Is 1989’s Licence To Kill “too American”? We revisit Timothy Dalton’s superior second outing as 007 and ponder a very British franchise’s relationship to the USA.
This feature contains moderate spoilers for Licence To Kill.
“I owe it to Leiter. He’s put his life on the line for me many times.”
With American film producer Albert R. Broccoli behind the wheel, the James Bond franchise has always seemed driven by the psyche that it can beat Hollywood at its own game. But with inflation ballooning throughout the 1980s and the same budget it had a decade ago, Licence To Kill brought to North America primarily to save money.
After UK tax incentives for foreign film companies ended with the introduction of the Films Act in 1985, production in the UK looked less and less appealing to Eon Productions, and that’s why Licence To Kill is the first and (to date) only Bond film where 007 never sets foot in Blighty.
Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson’s script was accordingly designed around locations in the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, and Mexico City, but highlighted some interesting aspects of the series’ relationship with America to date, pivoting as it does on Bond’s relationship with his long-suffering CIA buddy Felix Leiter.
Starting as it means to go on, the film opens unusually, with Bond off to a social engagement rather than completing a mission, though even serving as best man to friends Felix (David Hedison) and Della (Priscilla Barnes) comes with a daring arrest of Colombian drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) before the wedding. However, Sanchez soon bribes his way out of custody and he and his men deliver swift retribution, maiming Leiter and killing his new bride.
Building upon the insubordination of Dalton’s take on Bond in The Living Daylights, this incident gives 007 a personal motivation in avenging his newlywed friends. Having resigned from one firm that demands absolute loyalty, (“We’re not a country club, 007”, splutters Robert Brown’s M when Bond resigns) he poses as an ally of another as he seeks revenge on Sanchez in lieu of real justice from either the British or American authorities.
Viewed more than three decades later, and especially with Daniel Craig’s era now in the Aston Martin’s rear-view mirror, Licence To Kill is a terrific film, comfortably the best of director John Glen’s five outings when it comes to spectacle, suspense, and satisfaction. We’ve told the story of the making of the film in a previous episode of the Film Stories podcast, which you can listen to here:
But what is still decried in some quarters as a muddling of genre and a step too far into violent Hollywood action for 007 now looks like a much-needed kick up the arse for the formula, explicitly taking place in a world where James Bond’s usual rules don’t apply. It works not only because it keeps the character intact, but also because its story allows Timothy Dalton to showcase a greater range of emotion than anyone who’d played the role before him.
But really, what’s so American about Bond defying the British authorities that have governed his adventures to date and taking up arms to press forward with his own destiny? Welcome to the USA, old buddy…
As in Ian Fleming’s books, Felix is James Bond’s most trusted American ally across all of his film appearances. He’s also a character who isn’t even played by the same actor more than once for the first 27 years of the series.
The unintended trend of recasting Leiter began when Dr No’s Jack Lord requested co-star billing and a higher salary to return in Goldfinger, prompting Eon to cast Cec Linder to replace him. He was later played by Rik Van Nutter in Thunderball, Norman Burton in Diamonds Are Forever, and David Hedison in Live And Let Die.
For all the discussion of how our hero is operating under a codename, it’s entirely possible on the visual evidence of the first 15 films, especially the Sean Connery ones, that Felix Leiter is just the name for whoever has to deal with whatever James Bond is doing in America. In-universe, there’s probably an office pool at Langley for who has to be Felix this time while everyone else is doing more important stuff than backing up a British agent.
Felix is briefly reintroduced in The Living Daylights, played by John “Hawk The Slayer” Terry as a very 1980s take on character who seems to have popped into the film between episodes of Miami Vice and go through the motions. His impression on the film is so glancing that in the very next film, the one where we need to buy Bond and Leiter’s friendship, the producers opted to invite Hedison, the last-but-one, back instead of rehiring Terry.
Incidentally, Felix’s brush with a pool of sharks here was inspired by an unused beat from Fleming’s novel Live And Let Die, including the unforgettably ghastly quip “He disagreed with something that ate him” – in retrospect, a fate for which Hedison seems destined.
Maibaum and Wilson were influenced by the subterfuge in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo when coming up with the story, but another Fleming lift came from the short story The Hildebrand Rarity, specifically the brash American character Milton Krest (here played by Anthony Zerbe) and his tendency to beat his partner with a stingray’s tail (which is given to Sanchez instead).
