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Should I Watch..? 'Licence to Kill' (1989)

Benjamin considers himself an authority on James Bond, having reviewed every film and many more over a number of years.

Poster for the film starring Timothy Dalton as James Bond and Benicio Del Toro as the youngest Bond villain ever.

Poster for the film starring Timothy Dalton as James Bond and Benicio Del Toro as the youngest Bond villain ever.

What's the Big Deal?

Licence To Kill is an action thriller film released in 1989 and is the sixteenth entry in the James Bond series. It was the first film to not be based on an Ian Fleming novel and sees many key people leave the series for the last time, not least Timothy Dalton who plays 007 for the second and last time. It also marks the temporary suspension of the series which had regularly produced movies every couple of years since Dr No in 1962. Numerous personnel changes both behind and in front of the camera as well as legal challenges as to the ownership of the series meant that the next film - GoldenEye - would not be released until 1995 and have Pierce Brosnan playing 007 instead of Dalton. Licence To Kill performed well enough at the box office, although it did face heavy competition from the likes of Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Lethal Weapon 2.


What's It About?

Shortly after the marriage of DEA agent Felix Leiter to his bride Della, a drug baron named Franz Sanchez ambushes the Leiters seeking revenge for being captured by Leiter in the opening sequence. Della is murdered and Leiter is fed to sharks, although he barely survives. Bond seeks out Sanchez himself as the DEA appear powerless to stop Sanchez and this irks his superiors at MI6 who suspend Bond and revoke his licence to kill.

Regardless, Bond pursues Sanchez to Mexico where he is preparing for his latest shipment to go out to the US. Alone and aided only by CIA informant Pam Bouvier who has been chasing Sanchez herself, Bond must use all his skills to get to Sanchez and stop his operation. But at the heart of it all is Bond's desire for vengeance at all costs, despite MI6 pursuing him as well...

What's to Like?

The Living Daylights was a proper old-school Bond film but the story was almost completely incomprehensible. But in Licence To Kill, the story really should come as an optional extra - the film is a straight-up pursuit of Sanchez with only cursory exposition to explain the change in locations. It gives Dalton a chance to flex his action movie muscles and he's actually better than you'd think. The film is a dark, non-stop barrage of gunfights, explosions, car chases and murder - Die Hard in a tuxedo, if you will.

Once again, the big action scenes are the big draw here including a stunning shoot-out/chase involving oil tankers and a low-flying plane. It doesn't match the giddying fight on the back of a cargo plane from Dalton's first Bond outing but it's still very entertaining - noisy, brutal but still with the series' trademark sense of fun like when Bond rolls his rig onto two wheels to avoid a rocket from a bazooka. I also liked the Mexican scenery in which this carnage is set, giving the film the feel of a very silly Western movie.

Davi has a natural look for a Bond villain and does well as the underwritten Sanchez

Davi has a natural look for a Bond villain and does well as the underwritten Sanchez

Fun Facts

  • At the age of 21, at the time of shooting, Benicio Del Toro became the youngest actor ever to play a Bond villain - a record he still holds.
  • The last Bond film to feature Dalton, Brown, Caroline Bliss (as Moneypenny), screenwriter Richard Maibaum, title designer Maurice Binder, editor John Grover, director John Glen, cinematographer Alec Mills and producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli although he would act as consulting producer on GoldenEye.
  • Legendary Vegas performer Wayne Newton appears as Sanchez's middleman who acts as a TV evangelist. This character was a dig at televangelist Jim Bakker who had been exposed in the 1980s as a serial philanderer. It also fulfil's Newton's ambition of appearing in a Bond movie.

What's Not to Like?

Bond was never about just action, though. He was cool and quick-witted, calculating and ruthless. Here, he is a one-dimensional bullet-proof action stereotype - Dalton isn't given any help in trying to make his mark on the role of 007 with a script that needed much more work. You get about halfway through before you realise that you've lost track of what's going on and once that happens, you just sit back and watch the stunt team do their stuff. Action is nothing without context and no matter how good it is, if you're not invested in it then it's merely a distraction.

And that's the film in a nutshell - it is what it is, blowing up the screen in a pyrotechnic nightmare but leaving absolutely no impression on the viewer at all. It feels, weirdly, like Die Hard 2 in that it's full of exciting scenes and gripping action sequences but there's not much else to the film - some plot would have made a world of difference. Dalton simply doesn't feel like Bond in this film, mainly due to the fact that he's no longer a spy in Licence To Kill. He's like Liam Neeson in Taken, an angry man with a unique set of skills. You can't ever imagine this Bond joking around with Q or even being that much of a ladies' man.

The film features Benicio Del Toro in an early role, looking impossibly fresh-faced as chief goon Dario

The film features Benicio Del Toro in an early role, looking impossibly fresh-faced as chief goon Dario

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Should I Watch It?

Action fans will have to wait for their pay-off but otherwise, Licence To Kill is as good a time as any to put the series on hiatus for some time. It's clunky, poorly written and lacking any of the spirit that illuminated the early Connery-era films. Bond had become so stagnant that it couldn't even be a decent action film, let alone one with any humour, charm or spying in it...

Great For: looking for another actor to be 007, Mexican tourism board, patient action fans

Not So Great For: Bond fans, younger viewers

What Else Should I Watch?

The series would soon be thrown into turmoil with a number of people leaving the franchise for the last time (including Dalton) as well as legal wrangling over control of the series. But they would bounce back in style - GoldenEye was the first post-Cold War Bond and the movie reflects this well plus it has Pierce Brosnan's assured debut as Bond and Sean Bean doing what he does best. Long-time Bond fans know full well that the best Bond film of all is Goldfinger so that's the one I'd recommend.

If you're looking for an all-out action movie then you'd be best to stick to the usual suspects - Arnie, Sly, Van Damme, etc. Predator is an ultra-macho and tense jungle-based thriller with an invisible alien thrown into the mix or there's always First Blood or any of its more bullet-ridden sequels. Of course, you can have all your favourite musclemen in one place these days - the Expendables series offers audiences all of the action with none of the flim-flam. Or consequence.

Main Cast


Timothy Dalton

James Bond

Robert Davi

Franz Sanchez

Carey Lowell

Pam Bouvier

Talisa Soto

Lupe Lamora

Anthony Zerbe

Milton Krest

Benicio Del Toro


David Hedison

Felix Leiter

Technical Info

* based on characters created by Ian Fleming

DirectorJohn Glen


Michael G. Wilson & Richard Maibaum *

Running Time

133 minutes

Release Date (UK)

4th August, 1989




Action, Thriller

© 2015 Benjamin Cox

Soap Box

Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on July 06, 2015:

The scripts he got certainly didn't help and after so many movies, it would be inevitable that the character would come around to parodying itself. Of course, we had to wait for "Die Another Day" before we got sick of it...

Keith Abt from The Garden State on July 06, 2015:

"Licence" is OK in a generic action movie sort of way, but it never really feels like a "James Bond" movie.

I liked Dalton's performance better in this one than "Living Daylights," he seemed to have more of a handle on the character. I think if he'd had the chance to play Bond a third time he would've truly nailed it but it never happened.

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