When CIA agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison) is brutally tortured and his wife murdered, his British counterpart James Bond (Timothy Dalton) sets out on a mission of revenge. Cut off from British intelligence and on the run, he single-handedly works to bring down and assassinate the central American crime boss Frank Sanchez (Robert Davi).
When an entertainment franchise runs as long as EON Productions’ James Bond films has, there tends to be a pendulum effect that falls into place. The style will shift from one direction to another, but will inevitably swing back again so that everything old becomes new again. In the case of James Bond there is a gradual but constant shift back and forth from the harder-edged and more realistic takes on the character to the more fanciful and elaborate versions. Different viewers will appreciate different styles of course, so the individual who adores the over-the-top shenanigans of Moonraker and Die Another Day may not particularly enjoy the likes of From Russia With Love or For Your Eyes Only. Personally I have always preferred the more grounded take on James Bond. I think he works best with an edge to him: he may be a suave, romantic hero but he’s also a professional killer, and some of EON’s more ridiculous efforts tend to forget that.
Licence to Kill, released in 1989 and directed by Bond stalwart John Glen, presents the cinematic Bond at his hardest and most cynical. Played by Timothy Dalton he is given a gravitas and a drive that the character has never expressed either before or since. The film’s narrative has a very different premise than previous Bond films: there is no mission from MI-6 here, just a secret agent going rogue and murderously setting out for revenge. There is no diabolical madman with a plan to destroy the world, and no top secret volcano lair. Instead Bond is fighting a central American drug kingpin safely ensconced in a deeply corrupt banana republic.
It is a film purpose-built for Dalton’s grimmer, less romantic take on the character – one widely acknowledged as about the closest the films have ever shifted towards to the crueler and less attractive literary Bond – and does a fantastic job with it. He was an excellent Bond in his first attempt, The Living Daylights, but that was written with a Roger Moore-style Bond in mind and he does much better working on his own turf.
Robert Davi is an excellent villain as well. Sanchez is a charismatic man, but also an absolute monster. He kills and tortures his enemies without hesitation. He violently abuses his girlfriend Lupe (a somewhat limited Talisa Soto). When he needs to get Felix Leiter off his back, he does not simply kill him: he has him half-fed to a shark while sending his henchman Dario (Benicio Del Toro) over to rape and murder Leiter’s wife. Del Toro is impressively iconic in a comparatively small part, and has a particularly vile delivery of the word “honeymoon” that viewers are unlikely to forget.
This is James Bond at his bleakest and most violent. There is not simply death by shark, rape and murder. One character gets minced. Another gets very explosively decompressed. When the time comes for Bond to defeat the villain there is no witty quip or retort: an exhausted Bond simply murders the guy. With its combination of grit, excellent action – there’s a climactic truck chase that still impresses decades after the fact – and strong performances, Licence to Kill remains one of the very best Bonds. It has a muscular cruelty to it from which future Bond adventures could learn a great deal.