Licence to Kill

2 Sep

With the latest ( and most likely final) Daniel Craig starring Bond film NO TIME TO DIE due to be released this year (we hope) it’s time to look back on one of the most misunderstood and underrated installments in the franchise. 1989’S LICENCE TO KILL was the second and final time that Welshman Timothy Dalton donned the iconic tuxedo and is unfortunately remembered for being a misguided failure. It was a box office disappointment, making less than Dalton’s previous film  THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS released two years earlier and was infamous for being the most violent in the series ( whereas all of the previous Bond films were given a PG certificate in the UK, LICENCE TO KILL was given a 15  rating, still the highest age classifications in the franchise.)Many hardcore Bond fans dismiss the film as a humourless, sexless entry that eschews many of the tropes of the series ( quippy one liners, goofy gadgets, sexual innuendos) in favour of savage violence and a darker, grittier tone. However, while LICENCE TO KILL undoubtedly fails as a traditional Bond film, it succeeds as an example of late 80s action cinema with its vengeance seeking protagonist, terrific practical stunt work  and a plot involving drug lords and corrupt agents, closer in tone to LETHAL WEAPON and OUT FOR JUSTICE than DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER.

LICENCE TO KILL’s traditional Bond cold open sequence shows James Bond (Timothy Dalton, THE ROCKETEER, FLASH GORDON) on his way to the wedding of his close friend and associate CIA Agent Felix Leiter ( David Hedison THE FLY) to Della (Priscilla Barnes,THREE’S COMPANY). The groom and his best man are waylaid on their way to the chapel when Leiter gets word that the international drug lord Sanchez (Robert Davi, DIE HARD, THE GOONIES) has popped up in Florida and Bond and Felix join in the DEA raid. Thanks to some derring do by Bond, Sanchez is apprehended during a mid air chase and they manage to get to the church just in time. However, Sanchez escapes from jail thanks to the assistance of corrupt DEA Agent Killifer (Everett McGill, TWIN PEAKS). Sanchez and his men, including the deranged Dario (Benecio Del Toro, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, SICARIO), attack Felix at his home on his wedding night. Bond discovers that Della has been killed and that Felix has been maimed by a shark and sets out on a mission of revenge. Disavowed by the MI6, Bond has his licence to kill revoked. Now acting outside of the law, abandoned by his government, Bond poses as an enforcer-for -hire to ingratiate himself to Sanchez so that he can destroy his drug empire and exact revenge. Bond is assisted in his mission by two very different women, Felix’s colleague and CIA Agent Pam Bouvier ( Carey Lowell, ) and Lupe Lamora (Taliso Soto), Sanchez’s abused and unhappy wife, who are both determined to help Bond bring down the loathsome Sanchez.

For a series that has been going now for almost sixty years, its no surprise that the James Bond films have evolved over that time. Like any movie, James Bond films are a product of the time that they were made, reflecting the trends and zeitgeist of the period in which they were produced. The original Sean Connery period is pure Swinging Sixties, primarily upbeat classic pop, with vague Cold War tensions, fears around nuclear war and a liberal attitude to casual sex. In the 1970’s the Bond producers tried to match the popular trends of the time as well. Replacing Connery with the more urbane, smoother Roger Moore the films leaned into a campier, goofier tone that not only aped the popular style of the SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT films and CONVOY, but also took its cues from the archness of its new star. Moore’s first film, LIVE AND LET DIE, was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Blaxploitation movies of the early Seventies and MOONRAKER added a special effects laden final act set in space, clearly a cynical attempt to replicate the then recent success of STAR WARS. More recently the films of the Daniel Craig era often attempted to capture the essence of the popular movies of the time: CASINO ROYALE is a clear (and very successful) attempt to reboot the franchise along the lines of Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS; SKYFALL at times felt like THE DARK KNIGHT of Bond, with its Joker -like villain and concerns with the role that new cyber technology will play in national security; QUANTUM OF SOLACE was a disastrous attempt to ape the lean,mean and morally ambiguous BOURNE films, including those film’s use of shaky cam and incomprehensible editing style. LICENECE TO KILL is no different, in its obvious attempt to replicate the style and tone of recent action movies like LETHAL WEAPON and DIE HARD.

