerable. Drug Enforcement Administration agents are salivating at the prospect of such a capture, so much so that they hunt down their CIA Colleague Felix Leiter (David Hedison) who is on the way to his own wedding.
Felix is as keen to capture Sanchez as they are, and so flies off with them under the watchful eye of best man James Bond (Timothy Dalton). "If I don't get you back for the wedding, I'm a dead man for sure!" is Bond's reason for tagging along. Sanchez is a slippery and resourceful narco-trafficker, avoiding the traps laid for him before stealing a plane and heading for the safety of Cuban airspace. James is pretty nifty too, and in inventive fashion snares Sanchez in mid-air before he drops in with Felix just in time for the wedding.
In the aftermath of the happy nuptials for Felix and Della Churchill (Priscilla Barnes), Felix ducks away for some mysterious CIA business with Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell). A fellow Federale by the name of Killifer (Everett McGill, last seen as Stilgar in Dune) pops in long enough to congratulate Felix and kiss the bride, as he is personally seeing Sanchez to a private cell at a Federal detention facility in Quantico, Virginia. James Bond soon makes his excuses and departs, the memories of his own brief marriage (in On Her Majesty's Secret Service) being still too painful.
On the long trip from Key West, a turncoat throws the whole armed procession into chaos from which the slippery Sanchez escapes once again. His revenge is swiftly visited upon Felix and Della, with the ever evil and able assistance of his henchman Dario (Benicio Del Toro). James is nearly on a plane when he learns of Sanchez' escape. Rushing back, he finds Felix barely alive after a close encounter with a shark and Della very cold and very dead. You can see Bond stoking his searing, white-hot rage as he silently swears revenge.
The local police are clueless and Leiter's federal pals are content to wait for Sanchez to surface again, but not Bond! With Sharkey (Frank McRae), a like minded friend of Leiter's, 007 goes in search of answers. Luck and persistence pay off when he locates a marine-oriented business of Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), who is a front man for Sanchez and who helped to engineer the daring escape. A little after-hours poking around reveals a substantial quantity of cocaine, making it clear that Krest is an important part of the Sanchez distribution network. After dispatching a few hapless thugs, Bond is surprised by the turncoat, but a timely appearance by Sharkey turns the tables long enough for Bond to dispense some Old Testament justice.
Unhappy with 007's extracurricular activities, M (Robert Brown) leads Bond into a face to face confrontation at the historic Hemingway House in Key West, Florida. He demands that 007 give up his revenge fantasy and to return to his duty. Seething with bitterness, Bond tenders his resignation to the exasperated, incredulous M. Revoking 007's license to kill, M demands his sidearm and makes it clear that Bond will be returning to London one way or another. Bond is not about to go so easily and makes short work of M's helpers before vanishing.
Sharkey is helpful once again, this time helping Bond to get aboard the WaveKrest, Krest's main ship, as it heads out to conduct some narco-trafficking. Before 007 has the chance to make much mischief, one of Krest's henchmen comes alongside the WaveKrest in Sharkey's boat with a decidedly deceased Sharkey. This is pure gasoline on 007's fire of vengeance, prompting a rash killing of Sharkey's tormentor before Bond dives into the ocean to escape the retaliation of Krest's thugs. Not only does Bond evade certain death, he seizes upon the opportunity to interrupt the drug transaction, managing not only to destroy a huge quantity of Sanchez' cocaine but also to fly off in a plane filled with five million dollars of Sanchez' cash.
Sneaking back into Felix's house in Key West, he finds the clues necessary to track down Pam Bouvier, who is now in mortal danger. He finds her at the Barrellhead Bar just before Dario and Company show up. Needless to say, gunfire and mayhem erupt from which James and Pam emerge intact. In contemplating their lot, 007 knows he needs help to get his revenge on Sanchez and Pam knows she cannot rest as long as Sanchez remains alive. They agree to terms of an alliance in short order (ahem!) as they decide to fly down to take on Sanchez in his home territory.
Arriving in Isthmus City, Bond plays the big spender role to the hilt, lavishing Ben Franklins on the hotel staff and wagering six figures at the blackjack tables without a care in the world. Naturally, this comes to Sanchez' attention. While Sanchez sizes up Bond at a private meeting, Bond is sizing up Sanchez' office for assassination purposes. Somewhat disheartened by the thick "Armorlite" glass, Bond returns to his hotel to find an unexpected guest. Q (Desmond Llewelyn ) has come into the field (which we know he detests) to help his friend, and has come well equipped with secret agent gadgets.
Bond soon makes his move, but his attempt to kill Sanchez is foiled by the sudden appearance of a ninja-like group who disarm and subdue 007 with frightening speed. When he awakens, 007 learns that these are Hong Kong narcotics officers, who helped British Intelligence capture their rogue agent so that he would not disrupt their own plans to infiltrate Sanchez' narco-trafficking operation. Their plans to ship Bond back to London are rudely interrupted by a contingent of troops led by Heller (Don Stroud), Sanchez' chief of security, whose nose for news led him there. Bond is recovered, but as it appeared that he had been mistreated by those deemed responsible for the assassination attempt, he is treated as a welcome friend and brought to Sanchez palace to recover.
