Monday, January 19, 2015

Licence To Kill - 1989

Background: there were a few issues behind the filming of Licence To Kill. It was the first Bond film that doesn't use the title of an Ian Fleming book or short story, although there are a couple of scenes from Fleming's work that do appear in the film. It was originally called Licence Revoked, I'm not sure why it was changed, although I think Licence To Kill works better, it's a more explicit reference to Bond's status as a 00 agent and it's a key point at the heart of the story.

Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson share the writing credits, but most of the work was done by Wilson, as there was a writer's strike (not the last time that would affect a Bond film) and Maibaum had to sit on the sidelines for a lot of the time. Wilson must have had a very full plate, as his stepfather was now nearing 80 and most of the producing work fell squarely on his shoulders with assistance from his half sister Barbara.

The original intention was to set the film in China, as Eon had never done a Bond film there, and they even had some scenes written that were set in the Golden Triangle. They altered the setting, because it was easier and cheaper to film in the US and at the time the drug trade from South America was far more prominent in the media than the Asian one was, plus they'd already dealt with that peripherally in The Living Daylights. The theme of the masterless warrior, seeking revenge, is however very Asian and Wilson admitted to being influenced by Yojimbo and other stories about masterless Ronin. Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns were also a source of inspiration.

Although they never explicitly said so, the popularity of other 80's action films did bother Eon, and when they looked at the themes in them, two elements regularly cropped up: revenge and drugs. Other Bond films have involved both those before (Live And Let Die was about drugs, most of Bond's pursuit of Blofeld was about revenge, especially Diamonds Are Forever and Melina Havelock in For Your Eyes Only was also after revenge for her parents. Diamonds Are Forever aside, Bond is regularly cautioned not to let revenge be a driver for him and he is forced to put his feelings aside to get his job done). Throughout the film it's almost like writer Wilson and director John Glen worked through a checklist of what went into a successful 80's action film. There is an air of if you can't beat them, join them, in Licence To Kill. It was also a good deal more explicitly violent than any other previous Bond film. There's often implied violence or the hint of it, but under pressure from competitors, Licence To Kill shows more graphic and obvious violence than any of it's predecessors.

It's quite a good action film, but it's not really a Bond film, and that's where I think a lot of Bond fans have an issue with it.

Story: Bond is in Florida attending the wedding of his good friend Felix Leiter (he was best man) when one of the CIA agent's cases involving South American drug lord Franz Sanchez comes back to haunt him and the result is that Felix's new wife is murdered and Felix himself is badly mauled by a shark.

Because the DEA can't go after Sanchez in his stronghold of the fictional banana republic of Isthmus City (modelled on Panama and the Medellin region in Colombia. Sanchez himself reminded me of Pablo Escobar, although they said the actor was chosen largely for his superficial resemblance to Manuel Noriega who was in the news at the time), Bond, who doesn't respect political boundaries, decides to get revenge himself, and in the process has his licence to kill revoked by an extremely pissed off M.

Most of the rest of the action takes place in Isthmus City and concerns Sanchez's drug empire, there's a fairly redundant sub plot about some Hong Kong based drug agents working with MI6, and they beefed up Q's role. 

There's two Bond girls in this as such, although I tend to regard Pam Bouvier as the real Bond girl, and relegate Lupe Lamora to the background more. It sets up a nice almost love triangle and Pam is one of the better Bond girls of this era, she's certainly a huge improvement on Stacey Sutton and Kara Milovy, both in the acting stakes and the writing of the character. Kudoes to Wilson for that, because I'm sure it was him and not Maibaum who did it.

Unsurprisingly enough Bond takes out Sanchez and his organisation, the fun is watching how he does it, and I kind of like the idea of a rogue agent working for himself on a straight out revenge mission. It was extremely fitting that Bond used the cigarette lighter that Della and Felix had gifted him for being the best man at the wedding to set a petrol soaked Sanchez on fire.

It does end in the water, with Bond kissing Pam in the pool of Sanchez's casino/resort complex.

