James Bond (Timothy Dalton
) is on leave in Florida to serve as best man at the wedding of Felix Leiter (David Hedison
) and Della Churchill (Priscilla Barnes
). With Cold War tensions cooling down, Leiter has transferred to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and he's spent the last several months attempting to capture elusive drug kingpin Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi
). He is considered one of the most ruthless drug lords around, operating an invisible drug empire that stretches all the way from Alaska to Chile, and he's proven impossible to catch, having managed to kill, intimidate or bribe every major politician in the Western Hemisphere who could give him up.
As Bond, Leiter, and Leiter's fishing buddy Sharkey (Frank McRae
) drive to the wedding, Leiter's boss, Hawkins (Grand L. Bush
) intercepts them to inform Leiter that Sanchez is making a rare visit to Cray Key. The timetable to capture him before he can flee to non-extradition territory is tight, so Leiter decides to take it. Bond accompanies him aboard a Coast Guard helicopter, "strictly as an observer," to ensure that he will be back on time, and alive, for the wedding, leaving Sharkey to stall the proceedings until they get back.
The reason Sanchez is venturing this far north today is because he's found out that his mistress Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto
) is having an affair with another man. Sanchez and his three menacing henchmen, Dario (Benicio Del Toro
), Perez (Alejandro Bracho
), and Braun (Guy De Saint Cyr
), creep up to the house where the boyfriend is staying, using piano wire to garrote a thug standing guard, then burst in and catch Lupe in bed with her new lover. Dario, Perez and Braun grab the boyfriend and take him outside, where they proceed to kill him and cut out his heart, while Sanchez himself punishes Lupe by whipping her with the tail of a stingray.
Bond and Leiter arrive just as Sanchez is preparing to fly out of US territory. After a short gunfight, he separates from his henchmen and Lupe, and flies off alone via a private plane. Bond manages to capture Sanchez by attaching the helicopter's tow cable to Sanchez's plane in flight and pulling it out of the air. Afterwards, Bond and Leiter parachute down to the church in time for the ceremony.
During the reception, Bond finds Leiter finishing up a meeting in his office with another woman, Pamela Bouvier, (Carey Lowell
), but she leaves before Bond can speak with her. Della offers Bond a gift, a silver handled cigarette lighter with the engraving, "Love always, Della and Felix." Della tells Bond that he will need to get married next, causing Bond great discomfort. Della asks her new husband if it was something she said, and Felix tells her that Bond had been married before
, but it ended tragically.
Meanwhile, Sanchez is taken to a holding cell in Key West, awaiting transfer to a higher security facility. Hawkins and another agent, Ed Killifer (Everett McGill
), tell Sanchez that he is looking at least ten life sentences from all the felonies he's wanted for; his dream team attorneys and "million dollar bribes" will not get him out of this one. Sanchez offers $2 million for anyone who helps him escape. Though Killifer seems disgusted at the offer, Sanchez believes he has taken the bait.
Indeed, Killifer does accept the $2 million offer and agrees to help Sanchez escape custody. To do so, he arranges to ride shotgun in the van that is going to take Sanchez to Quantico. As the convoy crosses Key West's Seven Mile Bridge, the driver becomes visibly nervous as they pass road construction signs warning of repaving work going on up ahead. This is when Killifer makes his move. He uses the handle of his shotgun to knock the driver unconscious, then steers the van over the side of the bridge and into the ocean. Once the van sinks, and the driver drowns, frogmen stationed below the bridge load Sanchez and Killifer into a Shark Hunter submersible and transport them to the Ocean Exotica, a warehouse owned Milton Krest, (Anthony Zerbe
) a marine breeder who operates a research boat, the Wavekrest, as a front for Sanchez's drug trade.
Unaware of Sanchez's liberation, Felix and Della return home, only to find Dario, Perez and Braun waiting for them. They knock Leiter out, and then proceed to rape Della before stabbing her in the heart. Leiter is driven to the Ocean Exotica, where Sanchez and his henchmen are waiting for him. Killifer apologizes for betraying Leiter, but insists he couldn't refuse the money. Sanchez's men open a trap door, revealing a feeding pit for a Great White shark. As Leiter is lowered into the pit, Sanchez tells him that he will not die this day, for there are some things that are worse than death, and Leiter's fate is nothing personal, just business. After the shark bites Leiter, Sanchez and his team remove him from the pit, return him to his house wrapped in a tarp, and deposit him on a couch, pinning a note to his chest reading "He disagreed with something that ate him". They then ransack the house and steal Leiter's files, which contain a list of his informants inside Sanchez's network.
Bond learns of Sanchez's liberation the next day, when he notices the police at the airport on high alert as he prepares to leave for a posting in Istanbul, Turkey. Realizing what's going on, Bond races back to Leiter's house, finding Della sprawled on the bed in the bedroom, dead, then finds Felix on the couch in his office, injured. It is around this time that Hawkins calls to check up on Leiter, and Bond tells him to call an ambulance.
