007 Mission Files: ‘Licence to Kill’
After the moderate success of The Living Daylights in 1987, the Bond producers quickly moved forward with their next adventure with star Timothy Dalton. However, with the Soviet Union being less and less of a threat (the Berlin Wall fell the same year Licence to Kill was released), they had to find a new villain.
Due to MGM’s financial issues and the Bond producers reportedly still paying interest on the ballooned Moonraker budget, Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and MGM agreed to keep the budget at a modest $36 million. The script originally called for Bond to spend a large portion of the movie in China facing off against a drug lord, but they had to find a new location to maintain such a small budget.
Eventually, it was decided to retool the script. Every newspaper at the time had at least one article about a Central American drug cartel. This gave the producers their new premise. They could shoot the film very cheaply in Mexico City, only a few hours from Los Angeles, and use the Central American locations for their new drug lord villain.
Licence to Kill is the first Bond film not based on a Fleming story or even using the name of one. However, both Timothy Dalton and Robert Davi (who plays drug lord Franz Sanchez) were intent on being true to Fleming’s tales of Bond. The eventual writers’ strike made this even more possible. Long-time Bond writer Richard Maibaum felt obligated to take part in the strike, since he was a part of the Writers’ Guild of America. It was up to producer and Maibaum collaborator Michael G. Wilson to finish the script. He pulled from Fleming’s Goldfinger, in which Bond recounts a story of breaking up a Central American drug ring, and Leiter’s story from Live and Let Die.
Banking on the ultra-violent action films of the 1980s, like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, Licence to Kill was released in 1989 with the hopes of reinvigorating the Bond franchise. However, like all Bond films, this ended up seeming more like a knee-jerk reaction to changes in cinema and a desire to emulate whatever was hot at the time. Due to a bloated summer of movies in 1989 that included Batman, Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Ghostbusters II (among many others…it was a really stacked year for movies) everyone was disappointed to see Licence to Kill only garner $156.2 million at the box office.
The movie opens on Felix Leiter’s wedding day. Bond is his best man, and they are on their way to the church when they are stopped by the Coast Guard. Felix has been working on a case against Franz Sanchez, but he rarely leaves his compound in Isthmus City and he is impossible to extradite since he owns the police. However, the Coast Guard informs them that the DEA has discovered that Sanchez is in the US to retrieve an escaped lover. They need Felix’s help to catch him. Bond and Felix jump at the chance to catch Sanchez and are able to take him into custody. Felix and Bond return to the wedding and Felix marries his blushing bride, Della.
Roll credits. That was great. I’m so happy everything worked out. It was pretty short for a Bond film, I have to say that. Wait. These are the opening credits. What’s happening now? Sanchez is being transported? That doesn’t seem like a good idea right now. You just caught him. Why is that DEA agent attacking one of Sanchez’s guards, he was just at Felix’s wedding! Oh no. I see where this is going…
Sanchez is able to escape from the police escort with the help of his crew and some paid-off federal agents. His first order of business is revenge on Felix Leiter. He sends people to Felix’s house, on his wedding night, kills his bride, and takes him to a warehouse where Sanchez is readying to return to Isthmus City. Sanchez lowers Felix into a shark tank where they eat one of his arms and legs. He then orders his men to return Felix to his home.
The next morning, Bond is at the airport getting ready to return to London when he hears that Sanchez has escaped. His first thought is of Felix and Della’s safety. He rushes to their home and finds Della dead and Felix dying with a note that reads “He disagreed with something that ate him.” Bond knows this was Sanchez’s work, and he also knows it won’t be long before Sanchez leaves town. He teams up with one of Leiter’s men named Sharkey and searches the area. They eventually find the warehouse where Sanchez had been and Bond disposes of the DEA agent that helped Sanchez escape.
The following day, Sharkey provides Bond with information on the ship named the Wavekrest that was near the warehouse. It’s owned by Milton Krest, a known drug dealer. Bond is then confronted by M, pointing out that Britain has no jurisdiction or interest in this case and Bond is too close to Felix to be of any help. He gives him a mission in Istanbul, but Bond refuses the assignment and resigns. M is forced to revoke his license to kill and take his Walther.
