Thursday, August 23, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Licence to Kill

‘Licence to Kill’ presents us with a plethora of firsts and lasts. It’s the first Bond film not to take its title from a work by Ian Fleming (although the script incorporates elements from the novel ‘Live and Let Die’ and the short story ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’), and the first to gain a 15 certificate. It’s the first Bond movie where a previous actor reprises the role of Felix Leiter – David Hedison, who essayed the role in ‘Live and Let Die’. It’s Michael G. Wilson’s first as co-producer, a role he took on after Albert R. Broccoli took ill during filming.

It’s the last to feature Timothy Dalton as Bond, Caroline Bliss as Moneypenny and Robert Brown as M, the last to feature a credits sequence designed by Maurice Binder, the last to be directed by John Glen and the last to be produced by Broccoli. Richard Maibaum co-scripts for the last time, and editor John Grover and cinematographer Alec Mills similarly bow out from the franchise.

‘Licence to Kill’ feels like it ought to be an autumnal, elegiac work. Instead, it’s full throttle action thriller, with a viciousness not seen since the early days of Connery and a hard-edged depiction of 007. When those who dislike the Dalton films complain that they don’t feel like Bond movies, it’s ‘Licence to Kill’ they point to specifically. There’s no uber-villain, merely a Colombian drug lord. There’s no world-threatening scheme, just a clever means of transporting cocaine. There’s no briefing from M – Bond goes renegade for personal reasons. Gadgets are kept to an absolute minimum, although – ironically – Q (Desmond Llewellyn) gets his most expansive role. Likewise, the Bond girls are (in different ways) survivors rather than wallflowers. And the pre-credits sequence acts as a prologue to the film proper rather than being a show reel for the stunts team.

Let’s start with this sequence. Bond and Leiter are en route to the latter’s wedding, Bond on best man duties, when the Coast Guard inform Leiter that a drug baron he’s been investigating, Sanchez (Robert Davi), is on American soil and therefore arrestable. Sanchez has made a risky incursion in order to wipe out a rival who’s stolen his girl, the sultry Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto). Leiter, seemingly forgetting the impending nuptials, goes tearing off in hot pursuit, inviting Bond along in an observational capacity only. Predictably, Bond doesn’t do observation and when it seems like Sanchez is about to fly out of US airspace, Bond engages in a dangerous in a dangerous stunt with a helicopter to put paid to Sanchez’s plans. This done, the pair of them parachute out and Leiter gets to the church on time, if rather dramatically. Roll opening credits. 

The curtain-raiser over and done with, Act One delivers some nasty business: Sanchez pulls off an escape, his goons kill Leiter’s bride-of-a-few-hours and dump Leiter himself in a shark pit. Bond, on his way to the airport and in something of a maudlin mood after a chance remark at the reception puts him in mind of the late Teresa Bond, nee di Vicenzo, hears of the escape and heads back to Leiter’s home on an instinct. Here he finds Leiter in a body bag, severely lacerated and barely alive. Bond’s mood changes from maudlin to righteously pissed off and he goes out for revenge.

Working his way through Sanchez’s chain of associates, from corrupt DEA official Ed Kilifer (Everett McGill) to marine research head honcho Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), Bond’s blunt tactics attract the attention of Leiter’s CIA colleagues who haul him in for a little chat. M is in on the act and gives 007 a royal bollocking for neglecting an assignment. After a terse exchange, Bond effectively resigns, gives the CIA goons the slip and goes renegade, his licence to kill revoked. (The film originally went into production as ‘Licence Revoked’, but the title was changed after doubts that audiences wouldn’t know what “revoked” meant. This is more than a little bit sad.)

En route to his final confrontation with Sanchez and the drug lord’s borderline psychotic protégé Dario (Benicio del Toro in only his second film role), Bond enlists the help of Leiter’s contact, pilot Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), introduced in a splendid scene in a dockside bar where she deters an aggressor by ramming the business end of a double-barrelled shotgun in his groin, holds her own in a barroom brawl and blows a hole in the wall to facilitate a quick exit. Pam is tough, resourceful, saves Bond’s ass at one point and also looks glamorous as all hell. And kudos to Wilson and Maibaum for a script that doesn’t compel her to do something stupid or have to get rescued in the final reel. Lowell is definitely one of my all time favourite Bond girls and her contribution to the canon still remains undervalued.

Lupe Lamora, on the other hand, is cut from the same cloth as Domino in ‘Thunderball’ or Andrea Anders in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’: the kept woman of a dangerous antagonist who sees Bond as her way out of an otherwise insoluble situation.

Davi plays Sanchez for what he is, a ruthless businessman whose business just happens to be narcotics; it’s a performance as far removed from the cartoon villainy of most Bond villains as it’s possible to get. Del Toro, however, doesn’t get to do much more than sneer and strike macho poses – there’s certainly little hint of what he would go on to – but the suggestion of a homoerotic subtext between Sanchez and Dario is something of a throwback to the casual homophobia of ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and the one unfortunate element in a film that otherwise ranks very high in my personal 007 league table.

The action sequences are impressive, particularly Sanchez’s rescue from an armed convoy, staged to great effect along the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys. Things do get a little over the top towards the end, though, with Kenworth tanker trucks popping wheelies or tilting to drive on one set of wheels to dodge a missile.

But on the whole, ‘Licence to Kill’ works very well as a darker, edgier approach to Bond, shorn of corny one-liners and the first entry in the franchise for fucking ages not to end with some personality-challenged bit of eye-candy gasping “oh, James”. This alone earns it kudos.


Matthew Kitsell said...

Hi Neil,

Thanks for this, another really enjoyable review.

I've always been in two minds really about LTK. I love the more hardened tone of it and I do genuinely find the film to be one of the best plotted of all the Bonds (the mind games between Bond and Sanchez in the second half are particularly well set up), but I also find it to be rather flawed overall.

The film improves considerably as it goes along, though the first forty minutes seem a little ordinary, despite the more vicious events taking place on screen. And the revenge plot would have carried far more weight if Leiter himself hadn't been played by so many different actors over the years, so that we might have got to know him a little better. Recasting David Hedison for his second Bond film doesn't for me effectively get around this problem. I love Robert Davi as Sanchez - he's a utterly ruthless, funny and very charismatic. Unfortunately this only makes Bond himself in this film seem a little dull by comparison, in my opinion. And I say this as a huge admirer of Dalton's work on the series. Michael Kamen's insipid score doesn't help matters any either.

I would place LTK at the lower end of my Bond top ten. I agree with you, it works very well as a darker, more adult Bond, but as I say, I find too many flaws in it that prevent it from being a great Bond film, instead of merely a very good one.



Neil Fulwood said...

Hi, Matthew. Thanks again for an appreciative and detailed comment. Good point re: the amount of different actors who've played Leiter - more so than have played Blofeld. I've never quite understood why the producers continually went with new Leiters and Blofelds, particularly when they maintained continuity with M, Q and Moneypenny. Also, without wishing to sound sadistic, the aftermath of Leiter's encounter with Sanchez's sharks doesn't seem potentially fatal enough to inspire such a renegade response from Bond - Leiter's sitting up in his hospital bed at the end of the film, just a few bandages and all smiles.

Still, it remains one of my favourites for the narrative pace, the ruthless tone and the rather lovely Carey Lowell.