“It boggles my mind that Licence to Kill is so controversial. There’s really more of a true Ian Fleming story in that script than in most of the post-60s Bond movies.”
– Raymond Benson, former Bond continuation novelist

Licence to Kill is not a popular film. In 1989, this sixteenth entry in the vast cinematic canon of James Bond polarised fans and critics alike, and this has not changed in the slightest over the last 23 years.

The film starts out in an interesting way. Felix Leiter, Bond’s old CIA sparring partner, is getting married, and who is the Best Man but 007 himself? Timothy Dalton reprises the role of Bond for the second time here, and the first thing you ask is…what the Devil is going on with his hair?

En route to Felix Leiter’s wedding in Miami, Bond and the groom are pulled over by a Drug Enforcement Agency helicopter. They have a very small opportunity to catch and arrest Franz Sanchez, Latin America’s most powerful drug lord, and both Bond and Leiter know it is an opportunity neither will get again. Putting the wedding plans on hold, they board the helicopter and fly in pursuit of Sanchez. After an airfield shootout and Sanchez’s Cessna-borne escape, all appears to be lost – until Bond suggests they go fishing! One incredible mid-air stunt later, Sanchez is in the bag and Leiter is off the market.

The rest of the film focuses on 007’s personal quest for revenge, after Leiter is mauled by a shark and his wife tragically murdered at the behest of an escaped Sanchez. 007 becomes just Commander Bond after he refuses a mission and his licence to kill is revoked. Avoiding MI6 bullets as he escapes from his former chief, he picks up freelance/CIA pilot Pam Bouvier to act as his secretary in Republic de Isthmus, a fictional but Panama-like Latin American country with Sanchez in control of every utility and public official. From here on in, Bond blitzes a surreptitious and clever trail through every one of Sanchez’s middle men. After surviving a kidnapping by Hong Kong Narcotics and MI6 agents, Sanchez allows Bond into his inner circle, having gained his trust after calling out all the apparently dodgy characters in the drug line.

However, it is in the hills outside Isthmus City that Bond is finally found out. The Olympiatech Meditation Institute, run by the horrifically sleazy Professor Joe Butcher (a hideous cameo by Las Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton), is a front for Sanchez’s miracle cocaine smuggling solution – dissolve it in petrol and it is unnoticeable. Naturally, the institution gets into an explosive situation, and four petrol tankers make it out before Roman candles occur. These four tankers form one of the most iconic James Bond vehicle chases, and it is a truly phenomenal sequence to behold. Sanchez eventually gets his comeuppance by way of a ‘genuine Felix Lighter’ and a petrol soaked suit. Pam and Bond finish the film in a swimming pool; the film is completed by a winking ornamental fish – which, with the cringe-worthy eighties credits music, is probably the lowest point in a film of highs.

The controversy that surrounds this film stems from one aspect alone – the seriousness, and all that entails.  Timothy Dalton, my favourite Bond, faced a lot of criticism here for being wooden, whereas what you actually see is a very intense and serious performance from a classically trained and experienced actor. James Bond has just very nearly lost his best friend, and actually lost the friend’s wife, whom he no doubt loved equally. This isn’t a Roger Moore Bond outing, where he could smugly shrug off the whole affair and raise his eyebrow to beat Franz Sanchez. James Bond is finally a human. He’s been cut off from his organisation – even though he does receive some under-the-table help from Q – and acting by his own accord.

We see in Licence To Kill the effect of vigilantes on normal police and intelligence work. The world doesn’t stop turning because James Bond has a bone to pick – as Pam puts it, “There’s more to this than your personal vendetta!” The Hong Kong Narcotics Bureau AND MI6 have run-ins with Bond throughout the film in their own attempts to get Sanchez, but Bond fouls up their plans. For us, we’re glad, because it’s Bond we’re cheering for; but the actual, legal organisations want him out of the way.

This is an action film of the second half of the 1980s, so it’s incredibly violent, especially by James Bond standards. Somebody explodes bloodily in a vacuum pressure chamber, Sanchez catches fire and then causes a truck to gratuitously explode – this is the Lethal Weapon of James Bond films, and Bond doesn’t even have diplomatic immunity. Dalton’s gritty performance of a man close to losing it with revenge complements this darker territory perfectly. He ruthlessly and violently murders a lot of people in this film – the only justification being, I suppose, that it wasn’t in cold blood.

Towards the end of the film, after Bond’s climactic battle with Sanchez in and on top of one of the fuel tankers, the tanker loses control and rolls down the side of a hill. As you can see in the video below, Bond doesn’t get up and straighten his tie, as the older Sean Connery, or Roger Moore, may have. This is a Bond who’s had it – but it’s not over yet.

