Posted by: dougery | September 15, 2011

Better Late Than Never: Licence to Kill (1989)

It is difficult to castigate Licence to Kill, the sixteenth entry in the James Bond film series, for being too sequel-y, not when it was released in the same summer that saw Back to the Future Part 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Lethal Weapon II vying with it for box office supremacy. It might even be a superior film to any of those, my affection for Doc Brown and Marty McFly notwithstanding. Folks talk about the summer movie season being an endless flood of sequels these days as if this trend were something new. Well there’s 1989, a full 22 years ago to show you otherwise. Go ahead an bemoan the 6 or 8 iterations of Batman or Spider-man or Harry Potter. When they get to twice that many films they can sit down with 007.

If you swerve around the flaming tankers of questions like “So why does the James Bond series still exist?” or “What is such an protracted series good for?” (in that the non-answers to such questions might very well be “Because it does” and “What good is any serialized story?”) you can arrive at some sort of jumping off point for analyzing Licence to Kill‘s worth and more importantly, how it fits in to the pop cultural landscape around it.

The most immediately recognizable feature of Licence is that it has been purified of humor. At least the self-aware, aw shucks, one-line zingers of Connery and Moore. There is still an awful lot to laugh at, the wooden dialogue, some stupendously poor acting performances, 80’s fashions, the assorted cliches of drug plots, etc. Yet most if not all of the times I cracked up or smiled were intended to be dramatic. If recollection serves there is a single, telling 007 kill-pun, where an underling smashes through a wall after being impaled on a forklift. Bond quips something about the man meeting a ‘Dead End.’

The nature of that joke tells you more about the movie and the ideas behind it than you might think. This is certainly an ending of sorts for the series, as it wouldn’t return for 6 years and even then the coiled spring of Timothy Dalton would be replaced by something new. Slapstick and wordplay have met their end here, and the over-the-top manner at which this expressed (the butt of the joke here wasn’t just offed but impaled and driven through a concrete wall) highlights the violence and darkness that have begun to pool in popular culture.

In 1987 Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Rises proved a turning point for another elite enforcer. Just as he had years earlier with a once gaudy and playful Daredevil character, Miller ‘re-invented’ Batman and gave him the now vomit inducing ‘grim and gritty’ reboot. It was no longer alright for such powerful men to combat evil and make fun while they did so. The age of the anti-hero, which probably stretches back even before Miller, was in full effect.

One of the reasons why I would contend that Miller’s Batman works, is that he took such pains to make Batman so broken. Wayne was now old and over the hill, his jaw an eternal salt and pepper 5 o’clock shadow. Batman was now enormous, over-the-hill, had a paunch and relied on sheer brutality and technology to overpower his adversaries. Which reminds me of Roger Moore’s last days as 007. Somewhere in the ‘might-have-been’ files of Hollywood there is a kind of Dark Knight Rises in Bond form and its star is surely Moore.

By contrast Dalton’s dark turn feels calculated and malicious, oft-times unnecessary and needlessly cruel. The plot of Licence is basically a ronin tale piggybacked on the aforementioned cliched drug smuggling plot. When Bond’s longtime friend and CIA agent is mauled by a smuggler, James seeks vengeance.  He breaks ranks with MI6 and becomes a rogue agent. The title of the film was supposed to be “Licence Revoked” but bloodthirstier minds prevailed. Killing is so much sexier after all, revoking makes one think of the DMV. Newly freed from the backing of a government, though bizarrely and inexplicably still supported by aged Alfred Q, Bond is all about the darkness.

There is one moment where a CIA informant who has helped keep Bond alive on his quest and of course fallen for him rushes to meet the man at the door and Bond shoves her out of the way without so much as meeting her gaze. Q is there to catch her and both characters look as stunned by the way things have played out as we are. The action happens so fast and so out of character that it feels far more violent than, say, a young Benecio del Toro getting ground up into bone chips and a cloud of bloody dust on a factory conveyor belt later on. Bond will eventually end up with Pam–who, I might add, has the same androgynous hairstyle as the Dark Knight Rises girl-Robin–and not the racially unacceptable Lupe (who also professes her love to him AND puts her own life in danger many times over for 007’s sak), by film’s end so perhaps the domestic abuse paid off after all.

Bond Grade: 002 (out of 007)



  1. Typo correction: Miller’s book was “The Dark Knight Returns.” The Dark Knight Rises is the upcoming Nolan film.

    And, yeah, grim ‘n gritty is one of the worst things to happen to pop culture in ever. It seems like superhero comic books are still not rid of that disease.

  2. yeah, i’ma let the typos remain for posterity. I shoulda just described it as “the one with the lightning bolt on the cover where the joker kills David Letterman.” Also staying: the Freudian slip typo in the parenthesis of the last sentence.

  3. I forgot that the Joker kills Letterman in DKR. Funny, who would have thought all these years later that it would be Jay Leno, not the Clown Prince of Crime, what did the deed.

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