Friday, June 19, 2009

James Bond review: License To Kill (1989)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Originally it was to be titled License Revoked. As it turns out, 007’s license was revoked, after this film; if only it had been revoked before it.

BOND, JAMES BOND: After one very good film with Timothy Dalton in the driver’s seat, the series takes a disastrous wrong turn. As an action film, it’s passable, although not state of the art for 1989; but as a Bond film, it’s awful. So bad that it killed the series.

What went wrong? Just about everything. But mainly, the producers made two bad decisions that pretty much sealed this film’s fate.

First, they involve Bond in the War on Drugs. Now, in 1989 the Cold War – an intermittently realistic engagement with which had fueled six of the last seven Bonds – was winding down. The Soviets weren’t going to be effective as the bad guys. And we have to applaud the producers for realizing that, and for opting not to go back to the Criminal Mastermind Trying to Take Over the World pattern. But pitting Bond against a drug lord just makes the whole thing feel small. It turns 007 from a spy into a cop.

Second, they send Bond on a vendetta. He resigns from MI6 to avenge the death of Felix Leiter’s wife, and Leiter’s maiming. They try to justify this through evoking On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, implying that Bond is still grieving over the assassination of his own wife. But that just raises all sorts of continuity problems that the series has wisely chosen not to engage up to this point. If this really is the same Bond that married Tracy, then why doesn’t he look twenty years older? In any case, we can’t really buy Leiter as a motivation for Bond to resign and go all rogue agent – they try to sell it by bringing David Hedison back as the only person to play Leiter twice – but in 1989 who remembered that he’d done it in 1973? The whole thing feels like an excuse to remake Bond in the image of Dirty Harry. This time it’s personal, etc. And so Bond’s license to kill is revoked, which means all the killing he does is off-license. Which is, I suppose, meant to make it feel more dangerous. Like, make my day, punk.

Not. It’s not 007. It is, in fact, the most egregious example of that scourge of the series, the Bond Film That Wishes It Were Something Else. Did Live And Let Die wish it were a blaxploitation flick? Did Moonraker wish it were Star Wars? Maybe, maybe not, but License To Kill clearly wishes it were Lethal Weapon.

What Makes Bond Bond: Not a damned thing.

What Makes Timothy Dalton Timothy Dalton: The bar fight in Bimini. This is a fish-out-of-water scene, where Bond’s weapon of choice (the Walther) is meant to look comically out-of-place next to Pam’s sawed-off shotgun. The problem is, Dalton plays it like a fish out of water. Properly, 007 should be the master of the situation in spite of being outgunned.

BAD GUYS: Robert Davi is a reasonably believable drug lord, but his Sanchez and Dalton’s Bond just don’t belong in the same movie. Sanchez, as we’ve already discussed, is just not a Bond villain. At least the last time they involved Bond in a drug war, in Live And Let Die, the kingpin had the decency to want to destabilize Western society. Yaphet Kotto’s Mr. Big had grandiosity. Sanchez is just a fifth-rate Tony Montana knockoff.

The henchman situation isn’t very clear-cut in this film. We have Milton Krest, the Miami boat-owner and cocaine distributor, slimy but not very menacing; Heller, American mercenary, whose odd tie in the casino scenes robs him of any dignity; and Dario, ex-contra, Latin stereotype of the broadest kind (but hey: that’s Benicio del Toro). The latter two characters, with their ties to American interventionism in Latin America, sound like they might have been meant for more interesting things, but the script doesn’t do anything with them.

Then we have Wayne Newton in a cameo as Professor Joe Butcher, the guru running the meditation retreat that Sanchez is using as a front for his cocaine processing plant. As a plot device, this is inexplicable. But Newton steals the show. Bless his heart.

Then there’s Sanchez’s financial guy Truman Lodge. An economics whiz-kid with a baby face and absolutely no morals, he’s Gordon Gecko filtered through Alex P. Keaton. Which means as an ‘80s archetype he’s not particularly original, but still, he’s a nice touch.

Special mention here should go to Pedro Armendáriz, Jr., who plays El Presidente Hector Lopez: Pedro, Sr., played Kerim Bey in From Russia With Love. Nice to see that, like Bey’s, Armendáriz’s son is in the family business.

GRATUITOUS SEX: GS2. That’s Talisa Soto as Lupe and Cary Lowell as Pam Bouvier (alias Kennedy – cute).

Not a bad lineup of Bond girls. Soto is by turns vulnerable and fiery, when the script calls for it; she’s striking enough for this film, even if she’s not a Bond girl for the ages. Lowell is one for the ages as Bond’s sidekick; she’s stunning, and shows hints of authority as an action heroine. It’s a pity the script keeps neutralizing her, through Bond’s combination of sexism and lone-wolf attitude.

AND VIOLENCE: Ninjas from Hong Kong? Are they kidding?

BOYS WITH TOYS: The cigarette-pack detonator has always stood out to me as one of the more interesting product placements in the series. Lark has such a low profile in the US that it may not immediately be apparent that it is a product placement, but the brand’s huge in Japan, and in fact their ad campaigns have long featured secret-agent type men in glamorous adventures. Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, and Timothy Dalton have all pitched for them. In fact, Dalton’s ’95 spot may have been his best turn as Bond. For once, his hair was behaving. Makes you wonder if he would have grown into the role, had he been given the opportunity to make Bonds as regularly scheduled in ’91 and ’93.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: The previous film’s globetrotting is balanced by the limited geography of this installment. Miami, then the fictional Isthmus City. The fact that they made up a city, rather than just set the film in Panama, severely undercuts the gritty realism the film seems to be striving for in the War on Drugs plotline. In short, it’s a cop-out. But it is another connection to Live And Let Die.

ETC.: Gladys Knight’s title song is one of the best in the series. A well-chosen “Goldfinger” quote, and Gladys is all gut-wrenching soul, even in this context: there’s nothing campy or cartoony about her. The song is far too good for the movie it’s in. The closing theme goes to Patti Labelle, and “If You Asked Me Too.” But it’s forgettable: Diane Warren… This was Maurice Binder’s last title sequence, and it’s a nicely retro one, classier than his last few efforts. In fact it was the last go-round for everybody: not just Dalton, but this incarnation of M, the new Moneypenny (alas), and Felix Leiter. It’s a shame they couldn’t have gone out on a higher note…

RATING: 002.

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