Licence to Kill
(SPOILERS) Defenders of the Dalton era point to his second and final outing as the one that saw the shape of things to come. If only the public had been as receptive to its tone as they were 17 years later. Such down and dirty, gritty 007 adventuring (in other words, Bourne-infused) would be feted when Daniel Craig grimaced his way into the role, encumbered by massive pectoral muscles while mistaking a pained expression for the heavy emoting. There’s something to this, but in silhouette form only. Licence to Kill is stricken on the rocks of flaccid editing and banal scripting.
Rather than a stripped-down, mean and moody movie, this is one of the most bloated Bond affairs. It’s also almost entirely bereft of charm, and the occasions where humour intrudes (mostly deriving from Q and Wayne Newton) it represents an unfortunate conflict of styles. Bond ended the ‘80s in a mess, confused of identity and subjected to misplaced attempts to inject some depth into the character. No wonder it ended up on hiatus for six years.
Even if that was down to rights issues, it’s not hard to see that a massive rethink was necessary. There needed to be a changing of the guard, and tinkering here or there just created greater dissatisfaction. A franchise that singularly failed to move with the (moviemaking) times was now clearly showing gaping cracks in the formula, and the burden of a lead actor who spectacularly lacked the role’s necessary charisma, and (betraying complete ignorance of why the character endures; they’re still at with the latest incarnation) who wanted to give Bond some serious baggage to make it a thesping challenge, stopped it in its tracks. His dedication to doing his own stunts might be seen as commendable, but Moore’s contrasting extreme aversion didn’t impede his era from becoming the most enduring.
The embryonic ideas of Licence to Kill have since been repackaged to either critical or financial acclaim. The brooding Bond was a hit in Casino Royale, although it quickly became clear (as it always does with two-dimensional characters) that there’s nowhere to take 007 and this leads to tail chasing (so bring in family!) The Brosnan era would be a fundamental facelift; auteur sensibilities would have to wait, but the new line up of directors was at least a step up from the dependable, determinedly unadventurous “Yes, master” approach of John Glen.
The Living Daylights had dipped a toe in the waters of contemporary affairs, even as it was able to rely on typical Cold War tropes, by setting the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan as a partial backdrop. And the result had been reasonably solid; Dalton was rocky in the lead, but it was considerably fresher than the stale, shambling A View to a Kill. The mistake with Licence in the first instance was Cubby Broccoli sticking with his leading man; a George Lazenby-esque one-off and recasting would have been better (even now you won’t hear the producers admit it was a mistake; rather, Dalton was simply ahead of his time).
But it was also down to Eon’s notorious reluctance to experiment in the right ways. They hadn’t wanted the likes of Steven Spielberg and Tony Scott, so it’s hardly surprising that stylistically the series was beginning to creak. Ladling on top a real world, “plucked from the headlines” scenario served to expose just how far behind they were trailing. When you’ve got Michael Kamen scoring (far from being “the closest thing to John Barry”, his contribution sounds entirely like Die Hard outtakes), you’re inviting comparisons with then modern action heroes Gibson and Willis, and they have modern, muscular filmmaking behind them. Which definitely was not John Glen.
The picture was, of course, the first not to sport a title deriving from the novels and short stories. Having to come up with a Bond-ish title is obviously no small deal, so it’s all the more disappointing that they picked the entirely bland Licence to Kill. I’m with the marketers that the original Licence Revoked is no better (vetoed because US audiences would associate it with driving licences; quite reasonable, really). However you cut it, the name is as unimaginative as, say, calling your 007 movie SPECTRE.
Such faint levels of inspiration extended to other trappings. The title sequence, the last contribution to the series from Maurice Binder, is enormously underwhelming. It’s as if he saw the movie and understandably couldn’t be bothered, so turned into a (not very good) advert for SLR cameras. The Gladys Knight-sung theme is okay, but it’s very definition of derivative (indeed, it took its cues from Goldfinger such that royalty payments were made to that song). Eric Clapton was originally pegged to twang his guitar, but that was nixed. Presumably they were aiming towards Casino Royale rock. Ironically, and fittingly, Clapton would be gracing the year’s big modern action hit, the one that left Bond in the dust, Lethal Weapon 2.
