Thursday, July 18, 2019

Cult-TV Blogging: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Return of the Fighting 69th" (October 25, 1979)

In “Return of the Fighting 69th,” Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) finds that her past has caught up with her in two ways.

First, two notorious gun-runners hiding out on an asteroid base near Necrosis IV -- Corliss (Robert Quarry) and Roxanne Trent (Elizabeth Allen) ) -- have sworn revenge against her and all of Earth for the injuries they received when trying to escape her pursuit, years earlier. Now, these villains have a cache of 20th century nerve gas at their disposal.

Secondly, Deering must go to the men and women of the Fighting 69th Space Marines for help navigating the asteroid belt. 

Although she grew up with Noah Cooper (Peter Graves) and his team of silver-eagle pilots, Wilma recently flunked them on their annual physicals, as they are all nearing the mandatory retirement age of 85.  

Cooper and the others put the past aside, and agree to work with Wilma and Buck (Gil Gerard) on a bombing mission of Corliss and Trent’s hide-out. They outfit several ships as “star belly bombers” and train to assault the base.

Unfortunately, Buck and Wilma are captured during the actual raid, and are held captive by the burned, scarred gun-runners. Fortunately, they are assisted by a young Terran slave, Alicia (Katherine Wiberg). Alicia is deaf, and has been separated from her family on Earth for five years, but puts everything on the line to help the Directorate end the threat of the nerve gas.

Like many episodes of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’s (1979-1981) first season, “Return of the Fighting 69th” is fast-paced and action-packed. The episode features space dogfights, new miniatures (the asteroid base), and new optical effects as well.  

What differentiates this story from many others, however, is that it delves into the past of a character who is not often explored: Erin Gray’s Wilma Deering.

We learn a lot about Wilma from this episode. For example, we learn that her father was a pilot, as she became. When he died, she was raised, essentially, by his pilot friends (including Noah Cooper) and given the nickname “Dizzy D,” because she would get into everything, and make mischief. This is a nice, colorful peek at the character, and explanation for her life, essentially, of military service. She’s an Army (or Space Marine) brat, essentially.

Secondly, we learn about one of Wilma's important missions before Buck arrived in the 25th century. I like this touch, in particular, because it suggests that the 25th century didn’t just start when Buck showed up. 

Wilma had a career, and a history, and it wasn’t all positive. 

Here for instance, she failed to catch Corliss and Trent, and they have sworn a vendetta against her.  Uniquely, this whole subplot ties in neatly with the personal back-story. In both cases -- hunting down the gun-runners (who are badly injured and scarred) and booting the fighting 69th out of the service -- Wilma is just doing “her duty” as she sees it. 

But duty, while clear cut in the present, can sometimes have unforeseen effects from a point of retrospect. Here, Wilma makes two very dangerous enemies in space, and loses the people closest to her on Earth.  She must feel in some ways that duty is a harsh master, as it often requires her to hurt those she cares for, or destroy lives.

One aspect of “The Return of the Fighting 69th” that doesn’t work quite so successfully involves series continuity. Just a few episodes back (in “Vegas in Space,”) Buck and Wilma were still arguing a core conceit of the series: computer control vs. manual control as it applies to Starfighter pilots.  As we saw in the pilot “Awakening,” too, Directorate pilots could be beaten all the time, essentially, because they relied in combat on computer control. It took a good old fashioned, red-blooded American pilot of the 20th century -- Buck -- to show these stiff 25th century pilots how to fly by the seat of their pants.

Yet here, Cooper and all the other pilots seem quite capable and accomplished, and not-reliant on computer control at all.  Indeed, there is no mention of this debate here, as if the series has dropped the whole pretense that this is a continuing thread.  It is just as well, perhaps, that the notion is dropped, because looking at the grizzled, hard-boiled, experienced (and beautiful…) faces of Peter Graves, Woody Strode and the others, it isn’t easy to believe that they were raised and trained in an environment of computer control.  

An answer to this? It would have been great if Wilma had noted that these pilots practiced in a time more like Buck’s when computer control programs were not as sophisticated, or ubiquitous.

