History, Legacy & Showmanship

Dalton’s (Premature?) Swan Song: Remembering “Licence to Kill” on its 30th Anniversary

July 24, 2019 - 4:58 pm   |   by
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Licence to Kill

Coate: In what way was Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier (or Talisa Soto’s Lupe Lamora) a memorable Bond Girl?

Christie: Pam Bouvier and Lupe Lamora were contrasting characters, both of them credible romantic partners for Dalton’s emotionally raw Bond. Whereas both people are smart and independently-minded in different ways, Lamora is depicted as having an existence which seems wholly dominated by Sanchez’s controlling influence, meaning that her character is inevitably reflected in the light of her intimidating partner’s abuses. By comparison, Bouvier is portrayed as being Bond’s professional equal in every sense — an expert pilot, skilled intelligence operative and highly experienced in the field, she matches him every step of the way in terms of competence and resilience. Both Carey Lowell and Talisa Soto demonstrate admirable chemistry with Timothy Dalton’s Bond, though Bouvier’s unrelenting resourcefulness marks her out as the more memorable character overall. Soto brings depth and emotional sensitivity to Lamora, and she articulates the manifold complications inherent in the character’s perilous relationship with Sanchez as well as Lamora’s growing feelings for Bond. In the end, however, the no-nonsense Pam was arguably the most professionally accomplished supporting character that Bond would encounter throughout the eighties — a figure who was much more than simply a romantic interest — and as such she would point the way to further such cerebral and technically proficient characters in later years of the franchise.

Cork: Carey Lowell is charming person, but her character, Pam Bouvier, suffers from Carey trying to match the grit and anger that Timothy Dalton radiates in every scene. Try as she might, Lowell can’t convince me that Pam is the angriest woman in the world, nor that she has fallen hopelessly in love or even lust with James Bond. Like Holly Goodhead, another American agent who crosses paths with Bond, her motivations seem muddied, her emotions seem born out of story convenience, and unlike Chiles as Holly, there seems to be no concept of character consistency on which she is hanging her performance. Lowell is a talented actress, but Licence to Kill is not her finest hour. I don’t blame her.

On the other hand, I like the mercenary heart of Lupe Lamora as played by Talisa Soto. There is an Asia Argento-like sense of emotional fragility, willingness to manipulate, and opportunism in her character that I find compelling. One gets the sense that Lupe has half-a-dozen reasons for every choice she makes, some of which may not even be clear to her. She’s used to men pathetically fawning over her, to winning by playing the fragile victim. At the end, I love seeing her twisting everyone to bend to her will. When I see her with President Lopez at the end, I can hear, I Could Be Surprisingly Good For You, from Evita playing in my head.

McNess: With two obsessive characters at its core, essayed by stro0ng actors, it’s hard for the supporting cast not to be somewhat overshadowed. Good support is good support, though, and I think Carey Lowell does a terrific job. I especially like the confrontation between Pam and Bond, where she urgently impresses upon Bond that much more is at stake than his personal vendetta. Thematically, that’s the climax of the film, and Lowell and Dalton carry the moment with great conviction. There’s also an interesting contrast that emerges between the film’s two central female characters: Pam and Talisa Soto’s Lupe Lamora. Lupe is initially a vulnerable, haunted figure and Pam a headstrong one; but as the film progresses a very canny dimension is revealed in Lupe, and Pam’s headstrong ways betray a level of very human vulnerability she may not care to admit.

Licence to Kill newspaper adCoate: Licence to Kill was the fifth and final Bond film directed by John Glen. Can you discuss his contribution to the series as director?

Christie: When Glen assumed the director’s chair in the eighties with For Your Eyes Only, he made clear his intention to pull the series back from the grandiose fantasy plots of the late seventies and signaled a return to the Cold War realism of the franchise’s early days. Given that the world of the 1980s was markedly different from that of the sixties’ golden age of the spy movie, however, his efforts received a mixed critical response. For every low-key triumph like For Your Eyes Only, which was evocative of the Bondian espionage plots of old, there was an accompanying note of skepticism in some quarters for the stately pace of Octopussy and the unconvincingly threadbare digital modernity of A View to a Kill. It took the arrival of Dalton’s harder-edged Bond with The Living Daylights, and that film’s commendably multifaceted plot, to truly lend the energy that Glen’s creative intentions required. While Licence to Kill did not feature a large number of spectacular action sequences in comparison to some other Bond movies (though the opening plane pursuit and the harrowing oil tanker chase at the film’s conclusion are admittedly both well-handled), it did emphasize the fact that Glen’s general approach — and that of screenwriters Wilson and Maibaum — was more inclined to focus on character dynamics, tension and intrigue rather than outlandish pyrotechnics. Similarly, Licence to Kill marked something of an endpoint to Glen’s attempts to situate the Bond series within a greater level of realism, increasing the level of violence (the film was the first Bond film to be rated “15” by the British Board of Film Classification) [similarly, in the United States, Licence to Kill was the first entry in the series rated PG-13 by the MPAA] and heightening the general sense of danger as Bond goes rogue and leaves behind even the nominal safety-net of his MI6 licence to kill in order to pursue his own personal, obsessive vendetta against Sanchez and his narcotics operations. With its contemporary edge and political relevance, Licence to Kill was as close as the Bond movies had ever come to the realm of the modern spy thriller at that point, certainly since the Bondmania of two decades beforehand.

