Reel Talk

License to Kill and Going Rogue

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Well folks, the brief reign of Timothy Dalton is already at an end. Which is a real shame. I’m really fond of these Dalton films, and it’s unfortunate that a variety of circumstances led to this being his final film. License to Kill certainly has some problems, and I prefer the Living Daylights a great deal, but it’s still a really fun Bond. Albeit very emblematic of the time it was created. Action movies were certainly changing around the time that this film was made, and this movie kind of got caught in the cross-fire. At the time this film certainly didn’t feel like a James Bond movie, instead coming across as a weird hybrid of Miami Vice, Die Hard, and basically everything else that was popular at the time. However, when you actually check this film out, and give it a fair shot, you’ll find that it’s a pretty great Bond film, and a serious harbinger of the franchise to come. License to Kill holds a strange place in the Bond franchise, but it’s an important place.

The Living Daylights was a serious departure from the previous Roger Moore era, but it’s clear that the producers decided it wasn’t enough of a departure. People at the time were demanding their action movies to be darker, grittier, and more serious. The idea of a globetrotting super-spy stopping evil villains with space-lasers wasn’t real or true enough. They needed to go ever darker with this film. But it’s clear they weren’t quite sure how to go about that. They originally wanted this to be a more traditional Bond movie, primarily set in China and featuring set pieces on the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army, but that script fell apart and the instead decided to go back to the old tropical well, sending Bond and crew down to the Caribbean to stop some drug lords. Which they assumed was going to be right up the alley of 80s film-goers. And they probably weren’t wrong. This movie really feels like everything you’d expect from a late 80s action flick. It just maybe wasn’t what the Bond franchise was meant to emulate. But regardless of any aesthetic choices the film made, License to Kill remains a fascinating film, and a serious end to an era. There would be six years in between this film and the next one. And not because of any sort of financial failures. Following the release us the film the Bond franchise was thrown into legal turmoil between MGM and EON, keeping them from continuing the franchise. And when it came back, it was a very different world. This film is a serious milestone in the franchise, because it wasn’t just Timothy Dalton’s final film. No, this movie marked the end of screenwriter Richard Maibaum, director John Glen, title sequence creator Maurice Binder, and producer Cubby Broccoli.  The Bond franchise would never be the same after this film. So let’s see what they came up with.

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License to Kill opens up with James Bond attending the wedding of Felix Leiter as Felix’s best man, along with a man who should be Quarrel, but is instead a new character names Sharkey. The trio are heading to the wedding when they’re suddenly pulled over by some police friends of Felix with dire news. A massively powerful drug lord named Franz Sanchez that Felix has been hunting for years in currently in Florida, and now that he’s on US soil they can arrest him. So Felix and Bond decide to make an executive decision and chase after Sanchez, deciding it’s more important than the wedding. Bond, Felix, and some DEA agents get in a helicopter and chase after Sanchez, who is attempting to flee back to his homebase in a fiction country of Isthmus. But Bond is able to help them capture Sanchez’s plane, letting Felix get the collar. They then parachute down to the wedding, and get on with the party! After the ceremony everyone heads back to Felix and his wife Della’s house, celebrating both the nuptials and the capture of Sanchez.  The happy couple fawn over Bond, and give him a personalized lighter as a gift, before getting ready for their wedding night. However, things hit a snag when we see one of the DEA agents, a man named Killifer, betray Felix and free Sanchez from custody. Sanchez then meets up with his lieutenant Dario, and heads to Felix’s house. They capture Felix, kill Della, and drag Felix to a warehouse owned by own of Sanchez’s men, Milton Krest. And once inside they lower Felix into a shark tank, causing him to get partially devoured. Felix survives though, and Bond ends up finding his mutilated body and Della’s corpse, vowing t get revenge on Sanchez. Bond finds his way to Krest’s warehouse, and ends up finding Killifer waiting for his payout from Sanchez. Bond kills Killifer and destroys a massive cocaine shipment that Sanchez was hiding in Krest’s warehouse.

However, after getting that stage of the plan complete Bond runs into a bit of a snag. He’s picked up by some CIA agents, who bring him to a waiting M. M is not happy that Bond is interfering in this Sanchez business, and demands that Bond give up on this revenge and begin his latest assignment. So Bond decides to temporarily leave MI6. That’s right, Bond’s going rogue. So, with no help from MI6, Bond’s going to need an ally. And after searching through Felix’s files he finds a woman named Pam Bouvier, who had been helping Felix in his Sanchez investigation. Bond meets with Bouvier, and the two agree to help each other bring down Sanchez, especially after they help each other escape an attack from Sanchez’s goons, led by Dario. Once that’s taken care of the duo head south to the Republic of Isthmus, the nation that Sanchez basically runs. And, since Sanchez never actually saw Bond, their plan is to have Bond infiltrate Sanchez’s organization as a gun for hire. Bond and Pam begin flaunting money at Sanchez’s casino, drawing his attention, and getting Bond a personal meeting with Sanchez. Bond does impress him, but Sanchez is too secretive a person to just let Bond join the organization. So, with this plan hitting a speedbump, Bond decides a different tactic. Which is helped when Bond and Pam get a surprisingly new all. Q! Yep, Moneypenny was worried about Bond being on his own, and sent Q down to Isthmus to help Bond out. And, complete with Q’s gadgets, Bond plans an assassination attempt on Sanchez while he’s meeting with some Hong Kong investors. However, the assassination is botched when Bond is suddenly attacked by some ninjas, who knock him out and drag them back to their base. Turns out that one of the Hong Kong investors is actually undercover, and is about to legally destroy Sanchez, until Bond ruined everything. However, as the Chinese authorities are yelling at Bond they’re suddenly attacked by some of Sanchez’s men. The Hong Kong agents are killed, and Sanchez seems to find proof that Bond is a dangerous man that’s trying to be attacked by his enemies. And, assuming that the enemy of his enemy is his friend, Sanchez brings Bond back to his mansion.

