Monday, October 17, 2011

Definitive Bond Marathon: Licence to Kill (1989)

(Directed by John Glen)
In one of the darker chapters of 007’s (Timothy Dalton) career as a member of the British Secret Service, Bond went rogue to settle an intensely personal matter. The episode began when Bond travelled to Florida’s Key West region to attend the wedding of long time ally and friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison). In an amazing turn of events, it was learned that nefarious drug lord Sanchez (Robert Davi) was operating in the region, and thus, at long last, a prime target for arrest. Bond’s skills proved invaluable in the operation.

It quickly became obvious that Sanchez’s plentiful riches could buy off anybody, which led to his rapid escape from custody. In a shocking demonstration of rage and contempt, the villain hunted down agent Leiter and his wife, brutally murdering the latter and inhumanly injuring the former. News of this tragic event literally enraged 007, who, against orders from M (Robert Brown) himself, opted to travel south and engage Sanchez in a slippery game of wits and deception by infiltration his organization through a friendly façade. Things grew complicated by the presence of two beautiful women. The first was Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), a CIA informant working to crack down on Sanchez (for professional reasons, though). The second was Sanchez’s own beautiful girlfriend, Lupe (Talisa Soto).

Every once in a while the Bond franchise decides to do things in a genuinely different way. The odd result of such decisions is that they produce as much controversy as they do praise, sometimes only before a film’s release, but sometimes the controversy lingers even following theatrical release. 2006’s Casino Royale is an example when the fearful expectations that existed were swept aside once the movie came out. On Her Majesty’s Secret service is an example of a different kind, when controversy surrounding the film lingers still today. The final Bond film before a six-year hiatus, Licence to Kill, most definitely falls into the second category. It made less money than its immediate predecessor, was less well received critically than its immediate predecessor, and for a number of reasons still irks fans after all these years. Licence to Kill, for a whole number of factors that this review will discuss, is arguably the most controversial instalment in the entire series.

The film’s story is heavily lifted from Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die novel.  In it, Bond and Leiter are after a smuggler named Baron Samedi (who is only a side villain in the film translation). The latter has Felix Leiter thrown to the sharks, thus fuelling 007’s determination to finally end the villain’s career of crime. Licence to Kill takes that event, which happens about halfway through the novel, and uses it at the beginning as the gunshot which sends Bond on the run after the antagonist. In essence, 007 is not on any official, government-sanctioned campaign. In Licence to Kill, he is not 007. He is just James Bond. This is made abundantly clear when Bond is brought to M (who has made the trip to Key West). His superior scorns him for wanting to hunt down Sanchez. The drug lord is of no interest, at least not now, of the British government. Agents should behave dispassionately, something Bond is obviously having a hard time adhering to at the moment. Bond’s insubordination forces M to revoke the agent’s licence to kill, which in turn prompts Bond to quit the secret service if it means allowing him to avenge the fates of Leiter and his deceased wife.
That’s probably what a lot of people were thinking back in ’89 and what some people who see the film for the first time today ask themselves. At this moment in the film, it appears obvious that John Glen and the rest of the filmmakers are going to play the game differently, totally turning the 007 formula on its head and provide the viewer with a fresh, very unorthodox Bond film experience. I know that the first time I saw the movie a few years ago there was a rush of excitement that ran through me. Dalton had reinvigorated the character with his work in The Living Daylights, and what had occurred up until this point in LTK seemed like the most logical suite of events in the filmmakers’ attempt to add new flavours to the franchise. Add to that the fact that no other actor playing Bond up until then was really good at behaving badly, like a raging bull. Dalton had that down pat and now we were to see him, as Bond, use his natural skills as a secret agent on a personal mission.

Well, one watches the film’s story unfold, and by the time the next two hours have gone by, not all expectations have been met. Two Bond girls are thrown in for good measure to respect a certain obligatory sex appeal quota, attempts at humour are tried to lighten a mood, and a bunch of gadgets are offered courtesy of non other than Q himself (Desmond Llewelyn). The pitiful irony of the situation is that by trying to remain true, to a degree, to the Bond formula, the controversy surrounding LTK only deepens. It ends up being too safe for those who wanted a truly darker interpretation of the character. It ends up being too dark for those who like lighter variations on the character. Everybody, myself included, loves the character of Q, but was this the correct film to give him a real supporting role instead of the usual cameo, an episode when Bond goes on a bloodthirsty rampage of revenge? Comedy mixed with bruised emotions and gritty violence in a Bond picture is a strange cocktail. 

Before this review goes any further, one element should be made clear, just in case readers have started making assumptions. I do enjoy LTK. Only OHMSS had given Bond any sort of emotional resonance, any sort of emotionally driven storyline. That is not something every Bond film should have, but it is nice every now and then, if only to remind audiences that the chap is human after all. Granted, what drives 007 forward here is far, far darker and more mean spirited than anything that has been seen, but sometimes to understand Bond, one needs to observe him when he is out of his usual elements. A personal tale of revenge headed by Timothy Dalton? I’m game for that any day. The intensity and precision he brings to his performances suits this sort of adventure perfectly. Even the strategy employed to go about the execution of his revenge is nifty. Anyone with some knowledge of the grand ‘classic’ films will recognize that Bond infiltrating Sanchez’s organization by pretending to be a helpful hitman is reminiscent of what the protagonists of Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars do to obtain what they are after. There are large stretches of the film when Bond is only using determination, experience and sheer skills to make Sanchez’s plans implode, and for that I commend the filmmakers.

