Sunday, 11 November 2012

50 Years of Bond: "Licence to Kill"

On the commentary for The Living Daylights, director John Glen says the film was tailored to fit the new James Bond, Timothy Dalton's strengths. Still, it's easy to see The Living Daylights as a transition film for the series as it moved from the more comedic Roger Moore outings to Dalton's hard edged portrayal. With Dalton's next film, Licence to Kill, the series would go darker and more violent then ever before, a big risk since the series has always been a little more kid friendly. I really like this film, and as I mentioned in the previous review, rewatching both of Dalton's films reminded me how passionate, romantic and urgent they are. You really get involved in the character and they have a strong emotional centres.  There's some solid storytelling in both of them and they feel like genuine updates of Ian Fleming's novels.

The film takes a different approach to the usual Bond movie plot. The film begins with Bond and his CIA friend Felix Leiter (David Hedison) heading to Felix's wedding when Felix's colleagues in the DEA call him in to help capture drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), who has appeared in Miami. Bond comes along and in one of those great practical Bond movie stunts, Bond, while in a helicoptor, attaches a hook to Sanchez's plane and pulls it out of the air. Bond and Felix then parachute down to Felix's wedding, leading in to the title sequence. Sanchez bribes DEA agent Ed Killifer (Everett McGill) who helps Sanchez escape. Sanchez has Felix's wife Della (Priscilla Barnes) murdered and feeds Felix to a shark, who bites off his leg. Felix is kept alive and Bond swears revenge, to which M (Robert Brown) revokes his licence to kill, an earth shattering moments in the franchise. Bond then escapes from M and continues his quest.

What makes the plot so engaging is that this is one of the rare Bond films where Bond truly hates the villain. While the world isn't at risk this time, the fact the mission is personal for Bond, risking his career and his life for his friend, makes the stakes feel even bigger than saving the world. You really feel sympathy towards Felix, especially when we realize that, like Bond, he too has lost his wife on his wedding day. Felix even mentions that Bond was married to Della when Bond is uncomfortable when Della teases Bond about getting married one day. It's always nice when Bond's marriage is mentioned in the series. It reminds us of how tragic a character Bond is-one of the only times he's made himself vulnerable to a woman, she's taken away from him. He can never truly escape from his profession and have a normal life. Fleming's vision of Bond was a man who could have his heart broken, and we believe Dalton is that Bond.

In an interesting twist, Bond infiltrates Sanchez's operation and makes Sanchez view him as an ally. In a variation on Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, Bond makes Sanchez suspicious of the people in his organization, resulting in a pretty brutal sequence involving Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), who Bond frames for stealing Sanchez's money. It makes what Blofeld did to his minions look like mild spankings. The film's brutality, while it can occasionally seem gratutious, but at the same time, I've seen more violent films. Moreover, I admire the Bond franchise for actually making the violence sting and cringe-worthy. You really feel the deaths of the characters, even the villainous ones. It also suits the type of world Bond is entering, where drug lords like Sanchez are incredibly sadisitic. Davi is strong here and he doesn't have to work too hard to be believable as a drug lord. He does a fine job making Sanchez both terrifying and also charismatic at the same time, making us believe Sanchez could have this type of power.

Bond is joined on his mission by a CIA pilot named Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell). Pam is one of the more tough as nails Bond women in the series- and while Lowell occasionally over does it with the toughness, she meshes well with Dalton's performance. A love triangle forms between Bond, Pam and Lupe (Talisa Soto), Sanchez's girlfriend. I believe this is the only legitimate love triangle in a Bond film, where Bond forms an actual romantic relationship with two women. While it's obvious that Bond will end up with Pam by the end of the film, it adds some texture to the story- as well as Pam's character when she becomes jealous of Lupe. Thankfully, the script makes Pam's jealously feel in character so it doesn't result in a pathethic version of the character.

Q (Desmond Llewelyn) gets an expanded role in this film when Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss) calls him in to help Bond. Llewelyn's performance is always a highlight and I like that Q's expanded role make sense in the context of the film-it doesn't feel forced, and there's a little more warmth between Bond and Q due to Dalton's performance. Dalton's "You're a hell of a field agent" shows how much Bond admires Q. On the other hand, Wayne Newton's cameo as a corrupt televangelist Professor Joe Butcher working for Sanchez, while humorous, feels like it belongs in a Roger Moore Bond film. It's a little too cheeky-clashing with the gritty nature of the rest of the film.

The finale of the film, involving tankers full of cocaine, is excellently staged- director John Glen establishes a pretty clear sense of geography and Dalton, while 45, was still an able physical performer. The final confrontation between Bond and Sanchez, where Bond lights Sanchez on fire with the leiter given to him by Felix, is a great emotional payoff to the film. Sanchez tells Bond that he could've had everything, to which Bond asks him if he wants to know why-finally showing him the leiter. Usually the Bond villain knows why Bond is trying to stop him. Here, it's only when the villain loses everything he finally knows why-it was out of friendship and love.

Unfortunately, this would be Dalton's final film as James Bond-due to the next Bond film being delayed so long that Dalton eventually bowed out. Licence to Kill wasn't a huge box office hit, which I think was due to a combination of audiences not warming to Dalton's portrayal or the gritty nature of the film, as well as Licence to Kill coming out during the summer when Tim Burton's Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade coming out. In retrospective, Licence to Kill is a really involving revenge action thriller that showed the lengths Bond would go to to help a friend. Up until Daniel Craig, Dalton felt the most believable as a rouge agent out for revenge. Six years later, the series would return with a film that's close to my heart, what I think is the Bond film of my generation. James Bond will return in: GoldenEye.

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