The mid-Eighties was something of a turning point for the Bond series and the producers undoubtedly were unsure of how to make Bond relevant for the then modern audiences. Roger Moore’s reign had run on for far too long and had descended into self-parody long before 1985’s atrocious A VIEW TO A KILL. The time had come for a new iteration of the  character and for the series to move away from the almost CARRY ON style of the Moore films with its camp humour, over the top slapstick action and dated sexual politics of an aging Englishmen bedding dozens of much younger women. It was time for a change. In came Timothy Dalton. Dalton had been on producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli’s radar for some time and had offered him the role when Sean Connery step way before ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (Dalton turned it down as he felt, at 23, he was too young and inexperienced to take on the part).  Dalton had won acclaim as a Shakespearean actor on the UK stage and had memorable supporting roles in films as diverse as Oscar winning historical drama THE LION IN WINTER and the high camp cult classic FLASH GORDON but Bond was another league altogether. When he again hesitated, Sam Neill (JURASSIC PARK) and future Bond and REMINGTON STEELE star Pierce Brosnan carried out screentests before Dalton agreed to sign on. His first film THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, managed to meld the traditional elements of the Bond film with the specific talents of the new actor in the role. Dalton’s Bond couldn’t have been more further from Moore’s: this Bond was harder, more tortured and less humourous, he  was also much more dynamic, intense and moral. In THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, Bond was less promiscuous, possibly due to the films being released in the era of the AIDS epidemic. Sleeping around was not only no longer cool, it was dangerous and irresponsible. There was also a sense of nobility and an integrity that had been missing from the previous Bond. THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS was considered a success and now the producers were looking to push the character and the series into new and darker territory with his second film in the role.

Action cinema in the late Eighties had been dominated by the films starring such cinematic hard men as Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Seagal, Van Damme and Chuck Norris. These films, made with varying levels of budget and quality , depicted lone warriors, often ex-military types with hard bodies and souls, who go on a one man mission of revenge, usually against South American drug dealers or Soviet forces. These heroes had little time for  charm or romance; they were indestructible killing machines waging war on their enemies ( who have usually killed someone close to the hero) utilizing some seriously savage violence along the way. These types of films first appeared in the lower budget and straight to video arena but in the years prior to the release of LICENCE TO KILL, big budget Hollywood productions began to use this formula to great success. LETHAL WEAPON and DIE HARD may have had slicker direction and in stars like Mel Gibson, Danny Glover and Bruce Willis, actors who could add some layers of humanity these characters.  EON (Broccoli’s production company) decided that if Bond was stay relevant and reach a modern audience, he would have to embrace his dark side.

LICENCE TO KILL’s story has all the elements of a classic Eighties shoot em up; highly trained man of violence as hero? Check.  Said hero turns rogue to exact brutal revenge on the villain? Check. South American drug dealers as villains? Check. LICENCE TO KILL’s plot checks all the boxes. However, to achieve this the filmmakers have had to abandon the tried and tested formula for a James Bond flick. There is no supervillain with a master plan for world domination. The villain Sanchez, played by perennial Eighties bad guy and DIE HARD supporting player Robert Davi, has no crazy plans involving stealing nuclear warheads or mind control, no underwater lair- he is a ruthless drug lord, with propensity for violence as a means of self preservation and prone to paranoia. In short he is a run of the mill career criminal. In other areas of the plot, the writers, series regulars Michael G Wilson and  Richard Maibaum, are forced to adopt a deconstructionist approach to the Bond formula. To be a lone wolf, an out of control renegade Bond must be disavowed and cast adrift from his government. No longer an MI6 agent on a sanctioned mission, Bond is alone without his usual support. There is no traditional scene of M given Bond his mission, replaced instead with a scene of Bond having his licence to kill revoked (hence the original title) the 007 equivalent to the cliche of the maverick cop having to turn in his badge and his gun. Q does appear for a few scenes in the second act to give Bond a hand and a few (mostly superfluous gadgets). Miss Moneypenny is reduced to a single scene back at HQ but almost all of the other traditional elements of a Bond film are eliminated by necessity.

This abandonment of traditional Bond elements is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand James Bond aficionados will bemoan the lack of one liners,  over the top action scenes and exotic locales. The film’s weakest moments are actually when the filmmakers attempt to shoe horn in the usual Bond tropes into a plot and tone that can’t accommodate them. The scenes with Q, although charmingly acted by Dalton and series mainstay Desmond Llewelyn, are the most obvious example. The scenes are played mostly for laughs and although even the most intense thriller needs comic relief as a valve to release the pressure, the scenes don’t gel with the rest of the film. Even the gadgets that Q provides seem unoriginal and half hearted; one is camera that is actually a rifle and a toothpaste tube of plastic explosive that is totally pointless, there’s not even a scene where a henchman blows himself up while brushing his teeth! However, the decision to reposition the film into a different genre does add some interesting kinks into a somewhat tired formula. A more streamlined plot in a grittier, more realistic setting gives the film a propulsive energy that many of the bloated Roger Moore movies lacked. There is also more room in the story for the female characters than is typically permitted. Dalton’s version of Bond is less of the misogynistic womaniser of previous films and in fact seems to see women as more than objects for sexual conquests. Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier, is depicted as a highly trained CIA operative and former pilot who is more than a useful ally for Bond. She shares the same motivation as Bond, revenge for Sanchez’s attack on Felix, has already made inroads with her own undercover mission when Bond teams up with her and even rescues him at various points in the story. Although this isn’t the first time the series has had a female lead who is more than a damsel in distress, in particular Diana Rigg’s Tracey in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, and Bouvier’s character is a bit too lovesick over Bond to be a true feminist hero but at she is far more dynamically written and played than the typical Bond girl.

