This essay on Licence to Kill is the sixteenth essay in a 24-part series about the James Bond cinemas co-created by Sundog Lit. I encourage everyone to read the other essays, comment and join in on the conversation about not only the films themselves, but cinematic trends, political and other external influences on the series’ tone and direction.
Of [In]human #Bond_age_ #16: The Immaculate Revenge of Licence to Kill
by James David Patrick
I sat down to write this essay for Licence to Kill and stared at an empty screen. I’d inadvertently used many of the points I’d plan to discuss in my conversation about The Living Daylights. And if not for my essay on guilty pleasures and The Man with the Golden Gun, I could have done something similar here. Outright Carey Lowell worship seemed too shallow (off to Tumblr!). Discussing the abundance of television actors in the Bond films of the 80’s seemed more like a TV Guide cover story. Underrated Bond villains? Davi’s at the top of the list. Do they still print TV Guides by the way? Boy is that a publication that overstayed its utility. I do, however, remember anticipating the arrival of the new TV Guide in the mailbox. I’d scan every day’s primetime schedule grid looking for cartoons, especially the holiday Peanuts’ specials and Garfield. I never missed a primetime Garfield special. I was diligent. But I digress. How could I digress without even getting started down a single path? Doesn’t that mean that the initial path was a digression, thus making the digression the legitimate path? After all, Licence to Kill does indeed mark a drastic series transgression — this essay could merely be a thematic homage that somewhere along the way stumbled onto relevancy.
Speaking of relevancy, check out this picture. There’s too much smolder going on here for mortal humans to fully process.
What you’re looking at with Licence to Kill is an oft contested Bond-in-transition. This was the first film written exclusively for Timothy Dalton as James Bond and the liberties taken with the screenplay to make this entry different conflict perhaps with those traditional elements that the franchise couldn’t yet relinquish. I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. The Living Daylights had originally been written for Roger Moore before being rewritten for Pierce Brosnan and then again, finally, for Timothy Dalton. In the Bond series, the personality of your actor must drive the tone of the film. I’ve come to this idea vis-à-vis the notion that the Bond character is a blank slate, a malleable piece of clay molded to appeal to broad audiences and survive cultural and aesthetic shifts. If the character has no discernible history, the actor himself must present a sense of history and weight without exposition. And that projected gravitas should align with the tone of the film. Without some symbiosis between 007’s specific personality and the tone/narrative of the film, the movie turns into Diamonds Are Forever. And for the most part, the writers of the Bond series have done a very good job of writing to their actor’s strengths, with a few notable exceptions. With Licence to Kill, EON endeavored to create a unique vehicle specifically for Timothy Dalton’s James Bond. The result was something that succeeds and confounds in equal measure. But is there an underlying method to the perceived madness?
Let’s play a thrilling new game “What’s Up With This Picture?”
What’s wrong here?
A. They misspelled DEA.
B. Felix Leiter’s apparently doing something.
C. Grand L. Bush (far right) could have had a more awesome name.
D. It’s so super slo-mo you can’t even see forward progress.
Fill in the blank:
When Moneypenny made travel arrangements for 007 to attend Felix Leiter’s wedding she forgot ___________.
Match the internal monologue with the character:
“Who the hell am I?”
“Who the hell is this guy?”
“Why am I suddenly in the DEA?”
Name this woman’s profession(s).
B. Model for Calvin Klein
C. Like… Intelligence, oh my god.
D. Book shop owner
E. Professional Smolderer
Okay. So how’d you do?
I used those pictures to act as pictoral reminders about the unusual opening sequence of Licence to Kill. The Carey Lowell picture is merely obligatory.
The movie opens with James Bond doing very un-Bond things. Namely attending the wedding (as best man, actually) of on-again/off-again CIA imbecile Felix Leiter. Except he’s not CIA anymore. 007 is in the wedding party at the former CIA – now DEA agent’s nuptials. Think back to other movies featuring the Leiter character. Have you seen Bond and Leiter share any more than a common Western ideology? At best Leiter’s been light parody of the CIA through the eyes of MI-6. Bond has tossed him an occasional compliment like one throws a stray dog a ham bone. He’s sometimes proven useful on a mission, (because Jack Lord knew all about the finest hair products) but mostly he’s dead weight (see: Diamonds Are Forever, Goldfinger, The Living Daylights). Bond knows it. The audience knows it. I think sometimes even Leiter knows it. It would explain the dead look in John Terry’s (The Living Daylights) eyes.
