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John Glen
Timothy Dalton, Carey Lowell, Robert Davi, Talisa Soto, Anthony Zerbe, Frank McRae, David Hedison, Wayne Newton, Benicio Del Toro
Writing Credits:
Michael G. Wilson, Richard Maibaum, Ian Fleming (characters)

His bad side is a dangerous place to be.

Timothy Dalton returns as 007, though he's on his own this time (not working for the government) and is out for revenge. His pal Felix Leiter, a DEA agent, has been seriously hurt by drug lord Franz Sanchez, so Bond goes after Sanchez with a vengeance — even though Q has told him to cease and desist — leading to many big explosions and multiple deaths.

Box Office:
$40 million.
Opening Weekend
$8.774 million on 1575 screens.
Domestic Gross
$34.667 million.

Rated PG-13

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Surround 2.0

Runtime: 133 min.
Price: $34.98
Release Date: 10/19/1999

• Audio Commentary with Director John Glen and Actors Carey Lowell, Desmond Llewelyn, Benicio Del Toro, and Robert Davi and David Hedison
• Audio Commentary with Producer and Co-Writer Michael Wilson, Production Designer Peter Lamont, Director of Photography Alec Mills, Visual Effects Supervisor John Richardson, Special Effects Supervisor Chris Corbould, Production Buyer Ron Quelch, Assistant Art Director Neil Lamont, Second Unit Director Arthur Wooster, Advertising Consultant Don Smolen, Stunt Coordinator Paul Weston, and Stuntmen Simon Crane, Jake Lombard and BJ Worth
• "Inside Licence to Kill" Documentary
• Two Music Videos
• Stunt Featurette
• Promotional Featurette
• Still Gallery
• Trailers
• Booklet


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Licence To Kill (1989)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 8, 2006)

And now for the film that almost killed off the Bond franchise: 1989's Licence to Kill. Ever since the series started with Dr. No in 1962 through 1989, no more than two years went by without a Bond movie. For the record, the films came out yearly though 1965's Thunderball. After that they went to a bi-yearly schedule that basically continued for the next 24 years.

After Kill, however, 1991 came and went without any signs of Bond. And 1992. And 1993. And 1994. Finally, the series came back to life in 1995 with a new Bond in the form of Pierce Brosnan and renewed popularity.

Lucky for Timothy Dalton, because otherwise it's likely that he would have gone down as the man who killed the franchise. That designation probably would have been unfair, as the series had become somewhat moribund before that point and it needed a break so it could regroup. Still, perceptions are perceptions, and that idea might have stuck.

Here's the question of the day: was Kill a piece of work worthy of destroying such a successful series? God no! It's actually a pretty exciting and stimulating flick. Based simply on the merits of this film on its own, I find it mysterious that the series faltered as it did. Kill is easily one of the best non-Connery Bond films.

Actually, I'll go farther than that: it's one of the best Bond films period. It's somewhat amazing to me that a topnotch picture like Kill tanked at the box office while a less substantive effort such as Moonraker raked in the bucks.

Two main theories have surrounded the financial failure of Kill: 1) during a summer crowded with many other "A" titles, it got lost in the shuffle; and 2) audiences didn't like the new grittier take on Bond, especially after they'd gotten used to the light and cartoony Moore version for so many years.

Personally, I'm much more inclined to go with theory 2 than the first one. Sometimes movies do miss their audience because they're released in a "heavy traffic" period, but those films don't have the publicity and the name recognition of Bond. For a Bond picture to fail, that's a public referendum on the movie itself, the series as a whole, or both.

I think "both" makes sense here. Dalton never seemed to grab the public's imagination as Bond, and audiences may have grown weary of seeing a new Bond film every two years. That was an awfully long string of movies, and audiences just seemed to be worn out by the series.

Whatever the speculation, nothing changes the fact that Kill is a pretty terrific movie. It boasts one of the more interesting plots and some of the best action of the series. I especially enjoyed the film's climactic sequence as Bond chases our villain Sanchez (Robert Davi) in a truck. While the action is usually good in Bond movies, it sometimes seems ho-hum just because we've seen so much of it; I enjoy it and appreciate the work that went into it, but I rarely feel that true adrenaline rush. This wasn’t an issue during Kill though; it's a fantastically exciting movie, and the ending segment tops if off nicely.