In terms of history, “Return of the Fighting 69th” boasts some intriguing antecedents. The Fighting 69th is a beloved war movie, actually of 1940, which stars James Cagney, George Brent, and Pat O’Brien.  

The Hollywood film, which is about courage and sacrifice in war, is based on World War I’s infantry regiment of the same name. It was called, like Noah’s space marines, “The fighting 69th.” That term was coined in a poem by Joyce Kilmer, “When the 69th Comes Home.” So it is fascinating to trace a line between the real fighting 69th, and patriots of Noah Cooper’s squadron in the 25th century.

“The Return of the Fighting 69th” is a fun, fast-moving episode of Buck Rogers, and the pace of the enterprise keeps one from thinking too much about some of the sketchy details. Corliss and Trent have weapons, ships, personnel, and an amazing facility. All of that is wasted by their pursuit of vengeance, which is part of the episode’s theme, no doubt, but their scenes play as two-dimensional.  

Similarly, the episode falls all over itself to provide a happy ending for literally every protagonist.Noah survives the bombing run (when first thought dead). Buck reunites Alicia with her family…and she is scheduled for surgery to get her hearing back. Meanwhile, the Fighting 69th gets back its “silver eagles,” and the regulation about mandatory retirement at 85 is taken off the books.  It’s just so…positive.  

I would suggest that a more impactful ending would see Noah killed in action -- dying the way he lived; protecting his planet. That denouement would have given the story a bit of an extra (gut) punch.

Also, it is rewarding that the concept of “ageism” is brought up here, but it isn’t exactly treated in nuanced fashion. 

Wilma’s point, that the Fighting 69th was not ready for combat proves wrong, but she is not wrong in every situation.  My great uncle Arthur -- whom I loved dearly -- died at the age of 96 last une. He still would, occasionally, ask where his driver’s license was, so he could drive. Yet the man was virtually blind.  As cold-hearted as this may sound (or read…), it is an act of kindness sometimes, to prevent the people you love from hurting themselves, and hurting others. My uncle did not belong, in his nineties, behind the wheel of a car.  I would always offer to drive him to get whatever he wanted or needed (which was, usually, a bag of black licorice candy).  

I understand that the story particulars of “The Return of the Fighting 69th” suggest that Noah and the others are as capable as ever, at their advanced ages. But in real life, it’s not often that clear cut. I don’t believe in discriminating against the elderly, and I believe that they should maintain their independence as long as they possibly can. But sometimes, sadly, other factors “weigh” on their ability to be self-sufficient.

To my delight, this Buck Rogers episode also addresses the issue of the hearing-impaired, and sign-language. Alicia is treated as less than a complete, or intelligent person by Trent, because she can’t speak; because she can’t use vocal language the way that we do. Buck connects with her, and helps her find her courage; her "voice," if you will. This is a nice touch that gives Buck something meaningful to do in what is, clearly, an over-stuffed episode.

Finally, and on a personal note, I love the miniatures of the star-belly bombers used in this episode.  They look great, and the special effects visualizing them are certainly state of the art for 1979. 

Although it moves very fast, and avoids reality strenuously with its happy, Hollywood ending, “Return of the Fighting 69th” still must count as a strong episode of this series in its first season.

Next week: "Unchained Woman."

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

20 Years Ago Today: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

A student documentarian, Heather Donohue (herself), organizes a project to study the legend of the Blair Witch, a supernatural figure reputed to live in the Black Hills of Maryland.

Along with photographer Joshua Leonard (himself) and sound-man Michael Williams (himself) she heads to the former town of Blair, known as Burkittsville, and begins conducting interviews with the locals.

The locals tell of the history of the witch, Elly Kedward, as well as that of Rustin Parr, a child murderer who is believed to have been influenced by the witch.

The crew heads out into the Black Hills to film Coffin Rock, a site where the witch is believed to have committed brutal, murderous acts against town locals.

Afterwards, the crew becomes lost in the woods, and, day-by-day, night-by-night, comes to believe that the witch is nearby.

After a terrifying visit to a house in the woods, Heather, Michael and Joshua’s odyssey comes to an end.

