AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 127 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
On their way to Felix Leiter’s wedding in Key West, James Bond and Leiter capture drugs lord Franz Sanchez for the DEA. However, Sanchez escapes to nearly kill Leiter by feeding him to a shark and murder his wife. After killing one of Sanchez’s assistants who aided him in his crime, Bond is ordered by ‘M’ to carry out an assignment in Instanbul but resigns, so ‘M’ suspends him and revokes his licence to kill. Bond becomes a rogue agent and sets out to destroy Sanchez’s operation, possibly aided by ex-CIA agent Pam Bouvier….
Despite getting a very mixed response back in 1988, the reputation of Licence To Kill, which was called Licence Revoked until it was thought that most Americans didn’t know what revoked meant, seems to have increased in recent years. I can’t say that I’ve warmed to what remains my second least favourite Bond film [the least favourite is to come!] much since I first saw it and for quite a bit of the time wondered if I was actually watching a Bond film at all. Yes, it’s good that Eon vary their formula sometimes and try to do new things, but turning a Bond movie into a low-rent American actioner certainly wasn’t the way to go – though I will say that some of the action is terrific. Sadly though, it’s one of the few impressive aspects of a film which is poorly paced, is virtually devoid of wit and charm, is unnessarily vicious [yes, violence is part of a Bond film and yes, Casino Royale later on also upped the violence, but a Bond film should always stop short at actually showing – for example – a guys’s leg getting minced to bits in a shredder], and features as its hero a vengeance-seeking sociapath who’s his own judge, jury and executioner and who may as well have been played by Charles Bronson or Steven Seagal. This totally removes the fascination of a character who kills and beds mercilessly with little to no emotion yet has his actions condoned by the government.
Screenwriter Michael G. Wilson wrote two plot outlines about a drug lord in the Golden Triangle, replete with a chase along China’s Great Wall and a fight scene amongst the Terracotta army, but then The Last Emperor came out and ruined the mystique of filming in China so the second story was relocated. It included the Leiter shark mauling from the novel of Live And Let Die and a few aspects from Ian Fleming’s short story The Hildebrand Rarity. Due to a Writers’ Guild of America strike, co-screenwriter Richard Maibaum was unable to continue working on the screenplay so Wilson finished it on his own. Shooting took place largely in Mexico, including even studio work due to rising production costs when the Films Act was passed in the UK resulting in foreign artists being taxed more heavily. The country doubled for the fictional Republic of Isthmus – notably Mexico City, Acapulco and Tecate – and they also filmed in the Florida Keys. During filming the opening sequence, a malfunction of David Hedison’s harness equipment caused him to fall on the pavement and make him limp for the remainder of filming, while several mishaps ocurred during shooting the truck chase, including a rocket hitting a telephone worker, and Timothy Dalton almost driving a truck over a cliff edge to avoid another vehicle. While the MPAA only required 6 seconds of cuts to get a ‘PG-13′ rating, the BBFC ordered 36 seconds removed to get a ’15’ rating, including Sanchez beating Lupe, Krest’s head exploding, Dario’s leg being diced in the mincer and Sanchez’s burning. The Special Edition DVD restored most of these cuts, but the full version wasn’t seen in the UK, the USA or indeed many places until the 2006 Ultimate Edition DVD. The film did fairly well world wide, but was a major disappointment in the US.
We open with Sanchez finding his promiscuous mistress Lupe in bed with someoine else, and any Bond film which begins with a woman being beaten while her lover’s screams can be heard as his heart is torn out immediately gets off on the wrong foot. Then there’s an unmemorable pre-title sequence where Bond hooks Sanchez’s plane to a helicopter, thereby capturing him, before we get to Gladys Knight’s irritating song with its asinine lyrics and pinching of the Goldfinger song’s opening, and Maurice Binder’s last and rather poor titles, with obvious product placement for an Olympus camera and girls being shot in the back. Now we get to Leiter’s wedding and I’ve always thought that his wife seeemed inappropriately keen on Bond, though the writers do get in a nice reference to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service before Leiter wreaks his revenge and Bond himself turns avenger. “Don’t shoot, too many people” says ‘M’ as 007 flees. Are we suppose to believe that this is the only reason for not gunning Bond down? But then again this is a film which actually has Bond punch ‘Q’ down to the ground, and therefore doesn’t really exist in a Bond world except for when it deigns to lower itself to the level we expect. Still, there’s plenty of action for around two fifths of the film as 007 starts to wreck Sanchez’s empire, including a perhaps out of place but fun bar brawl, and a real classic Bondian few minutes where our man escapes underwater frogmen by firing into a boat plane skimming the surface – which yanks him out of the water enabling him to use the harpoon to water ski to the wing of the plane as it takes off – whereupon Bond climbs in and kicks the occupants out!