Bond is able to board the Wavekrest and find the connection to Sanchez’s operation, however he soon sees a group of men with the dead body of Sharkey. Bond’s emotions get the best of him. He kills one of the men and flees the area aboard a seaplane. Bond returns to Leiter’s house and retrieves the information that he had on Sanchez including a list of contacts, all but one of which are deceased. Bond meets the final contact Pam Bouvier in a bar that night, but Sanchez’s right hand man Dario shows up. A huge bar fight ensues (obvious Road House rip off), and Bond and Bouvier escape on a speedboat. They reluctantly decide to work together. Since Pam is a pilot she is able to fly Bond to Isthmus City.
In London, Moneypenny tells M that she is worried about James, and M assures her he has sent a man to Isthmus City to intercept him.
Now in Isthmus City, Bond has deposited a large sum of money into a bank owned by Sanchez, and he is drawing attention to himself at one of his casinos. Finally, Sanchez calls for a meeting with Bond, where Bond offers his services to Sanchez. He tells him that he has left MI-6 and is interested in becoming a hired gun (the best lies have some truth in them). Sanchez says he’ll think about it and sends Bond on his way.
When Bond and Pam return to their hotel room they find Q waiting for them. Moneypenny has been worried sick, and she convinced Q to take some gadgets to Isthmus City and assist him. Now that he has the necessary tools and has seen Sanchez’s hideout, he returns to the casino to assassinate him. Before he is able to, he is attacked by a group of ninjas that take him to their headquarters. It turns out they are agents from Hong Kong and they’re working with one of M’s men to capture Bond and return him to London. Just then, Sanchez and his men storm the fortress. Seeing Bond being held captive convinces Sanchez that Bond is an ally, and so he takes him on.
The next morning, Bond tells Sanchez that the Chinese agents were a freelance hit team trying to take him out. Bond now begins to play Sanchez against himself, casting doubt on the people around him. First is Krest. That night Bond is able to board the Wavekrest and hide the money that he stole from Sanchez in an easily found area. Sanchez quickly kills Krest for trying to steal from him.
Bond is able to return to Sanchez’s mansion before Sanchez. When Franz comes into Bond’s room and tells him that he was right not to trust Krest, Bond suggest that no one would be stupid enough to take on Sanchez alone. He must have been working with someone…
The next day they go to a facility that Sanchez uses as a drug front. He’s mixing cocaine into gasoline and shipping it into the US, where it is then removed. Dario finally identifies Bond as the man he saw in the bar with Bouvier. A fight breaks out and Bond is able to start a massive fire in the lab. Sanchez orders an evacuation and everyone heads to a taker truck filled with gas and cocaine. A huge chase ensues during which Bond destroys all of the tankers and Sanchez’s operation goes up in flames.
The movie is good for what it is, as long as you watch it with the perspective of an ultra-violent ‘80s action flick that was made with a small budget during a writers’ strike. I like it, and Timothy Dalton and Robert Davi are great in it, but it isn’t as well rounded as The Living Daylights.
I do like that one of Wilson’s inspirations for the plot was the Akira Kurosawa film Yojimbo, in which a ronin (a masterless samurai) rides into town and is able to defeat the warring clans that control the city by manipulating them into destroying themselves. This movie was later remade with Clint Eastwood for a western audience and titled A Fistful of Dollars.
There was a massive changing of the guards in the Bond universe after the release of this movie. Most notably, it was the final movie for producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, who had championed the series since Dr. No. Broccoli was battling illness during the shooting of Licence to Kill and was unable to be a part of the crew in Mexico City due to the thin, polluted air. He did do some minor consulting on GoldenEye before he died, but his daughter Barbara Broccoli, who was an associate producer on The Living Daylights, took over his legacy from here. The world of Bond would definitely be much different if it had been in anyone else’s hands.
This was also the last Bond film directed by John Glen. He had helmed all of the films since For Your Eyes Only. This was also the last effort from the writing team of Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson. Wilson has continued as a producer to this day, but Maibaum died in 1991 before a follow up film could get off the ground. Glen firmly believes that, while it isn’t his favorite of the Bond films he directed, he does feel it is his best and he is most proud of the way Licence to Kill turned out.
Actors Robert Brown (M), Caroline Bliss (Moneypenny), and of course Timothy Dalton (James Bond) also left the series after this movie for various reasons, mostly due to the delay in the next entry in the franchise. Maurice Binder (who had done all of the opening title sequences since Dr. No) was also unable to return for GoldenEye, as he died in 1991.
