Thursday, August 18, 2011
Review – Licence to Kill
August 18, 2011
Licence to Kill – UK, 1989
It’s a peculiar thing – the more Carey Lowell looks like a traditional Bond girl, the less her character, Pam Bouvier, acts as if she belongs in her profession. Here’s what I mean by this. When Bond first meets Pam Bouvier, she’s a back-talking, tough-as-nails woman who packs a shotgun and won’t let a man imply that she’s any less capable than he. Then after she has dolls herself up and starts dressing in expensive fancy clothes to act the part of Bond’s secretary, she begins pouting and acting infantile whenever Bond pays the slightest attention to another woman. When told that Bond is in trouble by Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto), the woman Bouvier considers to be her competition for Bond’s affection, all she can fixate on is something else Lamora said – that she and Bond spent the previous evening together. And so in typical teenage love-triangle fashion, she declares, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to help him!” – which just proves that old saying, that hell hath no fury like a Bond girl who has yet to get Bond. I’m paraphrasing here, of course, but you get the general idea.
Lowell was twenty-eight when she made Licence to Kill, so to describe her character as going through teenage angst may be a bit harsh. After all, Pam Bouvier is a woman capable of holding her own in a bar fight and flying a small plane through a hail of gunfire. In fact, I have no problem with the idea of her character teaming up with Bond. However, Licence to Kill is simply not the right film for her to do it in. The reason for this is that she adds levity and silliness where there should be none, and there should be none because Licence to Kill is not the standard Bond film in which humorous asides and double-entendres are delivered in rapid succession. This is not a film in which viewers want to see Bond work his charm on members of the fairer sex. This is a film in which Bond is out for revenge. Think about the beginning of Diamonds are Forever and then stretch that out for over two hours. That’s the Bond that Timothy Dalton is playing, a Bond focused and at his most dangerous. That Bond cannot have a partner like Pam Bouvier. Writers Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum should have realized that.
Licence to Kill begins with a long opening scene in which Bond, Felix Leiter (David Hedison), and a new character named Sharkey (Frank McRae) are all decked out in matching suits on their way to Leiter’s wedding. A DEA helicopter suddenly swoops down in front of them, and one of the agents on board informs Leiter that they have the perfect chance to capture an elusive major drug dealer named Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). Felix jumps at the chance to bring him to justice, and Bond insists on going along – as an observer, he promises. Of course, that part about just observing doesn’t last very long. Sanchez is eventually caught, and the scene ends with Bond and Leiter parachuting down to the wedding chapel below just in time for Leiter’s wedding to take place.
Apparently the wheels of justice move rather rapidly in Florida, for before Leiter’s wedding party is even over, Sanchez has been booked into custody and sprung from custody. He then takes his revenge on the agent responsible for capturing him – killing Leiter’s bride Della and dropping Leiter into shark-infested waters, an experience that Leiter somehow survives. Bond vows to get Sanchez, even if he has to do so without any official government assistance.
The scenario is very promising, and Dalton holds up his end of the deal, playing Bond with the kind of intensity that a man with his mind set on revenge would likely have. Yet it all begins to unravel rather quickly. We get the standard resignation scene, followed by Bond’s escape from agents trying to prevent him from going after Sanchez alone. In one particularly troubling exchange, M appears to sanction Bond’s assassination, which makes it hard to believe the two would ever be able to work together again. We then get a bizarre exchange in which two veteran seamen call their captain to see something suspicious below them. It turns out to be a manta ray. Why they would be spooked by this I’m not sure. I would have understood their suspicion if they had noticed that it was really James Bond in disguise, but they didn’t, making their suspicions plain silly. Imagine a fish in the ocean! Later a bar brawl breaks out for no apparent reason than to add another fight scene. Making the scene even more laughable is the way one character attempts to use a plastic swordfish as a weapon. There’s also a convention of drug dealers that no one seemed to think needed security and the convenient appearance of two ninjas from Hong Kong just as Bond is about to exact justice on Leiter. I say convenient because their misguided actions allow the film to go on for at least another hour.
And yet none of these details are as egregious a mistake as the film’s sudden introduction of a second master plan on Sanchez’s part. Let’s be clear: Sanchez is not a nice guy, but I’m willing to bet that drug dealers who have entire countries under their control don’t also aspire to be international terrorists. For one thing, it would be bad for business for a drug dealer to do something that might cause there to be a disruption in the trafficking of their product. It would be even worse for a drug dealer to do something that puts him in the same category as one of the villains on television’s 24, and yet this is exactly what the film turns Sanchez into. I suppose it gives Bond’s quest for revenge a more noble purpose; however, it is introduced haphazardly and never feels completely authentic.
Licence to Kill is not a complete disaster. Dalton and Davi turn in excellent performances, much better than the material warrants in fact, and Desmond Llewelyn has a few nice scenes as Q, who arrives on holiday to give Bond an unofficial hand. In a better film, it would have been M that sent him instead of Moneypenny. Licence to Kill’s subpar peformance at the box office was unjustly blamed on Dalton, and with Pierce Brosnan finally freed up from his Remington Steele contract, this would be Dalton’s last film as Bond. It’s too bad, though. He was the first actor to get Bond right since Sean Connery. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
2 and a half stars