Countdown to Spectre: Licence to Kill Revisited

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The Bond: Timothy Dalton, in his second and last outing.

The Release: July 14, 1989 in the US and August 4 in the UK. While Licence to Kill is superior to The Living Daylights, it made less money. Critics and Cubby Broccoli himself suggested that audiences were likely turned off by how much the film deviates from the usual formula. Whatever the reason, the film made $34.6 million domestically and $156.2 million worldwide.

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The Girl: LTK returns to the classic three-girl structure, albeit with slight changes. The first girl is Priscilla Barnes’s Della. While she marries Bond’s long-time pal Felix Leiter (David Hedison), she and Bond are unnervingly affectionate. She kisses him more than her new husband. Next comes Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier. She’s gratingly sassy, but at least she’s more useful than Tiffany Case. The third is the villain’s girlfriend, Lupe, played by Talisa Soto. She’s mostly there to look pretty, but she’s thankfully a slightly better actress than some of her predecessors.

The Villain: Robert Davi as Franz Sanchez. A drug and arms dealer with a penchant for both sadism and grandiosity, Sanchez feels classically Bondian. He lives in an all-white mansion (an actual residence called Casa Arabesque owned by a Broccoli family friend) that includes a waterfall and a funicular. He uses a smarmy televangelist (played by Wayne Newton) to launder his drug money. He smuggles cocaine dissolved in gasoline. The character is almost cartoonishly evil, but Davi is a strong enough actor to make it work. The same can’t be said, however, for Benicio Del Toro’s embarrassing overacting as Sanchez’s henchmen, Dario.

The Gadgets: While this film includes a sniper rifle disguised as a camera, the best thing to come out of Q Branch is Q himself. Desmond Llewelyn’s crotchety tech expert had ventured into the field before, but never to more hilarious effect. His two biggest and best laughs are basically sight gags. The first when Q disguises himself in a mustache and straw hat and suddenly reveals that the broom he’s usingr is actually a radio. The second when he rolls his eyes when Pam finds out Bond slept with Lupe.

The Song: “Licence to Kill,” one of the series’ best. That’s mostly thanks to Gladys Knight’s vocals. She goes full Bassey, belting the notes like her life depends on it. The music sounds classic but has just enough electronic sounds to feel modern. It’s also absurdly catchy and has a ridiculous music video. Get yourself to YouTube right now if you’ve never seen it. I’ll wait.

The Book: Though LTK is the first movie title that doesn’t come from a Fleming novel or short story, it does take a lot from them. The first thing is Sanchez feeding Felix to a shark, which happens in Live and Let Die. In the book, Felix loses both an arm and a leg, while he’s just lightly mauled in the movie. The moment where Bond finds Leiter covered in a bloody sheet with a note reading “he disagreed with something that ate him,” however, is pure Fleming.

The bigger influence on the film, though, is the short story “The Hildebrand Rarity.” In it, Bond, on a break between missions, agrees to take a job doing diving work for a rich boor named Milton Krest. Anthony Zerbe plays the character in the film, but he’s a minor henchmen for Sanchez instead of the main villain. Bond takes an immediate disliking to Krest, first because he’s condescending and second because he beats his wife, Elizabeth, with a stingray tail (like Sanchez does to Lupe).

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Bond doesn’t do anything to stop the beatings and even inwardly complains that Elizabeth is either a fool not to divorce him or a coward not to kill him. However, after someone asphyxiates Krest with a unique fish species–the titular Hildebrand Rarity–he’s suddenly uncomfortable with the idea that she might be guilty. Though that doesn’t stop him from accepting her barely veiled sexual invitation.

The Movie: Movie Bond had always been promiscuous, but in 1989, with a heightened fear of STD’s thanks to the AIDS crisis, that just didn’t work anymore. While yesterday’s The Living Daylights suggested Bond might some day settle down, LTK takes it a step further.

I’ve already touched on the weird relationship between Bond and Della, but its weirdest moment comes when she pulls off her garter and throws it to him as if it were her panties. She then says Bond should be the next one to get married and he, suddenly serious, says a simple, hard “no.” Confused, Della asks Felix why Bond reacted so poorly and he responds that Bond was married once before, a.k.a. poor Tracy (Diana Rigg) from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Considering this is only the second reference to that film in the 30 years since its premiere, it doesn’t take a film scholar to see writers Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum are trying to draw a parallel. Namely, that Della’s death reminds Bond of his lost wife and his anger and desire for revenge are just as much about his friends as Tracy.

It also explains why he’s so afraid of commitment. However, Bond’s issues are played out in an even more obvious way through his contrasting relationships with Lupe and Pam. Lupe represents promiscuity. She’s dating Sanchez, but our first shot of her is in another man’s bed. She quickly falls for Bond, but easily moves on when the Presidente looks her way. Pam represents monogamy. She’s exactly the kind of woman Bond should end up with: independent, capable, and challenges him in a way that clearly both excites and annoys him. (Whether Pam should stay with a man who is so dismissive of her and, frankly, feminism is another story.) She’s also genuinely hurt when she finds out Bond slept with Lupe. And while Bond initially dismisses her feelings, the end of the film makes it pretty clear what he wants going forward.

After Sanchez is killed, the characters attend a victory party at Casa Arabesque and Lupe kisses Bond just in time for Pam to see. She runs away upset and Bond detaches his face from Lupe’s long enough to notice. He takes a look back at Lupe, gives his apologies and then, in a big romantic gesture, jumps off the balcony into the pool below, landing right in front of a teary-eyed Pam.

By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.

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