And,with that simple act, Bond is no inside Sanchez’s operation. And, seeing an opportunity to pull Sanchez’s organisation down around him, Bond starts laying the seeds of doubt. He tells Sanchez that one of this men is planning on betraying him. And there’s only one person it could be. Milton Krest. So Bond and Pam take a huge stash of money and sneak aboard Krest’s ship, hiding it in Krest’s decompression chamber. So when Sanchez comes to investigate the ship, he finds the money as has no choice but to assume Krest is double crossing him. Sanchez kills Krest, and decides that Bond may be the perfect person to join his organization. And, now that Bond has been welcomed into the inner sanctum, Sanchez decides to let Bond in on his real operation. Turns out Sanchez has a fake religion in Isthmus which is just a front for his drug operation. And the religion’s holy site has been converted into a cocaine refinery where his men smuggle it inside gasoline tankers. We also learn that Sanchez has gotten a collection of Stinger missiles, and is planning on shooting down random commercial airlines to blackmail the US government to stop tracking him. However, things hit a pretty big snag when Dario shows up to help out. And, since Dario has seen Bond’s face and knows he’s working against Sanchez, things have to get difficult. Bond triggers an explosion in the refinery, which begins destroying the whole operation. Sanchez then realizes that Bond isn’t on the level, and prepares to toss him into a massive grinder. Bond is able to survive the experience though, and kills Dario in the process. He and Pam then chase after Sanchez who is leading several tankers full of the gasoline/cocaine mixture out of the refinery before it explodes. The pair follow Sanchez, and slowly begin destroying each other tankers, ruining Sanchez’s whole plan. And, in the end, Bond and Sanchez end up battered and soaked in gasoline, laying under the crash of a tanker. Sanchez is completely baffled by what’s been happening, having no idea why Bond destroyed him. So Bond flashed that lighter Felix gave him, and lights Sanchez of fire, killing him. So, Sanchez is dead, Felix and Della have been avenged, and Isthmus is free from Sanchez’s control.

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License to Kill is a very odd movie. There’s no grand conspiracy, no evil villain with a plan to blackmail the world. Instead there’s just James Bond’s quest to bring down a Pablo Escobar-esque drug lord who hurt this best friend. We haven’t seen James Bond on this personal a mission since killing Blofeld after he murdered Tracy. And yet, I really like this film. Timothy Dalton’s Bond is probably best described as a barely contained bottle of rage. And in this film that rage can no longer be held back. This is a Bond going all out, and using the skills he’s mastered to kill terrorists and supervillains and focus it on a drug lord. But it’s not just Dalton who carried the film. Robert Davi is genuinely great as Sanchez, despite the fact that he’s the most gullible drug lord of all time. Sanchez is a cruel and twisted man, and seeing Bond destroy him by making him more and more paranoid was pretty great. Pam Bouvier really becomes one of my favorite Bond Girls of them all, and Carey Lowell really helps turn her into a competent and fun character. But one of the real stars of the film, in my opinion, is Q. This film is certainly an anomaly as far as Q is concerned, because he’s in a majority of the film. Q gets to come with Bond on a mission, and he really gets his chance to shine. Desmond Llewellyn has always been enjoyable as Q, but he’s usually given two or three minutes to shine. Here he gets to pal around with Bond through the whole film, being snarky and silly the whole time. And it’s a blast. Even though Q may be in a bit of trouble for helping Bond go against M’s direct orders.

Although, this is something that they’re going to have to get used to. Because, folks, James Bond is going to be going rogue a lot in the coming films. I’ve been thinking about it, and I think it all leads back to the crime films of the New Hollywood era. Movies like Dirty Harry all but told the audience that following the rules can’t accomplish something. You need to turn your badge in, go rogue, and just indiscriminately murder people. That’s how you get things done. And by the time that License to Kill came out that genre trope was basically just common sense. Of course the cops are going to go rogue, how else are they going to get anything done? So when EON was looking for ways to make James Bond more relateable and popular to modern audiences, it makes sense that one of the things they would recognize was the fact that James Bond is a serious company man. The entire point of James Bond is that he gets missions, and follows orders from the government. Yeah, sometimes he’ll do something that will frustrate M, but he’s always doing what they tell him to. Which wasn’t going to fly in the late 80s. No, James Bond needed to do things his way, break the rules, and get things accomplished. Which he does. James Bond flat out refuses to follow M’s orders, and personally sets out to destroy Franz Sanchez’s life. Yeah, Q helps him, and throughout the movie we cut back to M and see that he really doesn’t care what Bond is doing, so this is some of the weakest rebellion possible, but he’s still rebelling. This is the Bond franchise testing their limits. They’re seeing if people would accept James Bond disobeying orders and getting things done his way. Honestly, based on the financial returns for this movie I’m not quite sure that EON should have learned the lesson that people like Bond rebelling, but they certainly did.  Seriously, just you wait, James Bond is going to start going rogue in basically every other Bond movie. We’re in the home stretch now, just tackling the eight most recent Bond films, and I think you’ll be shocked to see how many of them Bond disobeys orders and goes out on his own. But that’s getting a head of ourselves. So join me tomorrow to see a very different Bond. We have a new Bond, a new director, new producers, and a whole new world. Because when we next see Bond we’ll see him in a post-Cold War world. Let’s see how he survives that.

License to Kill was written by Michael G Wilson and Richard Maibaum, directed by John Glen, and released by MGM/UA Communications Company, 1989.

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