Licence to Kill (1989)

When it’s on: Sunday, 15 March (3.40 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

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: ***

The Living Daylights (1987)

When it’s on: Saturday, 8 September (3.20 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Time to look at the James Bond who’s most divided the critics. Timothy Dalton is either a terrific reading of the character, closer in tone to Fleming’s spy and adding a necessary air of toughness and danger, or he’s just no fun, lacks charm and takes himself way too seriously. It’s easy to see why the latter opinion is so popular. Not helped by Dalton’s unwillingness to ‘play the game’ in media circles and instead demand the right to a private life, his 007 is an entirely different animal to the near self-parody essayed by Roger Moore for years. If he was nothing else, Moore’s Bond was a character who knew it was all a bit of a joke. Even his most serious entry, For Your Eyes Only, had its arch moments, whilst otherwise the sight of this supposedly secret agent chasing someone through central Paris in half a car was proof of a production with the collective tongue lodged firmly in its cheek.

In The Living Daylights, Bond returns to a world of spycraft, murky Cold War politics and a lead character who has little place beyond his most recent mission. Its second half is dominated by action scenes set in Afghanistan and with the Mujahideen as the good guys, but the first hour is undeniably better, particularly when Bond’s involved in a plot to defect a KGB agent from Bratislava and has a biting exchange with his contact over how to make it happen. His dealings in the Eastern Bloc provide a real sense of unease, a vanishing arena where everyone is watched and nobody trusted. It’s one where 007 feels at his most comfortable, contrasted with scenes back in England where he’s supposedly at home yet comes across as restless.

Dalton had been in the frame for Bond for some years, indeed he’d first been considered after Sean Connery’s initial departure in the late 1960s. Rightly enough, he felt himself to be far too young at the time, though in the intervening years he would do all he could to distance himself from the role. This made the casting process much tougher following Moore’s ‘retirement’, with Pierce Brosnan coming close to landing the part nearly a decade before he finally did. His wait is one of those unfortunate twists of circumstance. Approaching the end of his involvement in Remington Steele, NBC having cancelled the show, as Brosnan became more closely linked with playing Bond interest in it soared, which prompted a change of heart, another series commissioned and a clause in Brosnan’s contract activated whereby he had to commit to starring in it. The actor was subsequently dropped from The Living Daylights and, sure enough, viewing figures for poor Remington dipped and the new series curtailed. Another actor who came close was Sam Neill, and on the Special Edition documentary there’s some fascinating screen test footage of Neill alongside Fiona Fullerton. Perhaps best known at the time for his starring role in Reilly: Ace of Spies, the prospect of Neill as Bond remains one of those tantalising ‘what if’s, though those of us who grew up watching him playing villains in Kane & Abel, The Final Conflict and Ivanhoe (and being quite the best thing in all three) might have struggled to go with him.

So in the end Dalton it was, and getting back to the point at the top of this piece, I think he makes a brilliant Bond. It seems unfair on his portrayal that Daniel Craig’s 007 is close in tone to his and has been critically lauded, whereas at the time Dalton’s ‘serious’ demeanour was one of the fiercest objections of his detractors. In any event, this and his later entry – Licence to Kill – have, like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, almost been pushed into the background of the Bond canon, as though EON would far rather promote the films of Connery and Moore and prefer us to forget these aberrations. A shame. The Living Daylights is a fine film, easily a high point amongst John Glen’s contributions and, for me, Dalton convinces completely as Bond. He’s at his finest in those small moments, such as when he accidentally pulls his gun on a mother and child and looks utterly shameful at their sudden fear. The development of his relationship with cellist Kara (Maryam D’Abo) is entirely credible, winning her over during a romantic interlude in Vienna whilst getting irritable at her insistence of returning for her cello after a daring escape.

It’s this element of grumpiness that makes him such a believable Bond. You can imagine someone with his abilities growing annoyed when those around him slow him down or get in the way. There are clearly years of toughening behind his 007, times in his life when he’s learned to show his emotions sparingly. His wooing of Kara works because you imagine it would take him some time to open himself up to  her at all; it’s a million miles from when Moore had to cock an eyebrow to entice Britt Ekland into bed and a thousand times better. As for D’Abo, how refreshing it is to have a heroine who possesses some relevance to the plot rather than tick the ‘Bond girl’ box.

Elsewhere, John Barry’s score for The Living Daylights (his last following a long association with the series) proves to be one of his best, and there’s a lot of good feeling also towards A-ha’s title track. Glen clearly enjoyed this one. His shooting in Vienna must have been an exercise in joyful nostalgia, as he got to film in the same fairground where famous scenes from The Third Man (one his earliest assignments, as an Assistant Sound Director) were put together.