Without a spine from the novels, Richard Maibaum and Michael G Wilson cast about for ideas. China was considered as a location for a while, before they settled on the pursuit of Manuel Noriega-inspired drugs lord Sanchez (Robert Davi, familiar from the previous year’s Die Hard as Special Agent Johnson). It didn’t seem to give them pause that Living Daylights also featured a drugs-heavy plotline. Wilson was also inspired by Yojimbo (remade as a A Fistful of Dollars, and later again with Willis as Last Man Standing), intrigued at the prospect of having Bond turn his enemy against itself.
An influence in all this reconfiguring of Bond was Dalton himself, a proper thesp who unaccountably decided Bond’s character should bend to him rather than adapting to 007’s essential limitations. It’s telling that the producers jumped to give Timmy something to chew on, even though it adversely impacted the series’ essential appeal (Dalton was still attached to what became Goldeneye well into the early ‘90s). Impeding progress was the WGA strike, meaning Maibaum wasn’t available for much of the process.
Another factor influencing the production was the cost of shooting in the UK. As a result the crew decamped to Mexico (later to host the hugely expensive productions of Total Recall and Titanic) and the film became heavily reliant on real locations (some of these, such as Sanchez’ house Arabesque and the Otomi temple are up there with the best of the series). Such factors aren’t necessarily a problem, nor is turning on the Bond formula of big set pieces and elaborate lairs to be discouraged. It’s simply a matter of how you deliver on the content.
It makes sense to have real places if the plot is reality tinged, and there’s no reason not to have a Bond adventure where we see why he’s a good agent. Where he’s called on to use his wits and cunning rather than just show up and shoot people. Unfortunately, Wilson and Glen completely fail to capitalise on the opportunity.
Bond’s motivation is lifted from Live and Let Die, in which Mr Big feeds Felix Leiter to a shark. It’s telling that Licence’s best line derives from the novel (“He disagreed with something that ate him”). It may also be telling that Felix escapes intact. In the novel he loses an arm. And this is supposed to be a gritty Bond.
The picture gets things wrong tonally straight off the bat. It has been said that Bond’s zeal for revenge is fuelled by the tragic demise of his own marriage (see that unfairly maligned Lazenby film), and this is referenced by Leiter (“He was married once. But it was a long time ago”). But the fact of this doesn’t translate at all. You’d be quite forgiven for thinking his passion is entirely to equal the score for BFF Felix. Indeed, the fate that befalls Della (Priscialla Barnes) is quite horrific. Bond discovers her, raped and murdered; Benicio Del Toro’s line “Don’t worry, we gave her a nice honeymoooon” is easily the most memorably delivered in the movie. The film only once references her post-mortem, when M (Robert Brown) reproves Bond’s loose cannon approach and instructs him of Leiter, “He knew the risks”. To which Bond responds “And his wife?”
There’s no getting round this. Felix gets to live, and is remarkably jolly come the final reel, but Della dies. Something has gone very wrong in the reworking. Callous murders are very Bond, but the suggestion is that the makers themselves don’t care about Felix’s bride. She is there as a plot point and then discarded. It would have made much more sense if we had the clear idea that Bond was motivated by her death, as there’s precious little sense of a connection with Felix (one wonders, the way Della kisses James on the lips, if he shagged her at some point; why even doubt it, of course he did, even in Dalton’s chaste embodiment).
Casting crumbly old David Hedison, the Live and Let Die Leiter (actually, he looks a pretty robust 62) rather underlines the point that Broccoli’s whims weren’t necessarily the best for the series. Apparently he had bumped into him, and as a result Hedison was back in the frame. It’s the kind of jaundiced casting that leads to an actor who gives good entertainment at weddings being offered the role of Doctor Who. No attention has been paid to whether Hedison fits with Licence’s Leiter. And he doesn’t. And we don’t give a hoot about him, so we don’t care about Bond’s quest.
The misjudged material is evident from the pre-credits sequence. On paper, it’s actually not bad. Leiter’s wedding day turns into the pursuit and take down of Sanchez, which leads to Bond and Felix parachuting to the church on time. Hell, Roger Moore would have smoothed his way right through it and raised a crafty eyebrow at “Does anyone have any objections?”, even with Glen at the helm.
But here the succession of action events is so pedestrian, so devoid of visual sophistication, pace or charm, it’s nigh on laughable. And bizarrely, here of all places, Glen opts to throw in a slow motion shot. (Another misjudged aspect with the wedding is quite why Felix and Della give Bond a present at their wedding? What is with that? Other than being a bad pun, I mean.)