As straight action films go, it's quite satisfying and entertaining, but people didn't like the lack of a spy story in this and reacted badly to it as they did not see it as a genuine Bond film.  Adding to that feeling is that I think it's the first film where Bond is not shown or even implied to sleep with anyone. Reaction may have spelled the end of the brief Dalton Bond era.


Director: it was decided to keep John Glen, and I actually felt that working within a genuine action format he seemed to have some freedom and a much more relaxed style. As he was working with a highly professional and very talented cast he didn't have to do a lot of directing of actors and could instead concentrate more on making the stunts bigger and better than ever before. The bar fight in the waterfront bar is wonderfully choreographed with even a stuffed marlin being used as a lethal weapon.

James Bond: this was Dalton's second go round as James Bond and I think it's a far better outing than his first one. He seems more comfortable and more assured. He's worked out how to play it and imbue it with more of himself and less of him trying to be Sean Connery. He retains his edge and is believable as a man on a mission of revenge. It also helps that he and Carey Lowell bounce very well off each other and have the chemistry that was woefully lacking from the pairing of Dalton and D'Abo. Dalton never quite looked like Bond for me (his nose was too large and his hair seemed to be too thin), but it was a shame that he didn't get to play the role again after this film, because I think he really could have made it his own. It took Connery and Moore both three films before they really nailed it at their third try.

Franz Sanchez: the role was apparently based on Manuel Noriega, the dictator of Panama who used his position to traffic drugs, among other criminal activities and actor Robert Davi was cast because he bore a superficial similarity to the Panamanian dictator. I felt the role was more Pablo Escobar, but his media profile may not have been as high when the film was made. Davi also doesn't look at all like Escobar. Davi was a method actor and apparently did a lot of research into Colombian drug cartels and stayed in character off set. He was quite believable and while fans weren't keen on the idea of the Bond villain being a drug lord I felt Davi was better than some of the more over the top villains the series had featured. Cubby Broccoli's daughter Tina and writer Richard Maibaum suggested Davi after seeing him in the TV film Terrorist on Trial: The United States vs. Salim Ajami. He was looked at as a future at the time, but the career seemed to stall after this and the only other role of note I can ever remember seeing him in was as a gung ho FBI agent in the first Die Hard film.

Lupe Lamora: I'm putting Sanchez' girlfriend here instead of under the Bond girl section as I don't really see her that way, and the role is too large to use as in the Peripheral section. She's also quite instrumental in helping Bond bring her boyfriend down. It's not an easy role for Talisa Soto to play and she almost pulls it off, she's not totally believable all the time, but uses her dark flashing eyes to get through scenes where her acting fails her. Davi was instrumental in casting her as he expressed that of the twelve candidates presented for the role he would be most likely to kill for her, which is part of the relationship between Sanchez and Lamora. I've only just now realised that her surname is the same as one of my favourite fictional heroes Locke Lamora and wonder if author Scott Lynch got the name from this film, I know he's a Bond fan. Soto was briefly married to Australian actor Costas Mandylor and is currently married to actor Benjamin Bratt, with who she has 2 children.

Peripheral roles: they were able to retain the services of Robert Brown as M, Caroline Bliss as Moneypenny and of course Desmond Llewelyn as Q. For once M is working out of the office most of the time and therefore Frederick Gray isn't there, and there's no Cold War or Russian component of Licence To Kill, so no need for Gogol, which made The Living Daylights the final appearances of Geoffrey Keen and Walter Gotell as Bond regulars. Brown gets to sink his teeth into the role for the first time and he radiates quite some authority when he orders Bond back to work, then takes his gun and revokes his licence to kill when the agent refuses to obey a direct order. Caroline Bliss' Moneypenny was understandably minimised and she's really only there to call Q when M makes it clear that MI6 have cut Bond loose. The Q role was considerably beefed up in Licence To Kill. Desmond Llewelyn made quite a song and dance publicly after The Living Daylights saying how important Q was to the franchise, how he wasn't well paid for it and felt that he was being undervalued as a character and underused as an actor. This time he goes out into the field to help a Bond with less resources than usual and no backing from Her Majesty's government. He is mostly used for comedic effect and if this had been Llewelyn's last appearance as the MI6 boffin it would have been a fitting swan song.

