“LICENSE TO KILL” (1989) Review

”LICENSE TO KILL” (1989) Review

 Most James Bond fans tend to use ”LICENSE TO KILL” as an example of why Timothy Dalton’s tenure as the British agent had failed. Failed? Hmm. Granted, the Welsh-born actor had only starred in two Bond films, but chances are he would have starred in a third if EON Productions had not found itself mired in some lengthy legal battle that lasted throughout the early 1990s. Although ”LICENSE TO KILL” never made as much money at the U.S. box office as its predecessor, ”THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS”, it proved to be an interesting addition to the Bond franchise. 

Now, when I had said that ”LICENSE TO KILL” was interesting, I was not kidding. It turned out to be a rather unusual experience. The movie turned out to be a revenge story that started with the capture of a drug czar named Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), at the hands of Bond and Felix Leiter (David Hedison), now a DEA agent, on the latter’s wedding day. Unfortunately for Leiter and his new bride (Priscilla Barnes), a fellow DEA agent named Killifer (Everett McGill) helps Sanchez escape . . . an act that leads to Della Leiter’s death and Leiter’s mutilation. Determined the avenge the fates of the Leiters, Bond decides to ignore his new assignment, disobey MI-6 and seek revenge against Sanchez. With the help of former Army pilot/freelance CIA agent Pam Bouvier and Sanchez’s mistress Lupe Lamora, Bond manages to bring down Sanchez’s organization and the drug czar, himself.

Watching this movie made me realize that Timothy Dalton has become the most reserved Bond in the franchise’s history. I could not say that he was the only reserved Bond on film. Hollywood icon David Niven turned out to be the first actor to portray Bond as an introvert in 1967’s ”CASINO ROYALE”. But Dalton became the only introverted Bond for EON Productions. Personally, I have nothing against this. One, I do not believe that the character of James Bond can only be portrayed in one style. Two, I have always believed that any actor who portrays Bond, should do so in the style that suits him. Which is what Dalton had done . . . thankfully.

In fact, Dalton took his angst-filled take on James Bond a step further in this tale about personal vengeance. The emotions that Bond seemed reluctant to openly express are very obvious in Dalton’s intense green eyes (okay, fangirl moment). What can one say about Dalton’s performance? He was excellent, as usual. The man managed to completely capture Ian Fleming’s literary counterpart. Who could forget those moments when Bond stumbled across Della’s dead body spread across the bed? Or his discovery of Leiter’s body . . . and the belief that the latter was dead? Or his anger at M for ordering him to drop any concern regarding the Leiters? By the way the latter scene – filmed at Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home – provided another delicious interaction between Dalton and Robert Brown, proving once again that the two actors had created one of the most interesting Bond/M relationships in the franchise. But most of all, Dalton showed just how dangerous Bond could be in three particular scenes:

-Sending the traitorous Killifer to his death inside Milton Krest’s warehouse
-Threatening Lupe Lamora aboard Krest’s yacht
-Confronting Pam Bouvier about her meeting with one of Sanchez’s minions

Once again, Dalton was lucky enough to find himself with a worthy leading lady. In “LICENSE TO KILL”, she came in the form of former model-turned-actress, Carey Lowell (of “LAW AND ORDER” fame)who portrayed CIA contract pilot, Pam Bouvier. Carey portrayed Pam as a tough, no-nonsense and gutsy young woman that manages to save Bond’s ass on numerous occasions. I could say that Lowell was great. And she was. I did not even mind an overwrought dramatic scene between her and Dalton, which seemed to be reminscent of an emotional scene from “THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS”. But I must admit that one of the problems I had with Pam’s character was her tendency to be defensive about her “professionalism”. At one point, she seemed to have lost her sense of humor when Bond joked about her crashing Milton Krest’s yacht into a pier. Another problem I had turned out to be Pam’s schoolgirl infatuation of Bond. Quite frankly, it seemed out of sync with her personality. I had no problems with her falling for the British agent. But her passive attitude in dealing with it – aside from her jealous outburst over Bond’s one-night stand with Lupe Lamora – seemed unreal and slightly theatrical.

The other Bond girl in the movie was portrayed by Talisa Soto, another former model-turned actress. She portrayed Lupe Lamora, Franz Sanchez’s long-suffering mistress. Watching Lupe endure a beating by Sanchez in the beginning of the movie, one cannot help but wonder why she had even bothered to stay with a man she despised. And then I remembered . . . Lupe’s decision to leave Sanchez for another man had set the story in motion in the first place. Judging from her role as the villain’s mistress and second female lead, one would assume that Lupe eventually bites the dust. Miraculously, she managed to survive a brief affair with Bond and the vicious Sanchez with a new benefactor at her side by the final reel. Okay. Time to stop dwaddling. What did I really think about Talisa Soto’s performance? Well, back in 1988, it seemed obvious that she was not an experienced actress. In fact, “LICENSE TO KILL” marked her second screen appearance. There were moments when Soto managed to deliver her lines in a competent manner. Unfortunately, these moments could not overcome her wooden acting. However, Soto had the good fortune to possess the looks and screen presence to occasionally compensate her lack of talent.

