Serial, Super Serial: License to Kill

License to Kill

Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components.

Bond’s filmmakers must have decided they liked the direction of The Living Daylights, because they ran with it for License to Kill. Cut out most of the humor and a lot of normal James Bond formula and this is what you’re left with.

License to Kill is by far the most somber, violent of the series. Most of its parallels come from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with similar dramatic tones, but everything is one-upped here. This film is ridiculously violent — we see women get shot, a man blow up like a balloon, people eaten by a shark, a man go through a shredder and lots and lots of blood. The MPAA rates it PG-13, but I don’t know how — well, probably just based on the reputation and popularity of the series. I would think if this was released today it would get a pretty hard R, but you never know with the ratings board.

It’s not just blood, though, as the themes of License to Kill also give it a harder edge. Way back in For Your Eyes Only, the theme of revenge was loosely covered, where Bond told Melina Havelock that she had nothing to gain by seeking vengeance. Well, throw that philosophy out the window as this film directly involves Bond out in pursuit of those responsible for the death of Felix Leiter and his new bride. We see a truly unhinged version of Bond, but the film tries to have it both ways — we see him set on killing his enemies, but doing so in a very “Bond” way through spy work and getting into their inner-circles.

Even though I should like a harder-edged take on Bond, License to Kill is not an enjoyable film. This is partly to do with the dramatic shifts in the film’s mood and storytelling — it feels like the screenwriters adapted a different spy novel and re-worked it for Bond. Mostly, though, it’s just a movie that I found relentlessly boring. After the opening scenes and the themes of the film were established, there was no momentum moving forward. Throw in some of the more forgettable villains and Bond Girls, and License to Kill is strictly for completeists.

[Bond, James Bond]

Timothy Dalton’s Bond is by far the most emotionally driven, no-holds-barred version of the character. After Felix is half-eaten by a shark (very graphically so), on his death bed, we see Bond crying for the first time in the series. He’s been through some rough stuff, not the least the brutal slaying of his wife (that continuity is kept here, as we’re reminded of her death at one point), but the character has never gotten so emotional as here. This leads to him being a man on a rampage. He is clearly on edge throughout the entire film, often angry and yelling at those trying to help him. It would have been interesting if the film commented more on his state and how that could affect his work, but it obviously wants nothing to do with that.

One small, interesting tidbit I noted was that Bond refuses a bribe of two million dollars to just go away and not kill everyone is sight. Although Bond is absolutely a man of high class and wealth, we never see him use or talk about money throughout the whole series. It doesn’t seem to be something that drives his character in any way — of course the film doesn’t touch upon this for obvious reasons, so I’m probably putting too much thought into it.

After only two films, this was Dalton’s last opportunity to play the role. It’s difficult to have a complete grasp of him with so little time, but I think he’s admirable, especially considering the direction the his films have gone. He probably gets a bit of a bad rap from most Bond fans, and I can agree that he probably didn’t have a lot more life in the series — I certainly don’t think he would have been able to keep sustaining the trajectory his films have gone. Another fresh start was probably for the better; both the Connery and the Moore runs had already run out of steam by the times previous switches were made, so it may have been a good thing that this happened before we got to another disastrous point. I’m really excited to see the Pierce Brosnan films, as these are the films that I could have been seeing while growing up.

[The Mission]

Like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, License to Kill is one of the only films that do not have an official mission. After Bond begins to investigate, M shows up in the Florida Keys to send him out for assignment. Refusing to leave, Bond is forced to resign and loses his license to kill — which seems to be a punishment which isn’t followed through on, as he kills a lot of people. Without his normal resources, Bond has to be more covert, with meetings in skanky looking bars and underhanded dealings. It may not have the same story beats as usual, but all in all you’re not missing much from the regular Bond mission, as he acts an awful lot like a spy when he’s not actually doing spy work. That criticism might not be totally fair, but I would think a mission driven by vengeance would be a little less formal in that way.

[The Villain]

At the center of Bond’s rage is Franz Sanchez, a South American drug lord who takes out Leiter and his wife to get the CIA off of his back. Apparently, the character was based on Colombian drug king Pablo Escobar, but I thought of another movie villain, Tony “Scarface” Montana.