Cork: I’ve met John Glen on a number of occasions. I think he gets too little credit for what he brought to the Bond universe. He’s a genuinely good person, skilled at getting the complex machinery of a Bond film working together, figuring out just the right images needed to deliver a scene. He directed the Bonds at a time where the contribution of the director to the series was diminishing. As Michael G. Wilson’s creative input grew, so did the input of other members of the creative team, such as Peter Lamont (who lobbied for Licence to Kill to shoot in Mexico), and, after 1985, Alan Ladd Jr. who ran MGM/UA. The result was often a lack of a singular vision for Bond during the 1980s. The conversation regarding whether Bond would kick a car off a cliff in For Your Eyes Only was between Michael G. Wilson and Roger Moore, as was a similarly frustrating conversation about the “dig two graves” line of dialogue. Glen deftly negotiated the many competing interests and navigated the unusual situation of his producer also being his screenwriter. Glen had an instinct for how far he could push Bond. It was his idea to put Roger in clown make-up in Octopussy, something that worked better than most fans like to admit, and to have Bond and Kara escape guards by converting her cello case into a make-shift sled. I feel like Licence to Kill was a noble experiment, an attempt to get at the core of what Timothy Dalton could bring to the character. Audiences made it clear that this was not what they wanted or expected from a Bond film, but Glen deserves credit for giving that take on 007 his full effort, and the film has a dedicated fan base that will ever be grateful that the movie was made at all.

McNess: Given John Glen’s second unit and editing background, you expect some intense and operatic action — and Glen has most certainly delivered.... In each film he directed, he delivered a handsome, expansive, largely functional mise en scène, and by Licence to Kill that style was looking a bit old-fashioned alongside the moody stylings of a Lethal Weapon sequel or a Tim Burton Batman film. However, when I revisited Licence to Kill in 1995, anticipating Bond’s return in GoldenEye, Glen’s style felt a breath of fresh air. Of course, when GoldenEye appeared, it was clearly adhering to the moodier stylings, what with its regular reliance on tight close-ups, moving camera and shadowy lighting. It was probably a wise commercial decision, but it wasn’t what I was hoping for.... Glen has said the balance between hero and villain fascinates him. It first struck me with A View to a Kill — where Glen gave ample time to the non-verbal dance between Roger Moore and the film’s two offbeat villains — that Glen, for all his adroit handling of the action, is intrigued by the special effects his actors give off. This intrigue reaches a peak with Licence to Kill. While giving us a very intense first half of action spectacle, in the film’s second half, he successfully relocates the momentum in character; namely, that simmering tension between Davi and Dalton. Also, what is often overlooked in John Glen’s direction of the five 1980s Eon Bond films is the ominous build-up he carefully ensures precedes each of the action set pieces. Great stuff.

Coate: Where do you think Licence to Kill ranks among the James Bond movie series?

Christie: While the film sharply divided reviewers at the time of its release, Licence to Kill has managed to critically redeem itself in more recent years. As a result of its lackluster financial performance, at least amongst US audiences, it has unfairly attracted a reputation as the film which effectively stalled the franchise for some years (when in fact there were a number of complex factors behind the series’ temporary retreat from the public eye). Today, it has been positively re-evaluated by many who have praised the uncompromising tone of Wilson and Maibaum’s screenplay, Glen’s directorial style upping the ante when required by the action sequences, and of course Dalton’s laudably hard-hitting approach to the central character. There was greater psychological complexity on display here than at many previous points in the franchise’s history, with Bond’s troubled psyche taking center stage in ways which were jarring for audiences of the late eighties, but which now seem prescient and praiseworthy in light of the Daniel Craig films which would arrive several years later. Because the film is so markedly different in structure and mood compared to other entries in the Bond cycle, Licence to Kill defies straightforward comparison, but for anyone who enjoys Bond films which tend towards realism (or as close as the franchise ever gets to it), this is about as dark as the series has ever become. Fans of the more fantastical elements of the Bond movies will definitely want to look elsewhere.

Cork: Licence to Kill is just not my cup of vodka martini. There are many things I like about it, but the experience of watching it ranks just above a kidney-stone attack on my to-do list. I don’t believe James Bond and Felix Leiter have a social life outside of the missions they share. I don’t believe James Bond would be anyone’s best man at a wedding. I don’t believe MI6 agents would take over one of Key West’s premiere tourist attractions for their local headquarters. I don’t believe Bond would assault fellow MI6 agents. I don’t believe Pam Bouvier knows how to fly a plane or drive a semi. I don’t believe Scarface is a good inspiration for a Bond film. But I like the Yojimbo portion of the script, with Bond getting inside Sanchez’s head, inspiring him to destroy his own organization. Yet, the lack of a character that feels like 007 to me leaves this film low on my list. It landed at 22nd on my chart created in 2012 (thus, not including SPECTRE, but including Never Say Never Again and the 1967 Casino Royale).