The Living Daylights: ****

A View to a Kill (1985)

When it’s on: Saturday, 25 August (3.00 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

The pre-credits sequence of A View to a Kill tells you everything you need to know about what was wrong with Bond during this period. Removing an item from a dead man frozen into some snowy waste, 007 is soon being pursued by Soviet soldiers across the icebergs. Despite seeing this sort of thing many times before, it’s thrilling enough, and then he loses his skis, getting about instead by snow surfing on some broken vehicle’s equipment, and the music pipes in with California Girls by The Beach Boys. Like it wasn’t entertaining enough already, guys?

The use of heavy-handed humour during an action scene – is there anyone who finds this sort thing actually funny? – reeks of a lack of confidence, a sentiment that runs through the entire film. It’s Roger Moore’s last, the venerable actor by this point the wrong side of 55 and commenting that it’s time to bow out when he’s older than his leading lady’s mother. She’s Tanya Roberts, one of those sure signs that what you’re watching belongs to the 1980s (along with femme fatale, Grace Jones). One of the more insipid, screechy heroines, Roberts has little to do but wait around for Bond to rescue her, otherwise making her performance in The Beastmaster from earlier in the decade look good. Jones has more business in A View to a Kill, and looks as though she’s quite enjoying herself, swapping blows and bedtime romps with Moore. A shame her character takes a ridiculous about-turn in loyalties at a crucial point in the narrative; heavens, please don’t let it be a result of Rog’s sexual prowess!

There’s a combination of great set pieces and poor ones; sometimes the good leaks into the poor, such as Bond’s escape from the burning City Hall of San Francisco merging into a police chase through the streets that involves a comedy cop, your man driving a fire engine and for reasons that make absolutely no sense finding himself hanging off the end of a wayward ladder. Also ridiculous is the pursuit across Paris, which slaps the face of any occasion that someone refers to Bond as a ‘secret’ agent. The climactic fight on the upper reaches of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is rather better and somehow pulls off the danger of scrapping hundreds of feet in the air when the whole scene was filmed as a combination of trick photography, model shots and recreating the Bridge at Pinewood. There’s a glorious inventiveness to how this stuff has been conceived and put together, and it makes me a little sad that such trickery has been largely overhauled with CGI. Oh well.

What saves A View to a Kill from despair is the casting of Christopher Walken as chief villain, Max Zorin. Nominally the head of a microchip contractor, it emerges Zorin is attempting to corner the market by destroying Silicon Valley, whilst his past is mired in Soviet attempts to genetically engineer perfect human beings. The result, Bond is told, was children with superior intelligence but clear signs of psychosis, a sinister development that Zorin largely lives up to. The scale of his megalomania is rather refreshing – in flooding Silicon Valley, he’ll kill millions of people, but who’s counting, right? There’s a casual disregard to everyone around him, even his own people; in one moment of nastiness that scales new heights within the franchise, he personally trains a machine gun on miners working for him. Moore found this scene utterly distasteful, suggesting it removed the fun tone of the movies, but it works rather well, giving enough impression that here’s a villain who’ll go to any lengths to achieve his ends.

A View to a Kill: **

Octopussy (1983)

When it’s on: Saturday, 18 August (3.20 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Following the James Bond series on these pages, it’s become clear to me that at heart I’m a 007 fan and, as such, prepared to overlook many of its little foibles. But then I reach Octopussy, which to me is an irredeemable turd of a picture, and it seems the franchise has reached the limits what I can realistically forgive.

As usual, the smashing ‘Making of’ documentary on the DVD offers insights into why this was the case. Back in 1983, the film that would become Octopussy was in a race for public affections against the ‘non canon’ i.e. not produced by Eon, Bond being churned out by Warner Brothers. Worse still, the alternative project had somehow coaxed Sean Connery into the lead role, whilst reintroducing SPECTRE and Blofeld thanks to the script by copyright holder, Kevin McClory. The possibility that Never Say Never Again might gazumph the original series in terms of audience affections appears to have put the frighteners on everyone involved. As a consequence, George MacDonald Fraser’s script was tinkered with to the point of lacking all intelligibility, and to ensure a ‘safe’ entry that ticked the usual boxes, offering spectacle, thrills, laughs and pure entertainment.

