Revisiting 1989’s ‘License to Kill’

50 Years of James Bond

“License to Kill” is the first Bond movie since “From Russia With Love” (1963) that feels as if it was made for adults. Naturally, I find that somewhat ironic, considering “License to Kill” also happens to be the first Bond movie I saw in theaters, and I was only 11 at the time. Watching it again today, as an adult, I’m fascinated that the franchise went to such a place, where the character would be stripped of his license to kill and defy orders by tracking down the drug lord responsible for ruining best friend (only friend?) and CAA counterpart Felix Leiter’s honeymoon.

The sex, violence and overall intensity of “License to Kill” seethe with menace. Young or old, it’s something you can feel in your bones, the way an unsettling buzz ripples through anybody standing near high-voltage power lines. Of course, we’re dealing with a new spin on Bond, and Timothy Dalton demonstrated in “The Living Daylights” that he would deliver a fresher, more realistic take on the character. But it’s hard to reconcile that this film comes from the same director responsible for the previous four installments. (Then again, Glen tends to adapt so fully to the producers’ demands that, apart from a few signature flourishes, all five of his Bond features look as though they were directed by different people.)

As Bond installments go, “License to Kill” radically breaks from the formula, while maintaining many of the essentials, right down to a key appearance by Q, who pops up to arm the now-rogue Bond with a few tools (like toothpaste-style plastique) in the field. From the opening scene, Bond is acting beyond his jurisdiction, aiding Leiter in the apprehension of Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). When Sanchez escapes and tries to teach Leiter a lesson, Bond goes completely off the reservation – and yet, given his unique skill set, fans know that Sanchez has crossed the wrong secret agent.

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If the intention was to reinvent the character, then Glen’s final entry succeeds marvelously. It’s as if this Bond belongs not to the world of the 15 preceding adventures, but rather to the explosive new action-movie philosophy that took root in the ’80s: bigger, louder, meaner, more. (Certainly, few climactic movie explosions can compete with the eruption of cocaine-laced gasoline tankers at the end of “License to Kill.”)

Though Dalton is no match for the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone in physical terms, he brings a quicker wit to the table, and appears to be their equal in terms of ruthlessness. It’s a throwback to the early days, sans Connery’s casual sense of humor (Dalton seems incapable of punning properly), and a complete break from Roger Moore, who played the character as if his pulse never went above 100. With Moore, whether skiing, skydiving or submarining, you could practically imagine a martini in his hand in every action scene – shaken, not spilled. Dalton, by contrast, gets agitated. You can see it in his eyes and his clenched jaw. Yes, folks, this time it’s personal.

Meanwhile, in the opposite corner, Davi’s sadistic, ethnically “other” adversary belongs more to the pantheon of great ’80s villains than that of classic Bond baddies. Whereas so many of Bond’s previous climactic confrontations were gentleman-to-gentleman duels, “License to Kill” ends with our hero exacting a particularly cruel, somewhat uncharacteristic and ultimately poetic form of vengeance, burning Sanchez to death with the Leiters’ wedding present: a silver cigarette lighter. Which reminds me… Where did Bond’s smoking habit go? The answer: He hasn’t kicked it yet.

Revisiting 1989's 'License to Kill'

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