Bond #15 – Licence to Kill

Today, I’d like to make a case in defense of a film infamous for putting Bond into a nearly permanent retirement…

. . .AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Timothy Dalton

SETUP: Felix Leiter’s wedding has to wait while Leiter and best man Bond take a detour to capture Franz Sanchez, an infamous drug kingpin. Sanchez immediately bribes his way to freedom and flees to Isthmus City, but not before murdering Leiter’s new wife and dropping Leiter into a shark tank. MI6 doesn’t care, so an enraged Bond goes underground on a personal vendetta to find and kill Sanchez.

BUT IN REALITY: Actually, that’s pretty much it. Sanchez is a tough target with stake in a worldwide organization of drug cartels and the now-isolated Bond can’t manage a clean hit. Instead, he bluffs his way into Sanchez’s inner circle and pulls strings until Sanchez doesn’t know who to trust. Sanchez’s paranoia destroys his empire and Bond finally avenges Leiter after a tense tanker chase on a mountain highway. Leiter survives his ordeal and MI6 happily welcomes Bond back, as if nothing ever happened.

Because nothing did, right?

VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) is a paranoiac, which isn’t such a bad thing for a man surrounding himself with killers and hired thugs. On the other hand, paranoia gives Bond the perfect weapon with which to bring down Sanchez’s organization. By the time Bond is done, Sanchez sees enemies everywhere and kills his most loyal minions for imagined betrayals. It’s a first-class mind job.

Also, Sanchez owns a sweet lizard with a diamond necklace.

THE MUSCLE: Benicio Del Toro appears as Sanchez’s psychotic, wiry assassin Dario, the actor’s first major film role after debuting in Big Top Pee Wee. Dario is thinly written, but Del Toro’s bizarre, campy performance produces a few moments of real insanity, morphing the character into one of the more interesting parts of the movie.

He fit this role in right before he decided to never sleep again.

Wayne Newton, of all people, also stars as Professor Joe Butcher, a televangelist whose show is a cover for Sanchez’s drug ring and who uses “Bless your heart” as a catch phrase. Really.

BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: Bond receives help in his quest from Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), a pilot with her own reasons for taking out Sanchez, and Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto), Sanchez’s unhappy girlfriend. Both women survive to the end credits, forcing Bond to choose which woman he truly wants to be with. Bond selects Pam, perhaps cautious of Lupe’s skills in manipulating men. Lupe is technically one of the good guys, but the ease in which she twists Sanchez and his employees up in knots suggests that she’s a femme fatale just looking for a reason, and I fully support Bond’s choice.

Fuck yes I do.

“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: For all their snappy bickering, Q and Bond are secret friends. After Bond ditches MI6, Q takes a leave of absence and joins him in Isthmus City, claiming correctly that Bond “would have been dead by now” if it hadn’t been for Q’s gadgets. Q provides Bond with explosive toothpaste and a signature gun, a weapon that will only fire for the person it’s issued to. What does Q do for the rest of the movie? He dresses up and helps Bond out and sees the sun for once in his bloody life, turning Felix Leiter’s tragedy into the best vacation Q has ever had.

BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: “I guess this is a farewell to arms,” spoken by Bond after M asks for his gun on the balcony at Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West.

MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: Although it’s played for laughs, the movie could have done without Q’s brilliant disguise.

In England, they have no idea why this is offensive.

Perhaps the movie’s biggest embarrassment is the title, changed at the very last second from Licence Revoked when the studio decided the American public was too stupid to know what “revoked” means. Oddly, the new title kept the British spelling of “licence,” leaving me to assume that the studio also thought the American public couldn’t spell anyway and wouldn’t know the difference.