This was supposed to be the film that unveiled a new 007 to the world. Roger Moore was understandably ready to hang up his Walther PPK after For Your Eyes Only, leaving the producers to suggest the likes of Timothy Dalton and Michael Billington for the role. The ‘Making of’ even includes a screen test of James Brolin, playing against Maud Adams and actually coming across as more than a credible option. In the end, Moore was persuaded back by a production desperate not to upset its box office chances with a new face. Moore’s far from the worst thing in Octopussy. Moments in the plot give him the opportunity to show a tougher streak than we’re used to seeing, though there’s no getting away from the actor’s advancing years and the complete bypass of credulity at seeing him in bed with the much younger Kristina Wayborn, making lewd comments to Michaela Clavell or using an expensive Q gadget to focus on a woman’s cleavage. Nothing wrong with that, right?

But that’s the main problem with the film – mere moments, tantalising glimpses at the film that might have been. The best is Steven Berkoff’s over the top rogue Soviet general who’s prepared to stage a nuclear strike to spark off a Third World War, his raving speech during a meeting of the High Command suggesting a yarn in which Bond’s playing for the highest stakes imaginable. The tension should almost take care of itself, yet due to the production fulfilling a desire to be set largely in India, the Cold War angle quickly gets lost amidst the elephants, sheep’s brain main courses and Octopussy’s harem of women, which serves no purpose other than to shoehorn as much scantily clad flesh into the film as possible.

Everything is played strictly safe. A jaw droppingly awful chase scene through the Indian jungle becomes an excuse to inject some terrible comedic stunts, such as Bond telling a tiger to ‘Sit!’ (it does), ordering an encroaching snake to ‘Hiss off!’ and making his escape by swinging across tree vines, drawing inexplicable attention to himself by bellowing the Tarzan cry. The film scores a coup by casting tennis pro, Vijay Amritraj, as ‘our man in India’, but then throws in a ridiculous stunt involving a tennis racquet during a car chase through the crowded streets.

If there was a word I’d use to sum up Octopussy, it would be ‘tired.’ The whole affair looks exhausted, utterly spent of any sense of originality and spark as it goes through the motions. Louis Jourdan’s villain plays backgammon with loaded dice and loads nuance into every time he says ‘Octopussy.’ The overall impression is that Jourdan takes none of it seriously, and that’s fine, but when Bond later bollocks Berkoff for his nutty scheme the two worlds within the film collide.

None of it really mattered in the end. Octopussy did well at the box office, eclipsing Never Say Never Again by more than a $30 million margin and giving the ‘official’ franchise the seal of approval it so nakedly sought. But it’s worth remembering that  Eon’s desire to edge out the competition was the entire motivation behind the film, not such noble sentiments as bringing the character ‘back to basics’ that underpinned For Your Eyes Only. In America, both films made up the numbers as 1983 belonged commercially to Return of the Jedi, whilst Terms of Endearment (a film that seems to say ‘Look, real tears! Can I have my award now?’) received the critical nod. Bond’s position at the top of the tree was over, a sorry dip in interest following the highs of the 1960s.

Octopussy: *

P.S. Yet another apology for the site’s sleep over the last few days – more Birthday celebrations, last week at work, getting a new computer up to speed, etc. Back to normal service on Tuesday!

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

When it’s on: Saturday, 11 August (3.10 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

The dilemma at the heart of For Your Eyes Only is played out in its pre-credits sequence. Providing a degree of continuity with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, as though all those films in between took place in his head, James Bond is first seen leaving flowers at the grave of Tracy Bond. It’s a rare moment of recognition of the elements that drive the agent to do the things he does, though cynically one might argue it’s a plot point hauled out whenever the films want to add a note of seriousness.

But then things turn daft. Bond is picked up by a helicopter, believing he’s about to be piloted towards another mission. Suddenly, the pilot’s head is fried after an electrical charge is sent through his headphones, and Bond realises his ride is being piloted automatically by a familiar figure, bald-headed and sat in a wheelchair, who taunts him over the intercom. After being flung about in the skies over London, Bond somehow gains control of the chopper and picks up his enemy, wheelchair and all, before finally tipping him into the sort of factory chimney patronised by Fred Dibnah. The victim, whilst never named, is obviously Ernst Stavro Blofeld, though the film couldn’t identify him due to the rights to all things SPECTRE belonging to Kevin McClory. It’s kind of a sorry end to the former Number One, reduced to something of a joke figure, all for the sake of offering a two-fingered salute to McClory, who at the time was busy developing a non-franchise Bond flick (the remake of Thunderball that became the forgettable Never Say Never Again).