Leiter is rushed to the hospital and put into surgery. His left leg has to be amputated below the knee, and there is a 50/50 chance that he will also lose his left arm. Hawkins tells Bond that the authorities' hands are tied regarding Sanchez, as he has already fled to the Republica de Isthmus (based on the real life Panama), which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.
The local authorities believe that Leiter's injuries are the result of a chainsaw, but Sharkey knows a shark bite when he sees one. The two of them visit aquariums in the area, looking for the shark that Leiter was fed to. Eventually, they locate the Ocean Exotica. Krest tells them that the facility has the capacity to house a Great White, but it was sold years ago, so they now concentrate on breeding smaller fish to feed the world's hungry. After a cursory examination, Bond realizes he's in the right place, noticing the flowers from Felix' wedding boutonniere on the floor, as well as traces of dried blood.
That night, Bond and Sharkey infiltrate the Ocean Exotica, splitting up to cover more ground. Killifer has been ordered to hide here until Krest's flagship, the Wavekrest
, can pick him up. Bond finds that Sanchez is smuggling packets of cocaine in the maggots Krest uses for his fish, but is discovered and has to take out two guards. The ensuing scuffle gives Killifer a chance to ambush him. Keeping his Magnum trained on Bond, Killifer opens the feeding pit. Before he can shoot Bond or usher him into the tank, he is knocked off balance by Sharkey, who emerges from another trap door directly below him. Bond seizes the opportunity and knocks him into the feeding pit. Killifer grabs onto a rope above the water, and motions to the briefcase holding his bribe money; if Bond saves him, he can have half of it. Bond throws the briefcase at him, causing him to lose his grip and fall into the water, where he is promptly eaten by the shark. Sharkey deems it a terrible waste....of money.
The next morning, Hawkins confronts Bond over his recent actions, which have violated several local laws. He summons two nearby MI6 agents, telling Bond that he is in over his head, and this is where it ends. The MI6 agents take Bond to Hemingway House, where M (Robert Brown
) is waiting for him. M chastises Bond for his unprofessional attitude, insisting the Leiter knew that risks of the job, and Sanchez is outside their jurisdiction. Bond insists that the Americans will not do anything about Sanchez, but M considers this irrelevant, since they have not requested MI6's help on this matter. When Bond threatens to resign, M suspends him and immediately revokes his license to kill. Bond flees from MI6 custody and becomes a rogue agent.
With Sharkey's help, Bond learns that the Wavekrest is out to sea to test an automated submersible prototype, Sentinel. Bond boards the ship and finds Lupe sleeping in the captain's quarters. She tells him that Sanchez is not on board, and she doesn't know where he is. She covers for Bond (at knifepoint) when Krest checks up on her, and suggests that Bond leave before he gets them both killed. They then hear a commotion coming from outside. Bond and Lupe look out the window and see a patrol boat rendezvousing with the Wavekrest, displaying Sharkey's dead body like a trophy. The patrol leader, Clive, tells Krest that he caught Sharkey snooping around where he shouldn't have been, and jokes about Sharkey's poor choice of nickname. Lupe is disgusted, but Bond reminds her that she chose to be a drug lord's mistress. Bond escapes from the Wavekrest by shooting Clive and stealing his scuba gear. Krest is using Sentinel to smuggle drugs to Sanchez's distributors, who have arrived via seaplane. Still underwater, Bond sabotages Sentinel before making his escape on one of the seaplanes, stealing $5 million on the way.
Knowing that he will need allies to carry out his operation against Sanchez, Bond breaks into Leiter's house and uses his computer to find a list of informants who have infiltrated Sanchez's empire. Only one of them is still alive, an ex-military pilot by the name of Pamela Bouvier. He meets Bouvier at a Bimini bar, recognizing her as the woman from Leiter's wedding reception. Their conversation is interrupted when Dario arrives at the bar. Bouvier explains Dario used to be with the Contras before he was expelled for his sociopathic tendencies. She tells Bond to keep quiet and let her and her shotgun do the talking. Dario claims to want to hire her for a smuggling job, but she knows that it is a setup for her to be killed. Bond and Bouvier start a barroom brawl in order to escape, and they fight their way to a motorboat. Dario pulls out a Magnum revolver and fires at them, eventually hitting Bouvier in the back. She is saved by a Kevlar vest. Once they are a safe distance away, Bond asks Bouvier to fly him to Isthmus City. Bouvier warns that it will not be cheap. In addition to her fee of $100,000, Bond will have to throw around some serious money to make his presence felt in the city.