Later, their footage is found…

I must confess, there are few things that irritate me more than listening to the complaints of horror enthusiasts who vehemently dislike The Blair Witch Project (1999).  I guess that's a failing on my part, but it's true.

Some folks feel they were taken in by the movie's (very successful) hype and marketing. Others feel The Blair Witch Project is a shaggy dog story that never reveals the titular "monster" and ultimately goes nowhere.  There is also that group which, when you name the film, complains about how they got motion sickness from watching it.

So it's a controversial genre film, to say the least. I’ve been thinking about it all week, in light of the sequels, and keep coming back to The Blair Witch Project as a remarkable film, hype or no hype.  

I’ll be writing here about why I enjoy and appreciate the film so much, but the late Roger Ebert also had an elegant and crisp take on the film:

At a time when digital techniques can show us almost anything, "The Blair Witch Project" is a reminder that what really scares us is the stuff we can't see. The noise in the dark is almost always scarier than what makes the noise in the dark.

I firmly believe The Blair Witch Project holds up as both great horror movie and also as a great, immediate movie-going experience more-than-a-decade-and-a-half after its theatrical release.  

The film is a neo-classic of the 1990s self-reflexive age; a decidedly ambiguous film that either concerns three film students bedeviled by an evil witch in the woods, or three film students be-deviled by their own inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

I will never argue that The Blair Witch Project isn't chaotic and even a bit messy.

I only argue that it is chaotic and messy in a manner of tremendous significance and artistry; in a manner that very craftily supports the movie's thesis: the idea of chasing your own tail, alone, when your technology can't be of assistance and -- in fact -- hinders you. 

Out in the woods, a movie camera can record your shrieking terror or tape your final confessional, but it can't telephone the police for you, or point in you in the right direction to find your way home.  It can’t even tell you that your home is still out there, somewhere beyond the seemingly endless woods, for that matter.

The manner of the film's first-person presentation reflects this content strongly, this idea that multiple interpretations of reality are possible. 

So The Blair Witch Project sometimes has the audience watching video tape, sometimes watching film stock.  

Sometimes the action is a live event unfolding before our eyes, apparently un-staged. And sometimes, we're watching staged bits of a student's documentary project...deliberately staged (for example: Heather's monologue at Coffin Rock).

All these visualizations successfully fragment the film's sense of reality, making said reality that much harder to pinpoint.  Hoax or horror?  Is the movie about arrogant kids who can't cope with nature; or about kids attacked by a force of the supernatural?

What's the point of the movie's meditation?  

The point is that this was life in America at the turn of the Millennium, and even more so today, in 2016. 

I like to use President Bill Clinton -- impeached in 1999 -- as a perfect example of this facet of our public discourse.  Was he a great commander-in-chief who, through his steady stewardship saved the American economy and brought prosperity and boom times to a nation formerly in recession?  Or was he the cheating "Big Creep" as Monica Lewinsky called him, and worthy of the impeachment the Republicans so gleefully prosecuted?

Or -- and here's the tricky part -- is he simultaneously both things at the same time? 

Meet the moral relativity of the 1990s. 


By the end of that decade, we had 24-hour news cable stations, the Internet, and even the nascent blogosphere, yet we were no closer to understanding the truth in the important case of this one man, the most famous man in the nation

In other words, technology wasn't helping us in the quest for important answers.  We had at the end of the 1990s (and now as well...) more science and technology at our disposal than ever before in the history of our species and yet we couldn't agree even on the most basic facts, let alone the interpretation of those facts.  As a nation, we devoted more hours and more words to the Monica Lewinsky affair than any event in modern history up to that point, yet we remained divided about what it was all about, why it mattered, and what it represented.

In a nutshell, that's what The Blair Witch Project is all about:  the unresolved anxieties of the new technological age (the age of the boom and bust). 

The movie asks us to pull the narrative pieces together -- pieces of media, literally found footage -- and to seek sense, reality and truth for ourselves.  But the tools aren't up to the task.

And, heck, why is no horrific special effects monster revealed at the end of this motion picture? Well, as I suggested in my review for 2016’s Blair Witch: when was the last time you were certain you saw the real Loch Ness Monster uploaded in a YouTube video? 

