FLEMING FRIDAY #1
LICENCE TO KILL
It’s a big week for James Bond again, as the rights to distribute future 007 movies are now up for grabs. Warner Bros and Paramount are hotly speculated to take over from Sony when the current option expires after the release of SPECTRE later this year.
So, we give you a double whammy today. Later it’s GoldenEye. But first, Licence to Kill.
LICENCE TO KILL
Director: John Glen
Stars: Timothy Dalton, Robert Davi, Carey Lowell
‘James Bond is out on his own and out for revenge and his bad side is a very dangerous place to be.’
007 James Bond (Timothy Dalton) is the Best Man on the wedding day of CIA ally, Felix Leiter. They take a detour to apprehend Drug Lord, Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). The mission is successful and the wedding goes ahead. But Sanchez escapes and exacts brutal vengeance: maiming Leiter and murdering the Bride.
Bond is devastated and decides to take the law into his own hands; going rogue from Her Majesty’s Secret Service to get the job done. Aided only by his old gadget master Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and a determined Charter Pilot, Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), Bond will do whatever it takes to destroy Sanchez and avenge his friends. This hero is more dangerous than ever without his Licence to Kill.
Every movie series has its ‘dark’ episode. James Bond is no exception.
Licence to Kill is a brutal piece of pulp cinema and even the visionary Broccoli family Producers admitted it probably went too far, in retrospect. But that does not make it a bad film or even a weaker entry in the series. This is a brave and brilliant effort.
I have a personal connection to the film (and no I DON’T mean the fact that ‘James Murphy’ is listed among the contacts on a file of the villain’s most recent targets for assassination: spooky but true!). No, I mean I have met and been most impressed by a number of the cast and crew.
This is Director John Glen’s finest film. He admitted as much. I had the privilege of meeting Glen and his lovely wife, Janine over Dinner, while I was a student at New College, Oxford. A very happy memory. We talked a great deal about the film and I discovered some revelatory trivia points.
For example, there was a mooted inclusion of another Bond girl. It would have been a cameo from Rhoda Masters (the ‘Air Hostess’ from Ian Fleming’s short story, Quantum of Solace; sadly not included in the film of the same name). She’d have helped Bond escape through an Embassy.
Glen’s impeccable craftsmanship is clear. Consider that the budget for the film was just over $30 million. Compare that to the forthcoming SPECTRE, which runs into the hundreds of millions. That’s not a criticism of the current era but a tribute to its 1989 counterpart.
The Tanker chase at the film’s end is a marvel of planning and execution. And the opening stunts with the plane to plane capture and Florida Keys Bridge were echoed in both James Cameron’s 1994 Bond-a-like effort, True Lies and by Christopher Nolan’s Bond referencing Batman film, Dark Knight Rises (2012). Glen pulled off those stunts with a lot less finance but arguably more invention and inspiration.
Plot is excellent: a credible espionage premise, despite Bond being on the ‘outside’. That was radical and inventive at the time. Today it seems the basis for every post-Cold War thriller. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne: perpetually ‘outside the system’ or ‘going rogue’. Timothy Dalton’s 007 did it first, once and better.
The hero infiltrates the enemy’s organisation, earning trust and thereby turning that asset into a weapon that breeds a destructive paranoia. It’s Yojimbo (or rather Yo! Jimbo!). Samurai lone warrior enters a town and brings down the baddies by pitting them against each other. Incidentally, that’s also a real world espionage tactic. Genius writing move by Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum.
Dalton gives his greatest screen performance here. He captures the ‘acidity’ to which Fleming’s novels refer. You believe this is a man with scar tissue; both physical and emotional. You may disapprove of Bond’s actions (he’s basically a murderer in the absence of government orders to kill). But you also feel his pain and can pity his bereavement whilst sharing moments of joy as the adventure advances.
A theatrical actor, Dalton’s charisma is better on stage than screen and one could argue that even the Bond of the books would never have gone quite this far without official orders to do so. I saw Dalton on stage in 1988’s A Touch of the Poet. I met him afterwards and he patiently gave me a great deal of time: a true gentleman. He set a template that Daniel Craig’s films would follow in interpreting the Bond character at a more opportune moment in cinematic history (2006-present).
If Dalton is like Olivier then his adversary here is like an equivalent to Humphrey Bogart. Robert Davi’s Sanchez is a truly complex and compelling Bond villain. Despite his brutality and penchant for violence, there is real vulnerability in the reliance on ‘loyalty’. His throwaway one liners are better than Bond’s and remind one of Arnold Schwarzenegger (to whom Davi is a friend and advisor on acting technique).
Desmond Llewelyn gets more to do as Q than ever before. He defended the film’s legacy as a result, perhaps. I once met him and bemoaned the 15 certificate and lack of humour (I was only 11; forgive me). ‘I don’t think you’d go around cracking jokes if your best friend had been chopped up by a shark’, he responded, as though giving 007 himself a telling off. Once again, the film resonates with personal memories for me. Thank Q!
Benicio Del Toro crops up as vicious henchman, Dario. I met him in Cannes, where he chatted to me over Cocktails. He had fond memories of the movie and meeting the current Bond Producer, Barbara Broccoli (‘La Senorita Broccoli’ he said, as he touched his heart, endearingly).
Ms Broccoli inspires the best in everyone and has always championed young film-makers. So naturally, Benicio’d be more than happy to return to the series. ‘I’ve done that’, he said. I responded: ‘Yes but as a henchman. How about playing the main villain?’ Benicio: ‘Sure I’d be up for that if it’d help’.
Back to the film:
Carey Lowell is one of the best Bond girls. A true equal to 007, Carey’s Pam Bouvier exposes his vulnerabilities and injects an edge of humour when he risks patronising her pompously. This is a truly romantic relationship: tender, intimate, and seductive; with hints of domesticity whilst retaining the sense of fantasy. Talisa Soto is Lupe, the second love interest: a breath-taking beauty.
The gadgets are present but toned down. A signature gun features and would turn up again in Skyfall. The music is of its time and Michael Kamen’s strings and electric guitar signatures blend brilliantly to the Barry /Norman Bond themes. The look is a little Miami Vice with a dash of the then in vogue blue collar hero beats of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard; but all Bond movies are at once timeless and of their time.
Tone is a little nasty and soap operatic in places; but even Fleming’s writing goes to similar places on occasion (cf: Hildebrand Rarity, Live and Let Die and Man with the Golden Gun). And there is an emotional cost here, not least to Bond himself (witness his look of relief when the villain is vanquished on a Mexican road; believed to be haunted in real life).
But it’s a satisfying film that overcame countless obstacles and kept the series alive before a brief hiatus and refreshing rebirth with GoldenEye in 1995 (which I view as a secret sequel rather than soft reboot; Pierce Brosnan’s Bond is even cautioned against ‘going off on some personal vendetta’).
Like a Vodka Martini, Licence to Kill is not to everyone’s tastes and can be enjoyed by an elite few. That still makes it original, classy, distinctive and worth a try.
James Murphy will return