In London, Miss Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss
) tells M that she has not found any indication that Bond has left the United States. M tells her that she should know better, Bond is gong to go after Sanchez alone, without support from the Americans or any other agency, and it is a diplomatic incident waiting to happen. They have an agent in Isthmus City, and he is to receive regular updates. After M leaves, Moneypenny calls Q Branch.
Bond and Bouvier travel to Isthmus City, renting a room at the luxurious Casino de Ithsmus hotel. Bouvier decides to stay with Bond, posing as Ms. Kennedy, his "executive secretary." She directs Bond to deposit the $5 million he stole from the Wavekrest into a bank which launders Sanchez's drug money, then alters her appearance by getting a conservative haircut and high end clothing, to better fit the part. Sanchez is currently arranging a summit with Triad Dragon Heads (bosses) that he wishes to do business with. He also has a complicated moneymaking scheme involving a phony meditation retreat, the Olympatec Meditation Institute, run by an American televangelist, Professor Joe Butcher (Wayne Newton
), who solicits "donations" that are actually the market prices for drugs Sanchez smuggles out of a distribution facility that the meditation institute is a front for.
Bond makes his presence felt by playing blackjack at the casino, bringing $250,000 to the table. Sanchez, who is watching via security cameras, tells the casino staff to let him play when he notices how much money he has. Bond easily beats the pit bosses, but Lupe is dispatched by Sanchez to put an end to his winning streak. Bond is brought before Sanchez and meets two more of his associates, his head of security, Colonel Heller (Don Stroud
), and his accountant, Truman Lodge (Anthony Starke
). Bond claims that he is there to look for work, during the conversation he studies the office for any weakness in security, noting a building across the street that appears to be closed for renovations. Sanchez's interest is piqued, but he remains guarded, warning Bond that no one saw him coming into his hotel, so nobody has to see him come out. He allows Bond to leave, but confiscates his gun, implying that it will be returned once Heller's background check is complete.
After he is returned to his hotel room, Bond tells Bouvier that the windows in Sanchez's office are high grade bulletproof plexiglass, so regular weapons will be useless against it. They receive a surprise visitor in the form of Q (Desmond Llewelyn
). Moneypenny has informed him of Bond's situation, and he wants to help. He is currently on leave, so it is entirely unofficial. He provides Bond with plastic explosive and a sniper rifle (that is disguised as a camera) with an optical palm readout that ensures that only Bond can fire it.
Bond sneaks to the roof of the hotel and uses a grappling line to rappel down, planting plastic explosives in the window of Sanchez's office and adjoining conference room. Inside, Sanchez tells the Triad leaders that they can become a part of his "franchise" if they pay him $100 million. He has already devised reasonable distribution deals based on a case-by-case basis on the size of each Triad's gang and the territory they control. The sole holdout is a man named Kwang (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
), who wants to see Sanchez's main distribution center. Truman Lodge protests, but Kwang reminds him that $100 million is a serious investment, and the other Triads agree. Sanchez reluctantly acquiesces to their wishes, then directs them to a roomful of callgirls. Once the Triads leave, Sanchez tells Heller that they need to keep an eye on Kwang.
Bond heads toward the closed building and sets up a sniper's nest. He curiously sees Bouvier talking with Heller in one of the other rooms. After she leaves, Bond detonates the explosives. However, before he can fire the fatal shot into Sanchez's head, he is disarmed by a team of ninjas. Though he puts up a strong fight, they eventually overpower him. They take him to their hideout, where he meets Kwang and another MI6 agent, Fallon (Christopher Neame
). As Bond is placed in restraints, Kwang reveals that he is an undercover agent for Hong Kong Narcotics, planning a major sting operation inside Sanchez's operation, but the assassination will likely mean that Sanchez and the Triads will go underground. Fallon assures Kwang that Bond's actions were not authorized by his government, and he will be brought back to England to account for his actions. As Fallon prepares a sedative, Sanchez's troops, led by Heller, bombard the safehouse with artillery. Fallon is killed right away, and Kwang is wounded. Kwang then commits suicide with a cyanide capsule before Sanchez can interrogate him (out of frustration, Sanchez shoots Kwang's body several times). The soldiers find Bond unconscious, but alive, and Sanchez orders him to be taken to his private island.
Bond awakens in a spacious guest bedroom, and Sanchez asks him why he was at Kwang's safehouse. Bond spins an elaborate fabrication that plays on Sanchez's existing paranoia, successfully convincing him that Kwang's team were an elite mercenary unit hired to kill Sanchez that thought Bond would be a threat because of his old loyalties. They seemed well-enough informed to suggest a security leak in Sanchez's organization. Sanchez insists that this is impossible, but after Bond leaves, he tells Heller they may have a problem with Krest. Lupe smuggles Bond off the island during one of her "shopping trips" to the mainland. After returning to the hotel, Bond confronts Bouvier about her meeting with Heller. She reveals that Sanchez bought Stinger missiles from the Contras, which he would threaten to use in terrorist attacks on American targets unless the DEA stopped pursuing him. Leiter had offered Heller amnesty if he helped get the Stingers back. However, Bond's assassination attempt scared him into backing out of the deal.
