By now, EON Productions had these Bond films running on a rock-solid two year schedule. Writers Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson seemed to have hit upon a winning formula: fuse the few remaining pieces of Fleming’s short stories together with plot elements “torn straight from the headlines of today’s newspapers.” This served the twin purpose of keeping James Bond “relevant” to a changing movie landscape and shaking up the stale formulas that had constrained the series for two decades.
Inevitably, the loudest criticisms of The Living Daylights and its sequel come from Bond fans who felt (and still feel) this series grand quest for “relevance” was a whole lot of tilting at windmills. The Dalton Era gets a lot of flack for a lot of things, but nothing more so than its lack of “fun”; that “campy” “charm” which supposedly made the Moore Era so much more “enjoyable” and the Connery films “instant classics.” Gods forbid anyone treat those like “serious” spy-fi action pictures…even if that’s exactly what they were intended to be.
They succeed on their own merits with no “camp,” required, save the kind the audience brings with it via the expectations in their heads. If you want real “camp,” I’ve got a version of Casino Royale you should check out (no, not that one)…me, I think Bond should’ve gone “darker” decades before he actually did. He might’ve stayed ahead of the trends instead of constantly playing catch-up. Licence to Kill almost does this and, on the strength of that almost, becomes my favorite Bond film of its decade…and the preceding one.
I know some will cry, “But it’s not even a Bond film!” as if we had any say in that. A Bond film’s whatever EON Productions chooses to call a Bond film. It might not be a Bond film to your taste, but the good news is there’s over twenty more to choose from. If you’re not in the mood for any of those, and baring any sudden legal difficulty, odds are you won’t have to wait more than two years before the next Bond arrives. So let’s lay that particular non-argument to rest. It is a Bond film and the fact that it’s not so strictly beholden to The Formula is a good thing.
Because at long last it does at what previous films tried and failed so hard to do, giving Bond a personal stake in the action he generates. For once, Bond does a job for Bond, entailing the removal of certain narrative crutches which were beginning to annoy me as much as the bad one-liners. While this job bears an astonishing resemblance to the plots of other mid-80s Action Movies, I would say the same of every Bond film of the post-Blofeld era. They certainly resemble each other to an unhealthy, almost unnatural degree. Let’s review real quick:
For Your Eyes Only – Bond must stop a Greek smuggler’s plot to sell a piece of British tech to The Russians.
Octopussy – Bond must stop a Rogue Russian General’s and Anton Arcane’s plot to start World War III.
The Living Daylights – Bond must stop a Rogue Russian General’s plan to…retire peacefully to an island paradise surrounded by bikini babes. And kill his old girlfriend, for some reason.
Licence to Kill – Bond rebels against Her Majesty’s Secret Service and embarks on a one-man mission to kill the South American drug lord who crippled his BFF. He does so by ripping off Yojimbo, sowing seeds of distrust and hatred within the drug dealer’s organization before literally burning it to the ground. And then having a the best car chase in the series. Yes, the entire series. Let me put it this way: we’ve seen worse Bond vs. Drug Dealer movies starring David Hedison as Felix Leiter. This particular vengeance-against-narcotraficantes story is ultimately well executed, despite a rocky start and the series usual problems portraying anyone who isn’t a rich, white dude named James Bond.
Including Felix Leither, whom we’ve seen (in the main EON series) all of once in the last fifteen years (and then played by his worst actor so far). Licence to Kill opens with a transparent reintroduction to Felix as he and Bond shanghai themselves onto a DEA raid. It’s their only chance to catch the famous drug dealer we’ve never heard of until now, Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). They do so, and make it back just in time for Felix’s wedding. But as we all know, in Bond’s World, getting hitched is a real expensive way to paint a target on yourself…
After…what…?…seven Felix Leiters in sixteen films (counting Bernie Cassey, of course…because I’ll be damned if I don’t) you’d think we would’ve gotten to know something about the character, outside of the fact he’s the CIA’s Designated Bond Minder. You’d think I’d learn something particularly interesting here…but no. This is one area where the haters and I can find common ground. We both see Felix as Bond’s American enabler, same as always, and aren’t fooled into automatically caring about him just because his wife’s hot. I care when he enables Bond into a spectacular areal “fishing” sequence that concludes the pre-credits…but afterward, he’s a living MacGuffin, and the “shocking” circumstances of how he incites the action certainly aren’t that surprising, considering the Bond film’s shark fetish.
