The on-screen character of James Bond was going through some significant changes in the late 1980s. Roger Moore had retired from the role in 1985 after A View To a Kill, a so-so film in which Moore was clearly showing his age. Timothy Dalton took over the part for The Living Daylights (1987), and his portrayal brought a darker tone back to the character, more akin to the version of Bond featured in Ian Fleming’s original novels, several of which Dalton had read to help him prepare for his portrayal of Bond. The Living Daylights was a success with fans and critics, and Dalton returned to the role in Licence To Kill (1989), a film in which Bond goes on a very personal quest for vengeance. The adversary that 007 faces in this entry in the series (courtesy of writers Richard Maibaum and Michael Wilson) is a more volatile and unpredictable enemy than he’s ever battled in the past; a man who, like Bond himself, has no reservations about killing whenever it becomes necessary. He's the type of villain who was being featured in other films being released around the same time, like Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop II.
The film opens with Bond in Florida, where he's going to serve as best man at the wedding of his friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter. The DEA intercept Felix and Bond on their way to the ceremony. They have a line on the location of Franz Sanchez, a powerful drug lord who Felix and the DEA have been tracking. Bond ends up assisting Leiter and the DEA agents; they manage to capture Sanchez, and the friends head off to Felix’s wedding. But their victory, and Felix’s wedded bliss, turns out to be short-lived. The drug lord bribes an agent to facilitate his escape while he’s being transported to prison. Once Sanchez is freed, he and his men go after Felix and his wife Della. Felix is seriously injured after being thrown in a shark tank (in a tip of the hat to a scene featured in Fleming’s novel Live and Let Die) and Della is killed. Bond discovers the injured Felix as well as Della’s body, and plans to avenge his friends.
Bond starts looking into Sanchez’s drug smuggling operation, which leads him to Ed Killifer, the agent who betrayed Felix. When Bond kills the traitor, M (Bond’s superior in the Secret Service) shows up and forbids 007 from taking further action against Sanchez, and orders him to stop interfering with the DEA’s investigation. Bond, angry at being denied his opportunity for vengeance, resigns and goes rogue, pursuing his own personal brand of justice. Sanchez prizes the loyalty of his associates above everything else. He even says at one point during the film, “Loyalty is more important than money.” Bond exploits Sanchez’s obsession with loyalty, using his status as a rogue agent to infiltrate the organization, and sowing the seeds of doubt with Sanchez regarding some members of his crew. It's sort of a 007 variation on Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars.
|Timothy Dalton (center) and Robert Davi (right)|
Sanchez sees himself as something like a king, deserving of deep loyalty and respect. He rewards those who serve him well, and deals severely with those he believes have betrayed him, like Milton Krest (played by Anthony Zerbe of The Omega Man), whose marine research company is a front for Sanchez’s drug smuggling. Bond frames Krest as a thief, and Sanchez kills him in memorable fashion, using a decompression chamber aboard his boat. Bond is welcomed into the drug lord’s inner circle by the grateful Sanchez. The drug lord has taken a liking to our hero, seeing a bit of his own violent nature reflected in 007. Meanwhile, Pam Bouvier, an ex-CIA agent who has her own reasons for wanting to stop Sanchez, and Bond's secret service colleague (and gadgets master) Q work behind the scenes to assist 007 with his mission. Will Bond be able to defeat Sanchez before his true agenda is revealed? Watch out for that fiery climax!
Licence to Kill is a tough, action-filled Bond adventure, very much in line with Timothy Dalton’s harder-edged version of Bond. Dalton often gets short shrift for his tenure as Bond, but he sowed the seeds for Daniel Craig’s interpretation of 007. Maybe the general audience at the time wasn’t ready for this type of Bond, after years of Roger Moore’s (mostly) lighter take on the character. Dalton’s more deadly and introspective hero is matched by Robert Davi’s excellent performance as Sanchez. Davi uses his voice, and the way he moves, to effectively convey the intensity and brutality of the evil drug lord. Davi is a familiar face thanks to his many roles on both side of the law in films such as The Goonies, Die Hard, Predator 2 and the TV series Profiler. He’s also an accomplished (and classically trained) singer who has recorded a Sinatra tribute album, Davi Sings Sinatra. The actor is a long-time fan of Ol’ Blue Eyes. He made his acting debut in the television movie Contract on Cherry Street, which starred Sinatra.
Bond veteran John Glen was behind the camera for Licence To Kill; he started out as an editor on the series and graduated to the director’s chair with For Your Eyes Only. The supporting cast includes David Hedison (of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea fame) as Felix Leiter. Hedison had previously played the role opposite Roger Moore in Live & Let Die. He was the only actor to portray the character more than once until Jeffrey Wright in the Daniel Craig films. The wonderful Desmond Llewelyn makes the most of his expanded screen time as Q, and Carey Lowell (later known for her role on the television series Law & Order) does a nice job as a Bond girl who’s more than window dressing; she even takes part in a fight scene where she more than holds her own alongside 007. Talisa Soto plays Lupe, Sanchez’s girlfriend, who (of course) takes a shine to Bond. Wayne Newton has a small role as an evangelist who works for Sanchez, and future Oscar winner Benicio del Toro gets to chew the scenery as Dario, the drug lord’s chief lieutenant.
Licence To Kill works so well because Bond is given an adversary who’s something of a mirror to him; a violent, brutal man who operates under his own code of honor. Davi was a perfect choice for the role, and he has great chemistry with Dalton. Sadly, the movie would be the Dalton's final turn as 007; legal wrangling between MGM/United Artists and EON Productions, the producers of the Bond films, kept 007 off the screen until 1995. By that time, Dalton (who had originally been contracted for three films) either left the role, or wasn't asked to return; accounts on this vary, depending on what source you believe. If you’re a fan of the Fleming novels, or are partial to Sean Connery or Daniel Craig’s take on 007, you’ll enjoy Licence To Kill. The film is available on Blu-ray, DVD and on various streaming platforms. Here’s a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=quHQAuO0lkg. This post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by my fellow bloggers at Shadows & Satin, Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. I’m grateful to them for having allowed me to join this tribute to on-screen villainy. You can get more info and view the entries by following this link: https://silverscreenings.org/2019/05/25/the-great-villain-blogathon-2019-day-2-recap/.