That night, the Wavekrest docks, and Sanchez is there to greet it, accompanied by Lupe, Perez, and Braun. Bouvier disguises herself as the Wavecrest's new helmsman, to give Bond time to infiltrate the boat underwater, then crashes the boat into the dock. She rendezvous with Bond in the aft section, strips down to a one-piece swimsuit, then helps Bond plant the $5 million he had stolen into the hyperbaric chamber. Sanchez questions Krest about the Sentinel incident. He has brought Lupe with him, as he has found that Krest cannot lie in front of her. Perez and Braun set out to find a safe, eventually discovering the planted money in the hyperbaric chamber. Furious at the apparent betrayal, Sanchez locks Krest in the chamber and then rapidly depressurises it, causing his head to explode. Sanchez orders Perez and Braun to clean the money (in more ways than one). Bond and Bouvier rendezvous with Q, who has disguised himself as a fisherman. Bond tells them they need to part company, as the authorities will be looking for them now. Unbeknownst to either of them, Bond has returned to Sanchez, being welcomed into his inner circle for his perceived loyalty.
The next morning, Lupe visits Bouvier and Q, revealing that Bond lied to them on the dock, he spent the night at Sanchez's estate, and slept with her. Bond thinks that he has earned Sanchez's trust, but Sanchez isn't stupid, and has Bond placed under intense scrutiny. It is only a matter of time before he is discovered, so she wants him extracted before that happens. Bouvier is furious, but cooler heads prevail, and she and Q devise a plan.
Sanchez takes Bond to his distribution center, built underneath the Olympatec Meditation Institute. Bond learns that Sanchez's scientists can dissolve cocaine in gasoline and then sell it disguised as fuel to the Triads. The re-integration process where the cocaine is extracted from the gasoline will be available after Sanchez receives the second half of his franchising fee. Unbeknownst to Bond, Dario has joined Sanchez, bringing the Stingers and two rocket launchers with him.
Meanwhile, Bouvier has made her way to the OMI by disguising herself as a student. She seduces Professor Joe, then steals a key to gain access to the distribution center.
During Sanchez's presentation, Dario recognizes Bond from the bar fight and tells Sanchez that Bond is their enemy. Bond headbutts Dario and starts a fire in the lab, but he is overpowered and placed on the conveyor belt that drops the brick-cocaine into a giant strawcutter. Before Sanchez can lower Bond into the strawcutter, Heller tells them that the fire is beyond their control, they need to move all their merchandise. Sanchez and most of his men leave to help Heller, while Dario hangs back to finish off Bond. Bouvier arrives and shoots Dario, allowing Bond to drop Dario into the strawcutter, which rips him apart.
Amid the chaos, Heller attempts to load the Stingers into a helicopter. Sanchez orders they be moved to his car instead, and secretly orders Braun to kill Heller. Four articulated tanker trucks full of the cocaine/gasoline mixture are able to escape the compound before it is destroyed. Bond and Bouvier also escape, and use a plane to catch up with the convoy. Bond hijacks the first tanker, dislodging the trailer and using the cab to pursue the other vehicles. Sanchez decides to "cut overhead" by shooting Truman-Lodge, then gives Perez a rocket launcher and orders him to set up an ambush. Bond avoids Perez's rocket with some precision driving, and one of the other tankers is destroyed instead.
As Bond closes in on the last tanker, Perez and Braun give chase in a pickup truck. However, during the ensuing chase, they drive through a wall of flame, setting their tires ablaze. They lose control of their vehicle, eventually plummeting off a cliff, narrowly avoiding Bouvier's plane. Sanchez fires a rocket at Bouvier's plane, grazing the tail and forcing her to make an emergency landing. Sanchez draws a machete and attacks Bond aboard the final remaining tanker, which loses control and crashes. As Bond crawls away, Sanchez, covered in gasoline, and still wielding his machete, overpowers him. Sanchez tells Bond he should have accepted his offer to join him, he could have had everything. Bond then reveals the engraved cigarette lighter, and sets Sanchez afire. Burning alive, Sanchez stumbles into the wrecked tanker truck's cistern and causes it to explode. Bouvier rescues Bond, driving the cab from one of the destroyed tankers.
Later, a party is held at Sanchez's former residence. Bond receives a call from Leiter, who reveals that his doctors were able to save his arm, and he is planning on going fishing once it heals. He adds that he received a call from M, implying that all is forgiven in regards to MI6. Bond chooses to reject Lupe's advances, suggesting the country's president as a better match, and romances Bouvier instead.