007 Cinema Dossier: Licence to Kill (1989)

Posted in Blog, Blu-Ray/DVD, Movies, What's Streaming? by - July 13, 2020
007 Cinema Dossier: Licence to Kill (1989)

“I guess it’s a… a farewell to arms.”

In 1989, Timothy Dalton returned as James Bond for the second and sadly final time, as had quickly proved to be one of my favorites. John Glenn returned to direct his fifth, and last 007 film, and both of them took the character in a new way. The script posited what would happen if a James Bond film was a revenge thriller.

It borrows elements from the Ian Fleming short story The Hildebrand Rarity. It also borrows from the novel version of Live And Let Die, producer Cubby Broccoli (joined once again by Micheal G. Wilson, while his daughter, Barbara served, again, as associate producer) continued to want a darker veined 007. Dalton was uncomfortable playing that. 007 scribe Richard Maibaum and Wilson came up with the script and story. But they were also forced to change the film’s original title. Licence Revoked became Licence to Kill, since the screenwriters made assumptions about a North American audience. Americans wouldn’t know what the word ‘revoked’ meant, and that it may cost them box office dollars.

The production largely relocated to Mexico to shoot their story. Additional shoots took place in Florida (most notably at the Ernest Hemingway Museum). And more shoots took place in the UK, though notably not the 007 Stage at Pinewood.

Peter Lamont returned as production designer, bringing his brother Micheal as art director. Meanwhile, Alec Mills returned as DOP and John Grover came back as editor. All of whom work really well with Glen. But with so many of them having worked for so long on Bond films the story consequently is a little off-balance. It’s as if the behind the scenes crew weren’t quite ready to commit to this darker version of Bond. There are moments of levity, and Q (Desmond Llewelyn) has his largest appearance in the series yet. But the film played his presence for lighter moments which detract from the rest of the dark narrative.

The story sees Bond going after a drug lord, Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) not on orders from M. (Robert Brown) but because his friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter. David Hedison plays Leiter, the only actor at this point in the series to play the role more than once, previously in Live And Let Die. And honestly how hard was that to do? Can you imagine the impact if it was a beloved recurring actor? Anyway, Felix is tortured and left for dead because of his investigation into Sanchez’s operation. Leiter’s new bride, Della (Priscilla Barnes) is also a victim of Sanchez’s villainy. That villainy is led by his right hand man, Dario (Benicio del Toro in one of his earliest onscreen appearances).

Bond heads south of the border with the help of a CIA pilot, Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell). There he infiltrates Sanchez’s operation which includes a televangelist front run by Professor Joe Butcher (Wayne Newton!). He also  woos the drug lord’s girl, Lupe (Talisa Soto). All so he can bring it crashing down from the inside.

This has Bond working outside of his usual restrictions because M. demands he returns to work. And 007 resigns from the service, going full vigilante in his hunt for justice.

Darker, edgier. This was part of the deal when the filmmakers announced Dalton for Bond in The Living Daylights. The producers wanted to lean towards darker material, with a more realistic bent, like the characters portrayed in the original novels.

There are stunts aplenty in this outing, a helicopter dangling a stuntman, as Bond, over a plane. There are also a number of sequences involving petrol tankers, Bond’s water-skiing from a plane, and minor fisticuffs throughout. The majority of which was overseen by coordinator Paul Weston.

John Barry is noticeably missing, undergoing throat surgery and he retired from composing at the time. Instead Micheal Kamen, who had previously scored Lethal Weapon and Die Hard came aboard. He wrote a suitably Bond-esque score, and though it is not completely memorable, there are some nice moments. And there’s a nice incorporation of the iconic James Bond Theme. It appears in the oddest place, as bullets slam into a petrol truck is climbing under, the bullet strikes play out the theme – have a listen.

The title song was belted out by Gladys Knight. The song also veered away from the rock feeling the films garnered in favor of a more classic feeling theme. It also featured an additional song, If You Asked Me To by Patti LaBelle which would play at the end of the film. It would later find great success as a cover by Celine Dion.

Maurice Binder gives us his last title credits sequence for this film, and he wasn’t the only one who would be leaving the series after its completion. As both Mills and Maibaum would be making this their final 007 effort, leading the series to be ready to remake itself yet again.

As the film drew closer to its North American release date of 14 July, 1989. The studio released it a month earlier on 13 June in the UK, so they had to put posters, trailers and music videos together. For both the UK and US poster, photoshop seemed to be the order of the day. Tony Synegar served as art director for the North American campaign, and Robin Behling overseeing the UK version. Both featured photography by Keith Hamshere and Douglas Kirkland. Everything be equal the advance one sheet by Steven Chorney (with photography by Hamshere) is my preferred art for the film. Although I miss the painted art posters of the previous films.

Film goers didn’t want a darker Bond and the film didn’t perform as well as the producers hoped. But Bond returned to the screen in 1989 which was such a big year! We got a number of movies including some heavy hitters; a third Indiana Jones movie, a second Ghostbusters and Lethal Weapon. Other releases include a fifth Star Trek, a third Karate Kid, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Also, Tim Burton brought the world’s greatest detective to the big screen with Batman. It was hard to compete.

It was also the first 007 film to score a PG-13 rating for its level of violence. This is saying something considering what happened in previous films, but now censors and family groups became more aware of this.

Legal issues with MGM held back production of the next Bond film, which would have featured Dalton. But his contract expired a year before 007 was to return to the screen. Still, when the film comes to its conclusion, we are reminded that James Bond Will Return.

It would just be a longer wait than intended, as pre-production for Dalton’s next Bond was to have started in the summer of 1990. But the holdup with MGM kept that from happening. But our favourite secret agent would be back, and be ready to take us into a new century when he did, sadly it wouldn’t be with Timothy Dalton.

Thank you again to DK Canada for being my Q Branch, and providing me a wealth of 007 information, specifically their books. One such book is Bond By Design: The Art of The James Bond Films. Other books include James Bond: 50 Years of Movie Posters, and The James Bond Encyclopedia.

This post was written by
TD Rideout has been a movie fan since the moment he first encountered Bruce the Shark in 1975. As passionate about cinema as he is popcorn movies, his film education is a continuing journey of classics new and old. He is at his most comfortable with a book, a drink, his partner and his dog.
Comments are closed.