LICENCE TO KILL (United Artists, 1989)

Contributed by: The James Bond Movie Encyclopedia by Steven Jay Rubin

★★1/2  The sixteenth James Bond film produced by Albert R. Broccoli, and the first to feature a title that is not taken from a work by Ian Fleming. US release date: July 14, 1989. Budget: $42 million. Worldwide box office gross: $156.2 million (US domestic gross: $34.7 million; international gross: $121.5 million).[1] Running time: 135 minutes.

The Setup

South American drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) takes a risky journey to Key West, Florida, to catch his girlfriend, Lupe (Talisa Soto), in bed with her lover, Alvarez (Gerardo Albarrán). A few miles away, James Bond (Timothy Dalton) is attending the wedding of his good friend Felix Leiter (David Hedison) to Della Churchill (Priscilla Barnes) when Leiter is called into action to take down Sanchez. The drug lord is captured, but he escapes with the help of drug runner Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe) and duplicitous DEA agent Ed Killifer (Everett McGill). Shockingly, Sanchez’s thugs then murder Della and throw Leiter to the sharks. Ordered to Istanbul for a new mission, Bond defies his superior M (Robert Brown) and becomes a rogue agent—determined to take down Sanchez and his illegal drug operation. Helping along the way: resourceful CIA pilot and undercover operative Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) and a very present and active Q (Desmond Llewelyn).

Behind the Scenes

Timothy Dalton returns as James Bond in Licence to Kill, the first Bond film to barely escape a restricted R rating from the MPAA for excessive violence. Unfortunately, the added violence featured in the film was unnecessary. It would have been one thing if Bond and Sanchez were involved in an incredibly violent fight à la From Russia with Love, but the violence is visited on supporting characters instead. Felix Leiter (David Hedison) is thrown to the sharks and loses a leg. The head of Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe) inflates and explodes in a decompression chamber. Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) takes a bullet in the back and survives, courtesy of a Kevlar vest, and Bond narrowly avoids failling into a bag shredder that claims the life of knife-wielding Dario (Benicio Del Toro).

What the film needed wasn’t over-the-top violence but a fresh story line. In the most serious Bond movie since From Russia with Love, writer Michael G. Wilson, working from an outline by Richard Maibaum (due to a Writers Guild of America strike, Maibaum was unable to write the script), eliminated some of the very elements that have contributed to the longevity of the series—namely, the dark humor, fascinating locations, and a grandiose scheme perpetrated by a larger-than-life villain. Robert Davi’s Franz Sanchez is a suitably ruthless crime boss, but his international drug dealing is a bore, ripped from the headlines of the 1980s drug wars. The film is also claustrophobic; audiences used to the series’ globe-trotting locations were disappointed by the bland trips to Key West and fictional Isthmus City.

The movie starts out with a good twist when Bond’s longtime friend Felix Leiter is thrown to the sharks by Sanchez. Forsaking M and the Secret Service, Bond becomes a rogue agent seeking revenge at all costs—a great plot device, and one that harks back to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which also involved a bride being murdered on her wedding day. Unfortunately, once 007 arrives in Isthmus City, the movie loses all of its tension and impact. Bond’s attempt on Sanchez’s life is stopped by a pair of Hong Kong narcotics agents. He’s too easily accepted into Sanchez’s inner circle as a friend and security adviser, and his efforts to slowly turn the drug kingpin against his confederates lack the ring of plausibility. There’s also too much talk and not enough action. Even the tanker-trailer chase at the climax—despite some amazing stunt work—is lackluster. And the expected one-on-one showdown between Bond and Sanchez is over much too quickly.

Highlights: Dalton, who is once again serious and on target, although he could have been lightened up a bit. Audiences who spend two-plus hours with Bond need to laugh once in a while. Thankfully, Q (Desmond Llewelyn), in his largest role in the series, is on hand to provide some crucial comic relief. Carey Lowell is delightful as Pam Bouvier, the resourceful, beautiful CIA operative who helps Bond at every turn—the best Bond girl in years. Her introduction in the Barrelhead Bar in Bimini is a classic. Benicio Del Toro’s Dario is also an excellent villain.

The Cast
James Bond Timothy Dalton
Pam Bouvier Carey Lowell
Franz Sanchez Robert Davi
Lupe Lamora. Talisa Soto
Milton Krest Anthony Zerbe
Sharkey Frank McRae
Killifer Everett McGill
Professor Joe Butcher Wayne Newton
Dario Benicio Del Toro
Truman-Lodge Anthony Starke
President Hector Lopez Pedro Armendariz, Jr.
Q Desmond Llewelyn
Felix Leiter . David Hedison
Della Churchill Priscilla Barnes
M Robert Brown
Miss Moneypenny Caroline Bliss
Heller Don Stroud
Hawkins Grand L. Bush
Kwang Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
Perez Alexander Bracho
Braun Guy de Saint Cyr
Mullens Rafer Johnson
Loti Diana Lee-Hsu
Fallon Christopher Neame

The Crew
Crew Member
Director John Glen
Screenplay by Michael G. Wilson
Richard Maibaum
Producers Albert R. Broccoli
Michael G. Wilson
Associate Producers Tom Pevsner
Barbara Broccoli
Director of Photography Alec Mills
Music composed and conducted by Michael Kamen
Title song performed by Gladys Knight
End titles song sung by Patti LaBelle
Production Design by Peter Lamont
Costume Designer Jodie Tillen
Second Unit Direction and Photography by Arthur Wooster
Underwater scenes directed and photographed by Ramon Bravo
Stunt Coordinator Paul Weston
Driving stunts arranged by Remy Julienne
Aerial Stunt Supervisor Corkey Fornof
Title Designer Maurice Binder
Special Visual Effects John Richardson

[1] “Licence to Kill (1989),” The Numbers, accessed June 8, 2020,


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