This film is pretty much full-on action from beginning to end. It’s also quite a dark film for Bond, with 007 going rogue. What could cause this?
The film begins with Bond on his way to the wedding of longtime CIA colleague, Felix. The journey to the church is interrupted when Felix takes a side trip to capture notorious drug baron Sanchez, with Bond along for the ride. There’s some gunfire and mild peril and Bond leaps out of a helicopter onto a plane, but they get Sanchez in custody, and Felix and Bond parachute to the church where the wedding goes ahead. Hurrah, happy days! Enjoy those happy images because the film gets decidedly darker from here on in.
Opening credits roll and up comes the theme tune, License to Kill, sung by Gladys Knight. I’m not knocking Gladys Knight’s voice, I think there’s something in the mix of this song that muffles her voice and leaves the songs weaker as a result. It’s not particularly memorable, although I wonder if the magic of Shirley Bassey could have saved it? The opening credits are full of the standard rolling and tumbling naked women, with cameras, gambling, and gun sights. None of which (apart from the gun sights) have much to do with the plot of the film.
Sanchez escapes, thanks to a crooked agent. And he sends his men to take revenge on Felix, and new his wife Della. What happens to Della isn’t clearly articulated but Bond finds her lying on a bed, shot through the heart. One of Sanchez’ henchmen (a very young Benicio del Toro) sneeringly tells Felix “We gave her a nice honeymoon.” I don’t want to dwell on that that might mean. Felix, meanwhile, is fed to a shark, losing an arm and a leg. Bond finds Felix’ body with a note pinned to it – “He disagreed with something that ate him.” Felix is still alive, but only just. And Bond is determined to get revenge for his friend.
Meanwhile Bond was supposed to be headed off onto his next mission, and his boss, M, is not pleased. When he refuses to follow orders, M strips Bond of his license to kill. Bond is now a rogue agent out for revenge. His plans for revenge are helped when he manages to sneak on board a boat and steal $5 million from one of Sanchez’ agents, while dissolving a major shipment of drugs in the ocean.
Bond’s progress on his revenge mission is aided by two women: Sanchez’ girlfriend Lupe (played with a stony-faced, almost psychopathic lack of emotion by Talisa Soto) and former army pilot and CIA informant, Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell). Lupe displays almost no emotion no matter what she is confronted with. I don’t know if we’re meant to assume her time with Sanchez has brutalised her to the point where it’s easier to show no emotion (we see Sanchez whipping her as a punishment for cheating on him). Pam, meanwhile, is tough, clever and resourceful. She certainly is always prepared for a fight, and always seems to have a gun secreted about her person.
Sanchez is obviously our villain, and he doesn’t have a villainous plot as such, he’s just a businessman trying to set up an international trade deal with several Asian criminal networks. It just so happens that his trade is in illegal narcotics. If Bond can disrupt his trade and cost him money, on the way to killing him and dismantling his criminal network, so much the better.
Spycraft? Hm, not much. After all this is outside of Bond’s usual East/West remit. Although Q does come visit Bond in Isthmus with a few helpful gadgets to aid his mission to wreak revenge on Sanchez (plastic explosive in a toothpaste tube?) But the key gadget was actually a gift from Della and Felix.
The film takes us through some locations which look exotic but were surprisingly filmed in only a few countries. Key West, for Felix and Della’s wedding, and Mexico for Isthmus City and surrounds. (I’ve always assumed Isthmus City was a fictional place meant to be in Panama somewhere). But some of the amazing architecture is real.
The Olympatec Meditation Institute, used as a cover business by Sanchez, was built in the 1980s as a place for the local indigenous Otomi people to celebrate their culture and host traditional rituals. It’s on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Sanchez’ home is the Villa Arabesque in Acapulco, Mexico. Built from 1978-1982 as some kind of fantasy indulgence for a super-rich couple, internet searches reveal the house is available to stay in as a kind of hotel today, although apparently not in such good condition, and it’s not 100% clear how you go about booking it.
The film features some great stunts, mostly at the end involving several tanker trucks and a winding road on a hillside. You have to appreciate the skill in the stunt planners who can get something as unwieldy and heavy as a semi-trailer to tip on its side.
Film epilogue: Pam doesn’t want to go back to the army. She doesn’t want to become a mercenary either. (Combat trained and with flying skills? She gets plenty of offers.) She doesn’t fancy the life of a drug runner doing clandestine flights from South America to the USA either. She wants to keep flying but she doesn’t want to work for a commercial airline. Instead she sets up a company that offers scenic flights. The company is successful and grows and she employs other ex-service staff, people who want to keep flying because they love it, but also want to be amongst nature and beautiful scenery to escape the terrible things they saw when they were in military service.