WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: When Felix Leiter’s marriage is cut short by the ruthless revenge of despicable drug dealer Felix Sanchez, his best man – James Bond – takes it personally, and embarks on a single-minded mission to bring Sanchez down regardless of his superiors’ demands to desist. Bond becomes chummy with the drugs baron, when secretly he is plotting his demise with the help of beautiful CIA agent Pam Bouvier, ardent admirer Lupe Lamora and a very familiar looking chauffeur.
The bald facts are as follows: Bond number 16, Timothy Dalton’s second outing as secret agent 007, and the first film not to be based on (or named after) an Ian Fleming novel. Interestingly, the film opens not with Bond in the field but attending the wedding of his American Friend Felix Leiter (David Hedison), although when they get wind that vicious drugs dealer Felix Sanchez (Robert Davi) is out in the open, they cannot resist the temptation to snag him before sky-diving into the ceremony. Tragically, Sanchez’s malign influence secures his freedom (in a sequence that, not unlike the theme of the film, will resonate with viewers of Mission: Impossible III) and he wastes no time in killing the new Mrs Leiter and submitting Felix to a shark attack. M (Robert Brown) pops up to warn Bond that he cannot possibly keep his licence to kill while pursuing a personal vendetta, but the spy is in no mood to co-operate and flees, ruining a big drugs transaction conducted by Sanchez’s sleazy right-hand man Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe) and using information from Leiter’s study to contact CIA agent Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), a pilot with knowledge of the local drugs scene. The spies travel to Isthmus City where Q (Desmond Llewelyn) pops in to drop off some gadgets but stays to help; Bond’s plan to become a trusted friend of Sanchez by visiting his casino (they all have casinos, don’t they?) works better than he could imagine, and Felix’s cruelly-used mistress Lupe (Talisa Soto) is so taken with 007 that she instantly helps him escape when Sanchez unwittingly takes him home. But Bond’s thirst for revenge leads him back, setting up an explosive showdown when he destroys the cocaine factory which invisibly dissolves Sanchez’s drugs into petrol.
For the most part, Licence to Kill is business as usual: though there are rather fewer explosions than late-era Bond (a number of vehicles crash without bursting into flames), when they do happen the fuel tankers help to make them spectacular, and there are a number of truly impressive aerial and truck-based stunts. The gunplay is present and correct, bullets pinging around Bond as they always do (Benicio Del Toro has fun as a nasty henchman, a distinct step up from Big Top Pee Wee); the lovely ladies are lovely, Lowell given a nice mix of action and glamour and Soto a thankless role as someone who falls in love with Bond because, er, he breaks into her room and doesn’t whip her. It’s also nice to see Q out and about, and Llewelyn provides most of the film’s comic relief. Strange, though, that he appears to bring a good deal more gadgets than Bond actually uses, and I can’t help but wonder whether the x-ray laser camera in particular was originally destined for some use that disappeared in a later draft of the script.
And the script is one of the film’s major problems. It begins well, despite lazy moments such as the check-in girl who advances the plot by saying ‘some big drug dealer just escaped’; it becomes confused, however, when Sanchez rescues Bond from other secret service agents with their own mission against the drug dealer, also introducing a ragged subplot about Stinger missiles. There is – in theory – quite a nice idea about Sanchez controlling the flow of drugs through clueless TV evangelist/guru Professor Joe (Wayne Newton), but in execution the idea is perplexing because neither the Professor nor the meditation ranch which acts as cover for the drugs operation is properly explained; I had no clue whether Joe was idiotic comic relief or secretly in on the whole affair, and I sense further cutting at work.
Also cut, apparently, was any of the dry humour and impossible charm that makes 007 such a lovable bastard. Devotees will tell you that Dalton’s harder, less glib Bond is closer to Ian Fleming’s vision than anyone before or since, but I’m afraid that excuse doesn’t cut it on the cinema screen. The script is partially to blame but the fact is that Dalton’s Bond, a grim-faced man of few words, fails to command attention in a film where he is the star and those around him are hardly A-listers. It is almost as if Cubby Broccoli had to recast at short notice, or decided to let the stand-ins do some scenes: Zerbe and Davi run riot as the bad guys, and unfortunately Dalton can’t summon the charisma to match them. He’s not terrible, and acquits himself best in the action sequences; but he blends far too easily into the background, and when he doesn’t it’s because his accent has slipped – the way he delivers the line ‘Things were about to turn nasty’ is just bizarre.
Bond’s lack of wit, and Dalton’s lack of presence, is a shame since Licence to Kill has a number of things going for it: I like the smaller scale of the story (the whole world can’t be under threat all the time) and the fact the film doesn’t criss-cross the globe for the sake of it; I like Q sticking around to help 007 and I like Pam; I even like the film’s more brutal edge – killing’s not a video game, after all. Ultimately, though, a stodgy middle act and a missing leading man are enough to detract from any film, let alone a high-profile one such as a Bond movie, and it is little surprise that by the time legal wranglings ended and GoldenEye went into production, there were new writers and a more user-friendly Bond in the wings.