When was the last time you had a 100% clarity that you were watching a video of the real Sasquatch on Veoh or Vimeo or whatever? 

Never, you say? 

Exactly right.  

For every such claim of "authenticity" in the Web 2.0 Age, you must now bring your experience, skepticism and technological know-how to the game.  Was the video a special effect?  A green screen? A matte?  Photo-shopped?  Or just very cunningly staged with actors?

This is the bailiwick of The Blair Witch Project.  It dwells meaningfully in that haze of tech-savvy uncertainty; factoring in technology and your experience with the tools you use every day. 

Think you see something?  What did you see?  Are you certain? 

Again, the point of a good, transgressive horror movie is to disturb, to unsettle.  In The Blair Witch Project's deliberate ambiguity, we do feel uncomfortable.  Human life is ambiguous too: we don't always get the answers we want about why things happen to us; why fate can be cruel. 

And conventional movies -- through their familiar and predictable three act structure and process of "learning" -- cheat about that simple fact.  

Movies give us answers.  They show us monsters.  They resolve mysteries.  We are content with this, because our disordered lives feel very structured and orderly when we watch movies.  We get ninety minutes of predictable, ordered existence.

But horror movies, especially decorum shattering ones, have no such responsibility to preserve our peace of mind. 

Quite the contrary.

So The Blair Witch Project is really about those things in our existence that, even with the best technology available, remain disturbingly opaque.  We can put a boom mic on things, and point a camera at them, and still, we can't understand them.

Information doesn't always provide clarity. Sometimes it merely confounds and obfuscates.  Thus the Blair Witch Project also concerns the way that mass media often shields viewers from reality; for better or for worse distancing us from unpleasant facts. 

Late in the film, this theme is given voice.  Joshua picks up Heather's video camera and notes that the image it captures "is not quite reality." 

 Rather, "it's totally like, filtered reality.  You can pretend everything isn't quite the way it is."

He's right. The modern audience is accustomed (nay, conditioned) to the longstanding rules of filmmaking and television production, where the rectangular (or square) frame itself is structured rigorously, and compositions of film grammar symbolize certain accessible and concrete concepts. 

But life isn't like that.  Life is -- at its best -- disordered.  It doesn't exist within a frame; you can't capture life's complexities within a frame or a traditional narrative.  And The Blair Witch Project, with its oft-imitated first person point-of-view and semi-improvised screenplay, reminds us of that.

Like life itself, the movie is gloriously messy, and I love it for that reason.

As I've written before, The Blair Witch Project takes a very simple Hansel and Gretel story and then re-casts it in a technological, modern culture, and suggests that these three filmmakers are lost -- metaphorically and literally -- because technology has failed them.  They are abandoned by a culture that believes science and technology can solve any mystery and explain everything.  The film juxtaposes two ideas brilliantly.  One: science and technology give us the answers to everything. Two: a monster exists in the woods who can’t be detected, let alone understood, by our science and technology.

And the intense images in the film are really but the bread crumbs for the audience to follow in vain; in a circle.  Reality is elusive in those flickering pictures, and finally the only end is silence. Our last act in a technological world is turn away; to face the corner. 

But the camera still rolls.

The Blair Witch Project is a work of art because it reflects the age and questions in which it was made, and because it understands that ambiguity is always scarier than certainty will be. People can complain about the made-up dialogue (and cussing…), or the circular, nonsensical nature of the narrative at points, and yet their complaints are really about one thing, I believe.

It’s about them.

They were taken in. 

They were immersed by the film’s replication of disordered reality. And they resent, on some level; that they were so taken in by experience of the film. They are angry, in fact, that the film went so far as to deny them closure and order, the very thing we seek in films.

The Blair Witch Project terrified them, and didn’t even have the good grace to end with a close-up of the witch, so we could all look at her costume/make-up and realize that what we were seeing, all along, was simple Hollywood fakery.

I would argue too that the film’s success is boosted almost immeasurably by Heather Donohue’s performance.  People have mocked it, imitated it, and derided it, and yet when you watch the film, her terror seems absolutely palpable. It feels genuine. Unforced. True.  

