Licence to Kill is an ironic title for the 16th James Bond outing since, at the beginning of the movie, Bond is stripped of his 007 status and said license (sorry, American spelling in the body copy, folks) to kill is revoked.
Timothy Dalton, in his second and unfortunately final performance as Bond, brings a fierceness fueled by revenge to his portrayal that had not been seen since the early days of Sean Connery. Bond’s wrath is aimed at Franz Sanchez, portrayed by a ruthless and cold-blooded Robert Davi. Sanchez is a Latin American drug lord who basically runs the island Republic of Isthmus (think Panama and its former military leader, Manuel Noriega) and who has worldwide distribution aspirations for his product. He’s captured by DEA agents with the help of Bond and his longtime CIA friend, Felix Leiter, as Sanchez attempts to flee the United States and return to Isthmus.
Sanchez escapes after bribing DEA agent Ed Killifer (Everett McGill) and, before leaving the country, kidnaps Leiter and lowers him into a tank containing a tiger shark. For good measure, he and his men — including a young Benicio del Toro as the psychotic henchman, Dario — murder and presumably rape Leiter’s bride, Della, whom he had married earlier that day. Bond, upon hearing of Sanchez’s escape, is the one who finds Della as well as the badly maimed Leiter. The look on Dalton’s face — a mixture of grief, outrage and fury — when he discovers the couple is one of the most unforgettable and poignant moments in the Bond franchise.
Bond’s only thought is to go after Sanchez and kill him. First though, with the help of Leiter’s friend, charter-boat owner Sharkey (Frank McRae), Bond starts his own investigation, which leads him to an aquarium-marine research center run by Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), an accomplice of Sanchez. The facility is a front allowing Krest to use his boat to smuggle Sanchez’s drugs in and out of the country. While at the center, Bond discovers Killifer and feeds him to that same hungry tiger shark.
The movie’s turning point follows soon thereafter. Bond is taken to American agents to Hemingway House in Key West. There, he meets M who orders him to his next assignment in Istanbul. Bond, so consumed by vengeance, defiantly refuses. The last straw is when M flatly tells him to let the Americans clean up their own mess. Bond is suspended and his license to kill revoked. Those actions set Bond on the road of the rogue agent.
Basically, he spends the rest of the movie getting close to Sanchez as well as sowing and planting seeds of suspicion in the mind of the careful and calculating drug lord who already trusts no one. Part of Licence to Kill’s premise shows the influences of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. Throughout the years and movies, no matter who portrayed Bond, the character has had a single-mindedness of purpose: The mission always came first, no matter the distractions (mostly female) or obstacles (usually vicious henchmen such as Oddjob or Jaws).
Bond’s hurdles in Licence to Kill are CIA agent Pam Bouvier (a bland Carey Lowell) and Sanchez’s mistress, Lupe (a whiny and wooden Talisa Soto), who has developed romantic feelings for Bond. Coming to Bond’s aid is Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and his pack of gadgets, as well as eventually the two women now in his life.
The fun of Licence to Kill is enjoying the mind games Bond plays on Sanchez, who is so paranoid about betrayal that he cannot see it right in front of him. Bond feeds Sanchez’s confidence by stoking his ego and building mistrust about the kingpin’s underlings. Sanchez’s mistrust reaches its boiling point when his men find $5 million that Bond stole from Sanchez and planted in the decompression chamber of Krest’s boat. Coldly, Sanchez orders Krest placed in the chamber, builds up the pressure and cuts the cord, causing Krest to explosively decompress. One of the movie’s best lines follows when a Sanchez henchman asks his boss, “What should we do with the money?” “Launder it,” Sanchez deadpans. Bond, of course, is finally discovered by Dario, who is killed attempting to run Bond through a shredder.
The last reel of the movie is an exciting, stunt-filled chase involving oil tankers, with Bond destroying three of the four. The death of Sanchez is one of the most satisfying and personal in the series. Sanchez has Bond on the ropes and is ready to fatally hack him with a machete. “Don’t you want to know why?” Bond asks him. The former 007 takes out the lighter Felix and Della gave him as his gift for serving as their best man and sets the fuel-soaked Sanchez ablaze.
It is too bad Dalton did not make more Bond movies. He was a very solid Bond. While he lacked the charisma of Connery and the flippancy of Roger Moore, he had a presence and a low-key feel for humor that created a dependable and distinctive secret agent. Licence to Kill not only marked Dalton’s final foray as 007 but the final series effort to be directed by John Glen, as well as the last appearances by Robert Brown as “M” and Caroline Bliss as Moneypenny. It also was the last Bond to be scripted by Richard Maibaum with opening titles by Maurice Binder.
Licence to Kill spotlights Bond in his most ferocious persona. He still drops a quip now and again, but his character is very grave — and deadly serious.