Bright Lights Film Journal

Licence to Kill (1989): The Last James Bond Movie

Don’t worry or question; just consume – oh, and kill

James Bond doesn’t need to show us the “way we live now.” This isn’t Le Carre or Buchan or the great Geoffrey Household. Bond’s role is as a simulacrum permitting us to rationalize anxieties bred by the commodity fetish in others and ourselves. The books, and much more the movies, show us how to worship at the altar of the good life and repress all our doubts and fears, as good citizens of any empire should. Bond allows us to hunger after the life of plenty, of good taste, and use it to build a psychological carapace over our dread and alienation at the ravages of the wages system in the most socially useful way possible: we consume.

007 consumes women, sunshine, very undirty martinis, fine furnishings, splendid cars. He visits the very heavens of this world: Alps, Dolomites, Aegean, Orient, Bahamas. His job, the thing that hands him upper-class consumer culture on a silver platter, is simple enough. Each day he cocks a snook at his hopelessly serious boss; from time to time he deflects a steel-brimmed bowler hat or blows up a blimp. Once he went into space, but it was only to deliver a punch line to his plutocratic enemy Hugo Drax.

For all the stolen software, space shuttles, a-bombs, and decoding machines, the world of Bond has as much in common with that of Sherlock Holmes, Richard Hannay, and Nayland Smith as it does with the Cold War. Too much contemporary George Smileying and the Bond films would blow apart like veils of gossamer.

The authentic Bondian world could not survive the spread of global consumer culture, as imperialism draws vast populations into cities and proletarianizes hundreds of millions. Today we all have more charming car and pocket gadgets than Q could dream of. Fast fortunes and McMansions rise and fall as we go bankrupt, regroup, and wait for the next deflation.

Licence to Kill (1989) was the last Cold War-era Bond movie. But it doesn’t even pay lip service to Russia, Europe, or any of Bond’s old hunting grounds. This movie looks forward to the villains ordained by the first Bush regime: demonizing drugs and Manuel Noriega. (The villain drug emperor Sanchez lives in a country called Isthmus, and runs it behind the scenes. When President Lopez confronts him about a reduced paycheck, Sanchez raises a Grinch-like eyebrow and tells him: “Remember, you’re only president for life.”)

It also proposes a Cuban connection in the drug trade; a month after the film’s release, the Cuban government executed General Arnoldo Ochoa for drug trafficking. The whole south Florida and Central American milieu of Licence to Kill is steeped in the double-dealing criminality opened by Washington’s proxy counterrevolutionary war to topple the FSLN government in Nicaragua. The contra war was only the most recent imperialist pro-drug war; a previous one was called The Opium War; so may be the next one.

Sanchez, played by the fine actor Robert Davi, is not a maniacal Blofeld-style supervillain. He does not want to irradiate Fort Knox or provoke World War III or sink California into the Pacific. All he wants is market expansion into the Orient; he revenges himself against the DEA, Felix Leiter, and Leiter’s new bride Della so as not to lose face with prospective partners.

There are no puzzles or mysteries for Bond to solve in Licence to Kill. Here he is rejuvenating the self-righteous monomaniac vigilantism of Dirty Harry or Death Wish or Rambo III. Bond’s rampage flows not from his friendship for Leiter, but from the murder of Leiter’s wife. For Bond, it is the second murder of his own wife. Early scenes of Bond and Della in the movie make it clear that Bond loves Della at least as much as her bridegroom does. When Bond begins his mission of revenge, there is a palpable coldness in his eyes: he knows he has gone beyond anything professional or ethical.

Licence to Kill has the usual yachts and scuba battles. But there are also characters like Professor Joe Butcher, played by singer Wayne Newton. While he has only a few minutes of screen time, Newton turns Butcher into the acme of all seedy, hilariously crooked late-1980s televangelists. When Butcher is ripping off, or being ripped off, he says “Bless your heart” as though marveling at the glory of his own crapulence.

We might call Licence to Kill James Bond vs. Scarface. At one point in the film Sanchez tells a business partner “It’s not personal, it’s business.” This echoes the mantra of both Scarface and The Untouchables.

Production designer Peter Lamont gives Sanchez’s drug factory (hidden beneath a Mexican pyramid) a high-industrial aluminum cleanliness; it looks more like a pharmaceutical or computer plant than a meth lab. This is the law of value at its most exotic. Sanchez hides his drugs for transport by dissolving them into the holiest of holies: gasoline. They are safely reconstituted at the other end of the pipeline provided his partners in other countries buy rights to the formula. Above all else, intellectual copyright must be upheld.

Licence to Kill wraps contemporary headlines around the bourgeois fantasy of the revenge-filled killing spree. The glee with which Bond destroys a fortune in drugs being shipped in a mini-sub, and later throws two men out of an airplane he needs for escape, captures many viewers in their emotional backflow. Revenge is a normal category of activity in our ruling class, and between individual capitalists. We become intoxicated by its much-advertised charms, too. Righteous revenge features in the plots of most thriller novels and movies, which are the dominant genre today. Many dream of “sticking it” to their “enemies” and competitors. Movies permit us to train our imaginations that way. The problems we face require not collective action in our unions and mass organizations, but a decompression chamber or a stinger missile.

This was not the last James Bond movie, but it certainly feels that way. Six years would pass before the release of Golden Eye in 1995. The measured tempo and four-square mise-en-scene of Licence to Kill are a pleasure, as are the performances. Timothy Dalton in particular achieves an almost constant agonized stillness, simply poised and waiting within his body. It is an impeccable turn by a versatile actor. Politically, Licence to Kill is another in a long series of anti-political un-political political films. A particular capitalist enterprise makes a movie depicting some specific crimes and misdemeanors of specific capitalists, companies, countries, or industries that demonstrably must be “cleaned up.” Nothing systemic, you see. Criminal activity in the business world is abnormal, you see. Decisive individual action, not collective class action, rectifies all, you see. Thus are we safe and satisfied to remain at home, purchasing and consuming until the next sequel.