Bond films can be like bottles of wine. They can go very sour on the shelf when you revisit them (most of the Brosnan films) or they can turn into something really special over time, like 1989's LICENSE TO KILL.
Timothy Dalton's second and final time in OO7's tuxedo, the film was an attempt to return to the much harder tone of the Ian Fleming novels.
It's by far the most violent Bond film, opening with drug lord Sanchez (Robert Davi) flying into the Florida keys to catch his girlfriend Lupe (beautiful but bland Talisa Soto) with another man.
Sanchez proceeds to cut out the man's heart and whip Lupe, quite a shift in tone from any previous Bond film.
Bond and Felix Leiter (David Hedison returning to the series 16 years after his Leiter portrayal in "Live and Let Die" and doing a hell of a job) are on the way to Felix's wedding but take a pre-credits detour to capture Sanchez.
The pre-title sequence is one of the weakest of the entire series, with it's strongest feature being composer Michael Kamen's music score, blah stunts and a strange mix of tones.
The good news is, the film gets much better from there.
Gladys Knight's theme song is an underrated ballad, rolling nicely into the wedding reception and night, violently interrupted by an escaped Sanchez and his thugs.
Felix is kidnapped, fed to sharks yet kept barely alive and dumped back in Bond's lap as payback from Sanchez for his capture.
This sets Bond off on a relentless path of revenge. M revokes his license to kill, his role as a double-O and any attachment to the British government.
Bond becomes a one man army, winding his way into Sanchez's organization by cleverly following the money trail all the way to the top.
Along the way, he meets Carey Lowell as Pam Bouvier, a tough, resourceful and beautiful agent with questionable loyalties but on the same trail to Sanchez.
A very young Benicio del Toro is Dario, Sanchez's vicious henchman, Anthony Zerbe is a shipping magnate deeply involved in the drug trade and Wayne Newton is Professor Joe Butcher, a TV evangelist doubling as a key part of Sanchez's drug sales.
Newton reminded me a lot of Jimmy Dean's similar type role in "Diamonds Are Forever" and he brings a few laughs to a very serious film.
The action sequences are first rate, including a twenty minute finale in which Bond commandeers one of a string of huge gasoline tankers and manages to stage incredible vehicular mayhem on a mountainside full of dangerous switchbacks and some of the biggest explosions ever caught on film.
There's one scene in the finale where a pickup truck catches fire and flies off a mountain road, OVER a low flying plane in pursuit of the tankers. It's a great moment in a brilliant action sequence.
When this hit theatres, it was one of my least favorite Bonds. Maybe it was the switch in tone to much more serious fare.
It's odd that I was so resistant to that change to a more serious Bond in '89, but I was SO ready for it when Daniel Craig took the reins in 2006 with Casino Royale. Maybe I was so rooted in Roger Moore's films of the seventies I grew up on, it was too much of a change, but after the growing weaknesses of the Brosnan films, I was ready for Craig to bring the spy back to reality.
Looking back, its funny to realize how much I disliked this one, only seeing it once for many years.
It was released in the summer of 1989 and was crushed at the box office by "Batman" with Michael Keaton and the first "Lethal Weapon".
Watching it now, its one of the best told stories of the series, with a screenplay co-written by Richard Maibaum (From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball) that allows Bond to infiltrate Sanchez's operation by planting the seeds of doubt and mistrust rather than explosives.
Dalton is terrific throughout, having moments of true joy and happiness with Felix before becoming obsessed with avenging his life long friend and going VERY dark for the rest of the film.
Long before 'Spectre" the film also puts Q in the field to help a rogue OO7 and its Desmond Llewelyn's biggest role and best performance, showing a terrific bond with Bond.
Serious, violent and exciting, LICENSE TO KILL has improved with age. The original teaser poster tag line was "His bad side is a dangerous place to be".
That's an understatement suffered by anyone that gets in the way of OO7.
License to Kill gets an A.
Followed by the longest break between OO7 films in history as producers dealt with legal battles and the box office failure of this film, Bond would reemerge six years later with a new face in GOLDENEYE.