The plot itself differs from the usual Bond fare in that it's one of those "this time, it's personal" deals. Bond sets off on his own vendetta to off Sanchez and does so without the support of his organization. In actuality, that's really the only way the storyline differs from most Bonds flicks. Once he embarks on his mission, Bond acts the same way he usually does. Still, knowing that he's something of a fugitive adds an edge that provides a little more spark than we'd normally see.

Speaking of edge, Dalton definitely plays Bond as a grimmer, more detached presence than had any previous actors. While I liked this movie, I'm not terribly sure I cared for Dalton. I do appreciate the darker side in the character - especially after all the silliness of the Moore years – but Dalton often seems very forced to me. Although I don't care for the foppishness of Moore's work, he did at least make the character his own and he always seemed to inhabit the role naturally. It didn't seem like acting when Moore - or Connery, for that matter - did Bond.

Dalton, on the other hand, doesn't come across that way. It's not that he's a wussy-boy like Moore who's trying to act tough; the guy has a natural grittiness that serves him well. It's just that he never seems very comfortable in the part. It's really the more suave side of Bond that he can't do, and that's a problem. While Dalton isn't bad in the role, the definitive aspects of what made Bond Bond lack in his portrayal; he never seems to be the world-beating lady-killer and sophisticate that we know and love.

Many indicate that Dalton's portrayal hearkens back to Ian Fleming's original concept of the character, and that may be true; I've not read any of the Bond books, so I don't know how they differ from the films. However, it seems strange that elsewhere we hear mention that Moore supposedly is true to the character and how Fleming wasn't keen on the more thuggish side of Connery's portrayal. This sentiment appears to have some validity since I have heard that Fleming originally wanted David Niven to play the role, and Niven was much closer to the pansy-boy side of the street that Moore walked than he was to Connery's bad-ass avenue.

Maybe I'll read the books someday and formulate my own opinion of which Bond was truest to Fleming's vision. However, by 1989, this point was almost totally irrelevant. It didn't matter what Fleming had wanted in the character by then because the concept of "James Bond" was so ingrained on the public psyche. If a portrayal of Bond didn't match that idea then it didn't matter who said it was accurate; it wasn't going to work.

So whether or not Dalton hewed closely to the creator's vision of Bond, I still think he only did half of the character well. I liked his toughness, but I didn't buy him as a smooth, suave, and sophisticated guy. Nonetheless, I don't think his work hurt the film in any way, especially because the emphasis remained on the harsher aspects of Bond's character. The elements of the story that required the debonair gentleman were few enough that Dalton's hamfistedness didn't make a negative impact.

As villainous drug lord Sanchez, Robert Davi is really quite good. He differs from most Bond baddies in that there's a much greater element of realism to the character than we usually see. Clearly he's a nasty piece of work, but he's more complex than the typical monomaniacal Bond perpetrator. Davi is able to play both sides of the street well; he makes Sanchez cruel enough so that we look forward to his comeuppance, but we also buy into the character as someone who honestly values loyalty over money. Would we be able to say that about Goldfinger or Largo? Nope, and while they are good characters for a Bond film, they definitely seem flatter than does Sanchez.

Of course, whether the greater subtlety in Sanchez is a good thing or not goes back to what one believes a grittier, more realistic Bond is a good thing. Whatever one's inclination, I think the change works well here.

(One acting footnote that involves Davi: in Kill, one of the DEA agents who initially apprehends him is player by Grand L. Bush. The previous year, Bush and Davi appeared together as FBI agents Johnson and Johnson in Die Hard. I have no idea if this reunion was a coincidence, but I found it amusing.)

The filmmakers also would like us to believe that Carey Lowell's take on the "Bond girl" through her character of CIA agent Pam Bouvier is a departure from previous Bond females, but that's only partly true. The typical conception of these characters is that they're gorgeous but helpless and that they need to have Bond come along and save them.

It's surprising how often that's not true. For example, Pussy Galore in Goldfinger was more than able to take care of herself. Actually, she was truly the hero in that film, since Bond only indirectly saved the day. (He won her over, which then provoked her to call the authorities and stop Goldfinger plot - Bond himself did little to avert Goldfinger's crime.) Melina in For Your Eyes Only also didn't need Bond to save her. However, she pulled his bacon out of the fryer on a few occasions.

So the strong Bond heroine is not without precedent. Lowell seems spunkier than most and less overtly sexy, which is good and bad, I suppose. Actually, it really didn't matter much to me at all. She's a decent actress and she pulls off the role pretty well, but she didn't make much of an impact on me. Perhaps there's something to be said for the glamorous Bond babe after all.