If EON attempted to create broader US appeal with a stateside Leiter-centric plot, the immaculate friendship between Bond and Leiter seems at first glance a curious gambit. David Hedison does, however, make the first repeat performance in the role (he last appeared in Live and Let Die) to give the friendship some perceived longevity – or at the very least a connection to the audience. On one hand, a familiar face in the Leiter role could only help establish the relationship. On the other, Hedison didn’t even play Leiter alongside T-Dalt in The Living Daylights. There’s method to the madness here, but before I get to a legitimate point, let’s explore…
…a brief history of Felix Leiter.
An interesting footnote to this Leiter-sploitation is that after Dr. No, EON worried Jack Lord’s popularity would eclipse that of Bond himself. They recast the role older and stodgier for Goldfinger just to be sure nobody paid any attention. Cec Linder is more like that boring uncle who plays birdwatching bingo with buddies on AOL than a CIA agent. More curiously, EON had originally cast Austin Willis in the role (the card player getting cheated by Goldfinger) and Linder as the card player, but swapped their roles prior to filming. Then when they realized that senior-citizen Leiter wasn’t the vibe they really wanted, EON cast Rik Van Nutter in Thunderball and attempted to fashion him into Jack Lord 2.0, sunglasses, hair, the works. They planned to use him as Leiter for the next few movies. But, really, you can’t recreate Jack Lord, and Van Nutter spoke every line with an unrivaled brand of universal condescension and self-loathing. (See the Thunderball Live Tweet Digest to see our reaction to Van Nutter.) They didn’t write Van Nutter another role as Leiter (with good reason). The character doesn’t make another appearance until Norman Burton in Diamonds are Forever where Leiter officially becomes a nincompoop. In casting Hedison in Live and Let Die, EON took a big step toward redeeming Leiter. Hedison appears pretty comfortable in the role despite some regrettably awesomeful dialogue regarding the “white pimpmobile,” but Leiter is again written out of The Man with the Golden Gun despite playing a relatively significant role in the book. And I just won’t talk about clueless John Terry in The Living Daylights. No breath should be wasted on a guy that should have just been, at best, a recurring character on Just the 10 Of Us.
Consider, however, that Book Bond and Book Leiter were pretty chummy. Take the plot of Fleming’s Thunderball where Bond and Leiter pal around together like buddy cops on spring break. They’ve got no leads on the stolen warhead so they hang out, drink and wait for something to happen. Book Bond would definitely attend Book Leiter’s wedding. Movie Bond would send Movie Leiter regrets for his absence and a gift card to Bed Bath and Beyond.
Regarding Licence to Kill, I’m willing to overlook the cinematic continuity transgressions because of the literary connections. As you recall, Dalton wanted a more Fleming-esque Bond, and the plot point of Leiter being massacred by a shark was ripped from the pages of the Live and Let Die novel. (Originally Fleming had killed Leiter off in the shark attack, but his US agent with publisher Curtis Brown protested the death of the only recurring American character.) Book Leiter returned in Diamonds Are Forever with a prosthetic leg and a hook for a hand, newly employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency. I’ve also overlooked the incongruity because of LtK’s status as a James Bond outlier. The “immaculate friendship” becomes one of many fringe elements beholden only to Dalton’s second and regrettably final outing as 007.
As incongruous as the Bond/Leiter relationship is in Licence to Kill, it’s hard to argue with the logic behind finally giving Bond some human ties in order to paint the picture of a real human inside the tuxedo. When Bond argues with M about staying to avenge Leiter and Della rather than go to Istanbul, he says, “[Leiter] put his life on the line for me many times.” Okay, well, as far as we know he’s risked a torn fingernail on a couple of occasions, maybe a sprain, a mussed coif, but in lieu of any visual evidence to support this fact, we’ll just take Bond’s word for it. He used quite a bit of conviction in this speech and ultimately resigned his 00-status for the guy. Before I get into the meat (shall I say “chum”) of this conversation, I’ve just got one more partially tangential question to explore…
Speaking of meat, what’s the deal with those maggots anyway?
