Short Take: Dark, simplified, and bloody, Licence to Kill is a fresh take on James Bond that doesn’ t fully follow-through on its noir promise.
Where The Living Daylights trapped Timothy Dalton, a dour though compelling Bond, into a plot that seemed to work in contradiction with any of the inherent charm the actor possessed, Licence to Kill plays like an experiment that’s only half-fulfilled. Opting to throwaway many of the classic Bond tropes for a neo-noir styling, the picture has the foundations for something successful, even if it can never entirely shed the necessary corn of the franchise. At once as hokey as a child’s graphic novel and as shamelessly bloody as a Hong Kong action flick, Licence to Kill also has a sense of motivation for its characters’ actions that escapes many other Bond pictures.
After his colleague is murdered by a band of ruthless killers, lead by Sanchez, Bond goes rogue from MI6 and determines to take down the villains on his own. With the assistance of a “secretary” named Ms. Kennedy and the scorned lover of Sanchez, Bond chases the thugs through a labyrinthine world of poker games, bank swindling, cocaine smuggling, and bloody murders. In the end, a typically fiery finale finds Bond finally exacting his revenge.
While much has been written about Licence to Kill being a marked departure from the classic Bond style, to me the biggest change was the effort to supply Shakespearean motivations to all the players involved. We see the villain’s madness on screen as he descends people into shark tanks or explodes their heads in high-pressured rooms. Like Javier Bardem does with on-the-sleeve bravura in Skyfall, this villain also has a charming side, a way of luring James Bond close to him, as though a kind compatriot rather than a sadistic murderer. Likewise, the villain’s henchmen (one of whom is played wonderfully by a young and crazy-eyed Benecio Del Toro) are recognizable, thus fearsome. Criticism that Dalton looks out of place seems entirely misguided. The thespian has an intensity and focus that’s hardly seen in these kinds of movies, Bond or not. The believable revenge angle may be the tensest I’ve experienced so far.
Years ago when A History of Violence was released, I was taken by David Croneneberg’s courage in telling a story that was willing to be on-the-nose, cardboard even, as a way of zeroing in the goals of his characters and commenting on the senseless violence they commit. Licence to Kill may be a less elegant precursor to Cronenberg’s efforts.
Unabashedly hokey in parts, but also pointed and simplified so that the characters are presented with clarity, allowing their bitterness towards each other to be earned rather than forced. It’s not a stretch to say the first hour of Licence to Kill is one of the most captivating in the entire series. However, like so many promising Hollywood efforts, the film loses sight of what it’s slowly built in hopes of allowing audiences to go home with a bang.
Not that they are missed, but the effort to stray from the Bond formula greatly reduces the amount of action set pieces. While the film still descends into an array of explosive action scenes in a curmudgeonly confused final hour, most of the violence remains one-on-one, patient, and not unlike a John Wayne Western. Similarly, the images lack the flat brightness that tend to victimize Bond movies, instead opting to stop the camera down a few exposures so that a sheen of darkness hangs over each moment. Again, the effect isn’t elegant, since few sculpted shadows exist, but the intention speaks to an abandoned effort to squeeze more from Dalton’s Bond presence.
If The Living Daylights gave us hope for a darker Bond and Licence to Kill teased a story that promoted Shakespearean character dynamics and noir styling, then the third installment – the one that never was – might have been something really special. Overall, Timothy Dalton’s two Bond movies are interesting pictures that provide enough in the way of intrigue to make a viewer want to come back to them. That’s more than can honestly be said for Dalton’s replacement. [B+]