After re-watching both Timothy Dalton Bond movies—this one and its predecessor, The Living Daylights—I have to say I think Dalton gets over-maligned as Bond. He's not completely right for the role, at least as the role came to be defined by earlier films, but the Dalton installments themselves are a welcome respite from the increasingly ludicrous Moore installments that preceded them.
License to Kill has a stronger story and a more interesting cast than Living Daylights. In a pretty atypical pre-credits sequence, Bond is attending the wedding of his old friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter, when they learn a notorious and untouchable drug lord, Sanchez (Robert Davi), is in the vicinity. They work together to nab Sanchez and make it to the wedding at the last possible moment, naturally via parachute—and then the Binder titles begin, so we know something's amiss.
Sure enough, Sanchez presently escapes, captures and tortures Felix, and kills Mrs. Leiter. Bond goes on a vengeful rampage, resigning his Double-Oh-Ness when M orders him to get back to his real mission. (This means that Bond's now a full-on murderer, having temporarily given up his titular license to legally kill—unless they're retroactive when you get them back? THAT'd be sweet.) Along the way, Bond runs afoul of Sanchez's grinning lieutenant (a young and just-as-scary Benecio Del Toro), meets Sanchez's kept woman Lupe (Talisa Soto, Bond Girl #1 of this movie), and teams up with Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell, the second and better-realized Bond Girl). Notably, Q (Desmond Llewelyn) gets a lot of screen time, driving Bond around and looking after his woman while he's off courting death.
Also, inexplicably, Wayne Newton is on hand, perfectly cast and clearly enjoying himself in the role of a Sanchez-affiliated pseudotelevangelist (a word I just invented which, upon reflection, is probably redundant).
Applying my two-pronged Bond movie evaluation method, I'd call License to Kill one of the good ones. In at least three notable ways, License to Kill goes above and beyond the Bond formula. For one thing, the story is more elaborate, taken more seriously, and has different stakes from most. The world isn't threatened with nuclear armageddon or even financial catastrophe; instead, Sanchez plans a major expansion of his cocaine empire, and it's a secondary element of a story driven by Bond's single-minded need for revenge.
On that topic, another distinct characteristic of License to Kill is that Bond screws up a lot. Not only does he quit MI6 with a strange abruptness, but on at least two occasions his headstrong style of espionage bungles delicate operations being carried out by his allies. They should've focused on this more, but it was nice to see Bond not be Superman for once.
License to Kill's tone is significantly different from most Bond movies, too, and it's a matter of personal taste whether this is an improvement. I'd argue it is: Dalton is the most grim-seeming of all the (pre-Craig) Bond actors, so why not play to that strength? He gets a few pretty scary moments in here. Maybe audiences back then weren't ready for such grittiness from their Bond.
The problem, though, is that where a Craig Bond movie would really embrace this dark and chaotic quality, License to Kill seems to more or less forget about it at the end, as if some studio suit said "Are you kidding? We can't end the movie with Mrs. Leiter's funeral! It's a BOND MOVIE; he's gotta make out with what's-her-face at the end." ("Which what's-her-face, sir?" "Aw hell, how 'bout both.") Instead, the film's commitment to Bond's dark side is limited to Dalton's steely performance and a good deal more violence than is customary. Even Felix seems awfully chipper for a guy who just lost a wife, a leg, and probably a promotion.
As for the typical Bond stupid shit, it's minimal. The gadgets are believable and de-emphasized; the one-liners are infrequent and only terrible once or twice. The stand-out of stupid in License to Kill is Lupe's actual verbal declaration that "I love James Bond so much," crystallizing the odd tendency for Bond girls to commit themselves completely to this gun-toting psycho after spending maybe twenty seconds in his oft-leering presence. To me, this doesn't detract that much from License to Kill—because perhaps the sole defining characteristic of all Bond movies, rebooted or not, is Paleolithic gender politics—but it stands out nonetheless. Partly this is because Carey Lowell's character is comparatively advanced for a Bond girl (and acting-wise, well above average), so Lupe is embarrassing by comparison.
License to Kill drags in spots, but never for long; by the time they finally get to the Cone Temple, the end is in sight, including a pretty impressive tanker-truck chase and some satisfying comeuppance for the well-defined villain. You really can't ask for much more from a Bond movie.
Star Score: 3.5 out of 5