Interestingly, despite the desire for LICENCE TO KILL to move in a different direction than previous films, EON decided to stick with their in house film making team. Rather than go for the premiere action directors of the era, DIE HARD’s John McTiernan say, or a old school journeyman action specialist like John Flynn (OUT FOR JUSTICE, ROLLING THUNDER) or Andrew Davis (ABOVE THE LAW, THE PACKAGE), EON rehired John Glenn. Glenn had been an integral part of the series since the Sixties, starting out as an editor and second unit director for ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, for which he received a great deal of praise for that film’s unique, jagged edge cutting style and thrilling ski sequences. Glenn was handed the director’s chair for 1980’s FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (one of the better entries of the Roger Moore era) and directed every Bond film released in the Eighties.  As a director, Glenn is every inch the old pro craftsman, he doesn’t really have a distinguishable visual style and outside of the typically impressive action sequences that are the series trademark his handling of the non action scenes is at best perfunctory. Glenn did, however, bring a grounded, more restrained style to the series that gives a leaner, muscular feel to the action and helps to tone down the excesses of late period Roger Moore. Although he lacks the stylistic ambitions of Peter Hunt’s work on ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE or the broader comic book stylings of Guy Hamilton ( GOLDFINGER, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN), Glenn’s Hawksian style-less technique is flexible enough to accommodate the changes in tone that was needed throughout his run.  His “invisible” directing style  allows the focus to remain on the story, the actors and the stunts. Glenn’s experience as an editor and second unit director  shows in his clear and unfussy staging of both the action and the dialogue sequences. The most impressive set pieces in the film are undoubtedly the thrilling aerial chase sequences that opens the film and the climactic tanker duel. The final action sequence, in which Bond drives a tanker filled with drugs, chasing Sanchez along a precarious mountain road,  is reminiscent of the then recent MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR’s finale (although not as good).

Although LICENCE TO KILL can be seen as an interesting departure from the Bond formala and as an example of Eighties action cinema it is exemplary, there is no doubt as a Bond film it is a failure. By removing much of the elements that make a Bond film a Bond film ( the gadgets, the glamourous locales, witty banter) in an attempt to imitate what was popular at the time, the film is sorely lacking in the qualities that the fans love.  The film is gripping and exciting but it is certainly not fun.  There is an unpleasant cruelty present throughout, from the callous murder of Della, the maiming of Felix by shark attack,to the gruesome demises of Anthony Zerbe and Benecio Del Toro (exploded by rapid decompression and diced by machinery respectively.) Dalton, for all his presence and intensity, is almost totally humourless. The tone is mostly dour and bleak. The film is a good example of a production company mistakenly attempting to chase current trends while forgetting what makes the series unique. Surely the appeal of Bond is the somewhat fantastical approach the spy genre: the over the top villains, the secret agent who has superhuman abilities, the gadgets that stretch believability. THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, the previous film in the series, managed to balance the more fun elements of the series while successfully melding these elements with Dalton’s edgier take on the role. LICENCE TO KILL would work much better if the Bond elements that remain were removed and it was just a revenge thriller with better than average acting and production values. As it is, LICENCE TO KILL is too misanthropic, too violent and too humourless to be considered a classic Bond.

Following the disappointing box office and decidedly mixed critical reception of LICENCE TO KILL, it would be six years until the next 007 adventure would be released. Dalton would be gone, citing that he could not stall his career any longer waiting for EON to resolve its financial issues that were preventing them from producing another film. Pierce Brosnan would finally take the role in the much more well received GOLDENEYE in 1995. GOLDENEYE would succeed where LICENCE TO KILL failed: it successfully melded the comic stylings of traditional Bond whilst updating them for modern audiences with Brosnan a smoother and arch 007. However, LICENCE TO KILL remains an interesting departure for James Bond and as time goes by, appreciation for Dalton’s darker interpretation of the character has grown. It is a shame that he didn’t return for more films, as his films were never given the same kind of budget or attention that those starring Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig were given. For me, Dalton, while probably not the best Bond (that would be Sean Connery) his was the most interesting. Dalton toned down the campier, playboy aspects of the role and played him as a soldier, as a hero. His Bond was a moral force, an incorruptible hero with a strong senses of right and wrong. With his granite like features and piercing blue eyes, there was the impression of a haunted man, a man for whom death and violence as natural to him as breathing but has a solid moral core buried underneath. LICENCE TO KILL, for all its flaws and misguided intentions, is a great showcase for the talents of the most underrated 007 of them all.

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