Cyberlizard goes to the movies
The past 35 years have seen the immortal James Bond make the uneasy transition from camp Sixties classic (sinister terrorist organisations, wannabe world dictators and secret bases hidden under volcanoes) to a more scaled down, "realistic" storyline before edging back slightly towards old territory with the last release, Tomorrow Never Dies. The eighties were Timothy Dalton's era after Roger Moore retired, and Licence To Kill was to be his final outing as 007 (though only his second film in the role).
Perhaps more than any other Bond movie, the storyline of Licence To Kill is grittily realistic. Bond helps his old CIA buddy Felix Leiter to trap major drug baron Franz Sanchez (pockmarked Roberto Davi, excellent) when the latter makes a rare outing from his home base of "Isthmus City". However Sanchez escapes while Bond and Leiter are at Leiter's wedding, and the drug baron returns with his henchmen to take a terrible revenge on Leiter and his wife Della on their honeymoon night. Bond swears revenge and seeks to track Sanchez and his accomplices down, a personal vendetta which leads 'M' to revoke Bond's "Licence to kill".
In some ways this is an atypical Bond film, with the action being confined to the southern US and the Central American state of Isthmus City, and with fewer gadgets than normal, although 'Q' (Desmond Llewellyn) does put in an appearance, going out to offer Bond some technical help. We also see little of 'M' (Robert Brown) and Miss Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss), the last time that either of these actors filled these roles. But what Licence to Kill lacks in exotica it makes up for in depth. In a storyline that might have been lifted from Greek drama, Bond succeeds in slowly poisoning Sanchez' mind against his criminal associates, upon which he destroys them one by one. The smuggler Milton Krest (Anton Zerbe, who seems to specialise in screen villains) in particular meets a quick but unpleasant end in a compression chamber, and a couple of other unloveable criminals also meet violent deaths. Whereas the violence in some Bond films, particular the early ones, was almost comic book, it is actually fairly strong in this one, and people of a squeamish nature should be aware of this. Even after Bond has been exposed and left to die, the suspicions he has planted in Sanchez' mind continue to grow, until the drug baron has virtually eliminated all of his key henchmen. As in most good action films, there is a lighter, comic touch in places, particularly with the figure of El Presidente (Pedro Armendariz), a corrupt politician owned by Sanchez who consequently pairs off with the latter's girlfriend Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto) at the end of the film, and Professor Joe Butcher (Wayne Newton), the sleazy leader of a pseudo-religious cult (actually a front organisation for the drugs operation) whose only constant line seems to be "Bless your heart", even when tied up at gunpoint and later relieved of a suitcase of cash by spunkey Carey Lowell.
The standard of acting is also consistently high. Even old stager Desmond Llewellyn breathes a bit of fresh life into 'Q', taking an unofficial trip to help Bond. Equal honours go to Dalton and Davi. Dalton hits the right balance between steely-eyed toughness and anguish and rage at the mutilation of his friend, burning with revenge while determined to make it a dish eaten cold, in the words of the Greek proverb. In both his outings as Bond he actually makes the super spy seem human as well as superhuman. Davi is equally a revelation, similarly showing a human (and not totally evil) side to a man engaged in an evil operation. A man who values loyalty above money, he is scrupulous to keep his word to those he thinks have helped him, while his rages at perceived treachery are frighteningly intense. Carey Lowell is an excellent Bond girl, quick on her feet and her wits and a nice balance of sex appeal and toughness: gone are the simpering stereotypes such as Britt Ekland in The Man with the Golden Gun. Even the henchmen, minor law and order officials and the rest of the secondary cast list seem more flesh-and-blood than the old goons and expendables caricatured in Mike Myers' Austin Powers movies.
At the end of the day, though, Bond movies are about action and dramatic tension, and there's still enough of both to go around. While there's none of the battles in outer space or hidden volcano bases that characterised Sean Connery and Roger Moore films, there are enough sharks, bar-room brawls and explosions to keep the adrenalin going, and the film culminates in a tanker chase down mountain roads with Bond going head-to-head with the feared Stinger missiles. In some ways the older Bond movies went somewhat camp by overdoing the action sequences (although they were still enjoyable!), whereas in Dalton's films this element is kept within sensible limits.
I haven't seen the two Pierce Brosnan Bond movies, so I can't really compare them for better or for worse with Timothy Dalton's. A number of people complained that by adding realism, Dalton actually robbed the Bond genre of one of its key elements. I think Licence to Kill would stand on its own even without the support of the Bond name, but then others may not like it for that reason. But then with such a lineage of Bond movies, we all have the advantage that we can choose our favourite Bond. Whoever gets your vote, it seems unlikely that the dynasty will end with Pierce Brosnan.
For a concise and interesting analysis of all the Bond films, go to Matthew Newton's The Bond Informer.