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Licence to Kill (1989)

Monday 8th April 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s been a long time since I last watched Licence to Kill, that most ’80s-ish of the ’80s Bond movies. In my memory it’s always been one of my least favourite entries in the entire series. I’m pleased to say that upon today’s rewatch, I enjoyed it a lot more, and can now honestly say I like it – even if I still don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as Dalton’s preceding film The Living Daylights.

The plane-hooking opening sequence is fun (just look at that shot of Felix Leiter and his DEA allies’ slow-mo charge forward – see, told you it was oh-so-’80s!), but the movie doesn’t really start to get good until Bond discovers the very brutal thing that happened to Felix Leiter and his new wife. The idea of Bond going rogue on a personal mission outside of MI6 is a good one, but not enough is really made of it. Unlike something like the later Mission: Impossible, it doesn’t feel like Bond’s former allies could be just as much of an obstacle as the bad guys: a while after Bond’s “with one bound he was free” escape in the scene with M, one agent turns up angry at him, then immediately dies, and that’s pretty much it. Bond’s licence to kill is revoked, but this has absolutely no effect on his ability to proceed to kill just as many people as ever. He even still gets to have Q helping him – in one of that character’s biggest roles, in fact!

Having said that, it’s not quite true to say that this might as well be an officially sanctioned mission: I really like the neat plotting of the way Bond’s solo quest for vengeance screws up two other groups’ attacks on Sanchez. The way 007 effectively fuels Sanchez’s concerns about betrayal within his organisation is also good, and the length of time Sanchez remains oblivious to the fact that Bond is his enemy makes for an extremely unusual Bond movie. Overall, perhaps because so much of the movie is kept relatively grounded and low-key, the plotting generally (with a few exceptions) progresses more logically than it does in most Bond films. (Everyone: for some excellent commentary on story structure points like this, go and read Andrew Ellard’s Tweetnotes on the movie. It is indeed the “knifiest Bond ever”!)

The sequence with Bond sneaking around Krest’s operation is a good one; the “maggot coffin” is a fun baddie takedown, and the scene has a satisfying conclusion thanks to how Bond kills Felix’s betrayer. (The way Sanchez dies at the end of the movie – hey, it’s a Bond film, it’s not a spoiler to say that! – is also one of the most satisfying in the entire series.)

The film contains two very good action sequences, the harpoon-plane-waterskiing (featuring gunfire to that da-dada-da-da Bond theme rhythm!) and the concluding tanker chase. They easily make up for the crap bar brawl (noteworthy only for the swordfish bit) and ninja attack. (Ninjas… who are Hong Kong narcotics agents? Mixing up your nations of the Orient a little bit there, aren’t you, writers?) The section inside Sanchez’ smuggling base ranks somewhere in between: the conveyer belt fight against Benicio del Toro is nice and tense, but the setting seems even more Made Of Explodium than the hotel in Quantum of Solace.

As it’s a revenge story, it’s understandable that Timothy Dalton’s performance would be more downbeat than it was in The Living Daylights. But, combined with a general lack of memorable dialogue for him, it does mean that I find him much less fun to watch in this movie than in his first one, which may be a big part of the reason why I like it a lot less. The two Bond girls are also far from the greatest of characters or performances.

(A ridiculously minor nit-picky point, which doesn’t really belong in a review but I want to moan about it anyway: one of the baddies kills Bond’s DEA ally and says, “Guess what? His name was Sharkey!” The emphasis in that sentence has always felt like it’s on the wrong word, as if he’s simply confirming that his name was what he already thought it would be, rather than drawing attention to the irony of his cause of death. For similar reasons, I get disproportionately annoyed with a likewise mis-delivered line in The Matrix: “The image translators work for the Construct program…”)

[003 out of 005]

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