Thursday, November 05, 2015

007 Week: Licence to Kill (1989)

The sixteenth James Bond film, Licence to Kill (1989) debuted in a brutal summer-time season, a span that scuttled not only Agent 007, but the starship Enterprise (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) too.  The big films of the 1989 summer season were Tim Burton’s Batman, and another action sequel, Lethal Weapon 2, from director Richard Donner.

I’m not exactly certain why it’s the case, but arriving in this particular summer -- along with these specific films -- the long-lived and durable James Bond apparently felt a bit old hat and long-in-the-tooth to some critics and viewers. 

Yet close examination reveals that this perception has nothing to do with the film itself, a venture which presents a forward-looking and new direction for the cinematic exploits of Agent 007. 

In short, the James Bond who appears in Licence to Kill is more serious, violent, human and “real” than in any franchise film yet made, even during the Golden Age of Sean Connery.

Additionally, the film pits Bond (Timothy Dalton) not against a megalomaniacal (but fantasy…) mad-man attempting to dominate the world, but against an enterprising if brutal (reality-based) Colombian style drug lord, Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi).  

Licence to Kill further eschews established Bond tradition by making this “mission” an unofficial one, a personal vendetta.  Bond is bloodied and battered in the film too, not the unflappable, unruffled fellow in the immaculate white dinner jacket and black tie.

In other words, Licence to Kill actually takes plenty of creative chances with its approach, style, and story-line.  It's  an ambitious, era-changing, tradition-shattering type film.

And yet, Licence to Kill was not reviewed in that fashion by many mainstream movie critics.

Writing for Time Magazine, Richard Corliss noted: “In Licence to Kill, the bad guys' hideaway blows up real good too. And there are some great truck stunts. A pity nobody -- not writers Michael G. Wilson, and Richard Maibaum nor director John Glen -- thought to give the humans anything very clever to do. The Bond women are pallid mannequins, and so is the misused Dalton -- a moving target in a Savile Row suit. For every plausible reason, he looks as bored in his second Bond film as Sean Connery did in his sixth.”

This response is baffling to me, since Dalton shows rage, grief, and remorse in this film, a full-range of emotions almost never before expressed by James Bond, at least not all in a single film. And Carey Lowell’s competent, resourceful, funny Pam Bouvier is a pallid mannequin?   Wow…

At The New York Times, Caryn James’ review also indicated that the film represented a familiar, tired story:  “Though ''Licence to Kill'' is his second appearance as 007, Mr. Dalton is still the new James Bond, and the only element in the 27-year-old series that can offer a hint of surprise.”

Clearly, this observation isn’t even remotely true, given the serious, bloody approach to the material, as well as the nature of Bond’s mission, off her majesty’s secret service, and operating alone.  Those seeking a “hint of surprise” would surely find it here: Bond bloodied and angry, not dapper and detached, battling a ripped-from-the-headlines opponent without his trademark license to kill.  Right?

Talked-down by a false media narrative, Licence to Kill disappeared from theaters quickly, the Timothy Dalton 007 era came to an unhappy end, and James Bond was missing from movie theaters until 1995’s Goldeneye starring Pierce Brosnan.  That film -- though admirable -- promptly re-asserted the franchise’s spectacular fantasy elements, kept Bond on the MI6 payroll, and made certain to feature plenty of humor.

But a funny thing happened.   Over the long years since 1989, both Timothy Dalton’s performances as Bond and a general appreciation for Licence to Kill began to grow…radically.   

More than that, however, Licence to Kill is the (mostly) unacknowledged prototype of the mega-popular Daniel Craig era of Bond (Casino Royale [2006], Quantum of Solace [2008], and the upcoming Skyfall [2012]). 

Like Dalton before him, Craig plays an edgier, broodier, more determined (and perhaps self-destructive), human version of James Bond.  And, he’s certainly been seen to go rogue on more than one occasion, also like the Dalton incarnation here.

Derided in its time and lost for a decade, Licence to Kill and Timothy Dalton are now -- very much so -- the fathers of our 21st Century Bond.  

Other than these notes of historical interest, however, Licence to Kill remains one of the best films of the whole Bond cycle because it not only offers the Bond-ian requisites -- spectacular action, beautiful women, and great villains -- but because the film actually boasts a coherent organizing principle, a leitmotif about the meaning and nature of  loyalty.  This well-dramatized concept is what makes Licence to a Kill not just a great Bond film, but a great action film outside the series.  The movie hangs together in a way some Bond films simply do not, and relies on human characters and flaws, not merely spectacle.

“In my business you prepare for the unexpected.”