Robert Davi, who had portrayed Latin American drug czar Franz Sanchez, was 34 years old at the time of the movie’s production – a good eight to ten years older than Dalton. Yet, the American-born actor managed to create such a charasmatic and menacing character that managed to hold very well against the older Dalton. In fact, Davi had infused his character with a charm and wit that made Sanchez one of the more subtle and effective villains in the Bond franchise. I still found it amazing to watch how Davi transformed Sanchez from an intimidating and menacing villain into a charming man . . . and back again. And he did this with no effort. I can think of two particular scenes that showcased Davi’s efforts in portraying the two sides (or should I say the “yin and yang”) of Sanchez’ personality:

-the drug lord’s charm and wit seemed to be in full force during his meeting with the Hong Kong triad leaders;
-on the other hand, Milton Krest’s death proved how brutal and ruthless Sanchez could be
.

The only problem I had with the character of Franz Sanchez is that he would seemed to be more at home in an episode of “MIAMI VICE” or the movie version, than he would be in a Bond film. But despite this setback, I must admit that he has become one of my favorite villains, along with the likes of Georgi Koskov, Ari Kristatos, Le Chiffre, Alex Trevaleyn, Emilio Largo and Kamal Khan.

“LICENSE TO KILL” is one movie that seemed to be endlessly filled with supporting character – in fact, more so than any other Bond movie I have ever come across. The following happens to be a list of Franz Sanchez’s minions, which is the biggest list of minor villains I have ever come across:

-Heller (Don Stroud)
-Dario (Bencio Del Toro)
-Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe)
-Professor Joe Butcher (Wayne Newton)
-Ed Killifer (Everett McGill)
-Truman Lodge (Anthony Starke)
-Perez (Alejandro Bracho)
-Braun (Guy De Saint Cyr)

Damn, that is a lot! Both Wayne Newton and Anthony Zerbe seemed wasted in this film. Anthony Starke simply got on my nerves with his yuppie persona. And I barely noticed Alejandro Bracho and Guy De Saint Cyr as Sanchez’s nearly silent henchmen. However, I was impressed by Don Stroud’s cool performance as the very competent Heller. Although Everett McGill has never been a personal favorite of mine, I must admit that I rather enjoyed his performance as the traitorous Ed Killifer. And future Oscar winner, Bencio Del Toro proved that even at the tender age of 21, he could knew how to make his presence known on the silver screen. Which he did with such panache in both the Barrelhead Club fight sequence and in Dario’s final confrontation with Bond and Pam.

Speaking of minor characters, there are . . . the good guys. I have already commented on how impressed I was by Robert Brown’s interaction with Dalton featuring Bond and M’s confrontation at Hemingway’s Key West home. I barely noticed Caroline Bliss as Moneypenny. It was nice to see Desmond Llewellyn as Q in a larger role. But to be honest, his character was as irrevelant to the story as Moneypenny’s. David Hedison returned to reprise the role of Felix Leiter. Unlike his smooth and easy-going performance in “LIVE AND LET DIE”, Hedison seemed over-the-top in this movie. Unusually loud. Perhaps he needed Roger Moore by his side, instead of the Shakespearian Dalton to keep his performance under control. Priscilla Barnes (“THREE’S COMPANY”)? Barely noticed her. I could say the same about Frank McRae (as the doomed Sharkey) and Grand L. Bush as DEA Agent Hawkins. I would like to add that Bush had originally co-starred with Robert Davi a year earlier in the action hit, “DIE HARD”. They portrayed Special Agents Johnson and Johnson. Pedro Armendariz Jr. (son of FRWL‘s Pedro Armendariz) portrayed Isthmus’ President Lopez. Hmmmm. I barely noticed him. However, one could not help but notice Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (“NASH BRIDGES” and “PEARL HARBOR”) as Hong Kong narcotics Agent Kwang. The man had an intensity that matched both Dalton and Davi. He made full use of his brief presence on the screen.

Despite the prevailing view, I do believe that “LICENSE TO KILL” is a first-class Bond movie that provided plenty of action, locations, humor, drama and excellent acting by Dalton and most of the leading cast members. I feel that it is also one of the grittiest Bond movies in the franchise. Was it the first Bond movie to feature gritty violence? Personally, I do not think so. I can think of at least three or four previous Bond movies that were just as violent, including 1981’s “FOR YOUR EYES ONLY”. In my opinion, director John Glen and screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson created a pretty damn good story with LTK. But it did have its faults.

However, the movie’s main fault – at least for me – seemed to be the story itself. I had no problem with the idea of Bond seeking revenge against the person responsible for the maiming of old buddy Felix Leiter and the murder of the latter’s bride. I had a problem with the fact that the person responsible happened to be a drug czar with no real connections to the intelligence community. I had a problem that Maibaum and Wilson decided to change Leiter from a CIA agent to a DEA agent in order to fit their story. “LICENSE TO KILL”‘s setting does not really seem to belong in the world of James Bond or any other spy thriller. This story would have been a lot more revelant if Franz Sanchez had been a terrorist or an enemy agent, or if “LICENSE TO KILL” had starred characters similar to Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs of “MIAMI VICE”. James Bond battling a drug lord? Were they kidding? It seemed quite obvious that Cubby Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson wanted to exploit the popularity of the NBC television series. Unfortunately, the LTK had been released in the U.S., two months after the “MIAMI VICE” TV series went off the air. Talk about bad timing.

