PG-13. I'm pretty confident that this is the first Bond movie to get the PG-13 rating. Part of that falls into the purview of the PG-13 rating, you know, existing. But I always thought the Brosnan Bonds were the first PG-13 movies. Licence to Kill really earns its PG-13 rating, however. Considering how violent James Bond movies are, this is the one that I think is the bloodiest. There's some actual low key gore in this movie. Coupled with the return of the kinda / sorta nudity that really has new life in high def, Licence to Kill is one of the more brutal entries in the series. It's all about drugs. That's kind of intense. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: John Glen
For decades, Licence to Kill was my least favorite Bond movie. I tried and I tried to like it. After all, considering The Living Daylights is one of my favorite Bond movies, I really knew that Timothy Dalton had the chops to make an amazing Bond. Then Die Another Day came out and I realized that Bond movies could get way worse. Still, Licence to Kill always kind of became a chore to view. I have reasons for that, which I'll probably be talking about in this article. But I'm kind of excited to say...I didn't hate Licence to Kill this time. Something similar happened with For Your Eyes Only, and there might be something going on in my mind grapes that has accounted for a change in taste.
See, when I was on a Bond kick...I WAS ON A BOND KICK. If there was silence or even the hint of boredom, I would throw in a Bond movie. I had these movies memorized. Not surprisingly, a lot of those binges would be the franchise, in order. During the summers, I had these widescreen Bond VHS tapes (because I was an aspect ratio snob even in the halcyon days of VHS) that would inspire to to choose one that I hadn't watched recently. I kept coming back, hoping to turn it around on Licence to Kill, but it never really happened. But now that I find myself kind of liking For Your Eyes Only and Licence to Kill, despite the fact that they were the weakest entries pre-Die Another Day, I have to probably criticize my old self.
I'm sure I'm not the only one, but I find my younger self cringey. My theory is that the farthest back in time I could travel and feel comfortable with myself is eight years ago. That nine year mark might be just enough of a change that I would be put off by myself. I stopped the Bond regular binge probably when I started working at the video store. I still bought the Bond DVDs and gave them a whirl when they came out, mainly because of the rad transfer. But really, Bond was kind of done for me. I would watch the new ones when they came out, but I had way more to watch. Since then, I've watched more movies than anyone in my sphere of influence. I have taught a film class. I'm very cool with boring movies now. And from that, I realized something that I can apply to the Bond movies.
The Bond movies don't have to be one thing. That's what always bugged me, I realized, about Licence to Kill. It really doesn't feel like a Bond movie. It's a far more serious film than the others in the series. Considering Daniel Craig has revitalized 007 with his colder Bond, we really have to give the props to Timothy Dalton for giving Bond that hard edge that Fleming had in his novels. My reasoning for Licence to Kill being a bummer of a film is that it didn't really feel fun at all. Bond was supposed to be fun. I might still have some investment in that argument, but Licence to Kill has a few fun moments amidst a genuinely depressing storyline. It's a bleak film. Really, it's more of an '80s action movie more than it is a Bond film, at least in terms of tone. I think it might be the inclusion of Frank McRae as Sharkey that puts it over the top. In 1993, McRae would go on to parody '80s and '90s action movies in National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1 and Last Action Hero.
Licence to Kill feels more like the forerunner to the Jack Ryan films, like Clear and Present Danger, than it does a traditional Bond film. It's like Traffic, but it lacks the intellectual complexity of a film like that. Bond's titular license is revoked from him. He's not actually acting like a secret service agent in the movie. I have no issue with that, but it also isn't as central to the plot as it should be. The concept is that Bond has gone rogue and she's fighting both the bad guys and his own government. MI6 is doing very little to hunt Bond down, making it kind of feel like more like a Timothy Dalton led action movies. There are some moments that are very Bond-y. Going fishing for an airplane is one of those moments. The weirdly forced tanker on nine wheels is also very reminiscent of Diamonds are Forever. But the rest of the movie is a drug, revenge thriller. Honestly, I just wrote about Last Blood and elements of these movies are interchangeable.
But I also have to contextualize the film. It's 1989. The focus from the Russians to the War on Drugs seems really appropriate. It really seems like a small story, compared to the other Bond films. Really, the core of the film is James Bond getting revenge on Franz Sanchez for the crippling of Felix Leiter and the associated fridging...ahem...death of Leiter's wife. If this was the whole film, the movie might feel more pure (pun intended). Putting Bond on a track of revenge is an interesting story that lets us see something that was only teased in Diamonds are Forever. We see Bond as a force of nature with nothing to lose. That's something that's worth watching. But because Licence to Kill is under the Bond banner, with fans like Old Me demanding that Bond elements are in the film, the story desperately attempts to get a scope that isn't appropriate for something like this.
There's the whole story of the Stinger missiles that doesn't really belong in this film. Now that I'm 37, I understand why there are Stinger missiles in the movie. I always thought that they were an excuse for Bond to be shot at with absolutely insane weapons. But there's a subplot all about them that makes Sanchez fight his way to Bond villain status. That's something I have to make very clear: Franz Sanchez is not a traditional Bond villain. He's a guy who has his little empire and has no plans for death and destruction on a grand scale. He's definitely evil, but in a more realistic, "Just give me my money and respect" kind of way. The Stinger missiles are there to show that he's getting bigger. He's a genuine threat to America (not even the UK!). But none of that is really needed. In fact, removing it makes it a better story.
Bond stumbling onto an international incident means that he really hasn't made the sacrifice he originally intended. When he quits Her Majesty's Secret Service, it's with the understanding that his needs outweigh the needs of the planet. That's how big this moment in his history is. Bond has always been about a code. Sure, that code might involved driving a gondola like a car with missles, but a code. The British Secret Service took this kid whose parents had died and turned him into a force of nature to protect the globe. But he's going to use that violence and energy to get revenge for his buddy? That's a cool story. What the Stinger missiles do, unfortunately, is give Bond a Get Out of Jail Free card. Yeah, it makes the movie more complex in a really stupid way, but it also allows Bond to return to the status quo, no consequences. Because Bond inadvertently stopped an interenational incident, the events of him upending a government without orders goes away. After all, Sanchez was a terrorist threat. Of course he should be taken off the board.
There's a weird message at the end. There have been multiple Bond girls in movies before, but never has one gotten jealous over the other. Lupe kisses Bond after confessing that she loves him. Pam sees this, goes off upset. Bond ends the movie by jumping off the balcony into a pool to show his affection for Pam. Cool...um? What about Lupe? It looks like they changed her character last second to show that she's fickle. Also, shouldn't Pam be upset that Bond went from kissing Lupe to wanting Pam instead? That's not a great answer.
So Licence to Kill is a better movie than I remember. But it also shouldn't try to do so many things and please so many people. If it's going to be a revenge film with drug dealing, stick to that. But make it clean. Don't overcomplicate it with a downed airplane or Professor Joe Butcher. Just tell a clean story and make a good film.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.