There’s also a call-back to the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in that loaded “He was married, once”, setting the tone for what follows, and a re-homing of Book Bond’s vendetta from You Only Live Twice.
Tonally though, Licence To Kill owes the most to Joel Silver-produced action pictures of the 1980s, like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. Perhaps realising that Bond is not a Schwarzenegger or a Stallone, the filmmakers look at the direction in which Dalton is headed anyway and align him more with the sort of fallible, vulnerable, pain-in-the-arse loose cannon that Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis were playing around the same time. Oh, and it’s a lot more violent too.
That’s still a major departure for 007, but not total deference to the prevailing genre norms and trends. Front and centre is the “this time, it’s personal” angle, which the Silver-inspired meta-parody Last Action Hero might later have described as – “They tried to kill his Felix… BIG mistake.”
But the key difference between this and earlier genre crossovers like Live And Let Die or Moonraker is that it’s not cramming that into the strictures of a regular James Bond adventure. It’s Bond as fish-out-of-water, swimming with sharks and just about holding his own rather than taking everything in his stride.
Following Die Hard the previous summer, Licence To Kill has its composer Michael Kamen and even casts both Agent Johnsons (no relation) – Grand L. Bush as DEA operative Hawkins and, more notably, Robert Davi as Sanchez, who was created as Maibaum and Wilson’s answer to drug trafficker Manuel Noriega. Davi has spoken about how he and Dalton worked on their characters together and discussed how their characters would mirror each other’s traits in their extended duel of wits, with Bond acting violently and even villainously and Sanchez putting a quippier, more debonair front on his mania.
The result is the first truly charismatic and threatening villain the series has had since Christopher Lee in The Man With The Golden Gun. If Sanchez rumbles Bond’s “Yo Jimbo” shenaniganizing, he’s not going to put him in a cell or pause to explain his scheme – he’s going to murder him. That brings the sort of unpredictability that’s missing from so many other Bond villains before and after.
Oh, and the scheme, building “an invisible empire spanning from Chile to Alaska”, is the big picture that Bond would usually be assigned to handle, but he’s so blinded by his personal stake that he keeps missing it and thwarting legitimate operations to bring Sanchez to justice in the process. Riggs and McClane do this kind of collateral damage before breakfast, but Bond normally gets luckier in ruining the right people’s days at the right time.
It’s a refreshing counter to the air of British exceptionalism about most of the Bond series in America. In keeping with Fleming’s worldview, previous sojourns to the States acknowledge their greater resources but mostly so they can put them at the disposal of the roving gentleman spy, who’s much more effective than all of them put together.
The series doesn’t even deign to cast the same actor as the same American character from one film to the next, and by the same token, Joe Don Baker plays both the rare American archvillain of The Living Daylights and the friendly Felix substitute in GoldenEye, for all that continuity matters.
As noted in previous features, Broccoli has put up resistance to casting an American star as Bond himself, and elsewhere in the series, American characters range in usefulness from Sheriff J.W. Pepper to Jinx Johnson but are rarely if ever allowed to surpass 007 in skill and know-how. Well, except the other major American character in this, that is.
Where most of the US authorities flounder in Bond’s wake, we also have ex-army pilot, DEA informant, and all-around badass Pam Bouvier, (Carey Lowell) who’s perhaps the most underrated leading lady the series has ever had. Keeping the American end up, Pam is a character who’s ahead of this runaway Bond at almost every point, saving his life on several occasions and generally not putting up with his usual bullshit.
The buddy-cop format is another key feature of Silver’s movies, and where plenty of the 1980s films give Bond a doomed ally, this one sees him go through a lot of partners (Leiter, Frank McRae’s Sharkey, and most delightfully, the lesser-spotted Field Agent Q, which is some of Desmond Llewelyn’s finest work) but also elevates the female lead role in the process.
There’s also an all-the-more beguiling and unusual situation with a love triangle between Bond, Pam, and Lupe Lamora, (Talisa Soto) who’s very much introduced as the typical villain’s girlfriend character. Associate producer Barbara Broccoli has insisted that the Gladys Knight title song – a poppy “Goldfinger” tribute with some bombastic ballad-y stylings – was conceived as Pam singing about competing for Bond’s affections, but that neither fits her character nor the film, which frankly positions it more as a love song to a friend.
Never mind the female vocals, always a preference of Broccoli Sr irrespective of the song – from the lyric, this has to be from Bond’s perspective just like later female-led themes, such as Billie Eilish’s foreboding lament, Adele’s ballad of resurrection, and Madonna’s sleep-paralysed warblings.