Milton Krest: this is one of Sanchez's henchmen. He's very sleazy, and is often seen coming on to Lupe in the captain's cabin of the Wavekrest, the only thing that keeps him from taking it further is that his boss will kill him if he finds out. It makes the Lupe role rather reminiscent of Domino in Thunderball. Krest meets a bad end being literally exploded in a depressurisation chamber when Sanchez suspects him of stealing money. Anthony Zerbe was a veteran actor who did a more than adequate job with the sleazy and dangerous drug smuggler.

Sharkey: I'm not really sure why he was in this. He was apparently a good friend of Felix's and was one of the groomsmen. I think he was meant to remind people of Quarrel as he was a big black guy who ran a fishing boat charter business out of Florida. I did at one stage think he was Quarrel's son, but that was Quarrel Jr in Live And Let Die. He winds up being killed while helping Bond to investigate Della's death and Felix's mauling. He was played by former NFL player Frank McRae. He isn't required to do much other than look large and somewhat scared most of the time.

Felix Leiter: God I love their casting decisions with the character. Interestingly enough the Felix character inly appeared in one Roger Moore film (Live And Let Die), yet was in both Dalton's outings (still can't work out why he was in The Living Daylights, though). They decided not to cast a new actor this time, David Hedison appeared in the role again, 16 years after his first appearance and at the age of 61. He does look a very well preserved 61, though, Glen wasn't too keen on casting him because of his age, but he did a great job in the role, as he had in Live And Let Die, and remains the best of the original Felix's for mine. It is interesting that Felix has clearly aged in the intervening 16 years, yet Bond hasn't. Given what happened to the agent during the film, it's safe to assume that the intention was to write the character out of the films.

Truman-Lodge: Sanchez's financial director and chief salesman. He is the quintessential sleazy 80's businessman. Snappy sales patter, totally amoral when it comes to the pursuit of money, literally more concerned about the dollar than anything else. He's played by Anthony Starke (yes, I know his name is Tony Starke), who specialises in this sort of character. He was the smooth, card sharp character in the TV version and series of The Magnificent Seven and also the business devoted father of spoilt brat gymnast Lauren Tanner in the ABC Family teen drama Make It Or Break It.

President Hector Lopez: the president for life of Isthmus City, this is a figurehead role and he's really a paid employee of Franz Sanchez, the real power in the South American city state. It's quite a small role and I really only include it because Lopez was played by Pedro Armendariz Jr. the son of Pedro Armendariz, who played Kerim Bey in From Russia With Love, it's a nice little touch and the son does look like the father.

Dario: again a henchperson like Daario probably wouldn't get a mention apart from the fact that he's played by Benicio del Toro. This was an early role for del Toro and according to Glen played him as 'laid back while menacing in a quirky sort of way. The actor would later go on to win an Academy Award for his performance in Traffic.

Professor Joe Butcher: this was largely a comic role and while important to the story, his televangelist was how Sanchez received his drug orders, it was really another piece of celebrity casting, because Professor Joe was played by Las Vegas legend Wayne Newton, who was a fan of the films and actually asked the producers for a cameo role in one of them. It's rather surprising that they didn't consider getting him to record the theme song.

