On September 25th, 2012, MGM Home Entertainment released the 'Bond 50' collection, a box set that contains no less than 22 films from the James Bond franchise's first 50 years. In order to provide the most comprehensive coverage, High-Def Digest will review each of the discs in this package separately. For the index of all reviews in this series, as well as details regarding bonus content exclusive to the box set, see our 'Bond 50' hub review.
'Licence to Kill' was previously released on Blu-ray in 2008. Portions of this article first appeared in our original review of that disc. However, the audio and video technical sections have been freshly updated.
"Señor Bond, you got big cojones."
'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 his 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. (In the meantime, Leiter had popped up briefly in 'The Living Daylights', where the character was played by John Terry.) While 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 then goes off-book for a personal vendetta that leads 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, Dario. 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, Bond's endeavors are aided by gorgeous women, 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, however. 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 much later 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, even with its '80s pop ballad sensibilities. 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 would eventually revisit nearly two decades later.
Aside from the physical labeling and artwork, the copy of 'Licence to Kill' in the 'Bond 50' box set is identical to the Blu-ray released in 2008. It has the same menus, the same audio and subtitle options, etc. For fans who don't care to (or aren't able to) purchase the whole box set, MGM Home Entertainment has also released a standalone reissue of this movie in its own separate keepcase.
Of the group of James Bond titles that Lowry Digital was forced to clean up from older high-def masters for the 2006 Ultimate Edition DVDs, 'Licence to Kill' is one of the best looking. Although not sourced from a new 4k scan, the 2.35:1 picture looks quite impressive for a movie from the late '80s.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is pleasingly sharp and detailed. During the casino scene, all of the individual sparkly bits on Carey Lowell's dress are distinctly visible. In fact, the clarity of the image actually exposes some of the stunt doubles in the action scenes more blatantly than the filmmakers might want. Close-ups of Robert Davi's face are also not kind to his pockmarked complexion. Colors are clean and vibrant, even the red-lit interior of the DEA plane. The contrast range is strong, with excellent shadow detail and a nice sense of depth.
Some minor noise and artifacting intrude in a few instances, and Lowry's grain management processes occasionally cause film grain patterns to freeze unnaturally in place. This can leave the picture with a slightly gritty texture in some scenes. Fortunately, problems like these are less frequent or noticeable than many of the other titles in the 'Bond 50' collection.
I deliberated quite a bit about what star rating score to give the video for this review. When I originally reviewed the disc in 2008, I gave it 4 stars. Upon rewatching, I'm both more impressed with some aspects of the transfer and less impressed with others. Some issues that I noted the last time didn't bother me at all in this viewing. On the other hand, I consistently found that wide shots in the photography were less impressive than I remembered. If I could, I'd like to give the video a score of 3.75 stars out of 5. I feel that it looks a little better than some of the other Bond discs that I've rated 3.5 stars, yet not quite as good as some I've rated 4 stars (especially not those that received newer 4k film scans). I ultimately settled on the lower of the two options to be safe. Nonetheless, the takeaway here is that, even if not perfect, this is mostly a fine-looking, film-like presentation.
Looking back at my older review, I'm very surprised to find that I gave the audio quality a 4-star rating at the time. This aspect definitely needs to be bumped down a notch. While the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is plenty loud, it also sounds slightly hollow and unbalanced. Sound effects seem a bit too loud and bright relative to the rest of the track, and the dynamic range feels flattened. Explosions rarely dig too deeply into the lower registers. Michael Kamen's score also sounds a little dull, flat and dynamically compressed.
On the other hand, the 5.1 remix (the movie was originally released to theaters in standard Dolby Surround) has quite a bit of surround activity for a picture of the era. Bullets zing to the rear channels all over the place, and you can count on helicopters to fill the listening space. Despite its issues, this is still a pretty engaging '80s 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 isn't objectionable or gimmicky, I see little point listening to the 2.0 track, which is much weaker in quality and fidelity.
The Blu-ray retains all of the bonus features from the Ultimate Edition DVD released in 2006.
The 22-film 'Bond 50' box set is an outstanding collection of one of cinema's most enduringly popular franchises. 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.
Even though the Blu-ray is a simple reissue of a disc first released in 2008, it still has very good picture quality and plenty of interesting supplements. 007 fans will find it worth owning whether purchased on its own or as part of the 'Bond 50' package.
James Bond will return.