The death-by-hilarity fishing-lure maggots turned out to be the least overtly violent death in Licence to Kill (though the worst to actually ponder. It’s the James Bond version of the Pit of Sarlacc). Heads would explode and Leiters would be eaten. The PG-13 rating was established by the MPAA in 1984 after reactions against the violence in Temple of Doom and Gremlins. Red Dawn became the film slapped with the new rating. It wasn’t until 1989, that Licence to Kill became the first Bond film to earn that PG-13… and with good reason. The British Board of Film Classification followed suit, making Licence the first Rated 15 Bond picture. The MPAA originally suggested that the film should earn an R-rating for violence. To avoid the R, some changes were made to the final release of the film. Among them: Krest’s exploding head, Dario’s legs being diced in the mincer, the roast of Sanchez and a shot of Felix’s severed leg in the water. That’s not even counting the smarmy security guard giving the maggots indigestion. Just because you don’t see the actual carnage, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I feel squirmy just thinking about it. Like being buried alive, except with worms slowly eating away at your flesh.
I would go as far to suggest that Licence to Kill exceeds the Daniel Craig entries for on-screen violence. And it’s not just that violence happens, it’s that Bond is less reacting to violence than he is instigating the violence in LtK. We would normally cite any of the aforementioned examples as a Bond anomaly had they taken place in any other Bond movie. Consider the time I’ve spent discussing the execution of Leopold Locque in For Your Eyes Only. In the context of Licence to Kill, however, these scenes are merely part of laundry list of cold-blooded vengeance. Bond pushes an unarmed man out of an airplane. Bond shoots an unarmed man with a harpoon gun. Bond shoves two unarmed men into a shark tank. Bond sets Sanchez on fire after dousing him in flammable liquids. Bond turns Dario (Benicio del Toro) into Grade A ground sirloin. And these are only the ones I can recall off the top of my head without consulting my notes. At this point, the notes seem like overkill. It’s a brutal world out there… if you’re on the wrong side of Bond Gone Wild: Spring Break Miami.
The pull-no-punches Licence to Kill belongs in the “revenge movie” genre alongside films such as Straw Dogs, Old Boy and Kill Bill. Quantum of Solace is Bond’s “other” revenge picture, but in terms of the deliberate and brutal nature of the on-screen violence, Licence to Kill easily bests QoS. Craig’s Bond intermittently deviates from the revenge that propelled Casino Royale into QoS. It’s easy to forget that Bond has set out to avenge the death of Vesper Lynd. In Licence to Kill, there’s never a doubt about Bond’s driving motivation: to bring justice to the punk-ass bitches that killed Della and fed his buddy Felix Leiter to a shark. (T-Dalt occasionally shares a moment of flirtation with Carey Lowell’s shotgun-wielding Pam Bouvier, but, really, who can blame either of them?)
In order to justify this bloodthirsty Bond vengeance, Licence to Kill had to go where no film had gone before. Of course, sidekicks and women had been killed in past missions, but their loss had been dulled by the specific ways in which the murders were depicted. Consider On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Tracy Bond is killed at the very end of the film by Blofeld. The subsequent film could have established this kind of Bond furor, but Diamonds Are Forever wasted all momentum with a corny mud-soaked pre-title “revenge” scene that had nothing at stake. My disgust directed at DAF’s handling of the material has been well documented. In Dr. No, the “dragon” dispatches longtime Book Bond-friend Quarrel, but Movie-Bond sees him as little more than hired help. With the possible exception of Countess Lisl (the impetus for the Locque execution), the executed women have all been momentary obstacles. After all, per the formula established in Goldfinger, one of Bond’s liaisons meets her maker per movie. If each of these flings meant something, Bond would have no time for missions — he’d spend his career chasing down the executioners of his arm candy. Licence to Kill dares to be distinctive by touching the previously untouchable. Logically, Leiter becomes the only option. Who else would inspire such white-hot emotions in James Bond? Q? Moneypenny? Those characters are truly untouchable. (Though I’d like to imagine that if Sanchez had fed Desmond Llewelyn to a shark, Bond just rides a bomb into Sanchez’s compound, a la Dr. Strangelove, no questions asked.) The recurring Leiter and his new bride, however, were another matter entirely… but first the movie needed to establish that Leiter wasn’t just the CIA stooge, as depicted in prior films. He had to be Book Leiter to Book Bond. Leiter also needed a wife… and this finally brings me to an interesting bit of subtext you’ll never. again. overlook. in Licence to Kill.
