Throughout the James Bond series, Bond’s biggest challenge has not been any of the seemingly endless ranks of supervillains he’s come up against, or even the bevy of beautiful women who’ve sought to tame him. Rather, it has been that most complicated of adversaries, the United States of America. Bond’s relationship with America has been one of push and pull, give and take, with America always wanting more, it seems, than Bond’s willing to give. Many of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels take place in America, or feature American characters. American audiences have embraced this English hero and propelled him to unimagined heights. It was an American President, John F. Kennedy, who first brought Fleming’s novels into the national spotlight. Yet America’s more crass, tentacled, Borg-ifying side that seeks to remake the entirety of global culture in her commercialized image has always been a wolf nipping at James Bond’s door. American studio executives push hard for more American content in 007; American actors have tested for the role of Bond, and American performers have been forced into Bond casts to ensure American audiences won’t be put off by too many foreign accents. Ironically, Bond’s quintessential Britishness has been protected from these attempts by the American producers who continue to shepherd his legacy. But if there is a single Bond movie that feels the most American, it would have to be Licence to Kill. (The ironies continue to abound given that the movie’s working title, License Revoked, was abandoned when test marketing suggested American audiences would think the movie was about a teenager losing his driver’s license.) That the movie is an effectively told tale but at some gut level just feels wrong speaks to this concept that a little America in Bond goes a very long way.
When Bond’s longtime friend Felix Leiter (David Hedison, reprising the role from Live and Let Die) is maimed and his wife murdered by seemingly untouchable South American drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), Bond defies an unsympathetic M, resigns his commission and goes rogue to pursue vengeance. Succeeding first in stealing $5 million from Sanchez’s cohort Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), Bond travels to Sanchez’s home country, and, with the assistance of CIA pilot Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), Sanchez’s mistress Lupe (Talisa Soto) and a helpful Q (Desmond Llewelyn), infiltrates Sanchez’s world. The stakes are raised when it turns out Sanchez is purchasing shoulder-mounted missiles he intends to use against American passenger airliners if the American Drug Enforcement Agency doesn’t leave him alone. By sowing seeds of mistrust, Bond leads Sanchez to dismantle his own kingdom, the villain himself killing off his associates in ever more brutal fashion – before Bond’s true nature is revealed and he squares off against the object of his quest in a final, gasoline-soaked showdown. Vengeance is never a picturesque road, and Licence to Kill was the most violent Bond film to date, with character after character meeting grisly end, either in shark tanks, decompression chambers, pillars of flame, or simply in a hail of machine gun bullets. Bond himself is embittered, cynical and remorseless as he winds his way through his elaborate plan of retribution. The trouble was, particularly in the summer of 1989, there were already plenty of antiheroes crowding the box office, and a gentleman English spy couldn’t compete on that level – not only that, audiences didn’t really want him to. Bond had, in effect, become too American for the Americans who loved him.
Numerous subtle factors contribute to the over-American sense of this movie. Filming in England proved too expensive this time around, and so the entirety of the production relocated to Mexico, with the opening scenes shot in and around Key West, Florida. American accents abound – casting took place out mainly of the States and the supporting players are a roster of familiar if lesser known TV actors, people like Hedison, Zerbe, Frank McRae, Priscilla Barnes, Grand L. Bush, Everett McGill, Don Stroud and Anthony Starke. In fact, leading lady Lowell’s most prominent role since this movie has been on Law & Order. Given that a portion of the design budget had to go towards refurbishing the Mexican studio first, the resulting sets lack the polish and finish of the Ken Adam creations of old, looking very much like locations thrown together on a much leaner American TV budget. Michael Kamen’s score evokes his previous work on Die Hard and the Lethal Weapon series. And then of course there’s the presence of Mr. Vegas himself, Wayne Newton. There is something to be said for the exercise of taking a character out of his comfort zone and plopping him down in an unfamiliar environment – the old “fish out of water” trope – but watching James Bond order a Budweiser in a redneck bar just before it explodes into a full-on brawl as cheesy 80’s rock wails on the jukebox just makes him seem… ordinary. The appeal of Bond is watching him move through exotic worlds unattainable by us mere mortals, not seeing him slumming at the karaoke dive just down the street. Anyone can do that; why do we need to go to the movies to see it?
Despite the Americanized aesthetic, there are a few standouts of note. As Sanchez, Robert Davi delivers the most complex, multi-layered portrayal of an antagonist yet seen in a Bond movie. Sanchez is a sadistic man, yet he has his own strong moral code which values loyalty above anything else, and betrayals merit the cruellest punishments. Without delving even slightly into the origins of this man – no elegantly related backstory to be found here, he just explodes onto the screen as a force of nature – Davi rounds him out and gives him a degree of the elegance common to the finest Bond bad guys, and a correspondingly wicked sense of humour to boot. And a 22-year-old Benicio Del Toro, in only his second movie, shows hints of greatness to come as Sanchez’s eccentric, hot-tempered young cohort Dario. But in some ways, the biggest joy in the movie comes from the ever-endearing Desmond Llewelyn as Q, who is freed from his laboratory and his usual briefing scene to become a significant partner in Bond’s mission. With more screen time here than in his last half-dozen Bond movies combined, Llewelyn gets to do some genuine character work and become a father figure to Bond in a way that the cold, bureaucratic M (Robert Brown) never did.
But it’s still Timothy Dalton’s movie, and in what would turn out to be his final performance as James Bond, he dares to give us a 007 consumed with passions and doubts that his usual veneer of sophistication cannot control. Fuelled by animalistic anger and the desire for retribution, Bond begins to lose his way, and himself. But he comes to realize that in order to complete his mission and bring Felix Leiter some justice, he cannot be that simple “blunt instrument” – he has to become James Bond again. Particularly telling is the moment where Bond sits, bloodied and bruised, watching Sanchez and all that remains of his drug empire dissipating into smoke, and there is no sense of triumph to be had, only the quiet solitude of the end of the long night – an oddly European ending for such an American-feeling movie, but one that suited Timothy Dalton’s interpretation of the classic role.
In times past, if you were disappointed by a Bond movie, you could comfort yourself with the reassurance that there would be another, hopefully better one coming in only a couple of years. One wonders how many fans walked out of Licence to Kill thinking the same thing, only to find that studio politics, lawsuits, shady financial dealings and plain old greed had vastly different plans.