Another problem I had with “LICENSE TO KILL” was the size of the cast. Yes, Bond movies are known to have a “cast of thousands” so to speak. Having a large cast of extras is one thing. Having a large cast of characters allegedly revelant to the story is another. Once again, the problem centered around the Sanchez character. Quite frankly, he had too many minions. I mean . . . eight? Geez! Personally, I could have rid the movie of at least half of them. and finally, I wanted to point out the major action sequence featured in the movie’s finale. It seemed quite apparent that the producers wanted to repeat the success of the lengthy action sequence featured in “THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS“. I do not think that it quite worked in LTK. Quite frankly, I found the action sequence leading up to Sanchez’s death to be over-the-top. It was simply too much. Even worse, it lacked the stylish direction of TLD‘s action sequence. As for the movie’s theme song, performed by Gladys Knight . . . all I can say is “meh”. I have heard better. Thankfully, I can say that I would never consider the song to be amongst the worst in the franchise.

But you know what? Despite the ridiculously large cast and a story that could have easily been a three-part episode of “MIAMI VICE”, I still like “LICENSE TO KILL”very much. I feel that it was an entertaining, yet interesting story with a first-rate acting from Dalton and most of the cast. And I feel that John Glen did a pretty good job, despite the overbearing action sequence in the finale.

Memorable Lines

Bond: This is no place for you, Q. Go home.
Q: Oh, don’t be an idiot, 007. I know exactly what you’re up to, and quite frankly, you’re going to need my help. Remember, if it hadn’t been for Q Branch, you’d have been dead long ago. [Opens case] Everything for a man on holiday. Explosive alarm clock – guaranteed never to wake up anyone who uses it. Dentonite toothpaste – to be used sparingly, the latest in plastic explosive…

President Lopez: There has been a mistake with my cheque. Look at it! It’s *half* the usual amount.
Sanchez: You were very quiet when I was arrested. Remember, you’re only president… for life.
[El Presidente take the cheque and leaves]

[Killifer is dangling on a rope over shark-infested water]
Killifer: There’s $2 million in that suitcase. I’ll split it with you.
Bond: [menacingly] You earned it. You keep it . . . Old Buddy!
[Throws the case at Killifer, knocking him into the water]
Sharkey: God, what a terrible waste. [Bond gives him a look] Of money.

Della: Oh, James, would you mind? Felix is still in the study and we’ve got to cut this cake.
Bond: I’ll do anything for a woman with a knife.

M: This private vendetta of yours could easily compromise Her Majesty’s
government. You have an assignment, and I expect you to carry it out
objectively and professionally.
Bond: Then you have my resignation, sir.
M: We’re not a country club, 007! [pause] Effective immediately,
your licence to kill is revoked, and I require you to hand over your
weapon. Now. I need hardly remind you that you’re still bound by
the Official Secrets Act.
Bond: I guess it’s, uh… a farewell to arms.

Bond: In my business you prepare for the unexpected.
Sanchez: And what business is that?
Bond: I help people with problems.
Sanchez: Problem solver.
Bond: More of a problem eliminator.

Sanchez: In this business, there’s a lot of cash. And a lot of people with their hands out.
Kwang: In a word… bribery.
Sanchez: Exactly. He took the words right out of my pocket.

[Sanchez has just blown up Milton Krest in a decompression chamber full of money, splattering blood all over it]
Perez: What about the money, patron?
Sanchez: Launder it.

Truman-Lodge: Brilliant! Well done, Franz! Another eighty-million dollar write-off!
Sanchez: Then I guess it’s time to start cutting overhead.
[Shoots him]

Leiter: See you in hell!
Sanchez: No, no. Today is the first day of the rest of your life!

Leiter: [to Bond] Hey, observer! You trying to get yourself killed?
Bond: If I don’t get you back in time for the wedding, I’m a dead man for sure!

“When it gets up to your ankles, you’re going to beg to tell me everything. When it gets up to your knees, you’ll kiss my ass to kill you.” – Sanchez

Bond: [Pam kisses Bond] Why don’t you wait until you’re asked?
Pam: Why don’t you ask me?
[kisses Bond again]

Leiter: Where’s my wife?
Dario: Don’t worry. We gave her a nice Honeymooooon.

Della Leiter: Did I say something wrong?
Felix Leiter: He was married once. But it was a long time ago.

“Out of Gas. I haven’t heard that one in a long time.” – Pam Bouvier

“Drug dealers of the world, unite!” – Sanchez

Q: Look, don’t judge him too harshly, my dear. Field operatives often
use…every means at their disposal to achieve their objectives.
Pam: Bullshit!

Pam: Well, what are you waiting for? Get in!
Bond: Yes, sir.

7/10


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