The Situation with Leiter’s Wife
Picking the movie’s narrative apart into its emotional cues and nuts and bolts, Leiter’s wife becomes the fascinating lynch pin around which the entire movie revolves. Narratively, she’s the reason Bond and Leiter are together at the start of the movie. Bond the Best Man attending Della and Felix’s wedding. Bond and Leiter, newly established BFFs. So after the wedding, when Della demands her kiss from the best man, her informality speaks volumes about her and Bond’s relationship as well. The movie attempts to place her on equal footing with Leiter, almost as a sister to James. She doesn’t know him well enough to know the story of his wife, however. Then again, how many do know? She suggests Bond will soon find that special someone he richly deserves and tosses him the garter. Bond gets uncomfortable, dodges the question and exits the scene. Leiter then fills her in: “He was married once. But it was a long time ago.” No more is said, but from that line, we now presume that everyone, including the audience who didn’t see or doesn’t remember On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is up to speed with Bond’s marital history. This isn’t just dialogue wasted on building a deeper 007; this is necessary exposition for the film at hand.
Fast forward to Bond at the airport where he hears the news that “some drug dealer escaped.” He knows immediately that the escapee is Sanchez and that he’s going to seek revenge against Leiter. Bond returns and finds Della dead in her wedding dress (an important visual) before locating the partially digested Leiter in a body bag.
In this scenario, Della had to die.
Despite the movie going out of its way to establish the connection between James and Felix, that isn’t enough justification for longtime Bond fans. The nincompoop Leiters have been too deeply ingrained in our Bond conscience. New viewers will take the relationship at face value and go along with the narrative. We, the seasoned veterans, needed more. A dead woman in a Bond movie is one thing… but making that dead woman a bride still wearing her wedding dress is an entirely different matter. With the conversation about Bond’s wife still fresh in our minds, it should go without question that the movie wants us to associate Della’s body, still in her wedding dress, with Tracy Bond. If we weren’t supposed to make that association, sleeping dogs would have been left to slumber and Della wouldn’t have provoked the ire of T-Dalt’s smolder with passing exposition. Bond’s wife wouldn’t have entered the conversation. This information serves no other narrative purpose. We are absolutely supposed to understand that no small part of Bond’s vengeance stems from something deeper than just his relationship with Leiter. It’s Leiter. It’s Della. Eventually, it’s also Sharkey. But most importantly he’s avenging the loss of his wife, Tracy, because Bond never had the opportunity to do so.
Here’s Della and then the corresponding Bond reaction:
The movie charged with the task of allowing Bond to avenge Tracy’s death, Diamonds Are Forever, only undermined Bond’s loss by denying that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service happened. It isn’t until The Spy Who Loved Me that Bond first acknowledges the loss by ducking a question from Agent XXX. And then in For Your Eyes Only the series makes its first explicit reference to Tracy Bond’s death. Bond (Roger Moore) lays flowers on a grave, clearly marked “Teresa Bond / 1943-1969 / Beloved wife of JAMES BOND. We have all the time in the world.” It sets the date of death (1969 – the year of OHMSS’ release) and recalls a specific line from the movie. FYEO officially ends the boycott, but James Bond couldn’t suddenly react to a 12-year-old tragedy. I know it’s not explicitly an apology for Diamonds Are Forever, but I like to think that this cold open on a mourning Bond is a mea culpa for ruining a two-movie narrative arc that could have continued to elevate the Bond series above mere testosterone-fueled escapism. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service achieved some success but was henceforth banished because of lackluster box office returns (more than likely a result of Connery’s departure rather than objections over the content of the film).