Happily, the resolution of that triangle feels like just one more well-earned reformation of Bond in the midst of a very satisfying ending. And Patti LaBelle’s “If You Asked Me To” covers the romantic side of things in the end credits anyway. Shame about the winking fish, mind.
Straight for your heart
Elsewhere in the film, the action sequences are so good that we’re still seeing homages or straight rip-offs of them within the last decade or so. The opening plane lift stunt is replicated in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Riffs on Sanchez’s watery escape from the armoured truck appear in both the third and sixth Mission: Impossibles. And years before Mad Max: Fury Road, Glen does truly flabbergasting things with 18-wheel lorries in the finale, all using practical stunt-work.
“Righteous revenge thriller” might be a bridge too far for traditionalist Bond fans, but this does a good job of keeping outgoing franchise trappings in the mix – Robert Brown and Caroline Bliss make their final appearances in the series here, Maurice Binder delivers his final title sequence before he sadly passed away in 1991, and Broccoli himself bowed out in the long gap between this film and the next. There are gadgets too, but they’re markedly a bit useless where the normal franchise rules don’t apply. And none of it feels staid when you have it alongside unique touches like Dalton’s nuanced performance, Lowell’s switched-on competence, Davi’s charming psychopathy, and the skin-crawling way that Baby Benicio del Toro’s terrifying henchman Dario delivers the phrase “nice honeymoon”. Shudder.
But perhaps it’s because this Bond film was so grounded in North America that its reputation was decided there. For starters, the late change in its title, from Licence Revoked to Licence To Kill was a concession to American test audiences who didn’t know what it meant. Mind you, it also would have been harder to get that title into a song.
Nevertheless, Glen noted in his 2001 autobiography For My Eyes Only that the film had the highest test screening scores of any Bond film, so the producers expected a big summer hit in the UK, the US, and worldwide. They didn’t foresee that summer 1989 well and truly belonged to the American blockbusters.
For a series so built on beating Hollywood at its own game, Licence To Kill’s series-low US box office take of just $34.6 million was an objective reminder that they were no longer the biggest franchise in town. Among other factors contributing to this, the film received a PG-13 over there and a 15 certificate here in the UK, and we’ve covered Eon’s battle with the BBFC to dodge an 18 certificate in a previous feature.
MGM/UA and Eon still washed its face with a $156m worldwide total and it’s no fault of the film’s that it fell short in a competitive summer season. You could put Thunderball or Moonraker, the series’ biggest box-office hitters, up against Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, Back To The Future Part II, and Batman(!) and come off worse, but an underpowered marketing campaign didn’t help Licence To Kill‘s fortunes either.
It’s not for nothing that this was the last James Bond film to receive a summer release date – even while swerving the bigger fish in the pond by going out in October or November, the series wouldn’t reach its former box-office heights again until 2012’s Skyfall, a film that contrasts very strongly with this “Americanised” entry by being more jubilantly British than any since The Spy Who Loved Me, but we’ll get to that.
Plans for further Dalton outings were stymied not by financial disappointment but by tedious legal action throughout the early 1990s. Once the series was back up and running, Eon maintained that they had their man, but that man was reluctant to sign up for the multi-picture deal they wanted him for, and he graciously stepped down as 007 in April 1994.
For those of us who consider his Bond to be the very best, the two films we got with him are both notable as experiments. From one extreme to the other, The Living Daylights and Licence To Kill both swerve convention in a series of thrillers built on formula and familiarity. They’d be thrillingly different even if they weren’t also a decent pair of Bond movies.
Still, Dalton’s first is often considered too Moore-era and his second all too modern. Given how strong Bond actors tend to be on their third go-around, (as in Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me, and a couple of others more we’ll cover soon) it’s a shame Dalton never had the vindication of a third outing for his superb portrayal of 007.
In any case, Licence To Kill has been duly reassessed over the years. In both the favourable and less favourable readings, it’s noted as an atypical Bond film, but anyone who revisits it can see it’s one of the flat-out best action movies of the entire series precisely because it takes place beyond the usual rules of Bond films. All told, it’s just that much more thrilling, much more surprising, and much more satisfying for it.
Licence To Kill is screening in select Cineworld, Odeon, and VUE cinemas nationwide from Friday 29th July. UK readers can also watch it on ITV1 on Saturday 30th July at 8:00 p.m.
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