That minute and a half encapsulates everything about Timothy Dalton’s performance that you need to know: this is pure Fleming Bond.. Bond as a man, not a superhero; a cold man doing a tough job. In the final few seconds, he’s a man who’s wondering if it’s time to give it all up. When the film was released, The Sunday Times suggested that “any vestiges of the gentleman spy…by Ian Fleming” were gone. But I would argue that whilst James Bond is a generally courteous and cultured individual of fine taste, he is probably not a true gentleman. In both the short story and film of The Living Daylights (Dalton’s first Bond film), Bond suggests dissatisfaction with his position, “Stuff my orders…Tell M what you want. If he fires me, I’ll thank him for it.” There’s a reason these “hard bastard” performances in the Bond films are referred to as being closer to the books – it’s because 007 in print was a hard bastard, happy to kill if asked too, and happy to discard women like yesterday’s paper.

Really, Licence to Kill was a film before its time. The Pierce Brosnan films, which followed it, were more violent, but they were also sillier; a return to the gadget-crazy, outlandishness of the later Moore ventures. It would not be until Daniel Craig’s tenure began with Casino Royale in 2006 that lovers of Bond novels really got what they wanted – a hard edged but enjoyable thriller where the bad guys were bad and the good guys were good. Licence to Kill is a film in the same mould – but there was just not enough of a break before audiences could lose their expectation of a Roger Moore Bond film.

Licence To Kill features a decent cast. Sanchez is played by Robert Davi, who is one of the few actors who can make bad skin look charming. He plays Sanchez with a flair and panache that beats the cardboard-cut out cartoons of The Living Daylights. You know this man is dangerous, despite his urbane appearance. Bond’s female accomplice, Pam, is played by Carey Lowell, and she whines her way through this performance in much the same way as her predecessors. It’s a shame that, despite the fact that the writers strove to write strong women into the Bond series, they met with varying degrees of success because of casting mistakes. Felix Leiter is played by David Hedison, in the one and only reprisal of the role by the same actor until Jeffrey Wright in the reboot (Hedison had previously appeared in Live and Let Die in 1973). The producers thought this would enhance the impact of Leiter’s fate as we’d seen the actor before; I don’t know about that, but Hedison is so pleasant and likeable in the role that you can believe this guy would be someone else’s best friend.

It wouldn’t be a Bond film without Q or Moneypenny, and both of these characters play a more pivotal than usual part in the plot. Moneypenny, played for the second time by Caroline Bliss, co-ordinates Q’s stint as a field agent. Though he is officially on leave, Q – Desmond Llewellyn, still going strong in his fourteenth appearance – travels to Isthmus to provide Bond with the requisite gadgetry, and this is probably his most enjoyable turn in the role, possibly because we see so much of him.

The technical aspects of the film are decent. This was John Glen’s fifth and final credit as director for the series, and he knew what he was doing. The action is taut, the performances are as good as they can be – I still think Dalton is at his best here. Really the only issue I would have with the technical side is the dubbing of a tinny version of the James Bond theme over the truck chase that is supposedly caused by ricochets – not necessary, thank you John! Also, as the film was largely produced in Mexico – friendly financial situations for artists are great drawcards when you’re a producer – there are a lot of boring shots of sandy streets and naked mountainsides. The location filming in Florida, however, is spot on, and showcases why it would be a nice place to go on holiday.

Finally, the music. The title theme, by Gladys Knight, is not too bad, though very slow in tempo and not as gritty as it should be, given the subject matter of the film. Veteran composer John Barry – the man responsible for the James Bond sound and 12 of the scores in the series – was unavailable, and so Michael Kamen was selected to provide the score. The orchestral elements of this particular soundtrack are brassy and fast paced to support the action, which is marvellous. Indeed, I used to ride to work using the 10-minute suite from the album named “Licence Revoked”. Good times. Unfortunately, though, there is a fair bit of South-American style guitar in the film. When used minimally to highlight the presence of Sanchez, or for a bit of James Bond action in South America, it’s fine. But “Pam’s Theme” is just so overwhelmingly cheesy it defies description. When I say that Michael Kamen wrote the music (along with Eric Clapton) for the Lethal Weapon series, you might know what I mean. Also, don’t buy the album. There’s a lot of filler music on it and hardly any score music, which was disappointing.

Licence To Kill is not a bad film, by any means. It has a fairly believable story, balanced by plenty of action. Dalton’s performance as Bond, as I’ve already said so often, is second to none. Really, the problem has to be that people were just not ready for a Bond film with this intensity. Just like audiences had to pass through campy Batman in the 1990s before Christopher Nolan took over, so too did Bond novel purists have to wait through outrageousness. If only Dalton had more of a chance, he could have made the character his own.