Now firmly infiltrated into Sanchez' good graces, Bond sows some seeds of discontent (and plants a little evidence, with the help of Q and Pam Bouvier) that cause Sanchez to suspect and then turn with wounded ferocity on Milton Krest. The drug lord is so enamored of his new amigo that he takes him along on a tour of his drug facilities for a suite of prospective business partners. When Dario shows up in the middle of the tour, you know that it is only a matter of time before he recognizes James and all hell breaks loose.
It does, of course, in spectacular fashion. In the course of escaping from Dario and Sanchez' army, James does great damage to the facilities. Tsk, tsk. The final confrontation is quite mobile, staged with a collection of Kenworth tanker trucks, a few missiles, lots of guns, and Pam Bouvier in a crop duster, until it reaches a fiery fatal finale. In the end, of course, Bond prevails and gets the girl (but which one?).
The video is the only weak element of this fine disc, which was on occasion annoying or exasperating, but partly so because of the justifiably high expectations that I had for the entire first wave of this new special edition Bond set. Most noticeable in the earlier scenes is a significant display of shimmering and aliasing from digital enhancement, usually a failing of non-anamorphic transfers. It settles down as the movie progresses, but never entirely is out of sight. Furthermore, the overall film has a much softer picture that I like, with a handful of scenes so soft that it was mildly disconcerting. The print is reasonably clean, but flecks and blemishes still rear their ugly heads here and there. Colors are moderately saturated, lacking just a degree or two of richness and vibrance. Blacks are solid and the shadow detail good, along with an absence of film grain and video noise.
Audio is an above-average 5.1 mix. It is certainly a vast improvement over the mono tracks of the earlier Bond films, but it does not quite measure up to the stunning sonics of the latest films. The energy and activity of the mix is somewhat restrained, with a few spectacular effects lacking the solid bass anchor that you would expect from the on-screen display. Your subwoofer will get a moderate amount of use, but nothing to test its limits.
Extras are varied and plentiful. In addition to two feature-length commentary tracks (the first with Director John Glen and several actors, including Q!, the second with Producer Michael G. Wilson and various crew members), a half-hour documentary "Inside Licence to Kill" on the making of the movie, a typical five minute featurette on the film, Gladys Knight's "Licence to Kill" music video, Patti LaBelle's "If You Asked Me To" music video, a short featurette showcasing the stunts at the end of the movie using Kenworth trucks, a still gallery with over a hundred pictures, a trailer for the PlayStation game of Tomorrow Never Dies and the original (widescreen!) theatrical trailers. The menus are simply reference quality by the fine folks at 1K Studios, exquisitely styled visuals combined with animation and movie-themed sound.
The cast is quite good, though not without its flaws. Timothy Dalton is a good choice for a harder-edged James Bond, as his physical presence has a whiff of intimidation about it without harming the necessary cool 007 style. He can be a bit on the stiff side, though, which seems to hinder the chemistry with his leading ladies. Robert Davi is excellent as the narco-trafficker and mega-businessman, playing him as a very intelligent, resourceful yet flawed criminal (who does not succumb to the Bond Villain curse of confessing all of his secret plans to 007 instead of simply killing him). Carey Lowell is absolutely a gorgeous woman, but her attempts at being a tough customer seemed forced and awkward, as did Pam Bouvier's jealousy at competing with Lupe for 007. Wayne Newton (as Sanchez front-man Professor Joe Butcher) is worthy of a commendation for being humorous without overplaying his hand.
Two cast trivia notes are also worthy of mention. David Hedison is the only actor to play the role of Felix Leiter twice (his other appearance is in Live and Let Die), and Pedro Armendáriz Jr. (appearing as President Hector Lopez) is the son of the fantastic actor who played Karim Bey in From Russia With Love.
The Alpha keepcase?? Yeeccch!
While it is a pity that Licence to Kill does not have as fine a video transfer as its contemporaries in the first wave of Bond DVD Special Editions, I must emphasize that this is in the overall context a minor issue that should not dissuade you from this disc.
Licence to Kill is a commendable entry in the James Bond series, and a welcome twist to the traditional formula. Though the disc is not cheap ($35), it is loaded to the limit with extra content and presented in stellar fashion and is a must-have disc for any Bond fan, casual or obsessed.
An acquittal shaken, not stirred.
[Editor's note: for all you Americans who puzzled at the misspelling of "licence" in the movie's title...well, that's how those wacky British people spell it, so that's how it's spelled in the movie's title. Nicholas insisted that I not "fix" it. So bloody hell, there you go. -- Mike Jackson]
Review content copyright © 1999 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio Commentary with Director John Glen and Producer Michael G. Wilson
* Inside Licence To Kill Documentary
* Music Videos: "License to Kill" by Gladys Knight & "If You Asked Me To" by Patti LaBelle
* Promotional Featurette Highlighting Stunt Footage From the Film's Exhilarating Final Scene
* Behind-The-Scenes Still Gallery Featuring Over 100 Images
* Collectible Making-of Booklet
* Theatrical Publicity Footage Original Theatrical Trailers