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Review: 'Licence To Kill' (1989) Dir. John Glen

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

Timothy Dalton, Carey Lowell, Robert Davi, Talisa Soto, Anthony Zerbe, Benicio del Toro, Everett McGill, Frank McRae, David Hedison, Robert Brown, Caroline Bliss and Desmond Llewelyn


The second and final outing for Timothy Dalton would prove too much for audiences in 1989, but secure Dalton as one of the best 007 actors when appreciated again in 2006...

After MI6 agent James Bond (Dalton) and CIA operative Felix Leiter (Hedison) capture South American drug baron Franz Sanchez (Davi). However, drug money proves too tempting; Sanchez is helped in escaping custody and he takes revenge on newly wed Felix.

When 007 learns of the situation, he makes it his personal mission to find Sanchez. Starting in the Florida Keys, Bond traces all those involved with Sanchez and comes across CIA agent Pam Bouvier (Lowell), an ally of Felix also after Sanchez, but for far more dangerous reasons.

With MI6 out to detain him, 007 has few allies he can trust as he starts to work his way into the heart of Sanchez’s operation to bring him down from the inside. It’s down to Bond and a handful of allies to stop Sanchez and his drug empire before it is too late…

A truly excellent and refreshingly different 007 adventure, sadly seen as a let-down for many by a “too realistic” storyline and competing with the 1989 summer blockbusters. It’s also sad that the fantastic Timothy Dalton bows out after just 2 films. But he does so in explosive fashion as James Bond seeks revenge with him operating outside of Her Majesty's Service and going rogue. And as this was the first ever James Bond film I saw, it's already a default 5 popcorn rating for opening my eyes to the 007 universe and roping me in with everything I've come to love about the films.

This is the best of the two Dalton pictures and a real dose of grown up action for the Bond series which never lets down and boasts some of the most exciting and jaw dropping stuntwork and action sequences in a 007 film, like the water-ski escape from the Florida Keys to the finale set around a breath-taking tanker truck chase down a winding mountain road.

There is a real sense of espionage to this – lots of infiltration, deception and manipulation; working with a few allies to get the job done in a very brutal, Fleming-esque way.

We are limited to the gadgets, limited to the one-liners and limited to the grand escapism of super-villains and super-weapons. It’s a real-world threat of taking down a powerful drug baron and his cartel, responsible for endangering the lives of millions without the need for destroying the world itself. It almost has is in a “fish out of water” scenario, seeing the darker side to 007 a his world is torn apart with the mutilation of his best friend at the hands of our brilliant Robert Davi’s Franz Sanchez. 

The cast are grounded and come across perfectly in their roles and not one feels out of place. Our Bond girl, Carey Lowell, is tough and resourceful and kicks as much ass as 007 does rather than scream for his help. It’s also nice to see the late David Hedison return in a crucial role as Felix Leiter, last seen in 1973s ‘Live And Let Die’. We also finally have Desmond Llewelyn as Q in a role that beats the screentime of all his previous ones combined!

It was a strange sight to behold for audiences after the light-hearted fun of the Moore era and so didn't sit well with casual fans. The rating for audiences here allowed more violence and more bad language, so it’s a very big leap compared to the family friendly Moore films. But times changed, and this was heading in the right direction but, as stated, it can be seen how for casual Bond fans this didn’t have any of the “magic” the previous films did. This was a touch of dark reality- villains who didn't have comic-book style wounds or scars, or who wanted to live underwater.

No, these were villains who were based on very real and dangerous cartels, gangsters and assassins who blended into society but tore it down with drugs, violence and corruption - who would be the right man to stop them? James Bond of course. Dalton and Davi crackle on screen as a couple at polar opposites of the moral spectrum, but how sometimes you can see the lines blur. A solid villain, grounded in reality and influenced by real drug cartels and kingpins.

But audiences weren't so keen at that idea. Not when, in the summer of 1989, James Bond, in his 16th adventure, was going up against the likes of 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade', (third of a beloved trilogy and featuring Sir Sean Connery), 'Batman' (the first major blockbuster adaption) and 'Back To The Future: Part II'. A summer of big hits, fantastical adventures and comedy. 

'Licence To Kill' is the lowest grossing 007 film when adjusted for inflation. It didn't hit the target with audiences, even though some did appreciate the efforts, as did critics. It was just too dark and off-tangent in a summer when high-spirited adventure was a winner. Even the Michael Kamen score, sadly, didn't capture the comforting Bond-esque themes. Instead, it was a heavy fusion of South American tones and dark orchestral work; perfect for the theme and setting of the film, but unable to break out some true 007 escapism.

However, leap forward 17 years later and Daniel Craig arrived at the right time to re-invent the darker, Fleming-esque portrayal of Bond that Dalton introduced us to. Dalton set a benchmark the world wasn't ready for, and only now are people seeing the weight and power he injected into the role. Losing out on a third film due to studio legal issues, one can only dream how he would have continued to give us a really exceptional set of films as 007 in the darker, more gripping and more dangerous world of espionage.

With such shocking and brutal violence throughout, it's obvious this was a very brave and drastic shift in approach to tell a spy adventure, but all the elements were just too much for audiences to accept as their vision of James Bond.

'Licence To Kill' is a perfect bridge between one era of Bond into another, but not always appreciated. Timothy Dalton gives one of the best series performances as 007, and it's still as glamorous, exciting, dangerous and thrilling as ever over 30 years on.

'Licence To Kill' is an EON Productions production

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