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License to Kill

Bond indulges in a bit of the old ultraviolence.

DIRECTED BY JOHN GLEN

The 20-plus entries of the Bond franchise cover so much historical ground that one can’t help but play social detective when revisiting them, reading each one for clues about the environment that produced it. The temptation is especially strong with a curiosity like License To Kill, the lowest-grossing film in the series, stateside, and the one that effectively killed Timothy Dalton’s chances of putting a stamp on the character. What went wrong?

License to Kill is an odd time capsule of a movie, and its problem might be that it was a bit too responsive to its era. Made in the heyday of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Sylvester Stallone, near the end of the Cold War that supplied so much of the series’ raison d’être, the film sees Bond taking a break from his usual contra-Soviet spy tactics. Instead, he embarks on a revenge mission against a Latin American drug lord named Sanchez (Robert Davi). Like a slightly more refined British version of Schwarzenneger’s Commando hero, Dalton’s Bond dispatches his enemies by some of the most grotesque means available in 1980s beefcake cinema. No shark attack, death by cocaine grinder, or lighter-fluid immolation is too grisly or too tasteless for this war machine.

While Dalton’s ultra-violent protagonist is wildly out of step with both Roger Moore’s goofy swinger and Pierce Brosnan’s restrained sociopath in the next instalment, the stunt work still feels like home. It’s delivered with precision and visual clarity by long-term series director John Glen, in his last crack at 007. One only wishes he had the chance to make a less reactionary Bond with Dalton, who makes a cool study in action stoicism despite the film’s failings.

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