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service tried to make the series more than gadgets and women. For the first time, Bond had a true leading lady, a rival in both wit and beauty. The narrative came straight from Ian Fleming’s gold-plated Royal Quiet Deluxe Portable typewriter. Book Bond almost met Movie Bond in OHMSS. Had Diamonds allowed for a continuation of the story (perhaps a storyline plucked from the excised bits of Fleming’s own revenge story You Only Live Twice), I suggest Movie Bond and Book Bond could have shared a cup of coffee at the counter of Monk’s and gotten to know each other a little bit better. Worlds could have collided. And it could have been glorious.
But that didn’t happen. And the two-movie narrative arc never happened, leaving James Bond with a case of unconsummated revenge that would fester throughout the Roger Moore years until the arrival of Timothy Dalton. Dalton wanted a return to the character’s specific humanity in Fleming’s prose, but his first film wasn’t written with this ideology in mind. It was written for two other actors before getting an overhaul for Dalton. Consider this: Dalton only got one movie to make his own, to explore the darker side of 007 as written by Ian Fleming. In the grand scheme of James Bond, that Dalton did not get that third movie is one of the most egregious missteps of the franchise – alongside the disavowal of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. To be fair, EON wanted Dalton back for more Bond, but outside factors forced an indefinite filming hiatus. Contrary to popular belief, EON did not discontinue The Smolder due to disappointment with his films, Dalton chose to move on because EON could not move forward with the franchise.
Licence to Kill could be viewed as an attempt to revise (but not rewrite) Bond history.
Name a better way that Dalton could force himself into the series continuity without actually rewriting Movie Bond’s history? It goes without saying that he wanted his 007 to appeal to Fleming purists and fans of the cinema series who might not have read Fleming’s original texts. Twenty years after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Dalton, in his one and only signature T-Dalt effort, set out to indirectly avenge the death of Tracy Bond vis-à-vis hunting down the killer of Leiter’s wife, Della. Leiter, of course, was chewed up by a shark and held on life support throughout the movie, but I would argue that: A) Leiter’s survival is a given and B) the newly christened brotherly love between Bond and Leiter is a forced emotional tie to increase the stakes. As I said before, it could have ONLY been Leiter to warrant such a drastic reaction from 007 within the individual film, but if we interpret Licence to Kill within the context of the entire series, the emotional tie with Leiter is void. Within the context of the entire series, it’s not just that Della reminds of us Tracy because Bond finds her dead in her wedding dress on her wedding night. Della is Tracy.
In his book, Making Movies, Sidney Lumet discussed the nature of great movies and why the outcome of a production is often unpredictable. He said that his job as director was to ensure that hundreds of people, each containing disparate viewpoints and creative opinions, are “all making the same movie.” It’s an obvious assertion, but when you stop to consider how many people have a hand in a big production, it remains somewhat remarkable that your generic blockbuster movie ever turns out with any kind of singular vision. It doesn’t happen often, but it most often happens at the hands of a visionary director that has achieved success outside the studio system. Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton and their respective Batman franchises, for example. With a James Bond movie, you’re not only fighting the movie-making process, you’re fighting decades of tradition.
The Licence to Kill production, lead by director John Glen, were all committed to making this obvious thematic anomaly, a transgression from the past 20 years. Consider that director John Glen and screenwriters had worked together on every Bond since For Your Eyes Only and had adjusted on the fly from Moore to Brosnan to Dalton in The Living Daylights and then committed wholeheartedly to this even more radical treatment of the character. Dalton may have demanded a return to the Fleming texts but the actor can only do so much. Like Lumet said, everyone has to commit, everyone has to be making the same film. And while Licence to Kill has many detractors that criticize it for being 00-Miami Vice, I refuse to accept this prosaic criticism. Licence to Kill might have its faults but the one thing it is not is a lazy rehash of a primetime television drama. It is Bond, albeit a darker Bond… a Bizarro Bond, that always existed in the character, lying dormant through the winter and waiting for the right moment to emerge. Unfortunately this Bizarro Bond saw its own shadow and went back into hibernation for another 17 years.
