Playing out as a surprisingly gratuitous, anti-imperialist, revenge drama, Timothy Dalton's last moody take on playing the martini-drinking man-whore, James Bond, finds him going rogue and taking on a Noriega-like Panamanian drug lord, much like Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop II did two years prior. The distinction here is one of personal vendetta, with Bond flipping out after drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) feeds his DEA agent friend to a shark on his wedding day, also raping and killing his wife.
Accepting the help of ex-CIA pilot Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), he manipulates his villains from the inside out, using more of a Ronin-style template than the traditionalist mystery-solving antics of the series. While doing so, henchmen (Benicio Del Toro) are thrown into giant shredders, heads explode and multiple people are ripped apart by sharks, making this the most unnecessarily gory and tonally bizarre Bond film on record.
In theory, the producers were attempting to expand on Dalton's darker, more conflicted take on the famed MI6 agent, by heightening the violence and grounding the story in a modern political dialogue. It was trendy for the time but feels, in its own way, quite callous and distasteful in a way that even a slasher film would evade through sheer consistency.
The mixture of playfully bitchy and competitive Bond girls (Pam is consistently jealous of Bond's flirtation with Sanchez's girlfriend (Talisa Soto)) with graphic mutilation and rape made Licence to Kill a bit of a misfired experiment in trying to modify a formula to fit a time where it served no cultural purpose. Even worse was a clumsy cameo from Wayne Newton as a televangelist, exacerbating the camp element amidst the darker brutality.
Still, some of the stunts, such as the transport truck chase sequence marked a high for the series and Dalton's interpretation of the suave agent was quite intriguing, despite being a bit ahead of its time.
License to Kill screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Shaken, Not Stirred: Bond on Film series on Tuesday, November 20th at 9:15pm. It will screen again in January 2013. (MGM/UA)