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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1989)

16. Licence to Kill

“The Living Daylights” was fairly well received, making money at the box office and winning positive notices from critics and fans. It would appear that Timothy Dalton was on his way. Work immediately started on the next James Bond movie. The film would maintain the serious, grounded approach “The Living Daylights” took, with Bond taking on the then-topical threat of Colombian drug lords and Mesa-American dictators. Production, as it seemingly always is, was fraught. A writer’s strike hit in the middle of production. Poor reception to the working title of “Licence Revoked” forced a last minute switch to “Licence to Kill.” The film proved to be the end of an era in a number of ways. It would be the last Bond film for Timothy Dalton, Robert Brown’s M, Caroline Bliss’ Moneypenny, producer Albert Broccoli, title designer Maurice Binder, director John Glen, and writer Richard Maibaum.

“Licence to Kill” opens with James Bond during happier times. Felix Leiter is getting married and Bond is the best man. The wedding ceremony is interrupted when a Central American drug lord, Franz Sanchez, suddenly enters the country, forcing Leiter and Bond to team up to capture the guy. Sanchez doesn’t stay behind bars for very long, escaping via bribes. He murders Leiter’s wife and feeds the American agent’s leg to a shark. Enraged, 007 embarks on a quest of revenge against the drug lord. This is against the direct orders of M and MI-6, making Bond a rogue agent, infiltrating Sanchez’ drug empire and teaming up with an American agent.

As previously mentioned, Maurice Binder would pass two years after “Licence to Kill.” As his final James Bond title sequence, Binder’s work here isn’t bad. The relative low-key style seen on “The Living Daylights” continues. The titles incorporate cameras, casinos, and watery elements, in keeping with the film. The trademark silhouettes are downplayed in favor of fully visible women dancing in skimpy outfits. Cross-hairs and Bond’s trademark numbers flash over the images. It’s not the best thing Maurice Binder has done for the series but it’s not a bad swansong. When I first heard Gladys Knight’s theme song, I didn’t care for it. After the excellent pop song openings for the last two films, Knight’s R&B style seems like a backslide. The lyrics are nothing to write home about. The melody, which heavily samples Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger,” isn’t particularly memorable. However, the song has grown on me after multiple listens. Knight’s delivery is good and the song does have the classic Bond theme flavor.

“The Living Daylights” brought a sense of realism back to the Bond series after the extravagance of the Roger Moore years. “Licence to Kill” pushes the franchise into even darker, grittier direction. Bond isn’t fighting for queen and country. Instead, he’s working alone, going on a quest of personal revenge. The anger Timothy Dalton showed last time comes to the forefront here. Dalton is pissed-off and violent, reaping righteous vengeance against those who harmed his friends. Bond hasn’t been this focused and cold-blooded since the sixties. He outright ignores his boss this time, defying M’s orders. There’s no outrageous villains or plans for worldwide domination. Instead, Bond is up against a drug cartel who viciously execute their enemies. It’s an entirely different tone for the series, recalling the crime thrillers and darker action movies that were popular at the time.

That shift in tone is reflected in the film’s content. “Licence to Kill” is the bloodiest Bond movie in the series’ history. The machine gun fire tears bloody holes in the bodies of goons, along with knives and spear guns. Felix Leiter’s dismemberment via shark is shown in full detail, the bloody leg floating in the water. Bond returns the favor, feeding the dirty cop to the same shark. The bloodiest fate are reserved for the bad guy’s top henchman. One is tossed inside a decompression chamber, his head literally exploding on-screen. Another is dropped into a rock grinder, his face writhing in agony as he’s torn asunder. “Licence to Kill” was the first Bond film to receive a PG-13 rating. That it didn’t receive an R is even more surprising.

Despite its grittier plot and bloodier content, “Licence to Kill” doesn’t sacrifice the opulence the series is known for. A lengthy section of the film has Bond at a black jack table in a casino, wearing his tux and ordering a martini. Not longer after that, he’s ambushed by actual ninjas. He attempts to fight off the fighters but is captured, as is series tradition. This is revealed to be a cover, as the ninjas are actually working against the drug cartel. The bad guys hunt them down soon afterwards. The shadow warriors prove to be no match for tanks and machine guns. Going from goofy ninja action to violent machine gun murder makes for quite a tonal shift. “Licence to Kill” works great as a revenge thriller but it doesn’t always blend well with the traditional Bond elements.