In the space of several minutes, For Your Eyes Only sets the tone of the film it wants to be. What we get is a Bond in distinctly lower key. Those fights are felt. There are moments that hint at the hero being in real danger, and knowing it. Similarly, the plot involves stakes far less high than the routine world saving antics he’s used to. Bond has to stop a Greek smuggler from delivering the ATAK missile command system to the Soviets, whilst becoming entangled in the mission of vengeance led by Melina Havelock. There’s a daring touch of realism to the narrative; this is the kind of job you can just about imagine him carrying out. As always in 007 entries that shift away from high concept action, one of the losers is Q, his gadgets tucked safely away in Q Branch as the man himself does nothing more than help Bond identify an assassin with the help of his trusty ‘Identograph.’

At the same time, the film never completely shrugs off the need to entertain with crazy stunts and action sequences. At times, this is quite joyously planted on the screen with a fantastically staged car chase. This begins with a great wink to the audience when Bond’s fancy Lotus is blown up and he needs to escape with Melina in her Citroen 2CV. Forced to rely on his wits rather than an array of gadgets, the chase down a winding Greek hillside road is well executed and lots of fun. But other action scenes don’t work in quite the same way. An extended series of action scenes at an Alpine ski resort goes on for far too long and shoehorns in moments of the distinctly unfunny comedy that undermines all the fine stunt work carried out to put this stuff on the screen. The tussle at the hockey rink – where the scoreboard tallies up Bond’s dispatching of some baddies – is especially awful.

When the film tries to inject real elements of suspense, as opposed to expensively mounted set pieces, it really starts living up to its mission statement. The best bits involve Bond having to scale a sheer mountain face to reach the villains’ rendezvous point with the Soviets at the Orthodox monastery in Meteora, Greece. For several minutes, John Glen simply screens his perilous climb, Bond showing all his advancing years, huffing and puffing with the effort of hauling his middle aged self up the mountainside. Audiences know it will go wrong, that at some moment he’ll be spotted and threatened, and the perils of being hundreds of feet high with naught but a drop beneath him. For once, Glen appreciates the tension of this entire scene and lets it play out, helped by Roger Moore’s real life fear of heights and the instances where it appears he’s in actual trouble.

John Glen, who’d worked his way through the franchise’s ranks since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (and would go on to direct the entire 1980s series of Bonds), finally got his opportunity to helm a film after directing action scenes in the previous films. He was working with a smaller budget than that lavished on Moonraker, and indeed had to oversee a ‘back to basics’ Bond that recalled the first couple of films (exemplified in a scene reminiscent from Dr No where Bond coldly kicks a car containing an assassin over the edge of a cliff). It’s been suggested since then that the franchise was in a crisis after Moonraker, though that plays into reassessments of the ‘science fiction 007’ as a failure, which at the time it clearly wasn’t. However, there were concerns by the producers that the spy had reached a limit of what he could possibly achieve by saving the world from space, and they either had to hit new levels of loopiness (James Bond of Mars!) or bring him back down to earth.

The other aspect was the man playing the lead role. By now, Moore was in his mid-fifties and looked it. Despite initially deciding to back out at this stage, Glen appeared to want the continuity he brought in retaining his services and in turn developed the character into a figure of greater maturity. The sex magnet he rather improbably presented in earlier films has now largely gone. His flirting with Miss Moneypenny feels less charged and more like old friends sharing a familiar joke. He rebuffs the admittedly annoying advances of an ingénue skater and falls in with the flighty but ultimately tragic Countess Lisl von Schlaf (Cassandra Harris). Their brief sex scenes are restricted to little more than the couple wearing post-coital dressing gowns, though Harris turns out to be so sexy in her short time on screen that she’s actually more memorable than the main squeeze, the revenge obsessed Melina (Carole Bouquet). Still, the relationship between Bond and Melina develops over the course of the film, if not entirely convincingly then at least the effort has been made to ensure she doesn’t hop into bed at the first twitch of Moore’s eyebrow.

It’s probably Moore’s best work as Bond, though throughout the film it screams its suitability as a Timothy Dalton vehicle. Elsewhere, Julian Glover is nicely unassuming as Kristatos, quite credible as a middle man with eyes on a profit rather than world domination. Topol brings bags of charisma to the screen as Kristatos’s business rival, Columbo. There’s even a Cold War aspect to the film, Walter Gotell reprising his role as Soviet General Gogol and hinting at a level of affection for Bond that suggests a thawing of relations with the East is at hand. Bill Conti’s terrible, ‘funked up’ score, on the other hand, makes you realise just how spoiled you were with John Barry’s classy stylings, whilst Sheena Easton’s Academy Award nominated song is a disappointing ballad that, stylistically, has no business playing any part in the film.

For Your Eyes Only: ***