When it’s on: Sunday, 15 March (3.40 pm)
The 1980s were troubled times for James Bond. There was a pervading sense that the gentleman spy was past his sell-by date, that he’d had his best years. The fag end of the Roger Moore era did him no favours, despite the three 007 films he made across the decade attempting to bring his stories back to earth following the high concept nonsense of Moonraker. And then there’s Timothy Dalton. I’m a big fan of The Living Daylights, his harder edged debut in the role, which added some much needed realism and grittiness to a character that was tipping over into utter silliness beforehand. But it left many audiences confused. This wasn’t the James Bond they knew, Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang from the endless circulation of his films on ITV, who walked away from situations that put both himself and the world in peril with little more than a hair out of place.
Licence to Kill was a further retraction from the Moore years, indeed entering new territory by compelling Bond to go ‘rogue’ in his pursuit of a drug baron. Adjusted for inflation, it’s the least successful of the series, and with The Living Daylights also at the foot of the rankings it pretty much did for Dalton’s tenure. Too convoluted. Difficult to follow. Too arsey a Bond. It seems strange now, with Daniel Craig lending many of the same qualities to the character, to find how little it appealed to viewers. Looking again at the profitability rankings, we find Skyfall is right at the top. Perhaps it was simply the case that Dalton’s take on 007 came too soon. As a consequence, the following decade gave us the Pierce Brosnan entries, a return to the fun escapades at the expense of any real substance.
Not that Licence to Kill is a masterpiece. John Glen directed all the Bond entries from the eighties and did so efficiently. This one carried the lowest budget of any 007 film for some time and was filmed mainly on location around Florida and in Mexico to cut down on the costs of shooting at Pinewood Studios. But there’s also a flatness to his direction, the lack of great cinematography that was traditionally used to fine effect in opening up those glamorous exotic climes where the action took place. There’s nothing especially wrong with it, but then there’s very little to wow viewers either. Even the stunts have a degree of predictability about them, excepting some rather thrilling car chase scenes towards the end that involve massive Kenworth trucks crashing into each other along tight hairspin bends on remote mountain roads. It’s as though the director was uninterested in any of this, preferring Licence to Kill to stand primarily as a character study, that character being Bond and the things he gets up to when he’s no longer working for Queen and country.
The premise is certainly absorbing enough. Licence to Kill opens with Bond celebrating the marriage of his best friend, Felix Leiter (David Hedison). But then things go horribly wrong. Before the wedding, they’ve apprehended that classic scourge of the 1980s, a South American drugs baron, Frank Sanchez (Robert Davi). He escapes from incarceration, with the help of an avaricious agent, played by Everett McGill, and then takes a terrible revenge by murdering Leiter’s wife and then literally feeding him to the sharks. Bond in turn demands retribution, but is told in no uncertain terms that he’s needed elsewhere and has to give up his pursuit of Sanchez. And so, in a thrilling decision, the agent does what we would all like to see him do and turns rogue, losing his ‘licence to kill’ and going after Sanchez his way.
What follows is quite different from the usual fare. The plot follows Yojimbo, the classic Kurosawa tale that’s been much copied since about a samurai who wanders into a town and plays two rival gangs off against each other. Here, Bond steadily infiltrates Sanchez’s circle and gets close to the man himself, feeding him details that lead to the drugs lord killing many of his own henchmen. It’s good stuff, quite gripping to find 007 coldly directing Sanchez’s actions, whilst getting inevitably close to his girlfriend, played by the lovely Talisa Soto. Meanwhile, he’s helped out by Q (Desmond Lleyweln), who’s ‘on vacation’ and, delightfully, gets far more to do than his usual shtick of supplying gadgets, along with agent Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), one of those rare Bond girls who is a lot more involved in the action than finding herself in trouble and simpering into his arms. There’s some great interplay between the pair, both seeing themselves as the ‘senior’ partner and Bond having to take charge because they’re in South America, a man’s world.
Davi plays a good villain, and the film gives him an opportunity to show both ruthlessness and the easy charm that would justify his character having the capacity to make it to the top of his particular tree. Amongst his henchmen is a young Benicio Del Toro in his first major, big screen role.
All told, it’s a better film than the insipid box office and reputation of the time would suggest, and whilst it’s too flawed to deserve the same revisionist love as a classic like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, there’s plenty to like about it, not least its aim to try things with the character that had never previously been done. There’s a sense that Ian Fleming might, for once, have been pleased with the character in this one. Whilst Licence to Kill follows the same basic plot as many 007 films, it’s really interesting to see Dalton take his character down a darker path, one reflected in its ’15’ rating (though in truth, it’s at the lower end of the certification).
Ultimately, a sad end for the actor’s brief association with 007, and it would take six years for him to return in Goldeneye, his licence returned but much of the fire restrained. Even my DVD copy (I own the Special Editions, which are packaged in a very nice tin case) is an apologetic, limp affair, featuring a somewhat ‘soft’ transfer that has all the feel of a ‘just one for the completists’ attitude towards it. The ‘Making of’ documentary is quite a fun watch, particularly the crew describing their adventures during shooting on the remote Mexican roads, which had been closed to public use due to the sheer number of accidents and fatalities it had claimed. By all accounts, they came across a number of ‘apparitions’ and spooky episodes, vehicles moving of their own accord and the like, and of course the famous photograph one crew member took of an explosion, his still picking out a hand in the flames. Spooky…
Licence to Kill: ***