'Licence to Kill' marks several endings for the James Bond franchise. The film was the final outing (of only two) for star Timothy Dalton, as well as the last directed by John Glen (who helmed the series throughout the 1980s). It was the last 007 picture actively produced by the legendary Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, the last with a risqué opening titles sequence by Maurice Binder, and the last of the budget-conscious Bond adventures. In more sobering respects, it was also the first (and thus far only) Bond movie to disappoint at the box office. That's saying something for a franchise with fifteen previous entries.
Timothy Dalton never got a fair shake as James Bond. The actor had all the right qualities for the role. He was suitably handsome and debonair, yet also made a convincing man of action. He not only looked great in a tux, but (unlike his immediate predecessor) wouldn't induce laughter during fight scenes. If not quite a match for the incomparable Sean Connery, his portrayal of the character was certainly much truer to Ian Fleming's original conception than audiences had seen in many years.
The failure of 'Licence to Kill' is largely a matter of bad timing. Roger Moore had basically driven the series into the ground over the course of the past seven films. By the end of his tenure in 1985's 'A View to a Kill', the 007 movies had become increasingly bloated, campy, and dumb. Although they still made a lot of money, box office returns had tapered off with the last few pictures. People were simply growing tired of where Bond was going.
With the casting of Dalton, the producers attempted to return to a more serious, leaner and meaner James Bond. 'Licence to Kill' (and to a lesser extent, Dalton's debut in 'The Living Daylights') represented what was, up until that point, Bond at his most stripped-down, least gimmicky, and darkest. Unfortunately, the problem with this approach is that, as much as audiences were weary of the series' direction, they had also grown to expect certain things from a James Bond movie -- things like a larger-than-life villain with a world domination plot, outlandish gadgets, and plenty of broad comedy. 'Licence to Kill' made a deliberate point of peeling away many of those elements. Viewers weren't quite ready for it in 1989. (And wouldn't be until the franchise's "reboot" with 'Casino Royale' in 2006.) 'Licence to Kill' was ahead of its time.
The film was originally to be titled 'Licence Revoked', until studio heads at MGM complained that "revoked" was too highfalutin a word for the American market. Sadly, they feared that audiences wouldn't know its meaning. They weren't so bothered by the British spelling of "Licence," but then they probably assumed that Americans were too dumb to spell anyway.
The storyline reunites Bond with his CIA buddy Felix Leiter, and even allows David Hedison from 1973's 'Live and Let Die' to reprise the role. Visiting Key West for Felix's wedding, the two men manage to get on the bad side of notorious drug kingpin Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), who doesn't take kindly to being arrested. After a daring breakout, Sanchez exacts revenge on Leiter, leaving the man gravely injured. This causes Bond to break ranks with his bosses at MI6, who've ordered him away on a new mission. 007 goes off book for a personal vendetta that leads him to the fictional Isthmus City (really Acapulco), the heart of Sanchez's drug empire.
As Bond villains go, Sanchez is pretty low key. He has no grand plans to take over the world. He just wants to run some drugs, beat his girlfriend, and punish his enemies. All the same, he's a rotten bastard. A very young Benicio Del Toro plays his henchman. Because producers cut the picture's budget, Bond's globe-hopping extends only as far as Florida and Mexico. The scenery is lovely, if not as exotic as the spy's usual adventures. Of course, there are gorgeous women to aid Bond in his endeavors, here played by Talisa Soto ('The Mambo Kings') and future 'Law & Order' star Carey Lowell. Breaking from tradition a bit, both are competent actresses, and neither character is a bubble-headed bimbo.
The movie's script pares back on the bad puns, silly character names, and dopey attempts at humor that had come to dominate the series. That's not to say that it has no comic relief. Wayne Newton appears as a smarmy televangelist whose ministry is a front for Sanchez's operation. He's actually quite effectively funny, and used in small doses that don't overwhelm the plot. Even though the story posits that Bond has left MI6, Q (Desmond Llewelyn) pays a visit, and even sticks around to help out more than usual. He only brings a couple of minor gadgets with him, though. A tube of exploding toothpaste and a gun assembled from a camera are useful, but not critical to Bond's mission. The agent's own skill and resourcefulness are his chief weapons this time.