Lupe (Talisa Soto), the other lead female role, fits the typical concept of the Bond girl to a "T." She's amazingly sexy, and she's almost completely helpless. Soto's quite a looker, but she can't act to save her life. Wooden and flat Bond actresses are nothing new, so she doesn't mar the movie, but she's still a disappointment.

One nice surprise about Kill is the high degree to which "Q" (Desmond Llewelyn) appears in the film. Unlike his usual brief bit, he's actually an integral character in this picture, and it's a lot of fun to have him around. It's probably a good thing that his participation is usually slight, since there's not much to the character, but this one semi-starring role is a blast. It's just another entertaining aspect of a fine film

I think it's important for me to stress the fun side of Kill because it's built up such a reputation as the "serious" Bond. Yes, it is darker than the others, and Dalton can't play the glib aspects of the character well, but the film still manages to inject some shots of pure entertainment at times. One thing I appreciated about the movie is that although it provides some "tongue in cheek" bits, they don't seem heavy-handed. For example, during the truck chase, some automatic gunfire ricochets off the assembly of the cab. The sound designers tuned the "clings" and "clangs" so they replicated the Bond theme song. This becomes a subtle and clever bit of silliness.

Across the board, I find little to dislike in Licence to Kill. While not usually regarded as one of the better Bonds, I think it combines gritty action with style to create a terrific picture.

The DVD Grades: Picture C+/ Audio A-/ Bonus B+

Licence to Kill appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although much of the movie looked great, more than a few problems lowered my overall score.

Interior shots created the most issues. These often suffered from murky definition and some dense images. Not all interiors were this way, but many showed softness and bland delineation.

The many daytime exteriors were more successful. Despite some edge enhancement, they offered good sharpness and were pretty concise. Colors came to the forefront in those shots. The hues looked fine across the board, but they were particularly good in the exteriors. Blacks were also deep and rich.

Other problems sometimes marred the presentation. I noticed occasional bouts of jagged edges and shimmering, and source flaws were a distraction. I saw various examples of specks, marks, blotches hairs and other concerns. All of this added up to an inconsistent transfer that only merited a “C+”.

On the other hand, Licence to Kill featured a very successful Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix. The movie presented a strong soundfield. The five channels offered a lot of useful information and involved us in the action. The front speakers got the most use, as they gave us very good spread and delineation. The surrounds got into the flick well during the action scenes. Elements zipped around the room and formed a fine sense of the various pieces.

The quality of the audio was very good. Speech sounded clear and natural. The music was solid, with strong fidelity and dynamic range. Effects showed just a smidgen of distortion during some gunfight sequences, but they usually were vivid and accurate. Given the movie’s age, this was a very satisfying soundtrack.

One audio problem has received a lot of attention. Toward the end of the film, Lowell drives up to Dalton in a truck and yells, "What are you waiting for? Get in!" and Dalton replies, "Yes, sir!" Bizarrely, we see the actors say their lines about two seconds before we hear them.

To be frank, the effect isn't as jarring as you might think; Lowell's line is delivered in a wide shot, so we don't really see her mouth move, and Dalton's line is so brief, and his movement so slight, that it's not terribly noticeable either. It’s an unfortunate error but not a fatal flaw.

The Licence to Kill DVD provides some strong supplements. It contains two separate audio commentaries. The first comes from director John Glen and actors Carey Lowell, Desmond Llewelyn, Benicio Del Toro, and Robert Davi and David Hedison. Each sits separately in interviews edited together for this non-screen-specific piece. They discuss their impressions of various actors and other participants, locations and shooting challenges, the characters and aspects of the performances, the opening credits, the score and songs, and post-production.

That’s a good selection of subjects, and the commentary often proves informative. However, we get a surprising amount of dead air given the format and number of participants, and a lot of the track gets devoted to basic praise for the various filmmakers. This is especially notable during the commentary’s first half; it gets weightier as it progresses. Despite these problems, there’s enough good material here to make the track worthwhile.

The second commentary presents producer and co-writer Michael Wilson, production designer Peter Lamont, director of photography Alec Mills, and visual effects supervisor John Richardson, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, production buyer Ron Quelch, assistant art director Neil Lamont, second unit director Arthur Wooster, advertising consultant Don Smolen, stunt coordinator Paul Weston, and stuntmen Simon Crane, Jake Lombard and BJ Worth. It uses the same edited, non-screen-specific format as the first track. Unsurprisingly, it mostly deals with nuts and bolts subjects. We learn a little about story and script but largely address stunts and action sequences, various forms of effects, sets and locations, production design elements, cinematography, working with the various collaborators, and the general challenges that accompany making a Bond flick.

