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Reviews

Licence to Kill

Licence to Kill

John Glen

UK / USA, 1989

Credits

Review by Marcus Gilmer

Posted on 19 March 2005

Source MGM VHS

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Poor Timothy Dalton. Maligned by critics and fans of the James Bond series as the worst of the Bonds, he’s never gotten a fair shake. Of course, this coming from a fan that long agreed with the status quo. But on viewing his entries again, it dawns on me that Dalton is not only a competent Bond, but a pretty good one. The issue comes down to timing.

It couldn’t have been easy for Dalton to take over the role knowing he was a second choice. The producers had been lobbying heavily for Pierce Brosnan to take over the reigns as 007 as early as 1984. When NBC refused to let him out of his “Remington Steele” contract, the producers stuck with Moore for the completely misguided (and waste as one of the finest characters actor, Christopher Walken, as a villain) A View To A Kill. Then, with Brosnan still unavailable, they chose Dalton for 1987’s The Living Daylights.

After Licence to Kill, the series went on a six-year hiatus before returning with Brosnan finally starring as Bond in Goldeneye, leaving Dalton’s contribution at a paltry two films, just ahead of George Lazenby’s one. This may be one reason why Dalton is often disregarded, but another is the time in which he took over.

The swinging 60’s and 70’s had given way to the 1980’s complete lack of style, an area in which Bond is always supposed to be superior. Even today, looking back at the earlier editions of the 60’s and 70’s there is a certain suaveness. But the 80’s held a certain style that is entirely unable to look cool and suave, no matter how ironically retro chic is accepted. Brosnan, with his cool, Teflon smile and raised eyebrow, was the perfect fit to take over as the post-modern, new age man Bond, even furthering revisionist history of Bond actors.

All things considered, Dalton hit his stride (if a stride can be reached in two films) as Bond in Licence to Kill, a film that starts out promising but ultimately fails as a revenge film and, subsequently, ruined Dalton’s chances at holding on to the role of the world’s most famous secret agent. While some film franchises have had their strongest showings with “revenge” entries (see: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), Licence to Kill is the Bond franchise’s best attempt at such a genre and its failure is even more disappointing because of the concept’s potential.

The film begins with Felix Leiter tracking down the much sought-after drug dealer Franz Sanchez. This occurs on his wedding day; the opening sequence closes with Bond and Felix parachuting down to Felix’s wedding. Classic. By the time the sun rises the next day, however, Felix’s new wife, Della, is dead and Felix’s left leg and arm have been fed to a shark, an act of revenge by Sanchez. Bond, vowing revenge, resigns his membership in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, becoming a rogue agent hunted by both sides.

It’s easy to buy Bond’s anger at Felix’s plight. After all, the Felix character is a recurring character with whom Bond has quite a rapport, even if this is the first mention of Della. Harder to understand is Sanchez’s exacting revenge on poor Felix to such an extreme extent, a reaction to his arrest. Of course, that would require back-story, something there is not much room for in the Bond universe. But, then again, I’ve never been the head of a large drug cartel, so what do I know?

Dalton does a great job seething with anger in his attempt to exact revenge for Della’s death and the attack on Felix in the first half of the film. But as the film progresses, the suave, cool character of Bond kicks in and the anger dissipates such that when Bond “befriends” Sanchez to get on the inside, it becomes another Bond menagerie.

The moment late in the film at which Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier informs Bond of an arms deal that’s complicated matters and yells, “This isn’t just about your personal vendetta anymore,” Dalton sags, presumably because he’s wrought with despair over the situation. But I have a feeling it was his reaction to the writer’s insistence on making the film about something more than Bond being, well, Bond.

Why not have Bond pissed off and willing to do whatever it takes to seek revenge for the death and dismay caused to a close friend? Isn’t he supposed to be the ultimate bad ass? Well, because Bond is allegedly unflappable and doesn’t show human emotion. Think about it — if your wife were killed and then your best friend’s wife was killed and said friend maimed by a shark, wouldn’t you have emotional and anger management issues?

If nothing else, Licence to Kill exemplifies one of the failures of the Bond franchise: the lack of humanity in the character. While there is a certain comfort in knowing exactly what you’re going to get in a Bond film, the fact that the viewer finds it difficult to identify with the character emotionally will, at least on some subversive level, hinder the viewer’s complete ability to enjoy the film.

Of course, within the context of the Bond universe, who wants to see the main character, said suave bad ass, wringing his hands over an existential crisis when killing or complaining to a shrink about “closure”? Not me. Such is the paradox of Bond.

Again, the movie is not altogether unenjoyable. There are some amusing highlights, such as getting to see Desmond Llewelyn’s ‘Q’ take a more prominent role than usual, as well as seeing a young Benicio del Toro as a laughable henchman get his ass kicked in a bar fight by the chick who was on ‘Law & Order.’ And don’t forget Wayne Newton’s appearance. With the involvement of the Colombian drug cartels and Great White Sharks, one wonders if the pitch meeting for the film involved, “Okay, let’s just put Bond with two popular movies. Say, Bond meets Jaws meets Scarface!”

The Bond franchise is formulaic, so any attempt to violate this formula should be applauded, as this move was. Not that it really mattered in this instance, though, because in the end, 007 is reinstated and a brand new CIA contact, in the form of Joe Don Baker, appears in Goldeneye, restoring order to the 007 universe. But one has to wonder exactly how awesome this film could have been had the producers and writers devoted themselves fully to the ides of the movie, completely turning Bond loose as a rogue agent hell bent on personal revenge no matter what the cost. God knows Dalton probably does.

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