In Licence to Kill, James Bond and his long-time friend in the C.I.A., Felix Leiter (David Hedison) capture the vicious drug-lord Sanchez in the Florida Keys. After they do so, best man Bond attends Felix’s wedding to beautiful Della (Priscilla Barnes).

An unscrupulous, avaricious prosecutor, Killifer (Evereett McGill) helps Sanchez escape from custody in exchange for a two-million dollar bribe. The escaped drug-dealer then sends his goon, Dario (Benecio Del Toro) to kill Della and bring Felix to him.  At a waterfront warehouse belonging to an affiliate named Krest (Anthony Zerbe), Sanchez feeds Leiter to the sharks.  He leaves a note with the badly injured agent: “He disagreed with something that ate him.”

Bond discovers Della dead and Leiter gravely-wounded, and swears vengeance.  He teams up with a tough pilot, Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) to infiltrate Sanchez’s operation in Isthmus City, “south of the border.”

In pursuing this task, however, Bond resigns from Her Majesty’s secret service and becomes, officially, a rogue agent.  This designation hardly stops him, however, and after Bond ingratiates himself with Sanchez’s organization, he begins to use Sanchez’s obsession with loyalty to destroy him.

“Don’t you want to know why?”

Licence to Kill gains much of its narrative and thematic momentum by exploiting two elements of the popular Zeitgeist, circa 1989.  

The first is the story of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel in Colombia.  Pretty clearly, Franz Sanchez is a figure meant to represent Escobar, a filthy rich cocaine dealer who often operated with impunity and compared himself, on one occasion to God (because he could order someone dead…and they would die that day.)

The second inspiration, oddly enough, is Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), a commentary on the “greed is good” aesthetic prevalent on Wall Street at the time, and perhaps today too.  If you combine these two elements, what you see in Franz Sanchez is a man who believes money is God, and that so long as he is rich he can buy politicians, lovers, connections, and the world itself.   He can even -- he believes -- buy loyalty.

Another character, Killifer, also believes “greed is good” when he sells out a good man (Leiter) for personal wealth, a two million dollar bribe he calls a “chunk of dough.”  There’s even a critique and comparison here – especially in the person of Truman Lodge – between wealthy businessmen and drug dealers.  One type doesn’t necessarily seem more unscrupulous than the other in amassing a fortune…one (the drug dealer) just accumulates cash and dispatches enemies...more directly.  But both worlds are cutthroat and play for keeps.

As we quickly detect, Sanchez’s only real loyalty is to accumulating more cash, and yet throughout the film he demands absolute personal loyalty from his ring of associates.  He has made a mantra of loyalty.  “Everyone in my business is 100% loyal,” he boasts.

Few other Bond films surround their villains with such a well-delineated circle of retainers as Licence to Kill does here. There’s Truman Lodge (Anthony Starke), the accountant, a Wall-Street type obsessed with flow-charts and data points, and who sees gigantic dollar signs in every coke deal.  There’s body-guard Heller (Don Stroud), a soldier who has some inkling of what kind of monster Sanchez really is.  And then there’s Milton Krest, an associate who wants to remain under the radar, doesn’t like Sanchez’s “showiness” and who is incredibly cautious.   Widen the circle a bit and there’s also the killer Dario, and Professor Joe Butcher (Wayne Newton), a carnival barker/showman who lets himself be used as a “cover” for Sanchez’s drug-smuggling operation.

The reason that this circle gets more attention than in the average James Bond film is that Bond seizes an opportunity to exploit Sanchez’s character flaw, his obsession with personal loyalty.  Playing Iago to Sanchez’s Othello, Bond drop hints to Sanchez that his people are working against him.  And because Sanchez doesn’t really understand loyalty (and the fact that it is a two-way street, essentially), he believes the lies.  He thinks loyalty is only bottom-up, not top-down.  And because he is not loyal to those around him, it is easy for Sanchez to believe the worst of them.

Bond’s campaign of psychological warfare is what really differentiates this Bond installment from others.  In many Bond films, Agent 007 out-maneuvers his enemies in a variety of ways, but rarely does he utilize the villain’s psychological foible against him as the primary weapon.  Think how few of Bond's "enemies" he himself must kill here.  Sanchez offs Heller, Krest and Lodge himself.  Bond doesn't have to lift a finger. The only "gadget" at Bond's disposal are his words...carefully-selected, carefully-spoken words targeted right at Sanchez's weakest spot.