The lack of feeling for content extends to this going on while Robert Davi is whipping his girlfriend (Talisa Soto’s Lupe) in the most unflinching display of sadomasochism the series has yet seen. No one seems to knows how one scene is going to marry with the next, which may be a reason it’s all so sluggish and slow. They do have an idea, but none of them have the tools to pull it off.
One thing’s for certain, though. A series renowned for its sexism is found teetering on the brink of outright misogyny in this instalment. It’s there with Lupe and Della, and its quite alarming in Bond’s attitude to Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), an emotional punching bag who keeps coming back for more, so besotted is she with the master spy (quite depressingly, her major character trait is unquenchable jealousy whenever she sees James with another girl).
Lowell is highly delectable, and it’s readily apparent why, when she entered his life, Richard Gere curtailed his activities offering lodging for disadvantaged rodents. On paper, or a poster, she’s at the forefront to 007’s leading ladies, but Lowell is saddled with the most unrewarding Bond girl this side of… well, Maryam D’Abo, in Dalton’s previous outing. It’s possible that Pam is written as a bunny boiling Bond groupie because someone has to convince us that Dalton’s double-O is desirable. Dalton and Wilson do everything in their power to prove otherwise.
Dalton’s tone is haranguing, cold, impatient and dismissive. Ignoring that she rescued him, he yells “You’re bloody lucky to be alive!”, and adds, being a dick. That she should “leave it to the professionals”. Lowell is entirely unconvincing as an ex-CIA agent, but Bond is being an inelegant prick (Moore’s version was considerably less abrasive towards the hapless Goodnight). Bond hasn’t been this aggressively sexist since the days of Connery but at least he had a charismatic burr; you could understand why he was being swooned over.
And there’s also the matter of Bond’s acumen at his job. He may be playing Sanchez, but he’s a rotten judge of character, believing Pam to be in league with the villains when he eavesdrops on a CIA-sanctioned meeting. As Pam says to him, “There’s more to this than your personal vendetta”. Dalton’s charmless delivery infects his every interaction, making lines such as “I’d stick to flying if I were you” and “Switch the bloody machine off!” sound as if they only missing “you stupid bitch” at the end of the sentence.
So derisive is his view of women, he actively encourages Lupe to get off with the dirty old president in the final scene, believing they will make a lovely couple. (The sexism continues with Miss Funnyfanny, so worried about poor Basildon that she’s continually committing typos).
Q: Remember, if it hadn’t been for Q branch, you’d have been dead long ago.
If there’s any comfort to poor Pam, Bond’s a complete sod to pretty much everyone here who isn’t Felix, and that’s only because Felix is safely banged up in hospital. He’s a one-note nag, persistently instructing Q and Pam to go home, leave, or otherwise hop it. Being consigned to bunk with Q (“I hope you don’t snore, Q”) is just what he deserves. When Sanchez tells him “You have class”, our response to this longhaired scruff, is – no, he really doesn’t. It just underlines that Sanchez is also a terrible judge of character (and so helps to undermine the movie as a whole, since he isn’t a credible threat). Bond on familiar turf, doing what he does well, is no consolation. His appearance at the casino should be a classic, but it’s moribund.
So we end up sympathising with M, as played by Robert Brown the most civil service, bureaucracy-laden of Bond’s superiors. The line, “We’re not a country club, 007” (when Bond offers his resignation) is pretty good, but we can only assume M is so quick to have Bond killed when he goes AWOL because he really doesn’t like him at all. It isn’t a sensible way to deal with a rebellious asset you’d hope to make use of again.
Sanchez: Señor Bond, you got big cojones.
Another of the problems with Licence to Kill is also that it doesn’t feel as if it is heading anywhere. The villain has no big plan he’s hatching (he’s just making good for the next drug deal, which happens to involve a means of dissolving cocaine in petrol and then reconstituting it), so Bond spends much of the two and a quarter hours at Sanchez’ leisure, enacting a very sedate subterfuge. Davi is very good, making the most of a limited part and a rather remedial one. This is a Bond villain so dim he follows 007’s every suggestion; it’s an indication of how rudimentary the writing is.
