Saturday, July 18, 2009

Spy-Fi Flashback: LICENCE TO KILL

In May, I noted the thirtieth anniversary of Moonraker, which debuted in 1979. Ten years later, in the summer of '89, I was back in the theater for Licence To Kill, which marked the end of one Bond era while foreshadowing another.

Right up front, I want to make clear that I've always considered Timothy Dalton one of the best James Bonds. To my mind, he was perfectly cast, with the right looks, physicality and the dramatic weight the character deserved. I also feel that Dalton, arguably, came the closest to Ian Fleming's literary conception of the character. I would have been thrilled if he'd headlined a full half-dozen 007 epics.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way, and through no fault of his performance, both of the series entries he starred in were deeply flawed. The Living Daylights began as a Roger Moore (or Pierce Brosnan) vehicle and had to be hastily re-tailored to better suit Dalton's interpretation of the role. It also suffered from a ham-fisted "safe sex" approach to the character and a very uninspired villain, leading to an unsatisfying climax.

Licence To Kill was tailored to Dalton's style, however, with a grim 'n gritty 007 the likes of which we wouldn't see again until 2006. The script posited a very atypical mission for Her Majesty's Secret Servant, a mission born out of loyalty and personal loss. I frequently see LTK dismissed as a "typical revenge film," but there's more to it than that. Not only is Bond seeking vengeance for the maiming of his friend and the murder of his friend's wife, but it's strongly suggested that he's trying to make up for not having brought his own wife's killers to justice years before.

BTW – I'm going to assume here that everyone reading this blog has seen and is familiar with the plot of the movie. I don't have the energy to write a detailed synopsis. And this isn't a review, anyway; it's just my personal thoughts and musings on this polarizing film.

Bond goes rogue – and the scene at Hemingway House in Key West where he resigns to a startled M is one of my favorite scenes in the canon (though the "Farewell to Arms" gag doesn't work on the pan & scan TV and VHS versions of the movie, since the sign identifying the historical residence is cropped out and never seen). When the MI6 sniper actually opened fire on the fleeing ex-007, I actually let out with a "holy shit!" in the theater.

Pursuing his own vendetta against Central American druglord Sanchez, Bond keeps screwing up other people's plots (Hong Kong Narcotics agents, the CIA, etc.) against the villain. And I love that. It's so rare to see Bond make mistakes, and even rarer to see him own up to them, which he does in LTK, once he realizes how his actions are messing things up.

Unfortunately, this strong, personal story is undercut by other factors, and that's made the movie quite controversial among Bond fans, many of whom outright hate it.

There were budget and tax problems, so the movie was mostly shot in Mexico and Key West, Florida instead of England and more exotic locations. The story's milieu, with it's Noriega-styled heavy and drug running scheme, resembles a lot of other 80s action flicks, mostly of the "B-movie" variety. And, for some reason, Eon chose to cast this film out of Los Angeles, filling the cast with too-familiar American character actors. Robert Davi, Don Stroud, Anthony Zerbe, Priscilla Barnes, Wayne Newton(?) – these people are good performers, but to American audiences, they were too familiar, mostly from TV. We tend to expect fresh new faces (usually of the European variety) in our Bond films.

Oh, and that "happy Felix" tag at the end. WTF?

Still, LTK is one of my favorite Bond movies. Not since On Her Majesty's Secret Service had the mission involved any personal stake for Bond (an element, you'll note, they tried to force into most of Brosnan's subsequent outings). Bond demonstrates his skills and detective ability rather than having M and Moneypenny lay everything out for him. He uses virtually no gadgets (not even the "signature gun" – he's attacked before he can actually fire it). He's smart, using his brains – and charm – to insinuate himself into Sanchez' good graces. It really is a great exploration of the James Bond character, and Dalton plays it masterfully.

When LTK was released twenty years ago this month, it opened against Ghostbusters 2, Lethal Weapon 2, Star Trek 5, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade... and Batman. With its overly-familiar trappings and horrible promotional campaign, it never had a chance. And then, the producers got tied up in legal proceedings that led to seven years without another 007 movie... and Dalton, understandably, declined to return with the series in the 90s, opening the door for Brosnan to finally claim the role.

When I saw Licence To Kill in '89, I loved it. From the pre-credits sequence to Maurice Binder's (final) titles – to the last frame of the film, I loved it. I was pleased to see elements of the Live & Let Die novel and a couple of Fleming's short stories woven into the plot, I enjoyed seeing David Hedison return as Felix Lieter, but most of all, I loved seeing James Bond off the reservation, kicking ass and taking names. ... and all with style, class and intelligence, and never descending to the level of a thug.


Keith said...

I'm a huge fan of Timothy Dalton as 007. I think he captured so much of what Bond is in the Fleming novels. It's a shame he only did two films.

Zokko said...

'Licence To Kill' did the 'Bond goes rogue' idea better than 'Quantum Of Solace'. Had it been released in Winter 1989, it would have been a hit.

Kit said...

Holy Crap!

More actual human beings!

I've got a friend who agrees with me on this very thing; he's the one who sent me to your page.

Thank you!
You are completely correct.