Pam Bouvier: I have to confess I really liked Pam as a character. She was a welcome change from the shrill, useless, helpless damsel in distress Bond girls from the last two films. I can't recall James really saving her, it was usually the other way around. She's practical (she wears a bullet proof vest to her meeting at the Barrellhead Bar and comes armed with a pump action shotgun because she knows the place's reputation and the sort of people that hang out there), she's tough and can take care of herself, she's got useful skills (a contract pilot for the CIA), she knows when to pull her head in and can alter her appearance (going from the pilot persona to the personal assistant one) when required. There's a cute little scene when she orders Bond's signature martini and in case the bartender doesn't understand her English she mimes that he is to shake it, not stir it. I wonder if that is in script or she ad libbed it. She also works well with Q. I love the fact that when they needed to give her an alias she got called Ms Kennedy, as opposed to Bouvier (Bouvier was Jacqueline Kennedy's maiden name). Model Carey Lowell was cast, and she's an example of casting for looks, but being lucky enough to get an actress. She watched the other films for inspiration on how to play Pam and she wore jeans and a leather jacket to the audition so that she wouldn't just be seen as window dressing. She's one of the most successful Bond girls in the history of the franchise.

The Curse of the Bond Girl: the curse definitely did not hit Carey Lowell, and that would be largely because she can act and do more than stand around providing scenery or scream for help. She continued to act after the film and broke out of the Bond girl mould by landing the key role of District Attorney Jamie Ross in the highly acclaimed crime show Law & Order, she reprised the role of Ross in 2005 as a guest role in a spin off of the original show. Personally she's been married three times, has a daughter from her second marriage to actor Griffin Dunne and another from her third marriage to actor Richard Gere. She largely retired from acting in the mid 2000's, but personally and professionally she has been one of the most successful former Bond girls and she's probably as well known for her role in Law & Order as she is for playing Pam Bouvier in Licence To Kill.

Pre credit sequence: this was a really nice bit of setup. Bond, Sharkey and Felix, all in morning suits are enroute to Felix's wedding when Felix hears about an opportunity to nab Sanchez who he has been chasing forever, despite it being his wedding day he goes after the drug lord. James goes along to keep an eye on him and make sure he doesn't get killed. Sanchez is also seen in the sequence and they establish his character by showing him having Lupe's lover killed and then savagely beating her with the tail of manta ray for cheating on him. There's also a nice stunt with James attaching Sanchez's getaway plan to a DEA helicopter before he and Felix parachute to the wedding.

Gadgets: you'd think that with an adventure where Bond is cut loose from MI6 that it would have to be gadget less. Nothing could be further from the truth, when 'Uncle Q' gets involved while on leave from his position at MI6. Once in Isthmus City Q provides his protege with all sorts of hi tech equipment to help out. An exploding alarm clock (guaranteed to never wake up anyone using it), a laser x-ray camera, like the alarm clock it wasn't actually used by Bond in the mission, but Pam makes the mistake of thinking it's what it looks like only to find that the flash triggers a laser and it takes x-ray photographs, another camera that is actually a gun that uses fingerprints as it's recognition and once keyed to a user can't be used by anyone else. That feature saves Bond's life. Q has dentonite toothpaste, which is plastic explosive and it's triggered by what looks like a packet of cigarettes. With Moore's departure Bond took to smoking cigarettes again. Q also has a transmitter hidden in a broom, which he uses in the field to update Pam on Bond's movements.

Music: the original idea was to get guitarists Vic Flick and Eric Clapton to write and perform a theme song and they produced something that matched Dalton's gritty performance as Bond, however Broccoli and his family turned it down, for reasons I can't even pretend to understand. Instead they used something completely forgettable performed by Gladys Knight. No disrespect to Knight, who is an excellent performer, but it's a rotten song. The song was written by Michael Kamen and he also scored the movie (John Barry had a throat injury) and as he'd done movies like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard you'd think he could produce something fitting for an action film, but this one is just dead. It was a top 10 hit in the UK, but that must be down to brand loyalty only. The songs are great advance publicity for the films and if they work it helps to get people through the doors, but the Broccoli's and later Michael G. Wilson have never seemed to quite grasp this and have a history of selecting artists after their day has come and gone.

For the 3rd time the film ends with the promise that James Bond will return, but not in what. At this stage I think they were a bit bereft of ideas and audiences were concerned. Despite the claims there were doubts that James Bond would return and if he did when, in what and played by who?

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