Any literature fans? The base where M meets with Bond in Key West was the home of Ernest Hemingway. It is now a cat-filled museum of the author’s work. M makes a silly pun about it being ‘a farewell to arms’ when Bond turns in his gun.
Any gun nuts? In the opening scene, Bond borrows a Beretta from the US Coast Guard. Berettas were Bond’s gun of choice in the books and film universe until M forces him to use a Walther PPK in Dr. No, which he is most known for carrying.
There were a number of mishaps while trying to film the tanker truck sequence on La Rumorosa Road. It was a dangerous stretch of road that was known for vehicular deaths, including a bus full of nuns on the particular corner they were using to film. It was actually closed by the government, which allowed the producers to shoot on it without human interference. However, the government didn’t guarantee there would be no supernatural interference. During the long shoot of the final action sequence the crew reported numerous odd occurrences. Human figures would appear around the trucks at night and vanish when the security guards approached them. Two trucks spontaneously caught on fire one evening with no explanation ever discovered. One night, an empty truck even started up and drove a short distance before coming to a stop.
However, the most eerie story is from the final explosion. Two tanker trucks full of gasoline were going to go up in flames. To get the proper coverage, Glen used multiple cameras from all over the area. Next to one of the cameras stood a photographer that was taking promotional stills. In the explosion, the photographer captured what appeared to be a flaming hand reaching out from the explosion and a shadowy figure on the ledge above looking over the scene. I’m sure it was just a trick of the photography, being in the right place at the right time, but he was standing right next to a rolling video camera. They checked all of the tapes and could not find the hand or the figure anywhere else. Only on the still photo.
Gladys Knight sings the title track titled “Licence to Kill.” It’s fine. If nothing else, it’s a nice big brassy return to the Shirley Bassey days with a little ’80s pop thrown in. This is the only Bond movie to have two chart-appearing songs, though. Patti LaBelle’s “If You Ask Me To” was written for the movie and plays during the closing credits. It appeared on the charts again in the late ’90s when it was covered by Celine Dion.
To further add to the feel of an ‘80s action movie, the producers brought in Michael Kaman to replace John Barry, who had done the music for Bond since Dr. No. Kaman was already known for his work on Road House, Die Hard, and Lethal Weapon.
Cars: The most memorable vehicles are the fleet of Kenworth W900B trucks for the closing action sequence. I wouldn’t have guessed Bond was such a good truck driver. There was also a pair of Cessna planes flown by Bouvier. A Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud II, and a Lincoln Continental Mark VII LSC also appear, but no real Bond car. Q didn’t have anything to do with these.
Allies: This is Robert Brown’s fourth consecutive appearance as M, fifth appearance overall (he played Admiral Hargreaves in The Spy Who Loved Me), and final appearance in the series. Brown did a great job during his tenure, but unfortunately Bernard Lee left big shoes to fill. He defined the role and played it longer than any other actor. To make matters worse, the role was subsequently played by Oscar winner Dame Judy Dench and Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes. Needless to say, he is often overlooked.
Also overlooked is Caroline Bliss as Miss Moneypenny. This is her second and also final appearance in a Bond film. Unfortunately, her character felt underdeveloped. She had decent chemistry with Dalton, but Lois Maxwell left a huge hole that no other actress has been able to fill.
Desmond Llewelyn returns for the fourteenth time to play Q. With this entry he ties Lois Maxwell for most Bond appearances. In my article for The Living Daylights I errantly said that Q’s days in the field were over. Do I have egg on my face? I forgot about his part in this film, and it’s actually the largest role he has in any Bond movie. He goes into the field with a suitcase full of goodies to help James and Pam at the behest of Moneypenny. He stays with them for a large portion of the movie, masquerading as Bond’s uncle.
Felix Leiter makes his second straight appearance, this time played by David Hedison, who played him in Live and Let Die. Hedison does a nice job, but he’s a bit broad. That being said, he does lose two limbs to a shark and his wife is murdered, all on his wedding day. He can be a little broad.
Sharkey is one of Felix’s associates. Bond uses him to get around Key West. He’s clearly at least a relative of Quarrel’s. They have the same build and job as a covert agent on a fishing boat.
Della Churchill Leiter was briefly Felix’s wife before she was murdered. The movies do not do a good job establishing Bond and Felix’s relationship. They pop up in each other’s lives from time to time, but now Bond is suddenly best man at his wedding? Bond and Della are acting like they’ve known each other since middle school. She honestly seems to like James better than Felix. Priscilla Barnes, best known as the third blonde roommate in Three’s Company, does a nice job, but the part isn’t as big as expected.