McNess: I find it a particularly effective and distinguished Bond film, and so I would rank it highly. If my yardsticks were box-office takings or audience consensus, then, of course, I’d be obliged to place it further down the ranking.

Coate: What is the legacy of Licence to Kill?

Christie: Licence to Kill was very much a product of its time — a film which attempts to bring Bond kicking and screaming into the volatile geopolitical environment of the late eighties. It was an ambitious undertaking, but whether due to its experimental nature or the underwhelming box-office takings in the US (though overall worldwide takings remained reasonably healthy), it conformed to an intriguing new pattern that the series seems unlikely to follow too closely in the future. Of the two entries in the Bond cycle to feature Timothy Dalton’s Bond, this was arguably the one which best typifies his strengths as an actor — a Bond who, while as intelligent and capable as ever, suddenly seemed much more vulnerable and human. While Dalton’s take was certainly not to the taste of every critic (The Daily Express’s film reviewer Ian Christie [no relation] memorably dubbing the actor “Grim Tim” at the time of the film’s release), his no-nonsense approach paved the way for the later explorations of the Bond character during parts of the Pierce Brosnan era, and especially in the Daniel Craig years. While the nineties would present the series with entirely new creative challenges with the dawning of the New World Order, Licence to Kill performed an often-overlooked transitionary role in moving Bond from the series’ long-established formula into new and less certain ideological and thematic territory.

Cork: Licence to Kill is a film that just keeps on giving in weird, unexpected ways. You could see the star Benicio del Toro was going to become in the film. The song If You Asked Me To made a minor ripple when the film was released, but in 1992 Céline Dion topped global charts with her version. It is one of the great love songs of the era. The sequence where Sanchez escapes custody on Seven Mile Bridge in the keys inspired two filmmakers to create iconic sequences. James Cameron took the idea of rescuing someone from a moving vehicle on the bridge to another level in True Lies in 1994. In 2018, Christopher McQuarrie created his own version of the scene in Paris for Mission: Impossible—Fallout. These examples point to a real influence the film has had over the decades.

Yet, the real legacy can be seen in the 007 that appears in GoldenEye. During the 1980s, MGM’s financial troubles attracted various operatives and entities who attempted to capitalized off of the studio’s assets, including, eventually, Giancarlo Parretti. He pledged profits from future Bond films to secure a loan to purchase MGM. That all went up in lawsuits. By the time Parretti was out of the picture, having defaulted on his loan, the new management, led by Frank Mancuso and John Calley, took a strong interest in the relaunch of James Bond. Michael G. Wilson, still a vital voice in crafting the stories, was no longer co-writing the screenplays. Richard Maibaum had passed away in 1991. John Glen would not return to direct. Cubby Broccoli, present for story conferences, was no longer deeply involved in the day-to-day aspects of running Danjaq and Eon, the two companies that together held the rights to Bond and produced the films. Instead, Barbara Broccoli worked closely with Michael. Barbara took a strong interest in answering the question, “Who is James Bond in the 1990s?” She re-read all the Bond novels in order and, working with her half-brother Michael and lifelong Bond fans like the late writers Michael France and Richard Smith, embraced a return to the elegance, sophistication, and animal sexuality of 007. I was around during the development of GoldenEye, and I saw how hard Michael and Barbara fought to create a clear vision of Bond that felt consistent, considered, cool, and confident. That stemmed so much from the feeling that in the end, something had been missing from Licence to Kill, something vital to the character of James Bond. It speaks to the talent of Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli that they found that something, and they have held on to it tightly.

McNess: It is often said Dalton’s Bond was ahead of the times and the precursor to Daniel Craig’s Bond. The crucial difference between the two, though, is that Craig’s Bond, no matter how rough around the edges, likes himself. With Dalton’s Bond, there was always an underlying sense of self-loathing. The continued box-office health of the series suggests that Bond must, by and large, be comfortable with who he is and what he does. All I can say is, Dalton was a fantastic experiment — and Licence to Kill is a Bond film I treasure, if you’ll pardon the gushiness. Without Licence to Kill, I doubt we could have moved so comfortably from the Brosnan era to 2006’s Casino Royale.

Coate: Thank you — Thomas, John, and Andrew — for participating and sharing your thoughts about Licence to Kill on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.

The James Bond roundtable discussion will return in Remembering “The World is Not Enough” on its 20th Anniversary.

Licence to Kill


Selected images copyright/courtesy 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, CBS-Fox Home Video, Danjaq LLC, Eon Productions Limited, MGM Home Entertainment, United Artists Corporation.


- Michael Coate

Michael Coate can be reached via e-mail through this link. (You can also follow Michael on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

Licence to Kill (Blu-ray Disc)


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