CONTAINS SPOILERS AND MODERATE LANGUAGE
My ongoing trek through the James Bond back catalogue, in preparation for Skyfall in October, has now reached Timothy Dalton's sophomore entry, his "difficult second Bond film" and, as it turned out, his swansong. It was the first to be given a particularly hard time at the censors: and the first to be rated anything other than A or PG thanks to the increased level of violence (as opposed to action), and even then it had to be cut to avoid an 18, which would be unthinkable for a Bond film. (Amusingly, Diamonds Are Forever has been retrospectively reclassified as a 12.) There's also noticeably more swearing - several uses of "shit" (which first showed up in Live And Let Die but was obviously excised for ITV's screenings) and a "piss off", which may or may not be in keeping with the spirit of Fleming's character but is still a surprise for an audience weaned on Roger Moore.
The trouble with Licence To Kill is that it doesn't really know what it wants to be: an old-fashioned Bond romp with all the familiar and comfortable elements (gadgets, Moneypenny) or a tough Hollywood action thriller to compete with the likes of Lethal Weapon, and as a result it ends up as a bit of a mess. For most of the movie Bond isn't even on a mission: he goes rogue on a personal vendetta of revenge against unimaginatively named Latin American drugs baron Sanchez (Robert Davi) who fed his best friend Felix Leiter to the sharks. His only ally is CIA pilot Pam (Carey Lowell) as he infiltrates Sanchez' operation to destroy it from within.
But while that would make for a perfectly decent action movie outside of the franchise, the film keeps remembering that it's supposed to be a Bond film as well so it has to have Q (Desmond Llewellyn) showing up out of nowhere with a bag of daft but conveniently handy gadgets, it has to have a secondary shag interest in Sanchez' mistress Lupe (Talisa Soto, useless), Moneypenny for one scene (Caroline Bliss, also useless), and another enjoyably pervy title sequence from Maurice Binder. What they should have done was diversified and produced two films: this as a non-Bond movie entirely divorced from the franchise, and then just remade You Only Live Twice again or something as a regular 007 outing with Licence To Kill as a generic title.
Technically it still feels and looks like a Bond movie - it was John Glen's fifth as director - even without the classy garnish of a John Barry soundtrack (though I do like Michael Kamen's busy orchestral score and wish it was better represented on CD). The action sequences are pretty good, particularly the chase climax with four tanker trucks full of gasoline, and a noisy barroom fight. But it's a strange beast of a Bond film with the tougher violence, swearing and crudity - Pam doing the "wanker" gesture when ordering Bond's vodka Martini "shaken not stirred" - feeling forced and unnecessary, and it doesn't have the sense of fun that a Bond movie really should have. It's not without interest, and it's not down there with Thunderball or The Spy Who Loved Me, but its attempts to redefine what a Bond movie actually is ultimately harm it rather than help it.