Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My Favorite Era: Licence to Kill (1989)

Timothy Dalton's second, and sadly last outing as James Bond is a bit of a departure for the series as they tried going a somewhat darker route than they had before.  This time, 007 is going rogue after his friend Felix Leiter is maimed by a shark on orders from drug kingpin Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi).  He teams with a former CIA pilot and the resulting film is a blend of traditional Bond and some of the stuff that was coming out around the time.  Still trying to stick to the formula while also trying to be a little different, the end result is an uneven, yet mostly entertaining revenge thriller.  Let's take a closer look.
  • The film came out in the jam-packed summer of 1989 where it was soundly stomped by the likes of Lethal Weapon 2 and Batman.  Hell, I think even Star Trek V did better.  It's a shame, really, as while the film does have flaws it deserved better than it got.
  • Part of the problem was the rather crummy ad campaign.  The trailers were alright and the teaser poster was nice but the final poster looked bland and unfinished.
  • Dig the Michael Kamen score, especially his take on the gunbarrel logo music.  If nothing else, it gives the film a slightly different vibe at the start.
  • The pre-title scene is pretty damn great with a nice intro to all the primary players and a spectacular bit of stunt work as Bond snags Sanchez's plane as he tries to escape American airspace.
  • Robert Davi has always been a reliable cinematic villain but here he truly outdoes himself.  His first scene has him casually ordering his henchmen to cut out the heart of the guy his girlfriend Lupe (Talisa Soto) has run off with and proceeds to beat her with a whip made from the tail of a stingray.  Probably a good thing we start him off like this since he also proves to be one of the more charismatic Bond villains in the series.  I especially like how at the end of the day, money just doesn't matter all that much to the guy.  Loyalty does.  It's a real treat for action movie fans.  Now if only we could get Lance Henriksen as a Bond villain...
  • On a lighter note, I get a chuckle out of David Hedison as Felix here.  Not only is he the first actor to play Leiter twice (Jeffrey Wright would do this with the first two Daniel Craig films), but he also looks oddly like Regis Philbin from certain angles.  And as luck would have it, director John Glen and his crew manage to find every single one of them.
  • Gladys Knight delivers a nice main title tune.
  • Just a great assortment of character actors in this film: Everett McGill as a traitorous DEA guy; Frank McCrae as Sharkey, a friend of Bond and Leiter who of course ends up dead, Cary Tagawa as a Hong Kong narcotics officer working undercover to nail Sanchez who runs afoul of Bond and his roaring rampage of revenge and noted crap actor Christopher Neame appears as an MI6 agent sent to bring Bond back after he has gone rogue.  He fails.
  • The stuff with the wedding party is pretty good, though the longer it goes the more you just know something bad is going to happen.
  • The scene with Sanchez being loaded into the transport van features one of my favorite bits of unintentional humor in the series.  As our villain is being loaded up, naturally a flock of reporters are doing their thing,.  One guy off screen asks, and I swear I am not making this up, "Are you really Colombian?"  Now this is funny on two levels.  First off, he's actually from the fictional country of Isthmus (because using Val Verde would have pissed off Joel Silver) but more than that, I can totally see some dipshit reporter throwing that question out for real.  It's a small thing but it still kills me every time I hear it.
  • As good as Davi is, his henchmen are equally solid.  Benicio del Toro is quite creepy if somewhat underused as Dario, the main guy and Anthony Zerbe is decent as Krest, the man running Sanchez's drug smuggling operation in Florida.  Don Stroud and Anthony Starke are also pretty acceptable as Sanchez's chief of security and financial adviser respectively.
  • I find it ironic that the other Bond film Hedison was in was Live and Let Die in which the opportunity to feed a character to a shark was brutally wasted.  He's back here and indeed, this time the shark gets to eat.  He still lives somehow, God knows how.  Maybe it's due to hanging out with Bond.  Maybe 007's resiliency is contagious.
  • In the DVD cut I used for this, there is a little more gore here and there.  We see Leiter lose his leg, there is a nicely gruesome exploding head later on and Sanchez's death is a little more protracted.
  • Dalton does quite well as Bond here, showing a little more desperation and rage than normal.  He walks a fine line here as while he needs to be sort off balance as far as the character goes, he can't let it get to a point where it stops being James Bond.  Apart from a few bits here and there, he pulls it off just fine.  Damn shame this was his last outins as the character.
  • This is one of the problems the film has.  It wants to be something a little harder but it also wants to still be the comfort food it has been since the seventies.
  • A prime example of this is having Q show up about an hour in and stick around till the end.  For the most part, the film does a good job of cutting Bond off from his usual resources.  Granted he does give Bond a signature gun that only he can use but it really doesn't factor in much.
  • Having Q around doesn't cripple the film but is does make things a little more comfortable than they need to be.  This is 007 on the rampage, more or less disavowed.  If you're going for something edgy, tossing in something comforting and familiar sort of defeats the purpose.
  • The sequence with Bond sneaking onto Krest's boat, getting Lupe on his side (not that hard, really) and ends up disrupting a drug smuggling deal by stealing the money Krest is supposed to get for his boss is one of the best action beats in the film.  Well-scored, nicely shot and wonderfully staged.  It's a real knockout which is good since apart from a few things here and there it's all the real action we will get for a while.
  • Carey Lowell is fairly good as Pam, the main Bond Girl.  She's tough and the film is wise not to overplay it like Die Another Day did.  There is one moment that doesn't work at all though.  Late in the film, Lupe goes to tell Pam and Q that Bond needs help.  This is after she and Bond have slept together and Pam gets jealous.  It's an oddly out of character moment and really should have been cut.
  • The bar fight that occurs after she and Bond meet is good though.
  • A good portion of the second hour is given to Bond setting Sanchez up by getting close to him and making him turn on his own men.  This works best in the case of Krest who Bond  implicates in the loss of the money Bond stole.  It's a nicely crafty bit of work on Bond's part and it results in the aforementioned exploding head.
  • Making it even better is that you can totally see how Sanchez could be convinced of this.  Krest's guys are, to be blunt, morons.  Contrasty that with the usual bunch who Sanchez employs who come off as professionally competent, if not exactly rocket scientists.  It works.
  •  The stuff with Cary Tagawa and his partners is okay, though it does sort of feel like the filmmakers realized it had been a while since there had been an action scene.  It does manage to get Bond to focus a little bit and go about destroying Sanchez using the man himself.
  • Wayne Newton as a phony televangelist type is an interesting, though at the end of the day unnecessary bit of casting.  Really, the only reason he's there is so his temple can serve as the obligatory huge set that gets blown to hell at the end of the movie.  See what I mean by the film wanting to have its cake and eat it too?
  • This is really the big problem the film has as its desire to be both conventional and unconventional result in a bit of tonal dissonance that does detract from the overall enjoyment of the film.  It's fine when it tries to be a gritty, smash mouth revenge movie but it also keeps going back to the Bond formula.  It's rather frustrating since the unconventional approach works nicely and would be improved on when Daniel Craig took the role.
  •  As much of a disappointment as it is when the film goes back to the formula, I do have to say few things make me smile in a movie quite like Bond suddenly springing into action to kick off the last round of action in whatever entry in the series I'm watching.  The stuff in the huge base is okay but the real highlight is the tanker truck chase that ends the movie.  It's a wonderfully done bit of action that pays off quite nicely with a fiery death for Sanchez.
The 16th Bond film is an uneven, yet adequately entertaining action movie.  Dalton and the rest of the cast do fine and the action is good but the script is wishy-washy and at times, the film seems to want to be two things at once.  It's not the best in the series, but it's far from the worst.

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About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.