However, things soon go downhill once Bond has met Pam and we relocate to Isthmus, despite a pleasant section where ‘Q’ helps Bond out in the field. The film really runs out of gas and just seems to dawdle. Bond finds his way into Sanchez’s employment by posing as an assassin for hire, then two Hong Kong Narcotics Bureau officers, oddly dressed as ninjas just so we can have a brief bit of martial arts, foil Bond’s attempt to assassinate Sanchez and take him to an abandoned warehouse. They are joined by Fallon, an MI6 agent who was sent by M to apprehend Bond, but Sanchez’s men rescue him and kill the officers, believing them to be the assassins. Bond makes it look like Krest, one of Sanchez’s men, was robbing him, so Sanchez makes his head explode [yes, we see most of it] in a decompression chamber. Sanchez’s set-up is neat. His base is disguised as the headquarters of a religious cult, with televangelist Professor Joe Butcher serving as middleman, working under Sanchez’s business manager Truman-Lodge. In a nice commentary on the greed of the 80’s, he’s obsessed with corporate value, delighting in keeping his boss informed about how much he is worth, but has a complete meltdown when the business literally starts collapsing. And finally we get to that great truck chase, and you almost want to forgive all when you have one truck driving on just the left wheels, the front of another driving on just the front wheels, and a flaming truck hurling off a cliff and missing Pam’s plane by inches! And those explosions!
However, one cannot forgive all the sour notes elsewhere, some of them small like Leiter gazing lustfully at a nurse after his wife has just been murdered and possibly raped, but all of them combining to make a film which leaves a bad taste in the mouth every time I watch it [and again, I’m entirely aware that it has many fans]. The locations lack variety, but then again the whole thing has a cheap look to it except for the scenes set in Sanchez’s lair and director John Glen just doesn’t seem to be trying very hard even though he considered this to be his best Bond movie. While the overall plot is reasonably cohesive, the dialogue is mostly just functional [“looks like he came to a dead end” is such a lame Bond quip and why have it in this supposedly serious Bond film anyway?], and the romantic aspect very lame. The two main ladies are seemingly total opposites, though the supposedly tough, independent, no-nonsense Pam [whom 007 has sex with in a boat within a few minutes of meeting her] gets in a strop when Bond beds Lupe. And Lupe, who appropriately ends up with the President, is a cheating, gold-digging airhead who’s hard to sympathise with. Does anyone really think that she loves Bond “soooo much”? Then again, Taliso Soto’s acting is so poor that it’s hard to believe anything her character says.
Dalton compells in some scenes but seems ill-at-ease in others. Overall his two-film stint stint as Bond shouldn’t be ignored, and did include one rather good Bond picture, but one does have to admit that he just lacked the star presence to totally pull off the role. On the other hand, Robert Davi, his character surprising similar to the Francisco Scaramanga of the book [but certainly not the film] of The Man With The Golden Gun, impresses throughout, giving a rather layered performance – just notice, for example, the slight suggestions in his looks and mannerisms that he’s attracted to Bond. John Barry was set to score, but had to have a throat operation. Michael Kamen’s effort is a huge disappointment from a usually good composer. For much of the time he simply resorts to using the James Bond theme in various guises because he seems unable with this score to write any proper main themes of his own – honestly, you don’t go for more than ten minutes without hearing at least a portion of it. Kamen makes some odd choices, like using a Latin acoustic guitar motif not just for some of the locations but also the very American Pam, though his typical action scoring style does increase excitement in a few places. Another shoddy R & B ballad, If You Asked Me Too sung by Patti LaBelle, is heard over the end credits. While it certainly has its moments, Licence To Kill overall remains a largely failed experiment by Eon to appeal more to the American market which thankfully didn’t take to it, otherwise we’d have probably had more Bond films further pushing things in this direction and seeming to be ashamed of actually being Bond films.