A new perspective on Licence to Kill through the #Bond_age_ lens: a postscript
I saw Licence to Kill in the theater. I was 11 years old and this was my first Bond on the big screen. The timing of my “coming of Bond age” (Get it: “Bond age”? #Bond_age_?) placed the Timothy Dalton Bonds in a unique position of worship. No other new Bonds were released for six years after Licence to Kill and from a pre-teen/teenager’s perspective six years represents an eternity. Thus, I watched Licence to Kill often. So often in fact, I’m sure it’s still my most-watched James Bond movie. I remember only having a few Bonds on VHS, most of them dubs from rental tapes (Licence included). It was my favorite Bond for many years. It was how I understood James Bond. I liked The Living Daylights but it seemed frivolous in comparison. Licence to Kill was dire. It was brutal. It was the other Dalton movie that seemed like the anomaly (it wasn’t long before I realized the folly of my assessment). I started to watch and rewatch the earlier Bonds during this same time period. I loved them, but I wrote off their relative innocence as a product of their arcane, more innocent time. These are the limitations of an 11-year-old frame of reference.
It wasn’t long until I’d watched through (what I thought was) the entire Bond series in no particular order as I found them on rental shelves and littered through out own dubbed VHS collection. I had no guide or list by which to check off each as I watched it. The Internet was only a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. As a result of my scattershot approach, I’m pretty sure I didn’t actually watch You Only Live Twice until I picked up the Special Edition DVD in 2000. (It’s an unusual feeling, putting in the DVD for a movie you’re absolutely sure you’ve seen and not remembering any of it. The admission, even to yourself, that you were completely wrong about knowing the movie still comes as quite the shock.) Most of us probably watched through the series in a similarly roundabout manner. We each have a starting point, a few favorites, a few neglected entries that didn’t necessarily grab us at first watch and maybe a few we only thought we’d seen. One of the reasons I started #Bond_age_ was to force myself to experience the series as it was released. I assumed not only that I would start to notice trends that just weren’t apparent in isolated viewing, but I’d also gain a grater appreciation for those neglected Bond movies that just didn’t get enough play. Licence to Kill never really had a shortage of airtime, but I’d never tried putting it into the context of the whole series. I thought it would always remain an outsider. I too was swayed by the naysay, how it just wasn’t a James Bond movie.
Even though Licence to Kill might no longer be my James Bond I Ching, I’ve gained an entirely different appreciation for the film that goes beyond shortsighted pre-teen adoration (Carey Lowell is wicked hot and sharks and stingray-tale whips, f’ing rule!). My affection for LtK runs deep – not just because it’s a singular transgression from traditional Bond aesthetics and tone, but also because goddammit it does fit. It might fit like a slightly misshapen piece of the puzzle, but with a little effort and a certain amount of perspective Licence to Kill belongs in the bigger picture of the entire Bond canon – Book Bond and Movie Bond. It might have taken two consecutive chronological viewings of the series to see the potential connections between Della and Bond’s deceased wife and a little behind-the-scenes understanding of how Timothy Dalton wanted to shape 007, but I’m happy to claim yet another victory for good #Bond_age_ and the T-Dalt Smolder.
I feel that this essay is still… missing… something….
Yes. That’s better.
Now. One final question to send us home.
Fill in the blank.
Licence to Kill is ________________.
A. Wayne Newton approved
B. Better when Carey Lowell has a shotgun
C. a Blofeld-sized Shakespearean tragicomedy of less-than-prestigious proportions
D. JIMMY’S DOWN!
E. Good #Bond_age_
Dr. No / From Russia With Love / Goldfinger / Thunderball / You Only Live Twice / On Her Majesty’s Secret Service / Diamonds Are Forever / Live and Let Die / The Man with the Golden Gun / The Spy Who Loved Me / Moonraker / For Your Eyes Only / Octopussy / A View to a Kill / The Living Daylights / Licence to Kill / GoldenEye / Tomorrow Never Dies / The World Is Not Enough / Die Another Day / Casino Royale / Quantum of Solace / Skyfall / Spectre