License to Kill (1989) is the least Bondian of all the Bond films. It’s less a Bond film than a revenge action film with Timothy Dalton in the lead.
The story: We open at the wedding of Felix Leiter (David Hedison), with Bond as best man. They break off long enough to bring down drug lord Sanchez (Robert Davi) who’s entered American territory to recapture his straying girlfriend, Lupe (Talisa Soto). Sanchez pays $2 million to a DEA official to bust him loose, then comes back, kills Mrs. Leiter (it’s implied psycho henchman Benicio del Toro rapes her first) and feeds Felix’ left leg to a shark.
The DEA informs Bond that the law makes it impossible to act against Sanchez; M tells Bond that it’s outside British jurisdiction. Bond’s response is to go rogue and resign (he’s offered his resignation before, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but here his fellow agents are ready to drag him back to Britain until he punches them out). It’s the Dirty Harry/Lethal Weapon 2 school of thought: the law just gets in the way of a man doing what a man’s got to do. All that stuff in the Moore films (such as Octopussy) about how he’s not just a killer because he’s doing his duty to England? Forget about it.
Free of any limits, Bond throws the treacherous DEA guy to the sharks (and it’s an execution, not in any way self-defense), contacts Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), an ex military pilot working for Leiter, and heads to “Isthmus City” where Sanchez controls the military dictatorship as the heart of his “invisible empire.” With help from Q (who shows up to help out), Bond brings the revenge and Sanchez buys it.
As a Bond film … well, it’s not. You could substitute any vengeful rogue cop or ex-spec ops tough guy and get pretty much the same film. It’s true Bond has taken on drug-dealers before, but despite his talk of an invisible empire, Sanchez is just a mundane drug-dealer. Kananga in Live and Let Die had the style or presence or whatever it is that separates a Bond villain from a narcotrafficante.
As an action film? It’s adequate. Not great. And the point where Bond, driving a drug-laded truck, has it do wheelies is just ridiculous (I could see Moore’s Bond trying that [though I doubt I’d like it then, either] but it doesn’t work at all with Dalton’s grittier, tougher take).
Other points of note:
•It’s the first Bond film not to use a Fleming title.
•In contrast to most of the Moore films (at least starting with The Spy Who Loved Me), we’re back to Bond and the murderous Sanchez as the two poles of the film, with Lupe switching allegiance between them. That said, Pam is a kick-ass female lead, quite capable of holding her own in a fight. Unfortunately, Lowell is a weak actress (much weaker than I remember) and Soto is almost at Tanya Roberts levels of inadequacy. By contrast Davi is a very good actor and del Toro’s smirking killer is the best henchman in a while.
Lord knows what would have happened if a dispute between Eon Productions and MGM hadn’t frozen the series for six years. License to Kill didn’t do as well at the box office as Living Daylights, but that was because of stiff competition—would Eon have tried to Lethal Weapon the Bond films again? Or decided it was an experiment not worth repeating?
When Pierce Brosnan finally took over with Goldeneye, we’d be back to the classic Bond. In a good way.