If Timothy Dalton, the surly, sexless Bond, is going to work, he needs to be surrounded by more than he gets in Licence to Kill (1989). The strength of The Living Daylights (1987) was its intricate plot that had so many moving pieces that while Bond was the driving force, he was effectively able to disappear. In Licence to Kill, which has a simple and straightforward story, Bond is front and center, and we realize we don’t like him very much. I don’t know if it’s his ruthless and joyless professional acumen or his equally dispirited and patronizing romantic acumen but something about Dalton keeps me from being fully engaged. James Bond exists as a fantasy, the hard-nosed playboy who saves the world by defeating the most dangerous enemies then emerges without a scratch ready to seduce the most beautiful women.
There’s a reason the best Bonds don’t take themselves too seriously—because that would expose the unsettling truth about James Bond, that he’s a selfish and egotistical misogynist and everyone who comes in contact with him dies. When played by a man who seems to take everything seriously, gravely seriously, and has all the charm of a bitter driving instructor, those unsettling truths become hard to ignore. I think of Timothy Dalton as a man with anger issues trying to open a sticky jar of olives. “Goddammit,” he roars in fury. “Why won’t this stupid jar of olives open?! I want those olives!” It’s hard to root for that person, especially when that same demeanor is applied to love scenes. “Goddammit! Why won’t his stupid broad go to bed with me so I can get back to getting that jar of olives open?!” In Licence to Kill, Bond is up against a sadistic madman who has unspeakable deaths awaiting all who cross him, and it’s difficult to decide who the bigger prick is. A henchman sees Bond on a surveillance television and says, “Looks like a real jerk-off.” That’s a very perceptive henchman.
As Licence to Kill opens, Bond is en route to the Florida wedding of his good CIA buddy Felix Leiter (David Hedison). In the pre-credits sequence, Bond and Leiter get sidetracked from the nuptials to put away Sanchez (Robert Davi), the most fearsome drug kingpin in the world, who owns, through bribery and fear, all of South America and is getting bolder up north as well. The crime-fighting pair, having daringly apprehended Sanchez in an aerial skirmish, parachute to the chapel in their wedding tuxedos. Unfortunately, the good times don’t last very long, and Sanchez buys himself out of custody that very day and has Leiter’s new wife killed and Leiter fed to sharks, which lands Leiter in an ICU. Bond, who has had innumerable lovers and even a wife killed without so much as a bat of the eye, becomes obsessed with finding and killing Sanchez, even forgoing his duties to Her Majesty’s government. His license to kill is revoked, and he is booted from the force as he goes rogue to South America to find Sanchez.
This dramatic twist is not actually as dramatic as it’s cracked up to be. Bond’s going under the radar is hardly a nuisance for him; he still meets up with Q (Desmond Llewelyn), who gives him plenty of gadgets, like an exploding case of cigarettes (the credits include a Surgeon General’s warning about smoking [I’m not kidding; it’s there]), and despite his card being pulled, Bond still manages to kill an awful lot of people. In fact, the movie wouldn’t be different in any way were he going after Sanchez on the Queen’s time or not, but it gives the movie an opportunity to have Bond tell his boss M (Robert Brown) to shove it and run off to open that olive jar on his own (this scene takes place at the Hemingway House in Key West, crawling with cats, which apparently MI6 uses as headquarters, which amused me).
It’s not really all Dalton’s fault the movie doesn’t work, beyond his control is the tone, which is all over the place. It’s never easy in its Death Wish-style revenge story and its lighter romance fare (Bond is joined in his quest by an ex-CIA pilot who, gasp, happens to be a beautiful woman [Carey Lowell] while he is simultaneously [and pointlessly] wooing Sanchez’s mol [Talisa Soto]). The first moments of a movie are paramount for establishing what type of film we are in for, and this is confusingly bungled by director John Glen, who gives us a harrowing torture scene right next to an awkward broad comedy moment as a woman is mercilessly whipped, then we cut to the back of a limo where Leiter’s waiting bride (remember Bond and the groom have delayed the wedding to catch the bad guys) is chastised by her father who “never thought this was a good idea.” That throwaway joke, which didn’t land when it happened becomes extra brutal when, no more than 20 minutes later, the bride is dead simply because she married a CIA agent. Should’ve listened to Dad.
Dalton is an engaged actor who moves and speaks with purpose; he’s just terribly miscast as the hero. He might have done well in Sanchez’s part, and there are far too many similarities between the two for me not to wonder if that wasn’t the point. Sanchez, played with fierce intensity by Davi, is shark-like, cold and sickly creative. When he sends the chewed up body of a shark victim to Bond in a body bag with a note that reads, “He disagreed with something that ate him,” Bond gives a look of determined grief with a subtext of “That’s a good line. I should have thought of that.” The dichotomy of Bond and his nemesis being opposite sides of the same coin has always been present, but the difference is that the Bond in question usually has a certain charm, a laid-back coolness that separates him from his desperate counterpart. They are both bullies, who will throw ethics away to get what they want, but Bond looks better doing it. Timothy Dalton has a number of things going for him, but laid-back cool isn’t one of them.
What this robs the movie of is a rooting interest. This is intensified by the gratuitous and grisly acts of violence (perpetrated by both our hero and our villain), but ultimately we are left with a hero we don’t care about, working for a goal we don’t care if he achieves or not. When you have an unlikable hero, perhaps you can get behind him if he were doing a worthwhile job, but in Licence to Kill, we know that Bond’s been kicked off the force, and while we certainly think the world would be better if Sanchez wasn’t in it, we don’t have the instant motivation of Queen and Country to rally us. This undermines many of the film’s strengths, including the exhilarating climax, which is an extended truck chase through the canyons and desert, that is superb and may be the crowning sequence of the entire series in terms of technical prowess. But in the end it’s lifeless because it becomes just two assholes we’re not interested in fighting each other on trucks. Trucks work as a fairly good metaphor for the entire Dalton era: a truck driver can change the direction of a route but he can’t change the truck itself. In tone and direction, Licence to Kill almost fails to be a Bond movie, but it has to pay enough lip service to the series to keep it from fully being what it wants to be.