On the other hand, the stunts in this movie deserve all the praise they get, despite being the most over-praised part of this production. This opening is the most exciting one we’ve seen since…the one in The Living Daylights. The shoot-out in the marina is tense and capped off (for me) by Bond saving a lobster after stray bullets rupture the poor bastard’s tank, one of the most humane things he’s ever done on film ever. The sequence where Bond hijacks a seaplane full of drug money to fund his one-man war (by skiing behind it on a harpoon line and forcibly ejecting the pilots) packs more effective action in two minutes than most Bond films manage in their entirety. The climactic sequence is a master class in How to Stage a Good Car Chase, even if it includes the most ludicrous Bond Stunt since Roger Moore left.
Hell, I could even say good things about Bond’s short fight with the “ninjas” from Hong Kong Narcotics. I want a net launcher I can strap to my arm, damnit! Closest thing to a web-shooter we’ll ever see…but that’s the one thing almost everyone can agree on when it comes to this film. Not the whole “ninja” thing – that’s actually the source of some debate – but that the action is, on the whole, decent. “So what?” you say. “The villainous plot is weak! He isn’t even trying to take over the world.” True…but Sanchez is trying to unite his American drug empire (he claims it extends from Chili to Alaska, but we know there aren’t any people in Alaska, so fuck you, Franz) with his Asian counterparts. He already owns Not Panama…I mean, “Isthmus”…the primary location in this film…
…which they should’ve just called “Panama,” since they’re both banana republics ruled by a self-appointed President For Life, backed by drug lords and whomever else bribes them. (Like, say, the CIA?) Most conflate Sanchez with Manuel Noriega – the real Noriega – but since there’s an actual Noriega analogue in this film (Pedro Armendariz), I’ll take that to mean my countrymen really are as ignorant of their history as voting patterns indicate. I can see why you’d forget Fake Noriega – all he really does is prompt the following great Sanchez line, delivered in typically melodramatic, Robert Davi-with-a-Columbian-accent style
“Remember – you’re only president for life.”
That, his holdings in casinos, isolated mega-churches, whole islands, and his “lead or silver” policy of dealing with politicos, remind me much more of Pablo Escobar. The masters of the universe at Forbes magazine named Pablo one of the richest men in the world just as this movie came out, so what better enemy for James Bond? Has Double-Oh Seven not made a career out of assassination the world’s richest men? Is he not a working class Engine of Death, gradually chipping away at the 1%? The Anti-John Galt? Aren’t all the gold smugglers, ex-Nazis and wannabe-Counts of the past all dead thanks to him? Time, then, for Robert Davi, the first villain in this franchise I honestly love to hate, to try and fill their shoes. And succeed.
As ever, good heroes are defined by their villains, and Bond’s suffered a serious villainy deficit since SPECTRE stopped being a threat. They just never recovered from the loss of that Volcano Lair, leaving a power vacuum someone had to fill, preferably with menace, which Robert Davi sweats just to keep himself cool. From his introduction to his death scene, the man pumps an oily air of ruthlessness into the atmosphere. The cloud around him’s so thick I think the film actually picked it up. He stands around watching while his pet shark eats a man, which is what makes this the most uncomfortable shark scene in the franchise. Forget the blood: Sanchez straight-up watches it happen and pronounces it “just business.” This is after the most disquieting introduction of a villain since Jaws first opened his mouth. Taken together, these two scenes cement Davi as my favorite Bond villain of the 80s. (Sorry, Christopher Walkin – you were picked before your time.)
And I feel no qualms about whatever fresh hell Bond rains down upon him, especially given Bond’s own history – which Felix mentions, for the first time in eight years. After decades of doing all he can to avoid the subject – as he does with Felix and Delia (Priscilla Barnes) at their wedding – Bond sees Felix suffer basically the same fate his previous incarnation suffered back in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: a promising marriage violently cut short by supervillainy on the night of its consummation. You could see Bond’s quest as a personal quest to avenge Tracy all over again, using the Leiters as proxies. This is a certainly a better sequel to OHMSS than Diamonds Are Forever.