The sections of the film that embrace the darker tone are a lot of fun. The meeting between Bond and Sanchez in the latter’s casino office is terrific fun, with 007 using his charm and a fake friendly demeanour to seduce the drug lord into hiring him. Dalton is so good at playing this sort of role, that of a character who can pretends to be kind, only to hide a much more dangerous intent behind the façade. Speaking of Sanchez, how about that Robert Davi? He is fantastic in this movie, playing the part of a drug lord with a psychopathic tendency to demand loyalty...and severely punish those who fail to remain on board. A drug lord, on paper, does not make for a memorable Bond villain, but this is not an ordinary Bond movie, and Davi takes full advantage of the role awarded to him. Sanchez is exactly what a great drug lord should be: serious about his business, serious about his enemies, but exude a slimy sort of class and sophistication.  He and Dalton work very well off one another, rendering the game between them all the more interesting.

LTK feels like it has less action sequences than in previous episodes, and it probably does given how it concentrates heavily on Bond’s quest, which he embarks on by scheming quietly and being sneaky rather bombastic. Still, when the action happens, it is all guns, bombs and gasoline trucks blazing. I think that since reviewing the John Glen directed movies, we have showered him and his crew with praise for their work in perfecting chases, explosions, fist fights, etc. The climactic truck chase which closes the film is a thing of beauty. Wheelie or no wheelie (anybody who has seen the film knows what I am referring to) that is a stunning sequence, with loads upon loads of, for lack of a better term, bad assery. I love that moment when Bond, privileged with some higher ground, unlocks the gasoline container held back by its truck, thus sending the container tumbling down the mountain side and into one of the driving on the road below. Get the bad guys, think quickly, react.

I think I have made the case as to why LTK should be considered in the mix of solid Bonds film. All that being said, this is far from a perfect film. More crucially, it is far from the film it should be. For all the positive spin I can give this movie, examples abound to make the case that it is not that good after all. Maybe ‘not good’ is too strong a term, but certainly calling it ‘uneven’ cannot be debated. What could have been one of the most unique entries in the series (and by that nature turn off even more people), is watered down by the filmmakers’ obligation to satisfy the built audience, specifically those which were won over during the Roger Moore years. Now, I do not think LTK ever truly stoops to Moore levels of lighthearted Bond fair, but there are some pretty poor decisions made as the movie goes along. Chief among them is to have Q become a prominent character. As stated above, I love that character. He is one of the best parts of the franchise, but LTK is absolutely not the episode in which he works as in a supporting role. Tonally, it simply doesn’t make any sense. Script-wise, it comes off even worse. For years now Bond and Q have built a love-hate relationship, with Q increasingly frustrated with 007’s lack of care shown towards the department’s ingenious creations. Why on earth would he decide to make the trip halfway across the world to help an agent who is obviously going against the law. He even brings weaponry from the shop to assist Bond in this murderous revenge crusade. None of this makes any sense.
And now we get to the real devastating aspect of the movie: the Bond girls. Not every film has featured terrific Bond girls. There have been some clunker here and there. However, those in LTK are the bottom of the barrel. From the casting, acting, to the writing, there is nothing remotely interesting about either Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier or Talisa Soto’s Lupe. What is the problem whenever the writers want to make the Bond girl American? Really, there shouldn’t be any. An American Bond girl should be just as sexy and interesting as a Bond girl from another country, but it seems as though they always screw up the American ones. Carey Lowell puts on this tough woman act that is so grating and unnatural. She’s like all the other American Bond girls: she behaves with a determined need to act in a ‘independent women’ kind of way. Hey, I wouldn’t want a woman by my side who was anything but independent, but they way Pam Bouvier is handled in LTK is so annoying, such an uninteresting fit in a Bond film it’s amazing. Sanchez’s girlfriend Lupe, as played by Talisa Soto, is not any better. Her existence should have provided an extra sense of danger to the film, what with Bond not only infiltrating the most private quarters of Sanchez’s operation, but winning over his girlfriend. What a terrible performance which destroys that potential. Simply awful. Even the way the film deals with the Bouvier-Bond-Lupe triangle is a disappointment. Not only is the acting poor, but the writers had no clue what to do with a potentially intriguing idea of two women fighting over 007.
Licence to Kill would be the end of an era for the Bond franchise before another one began 6 years later in 1995 with Goldeneye. United Artists were already struggling with significant financial issues before the film opened in the summer of 1989 and, given how its box office tally was decent margin lower than that of The Living Daylights, the book on 007 had to be closed for a while. Unfortunately it was not the best final chapter that could have been written. It has some supremely interesting ingredients, but unfortunately some really awful ones as well. For what it’s worth, LTK is a worthy instalment, even though it could have been so much more.



Percy said...

LTK has always been one of my least favorite Bond films, yet thanks to your review, I'm game to revisit it. And Robert Davi is consistently awesome in all his movies!!!

edgarchaput said...

@Percy: Unfortunately, I haven't seen much of Robert Davi's work, only little cameo bits here and there, with the exception of his central role here in Licence to Kill. Any suggestions of good Davi performances I should check out?

Percy said...

The first Die Hard movie, The Goonies, and the indescribable Showgirls all feature Robert Davi, and he's fantastic in all three!