But Davi has presence, and physically he’s much more threatening than most Bond henchmen, let alone the masterminds. His attempts to summon the mirror of Bond that is Le Chiffre don’t really play, however. Because he’s a lead baddie, Sanchez is saddled with a gimmick, which happens to be an iguana perched on his shoulder. It’s stupid, but illustrative of filmmakers who bottle it when it comes to going all the way with an approach (its why Skyfall is so uneven when it comes to the humorous bits; Craig can’t do funny). In fact, with Del Toro (“He used to be in with the Contras before they kicked him out”), this is a Bond movie with villains crying out for a better picture to do them justice.
Generally, there’s decent casting on the side of the forces of darkness. Bond only has an old crumbly and Frank McRae as his unconvincing sidekick (Sharkey; McRae played the yelling police captain in 48 Hrs). Anthony Starke, later to play The Jimmy in an episode of Seinfeld, is the increasingly exasperated brainy underling of Sanchez.
Perez: (Surveying the compression chamber full of bloody bills) What about the money, patron?
Sanchez: Launder it.
TV regular Anthony Zerbe is great as sleazy frontman Milton Krest (a character from short story The Hildebrand Rarity), although his character is mainly remembered for his gruesome fate. Bond sets Krest up as thieving from Sanchez, putting $5m in a hyperbaric chamber (such a clumsy means of setting up the set piece grue). Bond’s actions are those of a dull-witted interloper, making Sanchez look a fool (after he has disposed of Krest, who is hardly a prime villain in all this, Bond continues to needle Sanchez, unconvincingly to anyone but Sanchez; “No one is stupid enough to take you on on their own”).
James Bond: Looks like he came to a dead end.
Zerbe’s Ridiculous exploding head is about as convincing as the incredible inflating Yaphet Kotto in Live and Let Die 15 years before. Earlier, dirty DEA man Killifer (Lynchian stoic Everett McGill) is eaten by sharks at Bond’s instigation. Later, spitty Dario succumbs to a shredder and another character is run through with a forklift. All of this takes place with the unpleasant lack of moderation of a lesser Stallone vehicle like Cobra.
Fallon: No commander, you’re a loose cannon on deck. I’m shipping you back to London.
There’s a smattering of strong scenes and incidents in here, though. The sequence in which Bond, prior to inveigling himself with Sanchez, is interrupted by the authorities during his attempt to drug lord (including Christopher Neame as MI6’s Fallon; straight away you want Neame to have more screen time) has a suitably “What’s going on here?” quality, about the only point where the picture doesn’t play out predictably. It also underlines that anyone who is against Bond seems almost reasonable, which can’t be right.
Also a hit is the more controversial choice of Wayne Newton as comic relief. He’s televangelist Professor Joe Butcher, and he’s certainly not the sort of broad character one would expect in a pared-down version of Bond. Maybe in the wacky Vegas setting of Diamonds are Forever. This is also evidence that, just as a producer’s vagaries can misfire (Leiter), so they can turn up trumps (Newton had sent the producers a letter). The use of a televangelist to sell cocaine suggests satirical possibilities that go unexplored, but just Joe’s lascivious attentions towards Pam (showing her his soundproofed pyramid) are enough to amuse. And his signature cry of “Bless your heart!” is announced with such fake gusto that it’s irresistible.
The budget conscious Bond 16 is reflected in the more down-to-earth set pieces. Sure, there are underwater fights, a spot of water-skiing, and skydiving, but mostly the action takes place on dry land. The bridge breakout of Sanchez is the kind of thing done much more impressively in M:I 3 (and more recently mimicked in The Expendables 3). Done with a little more conviction on Glen’s part, it might have been memorable.
Try as I might, I’ve always lost the will by the time of the big tanker chase climax. It’s a tepid affair, mixing out of place stunts (a rocket fired at a tanker that tips on its side; very obliging of the firer to wait for Bond to get into position before he lets fly) and general lack of conviction. It is grittier, I suppose (Sanchez bursts into flame, lit by the witty Leiter lighter present; Bond’s still self-consciously chugging away in this), but resolutely enfeebled.
Perhaps the failure of Licence to Kill is overstated. Its defenders will point to a reasonable global performance (although that’s about par with A View to a Kill’s which was seen as a disappointment). It sank without trace at the US box office in the summer of ’89. There was vastly superior action choreography in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Lethal Weapon 2, so it’s no wonder viewers gave Bond a miss. And more, they wanted to watch a star who didn’t suck all the energy out of the room. The six-year gap until Goldeneye may have been beyond Eon’s control, but it feels as if it was all about how much Licence to Kill stank. Del Toro and Davi are good, but the movie isn’t.