Licence to Kill's final, fiery moment of conflict even reflect this idea.  Sanchez, awash in gasoline, pauses before he kills Bond...machete still in hand.  Bond asks “don’t you want to know why?”  He means: don’t you care why I betrayed you?  Why I was disloyal?  Sanchez can’t resist knowing the answer to this burning question, and so Bond uses the moment to kill him, to literally burn him up with lighter.  That lighter (Leiter?) is a symbol of Bond's mission, and loyalty to his friend, Felix.  Bond trumps Sanchez's disloyalty with his own sense of authentic loyalty, then.  Friendship beats money, roughly-speaking.

Krest: This is how Sanchez rewards loyalty.

Heller: This is how Sanchez rewards loyalty.

Lodge: This is how Sanchez rewards loyalty.

Don't you want to know why?

Bond thoroughly manipulates Sanchez by exploiting his fears of disloyalty, but, uniquely, the film also appears to make some commentary about Bond’s sense of loyalty.  His loyalty to a friend -- to Felix Leiter -- goes beyond all reason, and becomes a consuming, driving, relentless obsession.  Bond’s perceptions about this mission become so out of whack that he scuttles two legitimate investigations of Sanchez, one being conducted by Hong Kong, another by Pam Bouvier, herself.  Bond is not able to step back and “trust” the system, to get Sanchez.  His ego gets in the way.  Like Sanchez, he possesses a flaw.  His emotions (and loyalty) have not allowed him to see the bigger picture.

I suggest this is wholly understandable given the trauma Bond experiences.  When he sees Della dead -- in her wedding dress, no less -- he no doubt remembers the death of his beloved Tracy on their wedding night.   All the buried memories and pain come back, and it is clear that Bond transforms Sanchez into the Blofeld of his memory.  Making Sanchez pay for Della’s death is Bond’s way, also, of making Blofeld pay…again.

But on the issue of trust, Bond learns some lessons from his friends. At great personal and professional risk, Q (Desmond Llewelyn) travels to Isthmus City to assist the rogue agent.  Moneypenny goes against orders to help him, and to help get Q there.  And even though Bond has not been romantically “faithful” to her (by bedding Lupe Lamora [Talisa Soto]...), Pam is an unswerving ally and friend to Bond.  They all support him, and yet they also have a concern for him; a concern that he has lost his sense of perspective.

Late in the film, Bond rights himself -- after nearly killing Pam in a fit of rage -- and becomes aware that his barometer of trust is off.  But the upshot of all this behavior is plain.  Licence to Kill is one of the few Bond films, pre-Casino Royale, that involves a character arc for its lead character.  Bond grows and develops in this film, and he isn’t portrayed as the suave superman, but rather a very flawed and tragic character, whose own psychological foible -- rage – gets the better of him.

Another way to put this is that you get in Licence to Kill absolutely everything you want and expect from the Bond movie experience, and then much more.  This is a movie that better helps you to understand who James Bond is as a person, and it’s difficult to say how that conclusion would be true of a film (that I enjoy) like Octopussy (1983), or A View to A Kill (1985), for example.  There's a brand of intimacy to this film that some of the other Bonds lack.  What gives Bond his licence to kill?  Is it his government's backing?  Or is it his desire to right the scales of justice?

In terms of action, Licence to Kill is pretty terrific, particularly in the thrilling, sustained, climactic set-piece involving Sanchez’s gasoline tankers and a rural highway.  The scene builds and builds, and features jaw-dropping stunts, including a dazzling moment in which a careening truck (on fire) tumbles through the air, above a plane in flight.  Roger Ebert writes well about this great final sequence:

“There were moments when I was straining to spot the trickery, as a big semi-rig spun along tilted to one side, to miss a missile aimed by the bad guys.  But the stunts all looked convincing, and the effects of the closing sequence is exhilarating.”

Beyond the stunts, Timothy Dalton absolutely excels as Bond in this film.  He’s called upon to undergo a series of personal crises here, and gives the audience a fully human Bond who pushes himself to the limits of human endurance, both in terms of injury (as in the finale) and in terms of control over his emotions.  Some people worried that this Dalton Bond was “too sensitive,” but his is -- pretty clearly -- the Bond of the Ian Fleming books.  He smokes too much, drinks too much, and when he lets himself feel his emotions, he’s absolutely off the rails.

A Bond who remembers.

A Bond who grieves.

A Bond who makes mistakes.

A Bond who bleeds.

In some sense, an appreciation of Licence to Kill must finally come down to the qualities an audience desires from a Bond picture.  Does it want to see a spectacular film in which a man of impeccable style, instincts and agility defeats evil with a wink and a joke?  Or a film in which it detects the roiling, conflicted emotions driving a human being to achieve extraordinary things in the face of unbelievable adversity?  

I would argue that Licence to Kill is a superlative example of the second paradigm, and that, additionally, Licence to Kill has become the prototype for 21st century Bond, a film series which champions the very same virtues.

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