In the Bond universe, Sanchez is most like Mr. Big of Live and Let Die, as they were both villains in the drug trade and seem much more like gang leaders than Bond supervillains — at least on the surface. Sanchez doesn’t go quite as far to conforming to Bond villain archetypes as Mr. Big, but he does have large compound (one may call it a lair) that inevitably comes into play toward the end of the film. Sanchez doesn’t have the world domination ambitions of most villains, though, he just wants to be rich and powerful. It certainly seems like Sanchez isn’t the kind of guy Bond would be dealing with if he didn’t just kill his best friend, and that makes sense.

Sanchez has a number of henchmen, probably the most of any film. None are incredibly notable, except for one — a very, very young Benicio Del Toro as Dario. As Sanchez’s main thug, he is incredibly cruel and violent and the one who does most of the dirty work. Even with limited screen time, Del Toro sticks out as a very talented performer.

[The Bond Girls]

There are two Bond girls in License to Kill, Lupe Lamora and Pam Bouvier — neither of which are among my favorites. Lupe is the girlfriend of Sanchez who inevitably falls for Bond, like all the villains’ girlfriends do. She has a hard exterior and a Latin temper, but falls quickly in love.

Pam is a former Army pilot and CIA informer who poses as Bond’s executive secretary to assist him in tracking down Sanchez. What could have been another sweet, romantic relationship is played for what I think is comedic effect, but Pam just feels like a bratty shrew that constantly argues with Bond. She is so out of place that even Q yells at her for causing trouble.

With these two women, the film tries to set up a love triangle that never really works out. Although many of the previous films have featured more than one Bond Girl and more than one sexual encounter for Bond, we haven’t really had a true love triangle, so this feels like a lost opportunity. By the end, Bond has to make a decision on which girl he wants to be with, though neither feel like a suitable suitor.

[The Gadgets]

License to Kill is maybe the least gadget-heavy film — which makes sense with Bond off assignment. There is a scene where Q shows off some unused gadgets, however; among them are an explosive alarm clock, explosive tooth paste and a camera whose flash is a laser beam.

[The Song]

It’s strange that with a harder edge, the song “License to Kill” runs in the completely opposite direction — a hard-to-listen-to R&B number by Gladys Knight (without the Pips). This is really the meekest song possible that could have a title “License to Kill.”

“Hey baby, thought you were the one who tried to run away.
Ohh, baby, wasn’t I the one who made you want to you?
Please don’t bet that you’ll ever escape me
Once I get my sights on you.

Got a license to kill (to kill)
And you know I’m going straight for your heart.
(Got a license to kill)
Got a license to kill (to kill)
Anyone who tries to tear us apart.
(Got a license to kill)
License to kill.”

During the closing credits, we get a different R&B song by Patti LaBelle, which is shockingly worse than the first.

[Random Thoughts]

- Hey, that bad guy is that dude from Twin Peaks. Cool.

- I think there is a rule in the Bond universe that you can’t go three films without a man-eating shark.

- We have yet another actor portraying Felix Leiter — this one an older man (seems much older than Dalton, despite their close friendship). Just more confusion.

- Nothing quite stings like getting smacked in the face with a fistful of shrimp. (Edit: Probably a Freudian slip, I first wrote “snacked in the face” — I’m hungry for some shrimp)

- When Bond resigns, this happens at the Hemingway House — probably just so Bond could make a “Farewell to Arms” joke when he’s turning over his gun.

- Bond straight-up shoots a dude with a harpoon gun. So much violence!

- Sanchez owns an iguana that sits on his shoulder. I was a little bit sad that it wasn’t man-eating.

- Strange cameo by Wayne Newton as a televangelist that has connections with Sanchez. I was actually surprised that he wasn’t completely terrible.

- Q’s idea of a vacation is to follow Bond. I’m starting to think that Q doesn’t have any other friends.

- I got a chuckle every time Dalton pronounced Lupe like “loopy”

- During the final action scene, Bond is driving a semi truck and he takes it up on two wheels to avoid a rocket. I’ve seen Bond drive before, so I’m not sure about this one.

- The last few films have all ended with “JAMES BOND WILL RETURN” without the name of the next film. This seems more like a threat than a hopeful promise.

- Wait… Felix Leither LIVED?! He was half-eaten by a shark for the Lord’s sake!

SERIAL, SUPER SERIAL will return in GOLDENEYE!

tags: james bond, john glen, license to kill, super serial

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