License to Kill (1989) – The 16th James Bond Film; The 2nd (of 2) Timothy Dalton Films – Directed by John Glen – Starring Timothy Dalton, Carey Lowell, Robert Davi, Talisa Soto, Anthony Zerbe, Benicio Del Torro, Wayne Newton, Robert Brown, and Desmond Llewelyn.
LICENSE TO KILL is one of the more confounding Bond movies – on the one hand, it’s basically a generic revenge flick absent of nearly anything resembling a sense of humor, but on the other it is a pretty good revenge flick, at least in the context of what it is – a 1980s action movie. The confusion doesn’t stop there in my fragile little mind, because once you get past Timothy Dalton and Robert Davi (and Desmond Llewelyn and Wayne Newton, to be fair) the acting is across-the-board atrocious, but there’s such an energetic force to Dalton’s performance that he single-handedly pushes this film forward, largely overcoming Carey Lowell’s inability to act, Talisa Soto’s inability to act, Sharky’s inability to act, anyone in the DEA’s ability to act, Benicio del Toro’s inability to act in this role, Felix Leiter’s inability to come off as a convincing spy, Felix Leiter’s wife practically sucking face with Bond right after her wedding ceremony, and locations that would fail to make the Florida Tourism Board’s brochure.
It’s not the typical Bond movie, but we’ve got 20-something typical Bond movies, so a change of pace isn’t such a bad thing now and then. LICENSE is the opposite of THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS in a lot of ways – where DAYLIGHTS started strong and petered out to a generic blandness, LICENSE starts out rather awful and then turns engaging, and it does so almost solely because of Dalton.
Dalton’s Bond in LICENSE does not display much of the thinking, adaptable Bond that I so enjoyed in the first half of DAYLIGHTS, trading in the think-on-your feet, instinctual approach for a single-minded determinedness that sees him operating as a rogue agent in order to enact his own personal justice for the murder of Felix Leiter’s wife and the feeding-to-the-sharks of Felix himself. Where Dalton’s Bond rings false this time around is in his softer moments; given that Bond is so driven for revenge that he goes AWOL from MI6 (who, admittedly, look about as hard for Bond as I’m looking for someone to come punch me in the face), the moments where he’s smiling like a school boy at a pretty girl feel off.
There’s a lot of silliness here that keeps LICENSE from being a truly great Bond movie but there was surprisingly more to like than I’d remembered. This is a good movie. It’s not the first Bond movie you’d want to give to a novice, but then “Blink” isn’t the first episode of Doctor Who you’d want to give someone, either. (Not that LICENSE is equal to “Blink.” Far from it.) The inescapable reality that always confronts you is how bad the acting is, and I’m truly not playing to hyperbole when I say it is awful. While Bond films are rarely dotted with acting giants, the acting in LICENSE would look bad if it had come in an episode of Knight Rider. Hell, it would even look bad if it had come in Knight Rider: The Really Crappy New Version, too.
Carey Lowell (who went on to be a perfectly fine actress on Law & Order) and Talisa Soto (who went on the be a perfectly acceptable actress in Mortal Kombat) are certainly in the lower levels of Bond women. When we meet Lowell, Pam Bouvier is an allegedly bad-ass contact of Leiter’s, feeding him info on Sanchez’s (Davi’s) operation. We know she’s a bad-ass because she’s sitting in a dive bar, she’s wearing kevlar, and she’s holding a shotgun in her lap, but we never buy her bad-ass-ness. It’s not because she’s gorgeous because plenty of gorgeous women have played bad-asses, but because there’s a softness to Lowell’s features and her actions that make you think she’s playing dress-up instead of inhabiting her everyday world. Even her tomboyish haircut doesn’t work, seeming to enhance rather than hide her supermodel appearance and unconvincing actions.
After Bouvier convinces Bond to allow her to tag along, Bond starts referring to her as his executive assistant, and then dumps some money on her to go buy some clothes so she can look the part. When she reappears she’s cut her hair and traded in her pilot clothes for sharp business suits and tight evening gowns. When Bond does a double-take at seeing the new look, you believe it. Unfortunately, the change in appearance doesn’t come with a similar change in attitude. Other than being ridiculously pleasing arm candy, I rarely buy Lowell in LICENSE TO KILL. She does have one great scene where she plays dumb to get Wayne Newton’s keys but for the most part if she’s not nearly tumbling out of her dress or being comforted by Q, she doesn’t bring anything to the movie.
Soto is even worse. She’s Sanchez’s girlfriend Lupe, one in a long line of beauties that have filled this role, and she sends conflicting signals at the viewer. When we meet her she’s in the arms of another man (who literally gets his heart cut out by Sanchez for this act) but it’s not like she’s actively trying to escape Sanchez’s life. She seems to enjoy the luxuries that come with being a kept woman, she’s just not necessarily super-happy about being this guy’s kept woman. I started to feel some sympathy for her when she gets whipped for her insolence and again when she helps Bond, but when she pronounces her love for him it just comes across as something a pretty girl would say to get an older man to do things for her. There’s no feeling behind it.
Even worse, Lupe’s “love” for James sends Bouvier into fits of jealous poutiness and it actually becomes hard to imagine that Bond would want anything to do with either one of them once the mission is over. Even with all their beauty you’d think Bond wouldn’t want to put up with the lovesick little girl-ness of either of them.
Robert Davi plays the villain Sanchez and he’s pretty good considering this Bond movie wants a villain that looks and acts like he just wandered off the set of Miami Vice. When he feeds Felix Leiter’s leg to his pet shark, it comes across as ruthless and disgusting; this isn’t a guy who puts frickin’ laser beams on the heads of sharks for fun.
Perhaps knowing the film was a bit too grim in the opening half, Q gets an expanded role this go-round, providing some much needed levity and, more importantly, warmth. It’s great to see him in action, posing as Bond’s chauffeur (similar to Patrick Macnee’s role in A VIEW TO A KILL), but Q’s real contribution to the movie is the way he comforts Bouvier – usually with a look of knowing exasperation that says, “I want to tell you that you’re just number 832 but that would be mean, so here’s my shoulder to cry on and some carefully worded advice.”
LICENSE TO KILL isn’t a fantastic movie, and its certainly riddled with horrible acting, but the back-half of the movie really rescues the film. If I could take the opening half of THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS and combine it with the back-half of LICENSE TO KILL, I think we’d have a heck of a movie.
Oh, the title song is pretty mediocre. I love me some Gladys Knight, and she tries her damndest, but this is mid-80s pop ballad schlockfest makes me think of mom jeans.