Posts Tagged ‘Licence to Kill’

I started off 2011 by shouting about the stupidity of UK TV programme planners, and a tradition seems to be developing:  do these people take a long winter break and leave the office yucca plant in charge, or something? Picture the scene – New Year’s Day 2012 and I spring from my bed, bright and early at 11am, and am instantly somewhat nonplussed to discover Licence to Kill just starting on the main commercial channel. Yes, at 11am.

Bond films showing on TV over Christmas has become a sort of unofficial tradition in this country, along with colossal quantities of Morecambe and Wise repeats and a dreadful adaptation of a genre classic (this last one seemed to be absent this year – well done, guys), so I suppose we can blame this on people not really paying attention and thinking – ‘Mmm – Bond movie. Knockabout fun for boys of all ages, stick it on in the morning.’ But this is not your typical Bond film.

It opens with Bond (Timothy ‘Spittoon’ Dalton) en route to the nuptials of his old friend Felix Leiter (Leiter has returned to his 1973 David Hedison incarnation for some reason) – Bond is to be the best man, the Leiters clearly unconcerned about the havoc that will almost certainly ensue amongst the bridesmaids. Of course he is almost instantly diverted to assist in the capture of feared Latino drug baron Sanchez (Robert Davi).

The plot requires that Sanchez escape almost at once, but is unable to contrive this without making people behave in a way that seems out of character. Before returning to his central American lair Sanchez feeds Leiter to a shark (one of many references to Fleming’s original novels), which of course upsets Bond. Bond decides to ignore his orders and go after Sanchez personally.

Well, I’ve written in the past of the reliability of the Bond series from 1962 until 1989, in that there was never more than three years between films. There was a six year gap after Licence to Kill, and when the series came back both its star and tone had changed. Was this movie, in fact, licensed to kill the original version of the series?

It’s a satisfying narrative, but not one that completely hangs together. The production hiatus was, apparently, due to legal issues, not doubts as to the viability of the Bond series (this movie was not a stellar hit, but still made a tidy profit, especially considering how many massive blockbusters came out in 1989). And this to me seems fair, because this is far from being the worst Bond film of the 80s.

On the other hand, this movie is not vintage stuff. It seems strange that this should be the case because in many ways this is a film essentially trying to do what the Daniel Craig movies are doing – strip away all the barnacles of tradition and formula that have accumulated around the Bond character and go back to something close to the source material. In terms of Bond himself, their success is at best qualified – there are a few moments where Dalton gives Bond an intensity and restrained viciousness that are really startling, but he never seems to find a consistent tone for his performance. In some ways he seems to be chafing against the constraints of Bond as developed over the preceding 15 movies.

The movie in general is to be commended for abandoning all the routine Bond Plots and finding something new to do – in this case, a grim and hard-edged contemporary thriller. Even here, though, the Bond series’ placement as family-friendly fun seems to work against it – most of the press concerning this film back in 1989 was, as I recall, concerned with the level of violence and the extensive cuts required by the BBFC even to get a 15 certificate (unprecedented at the time).

Even edited for TV, this is still a graphically violent movie with some moments of real nastiness in it. The problem with this relentless grittiness is that it does not blend well with the larger-than-life quality which is another key part of the Bond formula – it’s fundamentally about a blend of crunch and glitter. Too much glitter and you just end up in the realm of fantasy and jokes with no grounding in reality (or, to put it another way, Moonraker) – too much crunch and it’s merely a generic action movie – or, worse than that, a generic action movie which just seems foolish and stupid in places due to the residual Bond influence. And that’s arguably what we’ve got here – some of the stunts and jokes just don’t belong in a story about a man intent on a deadly personal vendetta.

On the other hand, some of the stunt sequences are great, especially the one with the sea-plane. The climax is okay, too, but… well, even in 1989 I remember getting a sense that blockbuster movies were getting bigger and bigger, and Licence to Kill never possesses the scale that marks out set-piece sequences in contemporaries like Batman or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In this department it has rather more in common with a Lethal Weapon movie, or even a Steven Seagal vehicle – Licence to Kill even sounds like a Seagal movie title!

In any case, with its story of Bond going rogue, murky occurrences south of the border, forgettable Bond girls (here the good girl is whiny and the bad girl is vapid), and a general lack of wow, Licence to Kill seems to anticipate Quantum of Solace in many ways. I’ve spent quite some time wondering why I enjoyed Casino Royale so much and Quantum of Solace so little, and have come to the conclusion that while the former did its best to be more like an original Bond novel than a traditional Bond film, the latter was just trying to avoid being like a Bond film – an absurd and foolish ambition for what was always going to be publicised and judged in those terms. Licence to Kill, one way or another, is also trying to be more like a Bond novel than a Bond film, which is probably why I like it more than the most recent film. It may not be successful in this, and it may rip itself almost in half trying to find a new direction while maintaining ties with previous films – but there’s something commendable about it nevertheless.

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