Not that it’s perfect. It continues the trend of a weak title song and poor casting choices for at least one Bond Girl. We’re back to two Bond Girls per film now, meaning Licence to Kill adheres more closely to Formula than the much-maligned-for-trying-to-be-different Living Daylights…at least as far as this element’s concerned…but who wants to play purist?
Not I. So on the Good side, we have Carey Lowell as CIA informant and Felix’s Friend-Who-Happens-To-Be-A-Girl Pam Bouvier. She joins Bond in a Key West bar and together both evade Sanchez’s henchman Dario (young, baby-faced Benicio del Toro). Pam immediately proves herself tough, resourceful, smart enough to wear Kevlar and willing to get in Bond’s face when he gives her shit. Lowell pulls it all of well, and she looks smokin’…particularly in evening wear. Their mutual attraction is instant, obvious, and completely in-character…which is more than I could say about Bond’s relationship with his last Girl. My only problem with Pam springs from her mild case of Tiffany Case Syndrome, which I’ll discus in a moment.
Teaming up, Pam and I are both stymied by Bond’s pigheaded insistence that he do everything by himself…and his continued interest in Snachez’s girl/prisoner/Andrea Anders rip-off, Lupe (Talisa Soto). I get cozying up to her as part of your grand scheme…but Soto’s such a bad actress, I can’t imagine why Bond’s attracted to her. Lupe’s “I love James” speech is one of the worst non-dubbed line deliveries in any Bond film and her very presence sends Pam into an instant pout. It’s uncanny – like skinny Puerto Rican chicks from Brooklyn (whose voices haven’t quite left, if you catch my drift) are Pam’s red kryptonite: she keeps all of her superpowers, but the radiation fries her brain, reducing her to the emotional maturity of a tweenager.
Still, Lupe’s necessary to the plot, being Bond’s inside girl once she recognizes he isn’t a plant. She’s Maude Adams from The Man with the Golden Gun, but done…differently. Can’t say “better” since Maude was such a better actress it’s not even funny. But both women (and Pam, too) are unfortunately textbook examples of the Richard Maibaum Bond Girl – Scorned, and Looking to Get Even with the Men What Done Them Wrong. Honey Rider v. 16 and 17, or 17 and 18…I was never really counting in the first place. Actresses can go on about their grand plans to play a “modern” Bond Girl all they like. As long as the same old, white men remain in charge of the writing, Bond Girls, much like Bond himself, will be stuck in the same stock roles, and all their talk of “modernization” will be little more than marketing BS.
But Licence to Kill demonstrated it didn’t have to be this way. Not completely. Bond could survive in a post-Rambo world as long as he remained willing to take risks and his directors could shoot action well. If anything, the film’s hobbled by not taking its core concept even further. Halfway through, Bond encounters the ninjas and a fellow British Agent with orders to cart his ass back to London. He’s rescued by Sanchez and the Isthmasian military and that’s the last effect Bond’s defection will have on the plot.
Are we to assume all’s forgiven at the conclusion of Bond’s adventure? That M (Robert Brown) just accepted Double-Oh Seven back with open arms after revoking his titular licence? What about Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss)? She’s the one who calls Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and gets him down to Not Panama with a suitcase full of gadgets. Are they off the hook, too? After aiding and abetting a rogue agent in the destabilization of a strategically important country? Did Bond’s actions help trigger the U.S. invasion of
Isthmus Panama? We’ll never know because this film’s already strayed too far into new territory for some people.
Honestly, audiences didn’t need help being alienated in 1989, one of the most crowded summers in the history of cinema. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade led a pack including Ghostbusters II, Karate Kid III, Star Trek V, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and the goddamn Batman. In its own month of release (July), Licence squared off against Lethal Weapon 2 and Friday the 13th Part VIII, with Nightmare on Elm Street 5 coming out two weeks later. This movie didn’t lose anyone’s money, as some tell it…but for a Bond film, in North America, in July, it’s numbers well and truly sucked.
I bemoan that to this day and consider it an unjust fate for a damn fine flick, truly underrated in the first twenty-odd years of its life. For all the Roger Moore fans talk of “fun” this is the most fun I’ve had with Bond since the 60s ended. Had it continued in this vein I would probably be the rampaging Bond fan some of my generation have become. I firmly believe that a third Dalton adventure would’ve kicked my ass until it traded places with my shoulder blades…but I’m just as glad he was available to star in The Rocketeer. My feelings on the upcoming Brosnan Era…are right here.