Light Bondage: “Licence to Kill”

Bond, James Bond. For fifty years that has been the cinematic calling card of one of films most enduring heroes. Sure, Bond was born in books, but it was through film that he became a household name and one of the movies’ most enduring legends. He is a character so archetypal that he is bigger than the half dozen men who have played him across nearly two dozen films, and that kind of longevity is both unheard of and a little bit magical.

Light Bondage is my attempt to rewatch the series and try to recapture some of what made these movies worthwhile. I might not always succeed (I’m looking at you, Roger Moore!) but in this biweekly series of articles we’re going to take a ride through the time capsule of the last half century with the world’s most famous spy/action star.

Licence to Kill (1989)

Timothy Dalton’s Bond introduced a whole new take on the secret agent: colder, more ‘real’, certainly more violent and more prone to anger. The next movie would be written to take advantage of that portrayal, and thus Licence to Kill is maybe the weirdest, least Bondian Bond movie of the whole lot. Not that that’s necessarily bad, but it certainly feels very out of place in the grand scheme of Bond, at least until Daniel Craig came along with his broody, trouble post-Bourne Bond.

The movie opens with Bond and long time CIA partner in crime Felix Leiter on their way to Felix’ wedding. They get pulled over by the DEA and hop in a helecopter, on their way to stop central American drug kingpin Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi, being menacingly fake Latino). They end up hijacking his escaping airplane and parachute into Felix’ wedding, only to have Sanchez escape in the course of the night and kidnap Felix from his honeymoon bungalow, killing his new bride and savagely injuring Felix by dangling him in a shark tank.

Now at this point you’d expect Bond to revenge his friend by taking this Sanchez guy out. You’d hope, but not expect, that there is some reference to Bond’s own tragic marriage so long ago in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but really these movies have barely paid lip service to that since it happened. You’d be surprised to find out it does both, and fairly well, giving us a Bond that is so overcome with the desire to go out and hunt down this man that he ends up getting his 00 status revoked and flees MI6 in a hail of gunfire. Bond is on his own, with a man who owns an army and practically runs a country as his adversary.

This is definitely a more action heavy movie.

Licence to Kill manages to strip away all of the Cold War politics and grand cackling villains and plans to destroy the world and instead just focuses on Bond and his quest for vengeance. It’s not entirely dissimilar to how Quantum of Solace plays out, though certainly that one had it’s own problems. Instead, this Bond as a violent killer, unafraid of ending his situations in a bloodbath but in far, far over his head with the kind of drug cartels that still exist and are even more savage than he is.

What comes of this is a movie that’s much more violent than what’s come before. In fact, it even descends into ‘gritty’, that poorly defined term that people use when want stuff to be cool but mostly just means ‘everything goes to shit a lot.’ And boy, does it ever. Bond manages to spend most of the movie just barely ahead of the bad guys, who know that someone is around messing things up but aren’t certain who. This movie returns Bond fully to the role of situation-destabilizer, unable to do much more than henpeck at the infrastructure by force so instead insinuating himself into Sanchez’ confidence in order to play factions against one another.

No, like REALLY action heavy.

If you say to yourself “Oh, like Yojimbo, right?” then I’m glad you’re paying attention. Sadly, it’s not that good, instead playing like your average B drug cop movie. But hey, that’s all right, too, and to be honest it’s a nice change of pace from the type of movie we’ve been getting for well over a dozen entries at this point. Besides, outside of the whole ‘plot’ nonsense, we’ve got the action. And oh boy, is there some great action. This movie is built on practical action, with shit blowing up really good and various cars and trucks hurtling into each other. As Stuntman Mike would say “real cars crashing into real cars and real dumb people driving ’em.”

Add to that some ridiculous stunt casting, with a sallow, teenage Benecio Del Toro getting pushed through an industrial grinder and Wayne Newton of all people playing a new age guru used by Sanchez as a front for his drug trade, and you’ve got a movie that’s weirdly schizophrenic about what it aspires to be but also a movie that’s genuinely entertaining. It’s not deep, and it’s weirdly nihilistic and violent in a way that seemed like it would have been more at home in the 70s than the 80s, but Dalton puts on a good show, a unique stamp on the Bond name.

Benicio Del Toro being a villain. Some things never change.

The Theme Song/Opening Title:
Gladys Knight sings the title track to this one, which manages to be fine but hardly spectacular. I don’t know, I feel like most of these have been relentlessly mediocre. Oh well, too late to stop now, and the opening titles are about to get a lot more interesting with the advent of CG to make them super crazy. This one gets a special mention because it seemingly has the most obviously naked ladies of all of them, and also some weird gymnastics dance routines? I don’t know, they don’t really seem to be indicative of anything.

Most Ridiculous Gadget:
Q shows up late into the film to run unofficial support for Bond and manages to offer a whole array of ridiculous gadgets, including a gun that is imprinted with Bond’s palm print for no other reason than apparently that looks cool and a Polaroid camera that shoots a laser from the flash and takes X-Ray pictures, there’s even some plastic explosive Q puts in a tube of Dentonite toothpaste.

The winner here, though, is the disguise Bond uses to sneak aboard Sanchez’ sub. Knowing that they’ll find him, he has a ridiculous cowl/cape thing that flutters around him like a manta ray, so that even on visual inspection he can come up from below the sub and be ignored as just another animal. It’s simple, effective, and Bond looks kind of stupid wearing it. The perfect combination!

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:
Carey Lowell plays Pam Bouvier, an Army pilot turned CIA informant that Bond picks up as the one person who Felix was working with before his attack. She’s tough, assertive, and definitely barely willing to put up with Bond’s antics. She’s also one of the few Bond women who seemingly doesn’t require coercion on Bond’s part, displaying (gasp!) some actual female sexuality as she slowly tries to put the moves on a Bond who is more interested in the mission than her.

She ends up spending the movie as Bond’s sidekick in his adventures, playing his executive assistant and being both capable of getting the job done and offering someone to engage in actual repartee with Bond. It’s a nice change of pace, and as the movie progresses she just remains awesome, being a vital part of Bond’s success at the end, going off and doing her own part against Sanchez and never once playing damsel in distress. It isn’t a particularly showy part, but it’s still pretty great.

Bond and his secretary. The closest he’ll come to hooking up with a Moneypenny type.

Best Bondickery:
You know, I’m not actually sure if there’s a singular moment of Bondickery here. I’m tempted to just call out the whole movie, because the majority of it is spent by everyone being jerks to each other, and awful stuff seems to happen all over the place. Instead I’m going to cop out like I did last movie and give it to an amazing kill that Bond is technically the fault of.

He sneaks on board the enemy submarine, a guy he’s trying to frame is betraying Sanchez. He gets the money that he stole far earlier and shoves it in the pressure chamber, leaving Sanchez’ men to discover it and draw their own conclusions. They do, locking the protesting guy in the chamber with the money and then cranking up the pressure inside until the guy is clutching his head screaming in pain. Grabbing an axe, they cut the line, dropping the pressure so rapidly that his head expands and then explodes in a shower of gore. It’s amazing, lo-fi splatstick stuff, the head just fleshy face painted onto a balloon filled with blood. It’s not quite Scanners good, but it’s certainly the gooshiest thing Bond’s ever seen.

JAMES BOND will return in GOLDENEYE

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Light Bondage: “Licence to Kill”

  1. Zampano says:

    Hey Matt .Thanks for the KIND WORDS — watch out for Sharks and decompression chambers —-

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