Expect the same positives and negatives as the first track. Praise decreases a bit but remains a minor drag on the piece. There’s also too much dead air, particularly around the point in the film when “Q” arrives; we find a major gap at that juncture. This is still a good track, but it’s not a great one.

Another recurring feature for most of these Bond special editions is the newly created documentary. The one here is called Inside Licence to Kill and it runs for 31 minutes and 58 seconds. It's a decent piece, about on par with the program from For Your Eyes Only but not as strong as the splendid feature included with Live and Let Die. As with the others, this one presents a mix of recent interviews with the main participants and "behind the scenes" footage from the set.

This documentary does a fairly nice job of covering the basic details, but the participation of Dalton is missed; the only interview appearance he makes is an archival clip from the time during which the movie was made. Honestly, I'd be curious to know why he wasn't involved. I mean, I understand when Connery doesn't pop up for these projects - he's a huge star and he's also probably sick of the whole Bond thing - but I don't have any idea if Dalton has negative feelings about his stint as 007. Anyway, the program's good but not exceptional.

A couple of other mini-documentaries appear on this DVD as well. A four-minute and 55-second production featurette from the time of the film's release provides a brief overview of the movie; it's not fantastic, but it's better than the usual puff pieces that we see passed off as "featurettes." A second, more unusual featurette appears here as well. It's a nine-minute and 28-second piece produced by Kenworth trucks to highlight their involvement in the production (all of the trucks used during the movie's climax were made by Kenworth). It's done in a utilitarian way, as one would expect of a promotional job such as this, but it's very entertaining because it focuses on an area that we normally wouldn't hear discussed. It's a unique look at a more hidden side of filmmaking.

A number of other promotional clips appear on this DVD as well. We see two theatrical trailers, both of which are actually quite good; they provide yet another reason why the financial failure ofLTK seems strange. Two music videos show up here: one for Gladys Knight's title song, and another for Patti LaBelle's version of "If You Asked Me To". Knight's video follows the standard MO for such productions; scenes from the film are intercut with shots of Knight (in a tux, ala Bond!) delivers the song and some babes idly cavort. It's a decent but somewhat dull video, although the song itself isn't bad.

"If You Asked Me To" is a song you've probably heard, although not by LaBelle; Celine Dion had a hit with it in 1992. The tune is yet another crap-tacular piece of balladic dreck from schlockmeister extraordinaire Diane Warren. In good hands, her songs can work decently (such as Aerosmith's "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing") but usually good hands don't touch Warren's songs; I saw a website that listed everyone who'd ever performed one of her tunes, and it was a long and abysmal affair.

Patti LaBelle definitely doesn't qualify as a pair of good hands. She displays her usual overbearing brand of emotive silliness as she bludgeons the song to death. The video itself omits any reference to the film; it's just a long clip of LaBelle delivering the song with far too much artificial emotion as she seems about to collapse under the weight of one of her then-trademark absurd hairstyles. Bad song, bad singer, bad video.

Another recurring feature for the Bond special editions is the extensive still photo supplement. The section for Kill includes about 110 photos, which is fewer than some of the others but still pretty good. As with the others, these photos are presented under different chapter headings; there are eleven of these in all, and these offer a nicely efficient way to manage the pictures so that you don't have to wade through tons of dreck to later review one that you like. As always, I'm not a huge fan of these still archives, but this one is well executed.

Finally, the Kill DVD includes Tomorrow Never Dies Playstation Game Trailer and a nice eight-page booklet inside the case. It offers some fun facts about the production; you'll hear some of them elsewhere, but most aren't repeated in other areas. One tidbit stood out: the revelation that the movie "scored better with test audiences than any film in Bond history, with an astonishing 80 percent of respondents rating it 'outstanding.'" So much for the validity of test audiences, huh?

Licence to Kill is a winner. The film offers one of the best Bonds ever made, a fact that's become sadly obscured by the picture's box office death. The DVD offers disappointing picture but comes with excellent audio and a mix of interesting extras. I like the movie very much and recommend this DVD despite lackluster visuals.

To rate this film visit the Ultimate Edition review of LICENCE TO KILL

Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main