As if to hammer home its more serious tone, 'Licence to Kill' features more graphic violence than the norm for 007. Some of its more brutal scenes (including one notorious bit involving a decompression chamber) had to be trimmed for the American theatrical release, and weren't restored until recent video editions. The movie has a fair amount of action, all of which is well staged. The lower budget prevents the biggest setpieces from reaching the enormously elaborate scale that fans may have expected. Even so, the climax, in which stunt drivers perform some incredible maneuvers with unwieldy tanker trucks, still impresses.
I've always liked the Gladys Knight theme song, but I must admit that its '80s pop ballad sensibilities haven't aged all that well. Remarkably, while background characters are often hilariously trapped in the fashion nightmare of the decade, the lead actresses are spared the embarrassment of poofy dresses or big hair. They emerge almost totally unscathed. Indeed, Carey Lowell's sparkly casino dress is still amazingly flattering.
Released during the hotly-competitive summer of 1989, 'Licence to Kill' underperformed at the American box office (still its primary market, despite being a British production). Audiences ignored Bond in favor of 'Batman', 'Lethal Weapon 2', 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade', and other compelling excitements of the day. The movie did better overseas, and eventually grossed a solid profit, but was considered a major disappointment. The producers would put the franchise on hiatus for six years afterwards, its longest gap without a new movie, before retooling it for the 1990s with 'GoldenEye' and a new star.
Timothy Dalton's reign as agent 007 was unfairly cut short. Fortunately, 'Licence to Kill' has endured on home video. Looking back, it's clearly the best Bond film of the 1980s, and an obvious precursor to the harder-edged style that the character wouldn't revisit until nearly two decades later.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Licence to Kill' comes to Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment (distributed by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment). This film and 'The Man with the Golden Gun' were initially released to the Best Buy chain in March of this year, packaged in an exclusive box set with 'Quantum of Solace'. The individual discs later hit general retail separately in May.
The Blu-ray comes in a standard keepcase with slipcover. Unlike previous waves of 007 titles, neither 'The Man with the Golden Gun' nor 'Licence to Kill' has been issued in Steelbook packaging as of this writing.
The 'Licence to Kill' Blu-ray contains the fully uncensored version of the movie, which restores a few violent bits that had been trimmed for the American theatrical release. That exploding head is in full view now.
Like all of the other James Bond catalog titles, 'Licence to Kill' has undergone some touch-up work from Lowry Digital Images for its Blu-ray release. Although not sourced from a new 4k scan, the results here are very strong. The film is of course presented in its 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer looks quite impressive for a movie from the late '80s.
Things start off a little shaky. Some light edge enhancement has been applied. In early scenes, this leaves noticeable ringing artifacts and gives the picture a coarse texture. Close-ups and medium shots are very sharp and striking, but wide shots in this section seem a little filtered. Fortunately, the transfer improves as it goes. The little bit of ringing becomes much less objectionable, and the image exhibits excellent clarity and detail. The disc really shines by the time of the casino scene, in which all of the individual sparkly bits on Carey Lowell's dress are distinctly visible. The entire last hour of the movie looks pretty great. Wide shots of Professor Joe's temple resolve the intricate stone work, and close-ups of Robert Davi's face are not kind to his pockmarked complexion.
Colors are clean and accurate, even the red-lit interior of the DEA plane. The contrast range is well-delineated, and lends the picture a nice sense of depth. Some minor noise and artifacting intrude in a few instances, but not enough to detract from the viewing experience significantly. This is another fine-looking, film-like presentation for James Bond on Blu-ray.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also a winner. The mix has quite a bit of surround activity for a movie of the era. Gunshots have bite, and the track offers some fair low-end rumble. The audio is very broad and clear, with nice fidelity overall.
Stinger effects seem perhaps a bit too loud and bright relative to the rest of the track, but that's probably intentional. Michael Kamen's score generally comes across well, though there are a few instances where it sounds a little dynamically compressed. Even so, this is an engaging and entertaining action movie soundtrack.
MGM has also provided the film's original Dolby Surround mix in standard Dolby Digital 2.0 format. Since the discrete 5.1 remix is never objectionable or gimmicky, there's really no point to listening to the 2.0 track, which is much weaker in quality.
The Blu-ray retains all of the bonus features from the Ultimate Edition DVD released in 2006.
Generally one of the most overlooked and underappreciated entries in the James Bond franchise, 'Licence to Kill' holds up remarkably well as the best 007 movie of the '80s. The Blu-ray looks and sound great, and comes with some very good supplements. Highly recommended.