WORTH MENTIONING: Felix Leiter’s encounter with the shark was taken from the original Ian Fleming Live and Let Die novel, causing some confusion when the official novelization of Licence to Kill hit shelves. The writer, John Gardner, kept the novelization within the Bond continuity by having the shark attack and rip off Leiter’s prosthetic limbs… Despite being the 16th official Bond film, Licence to Kill was the first to not to take its title from any existing Ian Fleming work… Robert Davi fights James Bond in this movie. Before this, he played a villain in The Goonies, where he fought Data, a James Bond fan with homemade gadgets. Worth mentioning? Not really, but I love both movies and it’s my countdown.

“He’s using puns! My secret weapon!”

OVERALL: Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. A movie can make all the right decisions and develop into a truly compelling product and still completely bypass its audience for whatever reason. Licence to Kill made big money all around the world, but the Bond revenge epic sank in America and put the franchise on a skid that would last for six bleak years.

I’m often the only one willing to defend this film. Timothy Dalton’s interpretation of Bond is one of the most intricate and compelling versions of the character, and with good reason. Dalton is a well known fan of the original material and could often be found scanning the novels for inspiration between takes. His Bond is haunted and trapped in his role as a killer. He barely stomachs his job, seething at authority and losing himself in alcohol and women to get through his day. The attack on Felix and his new wife is a shocking event, not just because Felix is an institution in the series, but because Bond can’t help but see the tragic similarity, having lost his own bride on his wedding day (but that’s another movie.) For once in the series, Bond isn’t a passive agent handed an assignment. He chooses to act and throws away his entire support system to avenge a friend. It’s the most human Bond story in the series, and it’s Dalton’s performance that drives the film.

Yup, nothing here but gripping realism.

So the product was there, but nobody was buying. After fifteen years of Roger Moore, fans weren’t ready to accept such a dramatic shift in the character or the tone of the franchise. They wanted humor, but got realism. They wanted a supervillain, but received a drug lord. The public responded by ditching the film, and it’s still a pariah to this day.

I’m a fan of the movie, but I’ll admit it has issues. There are a few subplots involving weapons deals and double-agents that feel half-baked, and some of the humor elements added into the script (a trademark of longtime Bond screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Michael G Wilson) are out of place in the more serious world Timothy Dalton’s Bond lives in. Is this enough to deserve the ignominious reputation the film has received? Obviously, I don’t think so. The six years of second guessing and legal shenanigans that kept the series on hold cost us a third outing with Timothy Dalton, so we never got a chance to see his Bond evolve. If a great script (like, say, Goldeneye?) had landed in Dalton’s hands, I believe that today we’d all recognize him as one of the best Bonds we ever had.

The James Bond Project

13. ???

15. Licence to Kill

16. The Living Daylights

17. You Only Live Twice

18. Quantum of Solace

19. Die Another Day

20. The Man with the Golden Gun

21. Diamonds are Forever

22. A View to a Kill

23. Moonraker

  1. #1 by Rae on 11/03/2009 - 12:52 PM

    Dude, Timothy Dalton is full of awesome. You've got such a good read on him! I think the last Bond who was as complicated as Timothy's was Lazenby. But in any case, its an intensity that was almost duplicated with Brosnan – I'm thinking of a few scenes in "Tomorrow Never Dies" specifically – and seriously botched in the latest Bond, "Quantum of Solace". Craig feels like a churned out, mechanized drunk, which is a shame considering how much he brought in "Casino Royale".

  2. #2 by Jason on 03/25/2011 - 4:39 PM

    It think the biggest mistake they made with this film was releasing it in the summer of ’89. It had to compete with Batman, Ghostbusters 2, Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, When Harry Met Sally, Uncle Buck, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, and several other high grossing films. I think its poor box office performance is often seen as a sign of the films quality, which it isn’t. On top of the tough competition the marketing campaign was poorly handled, including the last minute title change. So while the film is technically a bomb, it has little to do with the product and more to do with how it was handled.

    I don’t really remember much about how audiences reacted to Dalton and his hard edge approach to the character, or the film itself. Basically all I can remember about the summer of ’89 is the complete onslaught of Batman marketing and merchandising. How could Bond compete with that? Toss in an Indiana Jones movie with Sean Connery, and the recipe for failure was complete.

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