Other than these notes of historical interest, however, Licence to Kill remains one of the best films of the whole Bond cycle because it not only offers the Bond-ian requisites -- spectacular action, beautiful women, and great villains -- but because the film actually boasts a coherent organizing principle, a leitmotif about the meaning and nature of loyalty. This well-dramatized concept is what makes Licence to a Kill not just a great Bond film, but a great action film outside the series. The movie hangs together in a way some Bond films simply do not, and relies on human characters and flaws, not merely spectacle.
Licence to Kill gains much of its narrative and thematic momentum by exploiting two elements of the popular Zeitgeist, circa 1989.
The first is the story of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel in Colombia. Pretty clearly, Franz Sanchez is a figure meant to represent Escobar, a filthy rich cocaine dealer who often operated with impunity and compared himself, on one occasion to God (because he could order someone dead…and they would die that day.)
Licence to Kill's final, fiery moment of conflict even reflect this idea. Sanchez, awash in gasoline, pauses before he kills Bond...machete still in hand. Bond asks “don’t you want to know why?” He means: don’t you care why I betrayed you? Why I was disloyal? Sanchez can’t resist knowing the answer to this burning question, and so Bond uses the moment to kill him, to literally burn him up with lighter. That lighter (Leiter?) is a symbol of Bond's mission, and loyalty to his friend, Felix. Bond trumps Sanchez's disloyalty with his own sense of authentic loyalty, then. Friendship beats money, roughly-speaking.
|Krest: This is how Sanchez rewards loyalty.|
|Don't you want to know why?|
Bond thoroughly manipulates Sanchez by exploiting his fears of disloyalty, but, uniquely, the film also appears to make some commentary about Bond’s sense of loyalty. His loyalty to a friend -- to Felix Leiter -- goes beyond all reason, and becomes a consuming, driving, relentless obsession. Bond’s perceptions about this mission become so out of whack that he scuttles two legitimate investigations of Sanchez, one being conducted by Hong Kong, another by Pam Bouvier, herself. Bond is not able to step back and “trust” the system, to get Sanchez. His ego gets in the way. Like Sanchez, he possesses a flaw. His emotions (and loyalty) have not allowed him to see the bigger picture.
|A Bond who remembers.|
|A Bond who grieves.|
|A Bond who makes mistakes.|
|A Bond who bleeds.|
I would argue that Licence to Kill is a superlative example of the second paradigm, and that, additionally, Licence to Kill has become the prototype for 21st century Bond, a film series which champions the very same virtues.