In keeping with the darker tone, the film features the nastiest Bond villain seen in quite some time. Robert Davi, an Italian-American, plays the drug lord Sanchez. Davi plays Sanchez as a ruthless businessman, willing to murder anyone who gets in his way. His methods are brutal and his delivery is sadistic. Even his girlfriend isn’t safe from his wrath. After discovering her infidelity, he brutally whips her with a stingray’s tail, an element taken from the Ian Fleming story “The Hildebrand Rarity.” About the only things Sanchez seems to truly enjoy is money and his pet iguana. Davi, a character actor capable of steely intensity, is well cast in the part. Assisting Sanchez is his henchman, Dario, played by a very young Benicio del Toro. Dario is as sadistic as his boss, gleefully cutting out a man’s heart and cackling at Bond’s torture. del Toro also brings some of his trademark eccentricity to the part, making Dario a memorable Bond henchman.

“Licence to Kill” only features two Bond girls. The first we see is Lupe, Sanchez’ ill-fated mistresses. Talisa Soto is lovely in the part, dripping with sensual charm. She’s vulnerable enough to buy as a victim but still can’t resist Bond’s masculine wiles. Bond’s main sidekick in the film is Pam Bouvier. First appearing hiding a shotgun under a table, Pam is a capable agent in her own right. Thanks to a bullet proof vest, she even survives getting shot. She sneaks into the villain’s lair, pulls a gun from her garter, and assist Bond by swooping in with a plane. However, Bouvier also becomes jealous of Bond’s other dalliances, which makes her seem kind of petty. Recalling the days of Sean Connery, Dalton also manhandles her, throwing her on a bed and slapping her around. Both of these elements undermine her strengths as a character. Carey Lowell is likable enough in the part, and looks amazing in a white one-piece swimsuit, but isn’t the most memorable Bond girl.

The film may have a less outlandish story but it doesn’t skimp on the Bond-level action. The opening stunt, which features Bond grappling down from a plane onto another plane, is an impressive start. One of the best sequences in the film revolves around Bond sneaking onto the bad guy’s boat. After some fisticuffs and spear gun murder, he heads back into the ocean. This is a nice throwback to “Thunderball” and numerous other underwater adventures the agent has had. The film takes it even further, the spy dragged behind a moving airplane, sneaking on-board, and tossing the pilots out. A brawl in a barroom features creative use of a mounted sword fish, one of the few bits of comic relief in the movie.

The movie breaks from tradition in one way. 007 infiltrates the bad guy’s lair, his secret drug lab. He successfully destroys the place, improvising a bomb that starts a huge fire. However, since Bond went rogue, there’s no back-up from the army. He has to escape the villain’s lair and survive a small army of goons all by himself. The film’s true climax is an extended vehicle chase, involving tanker trucks. The sequence is tense enough, with Bond leaping between moving vehicles and pushing drivers out. A silly moment that is nevertheless amusing is when Bond gets the truck on one set of wheels, avoiding a launched rocket. Some gratuitously large explosion are thrown in as well. In keeping with the film’s violent tone, the main villain gets an especially brutal send-off.

Surprisingly, considering the grounded plot, the gadgets don’t get the boot. In actuality, Desmond Llewelyn’s Q is a major supporting character. He gifts Bond a case full of gadgets, like an exploding alarm clock, a tube of toothpaste full of plastic explosives, a camera/sniper rifle combo, and another camera that shoots lasers. Q proves his worth as a field agent here, helping 007 out multiple times. Llewelyn was getting up there in age but he seems lively and energized, having a lot of fun. Interestingly, the coolest gadget in the film isn’t provided by Q. Instead, it’s a lighter that produces a ridiculously huge flame, a wedding gift from Felix.

The strangest part of “Licence to Kill” is the small role from Wayne Newton, of all people. Newton plays a new age religion guru who raises money via televised charity events. This is, in actuality, a cover for Sanchez’ drug empire, another way for him to raise funds. Newton’s temple-style resort is also a cover for the villain’s drug factory. It’s an interesting subplot, one designed to criticize both new age religion and televangelists, two hot targets of the time. It’s an interesting idea though I’m not sure what it’s doing in a James Bond movie, much less one as serious as “Licence to Kill.”

After marathoning all the previous James Bond movies, “Licence to Kill’s” drastic difference in tone is refreshing. It feels less like a Bond movie and more like a violent crime picture, a damn good one too. Dalton was criticized at the time for his rage-driven take on the character, the same thing Daniel Craig would be praised for a decade and a half later. “Licence to Kill” was unlucky enough to open the same summer as “Batman,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” and several other modern blockbusters. Bond got lost in the crowd, “Licence to Kill” bringing in noticeably less money then expected. This, combined with some legal issues and the deaths mentioned above, would force Timothy Dalton’s Bond into early retirement and send the series on a six year hiatus. This is a shame since Dalton’s Bond is one of my favorite. I consider myself a big fan of his contributions to the 007 legacy. [Grade: B+]


[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[X] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

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