Bond Girls: This is tough. It could be argued that Pam Bouvier is an ally instead of a Bond Girl. She’s an ex-CIA pilot who has been working as an informer for Felix. She is able to help Bond quite a bit, but it seems to be out of affection as much as any sense of duty. Carey Lowell does a nice job with the character. At the time of casting she was more well known as a model, but she was able to carry the part. She later popped up in such films as Sleepless in Seattle and Leaving Las Vegas.
Talisa Soto appears as Lupe Lamora, Sanchez’s girlfriend. Girlfriend is a little misleading. He treats her more like property, and she tries many times to escape. She also falls for Bond, who in the end he chooses to be with Pam.
Gadgets: There were more gadgets in this movie than I remembered. Still, Bond doesn’t rely too heavily on them. There’s the Dentonite toothpaste that Bond plans to use to blow out a window and shoot Sanchez. There’s also a multifunctional camera. It shoots a laser from the flash and the Polaroid that prints off is an x-ray. Most importantly, with the right attachments, it becomes a sniper rifle with a signature grip–much like the gun in Skyfall.
Villains: Franz Sanchez is the drug lord everyone is after. Robert Davi, whom you may know from The Goonies and Die Hard, appears as a multilayered villain for Bond. Davi tried to pull inspiration for his character from a number of other Bond villains, such as Scaramanga and Le Chiffe. His dedication for creating a character true to Fleming’s style that could be a foe to Bond, and cut from the same mold, comes through in his performance.
Benicio Del Toro plays Sanchez’s right-hand man Dario. At 21, Del Toro was the youngest actor to ever play a Bond villain. You can definitely see streaks of Del Toro’s later eccentric roles, as he plays a creepy scene stealer in this one.
Milton Krest, played by Anthony Zerbe, is a drug runner for Sanchez. He gets played by James and killed by Sanchez. He’s kind of a sympathetic villain. He’s just trying to smuggle some drugs. Poor guy.
Wayne Newton appears in a bit role as a televangelist named Professor Joe Butcher, which is not too much of a stretch from Jim Bakker. He’s working for Sanchez and they use his show to announce drug prices to buyers around the world. The church turns a decent profit, too. Newton had been begging Broccoli to put him into a Bond movie for years, and they finally found the perfect role for him. He does a really nice job here.
Everett McGill plays Ed Killifer, the DEA agent that Sanchez pays off. I was just excited to see Big Ed Hurley from Twin Peaks show up, but of course he’s been in a number of other things as well.
Finally there’s Truman-Lodge, Sanchez’s financial advisor. He’s the only person trying to treat Sanchez’s operation like a business. Sanchez keeps dismissing his ideas for a worse plan where he can make an example out of someone or get his point across to them. You can easily recognize Truman-Lodge because he is holding a briefcase in every shot, as accountants are wont to do.
And that’s that. Unfortunately, due to the large number of departures and deaths, a legal battle over the rights to Bond ownership, MGM financial troubles, and a weak box office due to a busy summer at the theater, it would be six years before the world saw Bond again. This left many wondering if he would return at all. There are treatments for ‘Bond 17’ that you can find floating around the internet, sometimes called Property of a Lady. In the film, Bond was to team up with a retiring spy and a jewel smuggler to take down a Hong Kong-based terrorist who is trying to start World War III by targeting nuclear facilities. Release dates were announced for 1991, 1994, and 1995 before it was finally canceled after Dalton announced his retirement from the character in April 1994. Portions of the plot are split between GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies, while other large chunks appeared in True Lies. Fortunately, Pierce Brosnan was announced as the new James Bond in June of 1994, and GoldenEye was released in November of 1995.
I still think Dalton’s tenure as Bond is a bit overlooked. I prefer The Living Daylights over Licence to Kill because I feel like the story is better. It’s more of an adventure, while Licence to Kill is a generic ‘80s action flick. Though, I am a Licence to Kill apologist due to the small budget and writers’ strike. Ultimately, I don’t think the world was ready for a realistic, gritty Bond that could emote feelings like love for Kara Milovy and fear, sorrow, and anger for the Leiters. The world seems ready now, though. If you like Daniel Craig’s appearances as Bond, please check out these late ‘80s gems starring Timothy Dalton.