And again, I suspect that those who find horror films simply “fun” don’t want to be confronted with the depth of terror that her performance creates.  Her screams for Josh are blood-curling. We are conditioned for our final girls to be resourceful librarian-in-glasses types, who, finally, overcome their monstrous enemies.  Heather is a smart leader, a resourceful person, and she never, ever, gets close to even understanding exactly what she is up against.  

She doesn’t “win,” and, well, our culture hates those who don’t win. We view them as weak, as failures.  Some of the hostility that Heather has endured in real life is no doubt a result of this viewpoint.

At this juncture, I have probably watched The Blair Witch Project at least a dozen times. And yet when the film gets to that dark house in the woods, my throat still tightens, my pulse still quickens.  I feel this way only about a small handful of horror films that I have watched so many times. 

There are three, actually, I never watch when I am alone in the house: The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978), and The Blair Witch Project (1999).

In the case of The BWP, it’s because the film seems relentlessly targeted at the irrational part of the psyche. It strikes at the part of us that fears the dark and knows instinctively --- deep, deep down -- that there are monsters out there in the woods.

Worse, The Blair Witch Project knows that our rational way of seeing the world -- with cameras and the like -- will do us no good when the witch comes to take us.

UFO: "Kill Straker!"

A lunar module with Colonel Foster (Michael Billington) and an astronaut named Craig (David Sumner) aboard experiences something strange upon re-entry. A weird alien light and vocal message orders them to "Kill Straker!"

Upon return to Moonbase, Craig attempts to kill Straker while he sleeps, and then destroy the entire installation. Fortunately he is stopped in time.  

Meanwhile, Foster is insubordinate to Straker, and even sides with General Henderson against him on a matter of SHADO appropriations.

Then, Foster attempts to murder Straker. Fortunately, it is realized that Foster is acting upon a "deep subliminal impulse" in his "subconscious."  The alien programming is countered, but Foster could be relieved of his duties because he will never again be fully trusted. 

Straker engineers a plan to prove that Foster is back to himself, however.

"Kill Straker!" does not hold up as one of the better episodes of UFO, in part because it is obvious to anyone who has watched the series even casually that Foster is not himself. Since it is obvious to viewers that something is grievously wrong with Foster, the same fact should be obvious to Straker, Alec, Ellis, and the others who work closely with him on a day-to-day basis.

Foster is insubordinate, rude, aggressive and mean-spirited towards Straker, and this is a total turnaround from what is seen in other episodes. Straker went to great lengths to defend Foster from charges of treason, for example, in the episode "Court Martial." There is just no way that Foster would suddenly turn on the commander unless he had been compromised. It makes no sense, given what we know of the characters. It seems to me that "alien brainwashing" should be on the table as an explanation immediately, especially given the acts of Paul's co-pilot, Craig.

Bottom line: It takes much too long for Straker and the others to realize the truth about Foster in "Kill Straker!" and that fact means that the episode doesn't quite hold up.

Not that there aren't some fine moments here and there. The confrontation in Moonbase control between Straker and Foster is powerful. It is Foster's "superior physique" vs. Straker's "superior will-power" in a control room where the atmosphere is slowly bleeding away.

The climax, with Straker attempting to kill Foster (to see if Foster will reciprocate the murderous behavior) is also pretty powerful. Straker attempts to goad Foster into striking back, but a terrified Foster doesn't take the bait. This character moment, unlike many in the episode, seems true to the characters. Straker doesn't resort to half-measures when he needs to prove that Foster is still a man he can trust.

It strikes me, while watching "Kill Straker!" that UFO predicted, in many ways, the post-9/11 paranoia of American culture. In virtually every episode of this short-lived series ("The Man Who Came Back," "The Psychobombs," "Kill Straker," "The Cat with 10 Lives," etc.), a "normal" and trusted person is activated as a sleeper agent for the aliens. 

It's a virtual blueprint for asymmetric warfare in the 21st century. All due credit should be given for a forward-looking series, and yet, by the same token, the same old plot has grown tiresome after nearly a whole season of look-a-like plot elements.

Next week: "E.S.P."

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Thirty Years Ago Today: 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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